For Image’s inaugural issue, editor Harold Ficket interviewed the Presbyterian minister, novelist, and memoirist Frederick Buechner (1926-2022), covering a range of topics of interest: inspiration for his novels, the ambiguity inherent to experiences of the divine, and the faith-informed vision necessary for seeing miracles. “God moves in these elusive, mysterious, ambiguous ways through our lives,” Buechner notes. “This is the deepest part of the mystery of being alive…to find and see those moments and ride with them and be nourished by them.” Buechner also explores in this conversation his call to full-time writing, the professional challenges of being a writer who addresses spiritual concerns, the interplay between traditional theological writings and fiction, and his experiences of the “clack-clack” sound, revealing the deepest mystery itself.
—Ryan Pemberton, director of community cultivation, August 2023
Frederick Buechner was interviewed by Harold Fickett.
FREDERICK BUECHNER: Well, in both cases I read a lot in the period. For Godric, I read a lot about the Middle Ages and in the lives of saints and found myself very susceptible to that kind of thing. I think lots of literary types are—you read a writer who has a certain style and you find yourself writing in it. When I go to England, I always develop a little phony English accent. That accounts for a lot of it. But I was also lucky. In Godric, I thought one day of the idea of cutting out all words in the English language that have Latin derivatives and using simply what’s left for some sort of Saxon residue. That was quite effective, and there was also the luck of the first sentence, which is the only first sentence of a novel I’ve written that I can remember: “Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.” It has an iambic lilt to it, and somehow that set the pattern—I didn’t figure it out, it just came out that way. And then in the case of Brendan, I didn’t so much read in the period because there‘s not much around from that early time but read a lot of Celtic lore and realized that one of the great devices in Irish writing is the simple business of reversing the usual position of adjectives. Instead of saying the little black dog ran into the room, they say the black little dog ran into the room, and it’s all the difference in the world.
IMAGE: So many historical fictions seem transparent and are so obviously a “looking back” rather than a re-creation. When you approached the notion of historical fiction were you worried about that?
FREDERICK BUECHNER: No, because I really didn’t think of it as historical fiction along the lines of writers like James Michener or Gore Vidal. My interest really was less in the historical period five hundred or a thousand years ago than simply in the human beings, in the saints themselves.
IMAGE: And yet the novels do succeed in recapturing a kind of imagination that we’ve lost. Let me ask you another question. We are all aware of the problems entailed in persuading a contemporary audience to accept the advent of grace in fiction. Would you talk about the ways in which Godric and Brendan present the miraculous? Why is it so easy for us to accept providential intervention and miraculous healing in these fictional worlds? Is it because they have so self-evidently a parable-like structure?
FB: I think a lot of people find it easier to believe in miracles that took place in the distant past than they do in the present, for a whole set of interesting reasons. They haven’t seen any in the present, so why should they believe in them? And somehow the past has a kind of fairy-tale quality to it where all things are possible. I can’t for the moment remember the miracles of Godric and Brendan but I think about miracles in a way ascribed to Leo Bebb in the Bebb novels and in particular the resurrection of Brownie from the dead. Now what I’ve tried to do there and what I’ve tried to do in both Brendan and Godric is always to leave room for the possibility that there may not have been a miracle, that there is a natural phenomenon that might have had the effect of a miracle upon those who witnessed it—perhaps it was just that Brownie wasn’t really dead. There’s a healing miracle, for instance, of Brendan, where he seems to cure the old king Bauheen of a type of arthritic paralysis when the old man comes staggering towards him. Maybe that was a miracle, but maybe it was just the force of Brendan’s personality and the nature of the occasion. In other words, to leave room for the possibility of doubt when you are dealing with the miraculous. It is faith that sees miracles.
IMAGE: In fact, I think in the book we almost experience the miracles as a kind of temptation. You seem to be very careful about leaving the possibility for doubt, and also that, finally, the simple things of love and faith are much more important than those sorts of signs.
FB: Somebody said that miracles do not create faith but faith creates miracles. I don’t know if “creates” is the right word, but someone who is determined not to have faith and see a miracle and walk away unmoved is going to do so—as many who witnessed the miracles of Christ must have done. But on the other hand, it does take a kind of faith to see this event as miraculous—somebody else can say: well, it’s just a lucky break. I try to present miracles in that way, leaving always that room, that ambiguity, for the reader to deal with.
IMAGE: In Brendan you captured the magical mentality of people at that time. They see, for example, a crocodile as a monster. As a contemporary man, one has to see Brendan’s voyage as a somewhat touching thing, but something you can’t really ultimately believe in.
FB: No: in their innocence and their primitiveness, those ancient Celts saw crocodiles as monsters and were wrong. Nonetheless, their very innocence and primitiveness allow them also to see things that we don’t see which are right. In other words, they were open to being deceived and open to superstition, but also open to the truly miraculous, truly wondrous. Their openness, in one sense, is naive, but in another sense is profound given the vision of things which we, in our sophistication, don’t have.
IMAGE: And I think that that’s part of what I mean by being able to recapture the times.
FB: I’ve been thinking of another miracle that Brendan performs where he creates the mist. I’m not so sure he didn’t do that. In other words, maybe in the process of immersing myself in that world I have become enough of the naive and innocent one where that becomes a real possibility, whereas if somebody told it to me cold, walking down Madison Avenue, I would laugh it off.
IMAGE: The other thing in that particular passage I remember is that Brendan uses a Druidic type of “magic” when he turns the wool into mist. In that instance, you have a mixture of magic and miracle.
FB: That was true to the times. Religion and magic are always intertwined, don’t you think? The big difference between them is that religion is propitiatory, and magic is incantatory, where you make things happen by saying the right thing. But they’re always drifting around together. I think that’s one reason perhaps that Christianity blew like a warm breeze through Ireland. The Druids prepared them to believe in the reality beyond the reality they can immediately see.
IMAGE: I think some people would like to make an absolute distinction there, or might feel more comfortable or more spiritual, if we could just think of religion as propitiatory, because the incantatory stuff so often gets us in a lot of trouble.
FB: Indeed, it does. I feel uncomfortable myself with the propitiatory mentality. I would draw the distinction between religion on the one hand and then the dashboard virgin which keeps you from having accidents on the other hand. They are distinct, but there’s a kind of interplay that’s especially interesting to me where the two somehow faded into each other in ancient Ireland.
IMAGE: What do you make of Jesus telling us to ask for what we want, of trying to influence the will of God through special pleading?
FB: I think one can always ask, but it should be in the spirit of Jesus Himself, who prayed: “Nonetheless, not mine but Thy will be done.” There’s always that proviso. I remember a saying of Agnes Sanford, who was a type of faith healer, though that term suggests something screwball and she really wasn’t that at all—she was a wise woman. She always said: “Don’t ever put in any ‘ifs’. Just ask.”
IMAGE: Did you know Agnes Sanford?
FB: Yes: not well, but she played a terribly important role in my life considering how briefly our lives touched. Many years ago I went to what she called the School of Pastoral Care. Its purpose was largely to teach ministers how to pray in very much the terms we’re talking about now. Many of them didn’t dare pray for anything that really mattered for fear that they wouldn’t get it and that would destroy their faith. She laid a special emphasis on prayer for healing, not only physical but what she called the healing of the memory. And that made a terrific difference to me because I was certainly one of the ones who didn’t really expect prayers to be answered. And I now suspect that all prayers are answered and even if the miracle that you ask for doesn’t take place—the cancer is not healed—other miracles take place, if only in yourself. I keep at it. I only saw her once after that time. I loved her a lot.
IMAGE: Did you, during that conference or sometime later, ever have experience with the healing of memories? I’m thinking of your father’s suicide.
FB: It’s taken me a long time. Somehow it never occurred to me in my folly to pray for a healing of my own memories. I pray for other people and you’re never quite sure about how that works. Agnes used the business of laying on of hands and direct prayer and I’ve prayed for some people who seemed to me some way or other did walk away well, or better, either for physical reasons or other reasons, psychological ones. But I don’t think that I knew in those days how much my memories needed healing. I’ve done a lot of work in that direction since through prayer and through therapy and through groups.
IMAGE: Have you used visualization and that kind of thing?
FB: To a degree, yes. Especially the psycho-synthesis school of therapy, which has the idea that all of us have many sub-selves. Each one of us has a child self, an adolescent self, a professional self, and the worried anxious-ridden self. What the therapists who work in that area help you to do is to bring up to the surface those submerged sub-selves so you can see who they are and what they are all about and why the child in you is scared stiff. The idea being that we’ve got much to learn from those earlier selves, those buried selves. But then you want to be careful that they’re not the ones who are driving the car. In order to do that, the therapist I’ve seen uses the technique of visualization—trying to see that child and to draw pictures from that period. It can be very effective. You do recapture not only feelings from the past but even memories that were completely lost that will come back. This is just another form of the healing of memories. I don’t know what Agnes would have said about it. It’s not exactly the same thing as prayer but there’s something rather prayerful about it.
IMAGE: Would you talk about theology as a way of knowledge and storytelling as another way? How do they relate to each other?
FB: I would talk about theology as a form of expression and storytelling as another form of expression. I find myself, whether I’m writing non-fiction or fiction, as really trying to convey the same things, simply using another way of doing it. What I like about fiction especially is that so much of faith is supra-rational or logical. It holds all sorts of opposites together like belief and unbelief, joy and despair, and it’s sort of hard to do that in expository writing where things have to make sense. Whereas in fiction, as in life, things come at us all mixed up and it can be quite real and believable.
IMAGE: You speak of the wholeness of storytelling—everything going on at once, as it is in life. But did you ever, in your theological training, have a sense of the truth being cut into so many pieces that you couldn’t find it anymore?
FB: No, not at all. My seminary training was such a marvelous time for me. This whole subject was so fresh to me because my ignorance had been so exhaustive before. Every little bit of truth, no matter how diced up, was a source of excitement and joy and discovery. It was a real coming to life for me in lots of ways. And maybe partly because the people who “diced up” the truth were themselves so “undicying”—they weren’t pedants, they were firecrackers, they were men of tremendous charisma—in the true sense, they had the gifts of the spirit. It never seemed esoteric, pedantic, and scholarly. No, I really put the whole idea of fiction and poetry very much aside during that period. I immersed myself in these new splendors of theology, studying the Bible and Church history. I had known nothing about that whatever and I fell in love with it.
IMAGE: I was just looking back through the second part of the autobiography, Now And Then, and there you wrote about putting aside the fiction for a while and, I think, really only out of the sense that if you became a minister and had the usual sorts of duties you wouldn’t have time for writing in the future. I think you were very fortunate not to be exposed to the usual sort of third-rate Calvinism and people who would see fiction as suspect.
FB: No, I don’t think anybody ever suggested that. I had a very real feeling at the time that it really was going to have to be one or the other, though—that I really would have to give up writing if I was going to take up ministry seriously, and if I had gone into a parish that probably would have been true—you couldn’t do both well, I don’t think. But then, by one means or another, I decided fiction was as legitimate a form of writing and ministry as anything else, and I have come to believe that to be true.
IMAGE: While reading the passages in your autobiography about your experiences with workers in East Harlem, I wondered if you ever thought perhaps that writing was a tremendous sort of vanity?
FB: Oh yes, I do. I’m still having those feelings. I don’t know how anybody could not have. I’ve just been reading an autobiographical work by Robert McAfee Brown called Creative Dislocation: The Movement of Grace. In it he talks about beauty and oppression. There is a very moving passage about beauty in the arts, in music, painting, and literature on the one hand and then the sight of the oppressed and the hungry and the homeless on the other, and you simply have to reach some kind of balance. But for the sake of beauty you cannot turn your back on the oppressed and the homeless, and I do have that feeling, and, of course, I do turn my back on them in very many ways. I can’t imagine doing both very well, at least I’ve never been able to do them both, but yes, that does bother me.
IMAGE: The work of civilization and the maintenance of something to live for sometimes seems to direct our attention away from what it actually takes to put food in people’s mouths.
FB: I have a daughter who’s full of insights, and she said the other day that when Jesus says “Take up your cross and follow me,” He is telling us that we should take up our cross, not His cross, which I never thought of before. It’s not each of us who has to take up everybody’s cross, let alone His. The one who serves the poor and the oppressed is certainly taking up the burdens of one, but in another sort of strange and inner way so is the one who turns his back on that with a good deal of self-criticism in the process and then gives himself to writing, which is another kind of cross. At least, that’s one of the ways I try to comfort myself.
IMAGE: What is it like for you to write books of theology and works of fiction? Is there a kind of cross-fertilization? I remember that in The Alphabet of Grace you choose to quote from your fiction and to make your theological points on the basis of commentary from the fiction.
FB: One of the reasons I do that is because it’s very hard for me to find fictional illustrations of theological truth in other writers—not many people are doing it. C.S. Lewis said of himself, but which is also applicable to me, that he wrote the kind of books he did because they were the kind he would like to read but couldn’t find anywhere else. The other connection between the fiction and non-fiction is that each provides a wonderful kind of vacation from the other.
IMAGE: You noted in Now and Then that out of your teaching you have a feeling that so much of what we read is about what we know, which is our sinful state, and so little of it is about grace and mercy and the world as God’s creation. You certainly have done that; you’ve given us books that are about the other side as well. Do you feel that as a sort of moral obligation or as an imaginative opportunity?
FB: Not a moral obligation—that makes it too bloodless and grim and determined! It does seem to me that there are so many books about souls being lost and so little about souls being saved, which is a process that’s going on all the time. So it’s not with a sense of moral obligation but just a sense almost of filling this preposterous vacuum. A lot of people know that it’s going on, though they wouldn’t use that language, but for some reason don’t write about it. Maybe because it’s harder to write about it. It’s harder to write about salvation than it is about damnation, for one reason or another. That’s my subject, the saving of souls, the presence of grace—it’s a subject I love and a subject that I have observed even in myself sometimes.
IMAGE: Do you have a sense of the world as a Vale of Soul-Making? Is that what the world is about?
FB: I certainly do. God moves in these elusive, mysterious, ambiguous ways through our lives with the object of making us into the measure and stature and fullness of Christ, St. Paul says. This is the deepest part of the mystery of being alive, the most exciting and dangerous part of the adventure of being alive—to find and see those moments and ride with them and be nourished by them.
IMAGE: How difficult has it been for you to be known as a writer who addresses spiritual issues?
FB: I don’t know whether you happened to see The New York Times book section yesterday but there’s an article by Dan Wakefield [“And Now, a Word from Our Creator,” New York Times, February 12, 1989] about contemporary writers who are reintroducing God into their works. In it, I came across this sentence: “From the time of my college graduation in 1955 until the 1980’s, the only literary portrayals of God as a vital and natural force in the everyday lives of characters I could identify with came from Jewish writers. (I avoided Frederick Buechner on the grounds that he was a Protestant minister writing purportedly “Christian” novels, so I unfairly assumed he was some kind of propagandist, a prejudice he has suffered from widely and wrongly.)” That pretty much says it. I think an awful lot of people think: well, he’s a minister and therefore we know in advance exactly the kind of books he’s writing, and they don’t bother with them. The horrible truth is that they might so well be right, though they’re not right. The word “Christian,” when you put it within quotation marks, is not a valid word. So much we see and hear in the way of religious (so-called) TV or drama or fiction, is so appalling—why shouldn’t they be suspicious? But that’s the price I paid. I wouldn’t have traded my ordination for anything even though I paid a terrible price because it has given me my passion and my ministry and my subject.
IMAGE: There are two issues related to that. One would be the use of the “language of piety,” as Flannery O’Connor called it. In Lion Country, one of the Bebb novels, the book opens with a quotation from Scripture in the mouth of a preacher—there’s a risk in that.
FB: Before the Bebb books I thought: Look, they’re not going to pay attention to what I wanted to say about God and salvation if I put it in traditional terms, so I’ll put it in the most outrageous terms I can think of, and maybe they’ll prick up their ears. But the sad thing is they really didn’t. When I started the Bebb books, I thought, this is going to be a real departure and so did my publishers, who saw it as a “breakthrough book,” because it was racy and colorful and had a lot of fun in it. But I think again, my guess is, because of the curse of being known as of all things a minister, it somehow didn’t reach that many more readers.
IMAGE: Are people’s sensibilities conditioned to the point where even if they see it in a racy or a different context that’s fresh and alive, the mere fact that it has any resemblance to what they so dislike makes them unable to receive it?
FB: I have a feeling that if Graham Greene were writing The Power and the Glory today, and he was known as the Reverend Graham Greene, he would have reached a much smaller audience. If the minister is by definition a sort of propagandist, then you don’t take him seriously.
IMAGE: I know Graham Greene has been important to you and I think I remember reading a statement that, in a way, a lot of your work has been an attempt to rewrite The Power and the Glory.
FB: And that’s the only sense in which Graham Greene has been important to me. I’ve read some of the other novels. But it’s The Power and the Glory that has had a tremendous influence on me, simply because it was there that I learned that a saint is not what people normally think of—a moral exemplar—but he is one through whom the grace of God works, and he can be just as seedy and hopeless as the whiskey priest. There’s also the notion of what Mauriac called the “subterranean presence of grace”—it really gave me my subject. You take seriously the brokenness of the world and the darkness and the sadness and yet see in it the glimmers of the divine and the salvific. Unlike a lot of “religious writers” who won’t deal with the ambiguity and the darkness—they’ve got to make everything sound hopeful and good and godly.
IMAGE: In Godric, there is the contrast of Reginald looking at Godric’s life in, one might say, pious terms and Godric looking at his own life in penitential terms.
FB: Absolutely. And that was not just an invention of mine, because in one of the few passages in Reginald’s untranslated Latin “Life of Godric” that I read, there’s a passage where Godric himself said, in effect, “I am a great sinner.” Reginald doesn’t say that Godric was protesting against the whitewashing job I attribute to Reginald’s “Life” in the novel, but obviously that’s what he was referring to.
IMAGE: I think it’s very reassuring to have a kind of interior sense of what it might be like to have the emotional life of a saint, because many books, like Reginald’s book, would give us to understand that it’s “sweeter as the days go by,” so to speak.
FB: If you take it seriously, you think: well, if that’s what it takes it’s certainly beyond my powers. If you take it any other way, it makes you want to throw the whole thing out and say: this is so unrealistic, how can anybody take it to heart at all?
IMAGE: A moment ago, you referred to Mauriac. Have he and Bernanos been important to you?
FB: No, not really. I think I must have read Bernanos’s The Diary of A Country Priest, but I don’t remember much about it. I came to Mauriac too late for him to influence me all that much. But I know Mauriac simply because he was one of the ones who helped popularize Greene.
IMAGE: How about the theologians that have influenced you, such as Barth?
FB: I really haven’t read all that much Barth. But he did impress me with the importance of the question: is it true? I think a great many preachers I’ve heard never touched that question, just assumed that everybody agrees this is true and then they go off on some little side alley, and that’s had a tremendous effect upon me as a preacher and a writer of fiction. That is the question that’s in the hearts of an awful lot of people even if they don’t put it in those terms. So in that way he’s influenced me. I think the one who’s influenced me the most perhaps is Tillich, who was a teacher of mine. I am thinking especially in terms of his great gift for translating the ancient religious words into existential issues, particularly in what he does with sin and salvation. Sin is that which increases estrangement and salvation is that which moves towards reunion and reconciliation and resurrection. And that’s another thing I’ve tried, especially in non-fiction and in a way in fiction, to show that those ancient words—which are dismissed by so many people because they’re so bankrupt now and so drained of meaning—to show that they are symbols of a rich and complex human reality. So I would say he was the most important.
IMAGE: I remember that you once set up your office in a church. Since you left teaching, how have you coped with the isolation? Do you feel you have enough of a world around you?
FB: I have enough of a world about me to feed my imaginative life but I feel I don’t have enough world about me to feed my social life, my life as a human being, especially with children who’ve grown up and left. My wife and I live in a rather remote part of Vermont and when I finish working there’s not an awful lot going on to stick around for. On the other hand, there’s plenty to feed my imagination.
IMAGE: In a way, your novels have gotten less social over the years—you deal now more with your own private, imaginative world.
FB: You mean not dealing with that sort of contemporary life where people are searching for the meaning of life in the suburbs? Well, that’s what most everybody writes about, and they’re doing it certainly as well as, if not better than, I could, and so few people are dealing with what you might call this “other” world. I would never try to write novels about suburbs in the manner of Cheever, for instance.
IMAGE: There is a parable-like structure in the last novels. Do you feel any of that? When you think of the parables of Jesus, are they important to you particularly?
FB: They’re important to me certainly in some ways. What I love about parables is that they’re seldom explained. Of course, Jesus does explain the one about the sower, I guess, but only because he was badgered into it by the people.
IMAGE: And some people claim that the explanation doesn’t make perfect sense.
FB: Exactly, and it came later. The parable of the prodigal son is a great parable and what makes it so powerful among other things is that it is not explained: you don’t equate A with 1 and B with 2 and C with 3 or father with God and son with sinners. All of the characters tell us something about ourselves. There’s a great lesson for a fiction writer to learn from that—not to make it too apparent, not to make it didactic in a sort of extractable sense.
IMAGE: Why do you think Christ did, in fact, tell stories?
FB: Who knows? I think it is one of the most effective ways of conveying the complexity of whatever you want to call the kind of human truth that religion deals with, which is not rational, logical truth like medical truth or historical truth. It involves human truth, which turns in all sorts of directions and is full of feeling and paradox. It seems to me, in a way, the most suitable form for conveying that area of human experience with which religion deals—stories can capture that experience whole.
IMAGE: The Bebb novels started with an article about a scallywag fundamentalist preacher. And you started the first book with the intention of debunking Bebb. Then your imaginative sympathy for him took over. Why does fundamentalism set so many peoples’ teeth on edge?
FB: I didn’t really think about Bebb in particular as a Fundamentalist. I thought of him as really more of a con man; my debunking lay in the fact that he was really in it for what he could get out of it financially. I haven’t ever really run up against fundamentalism much, but I’ve run up against versions of it and what I had against it, and I think what anybody has against it, is the narrowness of it. It’s either this way or no other way.
IMAGE: You have talked about teaching Buddhism at Exeter and its attractiveness and its differences with Christianity. What do you make of a world in which the major religions have a lot to say to us in the light of the exclusive claims of Christianity?
FB: Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” It is significant that he didn’t say: “I’m teaching it,” or: “The church that’s going to be founded in my name in a couple of hundred years is what I am.” He also said: “before Abraham was, I Am”—in other words, that whatever Christ is, whatever he represents or embodies, is present in other places. Which is only natural, given that He claims to be the Truth with a capital “T.” It didn’t appear only then and only there. I think one of the reasons I find Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism, so compelling is the presence of Christ in it, especially in the idea of the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva does not drift off into nirvana. He comes back again and again—an idea which finds an echo in the great kenosis statement of St. Paul, in which God is pictured as coming down and taking the form of a man—emptying Himself of His divinity and becoming one of us. So my feeling is that Christ is present in all sorts of other religions.
IMAGE: The bodhisattva sacrifices his own bliss for the life of the world.
FB: He binds himself to the wheel of suffering, which is an image not unlike Christ on the cross, it seems to me.
IMAGE: I guess the thing we can say about how Christianity differs from Buddhism is that the crucifixion is a historical event: it happened.
FB: Yes, that it happened, and also that it happened with a fullness and a clarity which is not to be found, at least I have not found, any other place. One finds Christ in Buddhism, but you find a lot of other things which are very unlike Him and which contradict Him.
IMAGE: I’ve always wondered about the scene in which Leo Bebb exposes himself. What was the reason for that scene?
FB: That was part of the donnee of the book—this thing I saw in Life magazine involved a man who had indeed been imprisoned for indecent exposure. So then it was left to me to decide why. I think in every one of those four books I have Bebb himself speculate as to why. He says that somehow, if by exposing what he thought to be the most human, the most sinful, the most shameful part of himself to eyes of innocents—that if they could look at it and not run screaming away from this darkness, this shadow side of himself, he would have been able to be healed and forgiven in ways that would have been possible in no other way. And I thought that was rather moving. You know, “let it all hang out.” And if people somehow said: “We still love you,” this wonderful thing would have happened. The only reason I put it in was because that’s the truth of the matter. He also says, I think in another place, you’ve got to take risks, crazy risks—well, that was a really crazy risk. But at least you have to admire him for it—I don’t know. I don’t even know that he really raised Brownie from the dead. I think it’s important not to keep too tight a rein on your material; it’s an awfully important thing for anybody who writes fiction to remember—letting your characters, to some degree, move where they have to move and say what they have to say, even if it’s not what you anticipated.
IMAGE: I think that some people would feel that—Flannery O’Connor was always dealing with this—that by having a dogma to which you ascribe, that that must be a very limiting thing. How do you feel about that?
FB: I don’t feel it limiting at all. I think my faith, the effect it’s had on my imagination, the effect it’s had on me, is that it has made me open my eyes much wider and kept my ears much more acute than anything else I ever got involved in. If the God I have faith in really is, then who knows where I may not find Him, and that’s a lot of what my fiction is about.
IMAGE: When you were going through school and thinking about writing before your pivotal religious experience, how did you conceive of the direction of your writing?
FB: I don’t know how I conceived it. I don’t think I had any very intelligent feeling about it at all. I think I just picked what came my way. The first novel was a sort of “decadent mandarin” book that was compared to people like Truman Capote who was just starting to write about the same time. The second novel was really a dreadful book. I hate to even think about it, but it was certainly in an overt sense very religious. It was about a man who sees a vision, and that’s interesting. It was the last thing I thought I was going to write about. It’s the last thing anybody who read the first book thought I was going to write about. It horrified the reviewers. I think the reason I chose the subject was that something similar had happened at the school where I was teaching: a man who was in the history department was said to have had a vision that threw everyone into a snit, so it was an interesting subject. But I think, looking back, that there were also deeper reasons for my choice of subject. It was a kind of foreshadowing, in which perhaps I was telling myself, subconsciously, what I wanted to be about.
IMAGE: Do you still hear from time to time the clack-clack of two branches against one another, the sound of the earth’s mystery? Do you think of yourself as a mystic and, if so, what does that mean to you?
FB: Well, I don’t think of myself as a mystic. I think of myself as a listener. You never know whether providential events are only coincidences or not, but as I grow older, more and more little things happen that are either of no consequence at all or else they’re just rare glimpses into mystery itself. I even hesitate to mention them because they’re so small and laughable in some ways. In a book called Spiritual Quests, a volume edited by William Zinsser with lectures given by religious writers, I mention three such instances that happened to me—they’re just whispers from the wings as I think I call them, or else they’re not whispers from anywhere. Yes, to answer your question, I do hear the clack-clack.
IMAGE: Would you care to share any of those experiences now?
FB: One of them happened when I went into a bar at an airport at an unlikely hour. I went there because I hate flying and a drink makes it easier to get on the plane. There was nobody else in the place, and there were an awful lot of empty barstools on this long bar, and I sat down at one which had, like all the rest, a little menu in front of it with the drink of the day. On the top of the menu was an object—and the object turned out to be a tie clip and the tie clip had on it the initials C.F.B., which are my initials, and I was actually stunned by it. Just B. would have been sort of interesting; F.B. would have been fascinating; and C.F.B., in the right order—the chances of that being a chance I should think would be absolutely astronomical. What it meant to me, what I chose to believe it to mean was: You are in the right place, the right errand, the right road at that moment. How absurd and how small; but it’s too easy to say that. And then another one was just a dream I had of a friend that recently died, a very undreamlike dream where he was simply standing in the room and I said: “How nice to see you, I’ve missed you.” And he said, “‘Yes I know that.” And I said: “Are you really there?” And he said: “You bet I’m really here.” And I said: “Can you prove it?” And he said: “Of course I can prove it,” and he threw me a little bit of blue string, which I caught. It was so real that I woke up. I recounted this dream at breakfast the next morning with my wife and the widow of the man in the dream and my wife said, “My God, I saw that on the rug this morning,” and I knew it wasn’t there last night, and I ran up and sure enough, there was a little squibble of blue thread. Well again, either that’s nothing—coincidence—or else it’s just a little glimpse of the fact that maybe when we talk about the resurrection of the body, there’s something to it! And the third one was going to communion and having the priest who was serving say: “The bread of heaven, Freddy; the cup of salvation, Freddy.” I was enormously moved by that. I mean, there’s no mystery there, he knew my name, there’s no coincidence, but just in that small moment the realization that, my heavens, maybe this feast, this gift is not just in a sort of public gift to mankind, that it really is to you and to me and to her and to him and so on.
IMAGE: Do you tend to read your life in terms of providence? Do you think this or that event happened because God wants to tell me something—to direct my actions in a specific way?
FB: Yes, I do think that. I do not hinge that belief in such things as the tie clip incident, but it was exactly what that seemed to me to be confirming. I don’t know that I could even go on doing what I do if I didn’t have that feeling.
IMAGE: Do people write you? Do you have a sense of your audience?
FB: Yes. I would say I get maybe 500 letters a year and a lot of them are from people who say, one way or the other, you kept us from losing our faith or something. It’s not just fan letters in the usual sense but—it’s hard to say this without sounding immodest, but I feel very modest about it. I got back from Florida last winter and found in my answering machine a message from some young man who didn’t identify himself by name, who said that he had twice considered committing suicide, and that it was something or other of mine that kept him from doing it. So I get enough things like that to know that my work is not only a career but also a ministry.
IMAGE: When you were leaving Exeter and said: “OK, now I’m going to write full time,” did you feel that God was calling you to do this?
FB: Well, it was a hard decision to make and much harder still was the first year after I’d made it. I thought, my Lord, I gave up a really valuable ministry, where I was the only voice really speaking for these things in a very secular, very important school. And to write a book, who needs another book? But I would have to say in answer to that question: yes, I had a very strong sense of God as telling me to do it, because everything else—psychologically and humanly—was forcing me back to taking another job where I would have some more direct connection with the needs of the world and the ministry that I’ve been ordained to. But I kept at it, and the very fact that it worked is almost to me a kind of suggestion that maybe I was right in doing it.
IMAGE: How do you think the fiction writer stands in relation to the fictional world he creates? Do you feel like you are the god in control of that world, or the servant of what you create?
FB: There’s a sense in which these are your creations. They would not be there if you had not put them there and dreamed them up, but once you’ve done that you do give them their freedom, and that makes it possible to even learn from your characters, to have them do things which you wouldn’t have thought of and to say things you wouldn’t have dreamed up. This is especially true with Bebb and Godric for me. I drew great strength from both of them in a way that I don’t think I, in any normal sense, can draw great strength from myself.
IMAGE: Your fiction seems to have gone through three periods: the early more realistic works, the Bebb novels, and now your portraits of saints. Can you say how those changes in fictional modes coincide with your own development?
FB: I assume they have something to do with it but I wouldn’t know how to explain it exactly. I don’t know which comes first, whether I change inside and then I begin to write new books, because of that or because the books I write help me to change inside. I suppose this interest in saints, in the interior life, in the miraculous, and something closer to the burning heart of faith is there because it always happens when human beings are older, it is a much stronger concern and I’ve lived much more with that. I’m much more aware of what’s going on in me spiritually than I ever was before. I’ve always been introspective but that wasn’t the part of myself I was inspecting very much. So I recognize, of course, a connection between fictional and personal development.
IMAGE: Are you going to go further with that, do you think?
FB: Yes, I think so. The last book I wrote I wrote in a frenzy. It was a book for children—not little children but twelve and thirteen year-old children—and usually I feel very negative about a book when I just finish it, but I felt wonderfully positive about that. My agent is having a very hard time getting anybody to publish it because they say it’s apt to happen to people who write for adults when they write a children’s book: the children’s book editors are completely different people from the other ones, and they say this is too grown up, and that’s what two publishers have said. So I’m hoping that it will be published by somebody.
IMAGE: Can you give us a sense of what it’s about?
FB: Well, I kept getting letters from somebody who runs a bookshop in Albuquerque, New Mexico saying everything you’ve written has simply been preparation for writing a children’s book, which is what you really were intended to write. So I said, “what should it be about if that’s what you think?” And she wrote back and said, about your own childhood, which somehow had not occurred to me, because I think the children’s books that I particularly loved were large books and fantasy books. But with that suggestion, just out of nowhere, I settled upon the summer before my father’s death, which was 1935. It’s a complicated story and certainly a sad story, but in other ways it’s, I think, a very hopeful story.