Crippled by lupus at twenty-five, celebrated author Flannery O'Connor was forced to leave New York City and return home to Andalusia, her family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. Years later, as Flannery is finishing a novel and tending to her menagerie of peacocks, her mother drags her to the wedding of a family friend.
Cookie Himmel embodies every facet of Southern womanhood that Flannery lacks: she is revered for her beauty and grace; she is at the helm of every ladies' organization in town; and she has returned from her time in Manhattan with a rich fiancé, Melvin Whiteson. Melvin has come to Milledgeville to begin a new chapter in his life, but it is not until he meets Flannery that he starts to take a good hard look at the choices he has made. Despite the limitations of her disease, Flannery seems to be more alive than other people, and Melvin is drawn to her like a moth to a candle flame.
Melvin is not the only person in Milledgeville who starts to feel that life is passing him by. Lona Waters, the dutiful wife of a local policeman, is hired by Cookie to help create a perfect home. As Lona spends her days sewing curtains, she is given an opportunity to remember what it feels like to be truly alive, and she seizes it with both hands.
Heartbreakingly beautiful and inescapably human, these ordinary and extraordinary people chart their own courses through life. In the aftermath of one tragic afternoon, they are all forced to look at themselves and face up to Flannery's observation that "the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."
Paula McLain: Hello, Ann. First of all, I have to tell you how much I loved A Good Hard Look. I was completely drawn in by the world you’ve created, and by your heartbreakingly real characters. Can you begin by saying a little bit about where the idea for the book came from?
Ann Napolitano: Thanks so much, Paula. I’m a huge fan of The Paris Wife, so that means a lot. The novel started with one of the characters, Melvin Whiteson. I had the idea of this very wealthy man who’d been given every opportunity, but didn’t know what to do with those opportunities. I was interested in the question of how people choose to live their lives. The novel wasn’t really working though; I think Melvin was more of an idea than a character. It was about a year into the book that Flannery O’Connor showed up out of the blue--creatively speaking--though in hindsight, I can see that she embodies for me this idea of a "life well-lived." I think she provided the contrast that Melvin required to come to life as a character, and really, to shape the rest of the narrative.
Paula McLain: Have you always been a fan of Flannery O’Connor? How did you go about creating your Flannery, the fictional character?
Ann Napolitano: I had read her short stories, like every other dutiful English major. The stories blew me away, but at the same time I found them abrasive and disturbing. The violence, the strangeness--they’re pretty hardcore. For that reason, I don’t know that I ever would have re-visited Flannery if I hadn’t been assigned the collection of her letters, The Habit of Being, in my senior year. Her letters are wonderful--she’s irreverent and sarcastic and kind and generous. She’s accessible, and even sweet in a way you’d never guess from her fiction. I fell in love with her at that point.
When she showed up in my novel about a decade later, though, I was terrified. Her presence seemed to raise the stakes in every way. I had to depict her as believable--as a real person--which was daunting enough, but also just by writing a book about Flannery O’Connor, in which she’s one of the characters, I felt I was putting this huge pressure on myself, because there was just no way that book was allowed to be bad.
I did a lot of research, of course. I started by reading everything I could get my hands on. I re-read Flannery’s stories, her essays and two novels. I read the one existing biography on her, and several critical essays about her work.
The real answer though is that it took me years to create "my Flannery". I was so scared to misrepresent her that I avoided going into her head for a long time. I thought that if I depicted her from a distance, I would be less likely to mess her up. Not shockingly, that was a limited path. It was only when I truly committed to her presence in the story that she came to life.
Paula McLain: Your descriptions of Milledgeville and Andalusia are utterly convincing. Did you visit those places as part of your research?
Ann Napolitano: Yes, I needed to. I was raised in New Jersey and live in New York. When it became clear that Flannery was part of the book, I flew to Atlanta, rented a car and drove to Milledgeville. I visited Andalusia, her farm (which is now a museum) and walked all over town. I was only there for about thirty hours, but that visit was crucial. Milledgeville had to be real to me, so I could make it real for the reader. Sitting on Flannery’s front porch, and smelling the air there--I don’t think I could have re-created her world without spending that time in her space.
Paula McLain: To Cookie Himmel, the sharpness of Flannery’s perception, which is "like a magnifying glass burning a hole through a sheet of paper," seems dangerous and terrifying. What is Cookie really afraid of?
Ann Napolitano: The real Flannery was obviously an unusually insightful person, with a talent for seeing through pretense and artifice, and this is what I tried to capture in her character. She has the ability to quickly see the truth about a person. Cookie knows (on some level, at least) that she has covered herself in artifice--she runs frivolous committees and has a marriage that looks wonderful only from the outside--and I think she’s terrified that Flannery will see that she is actually insecure and unhappy.
Paula McLain: How do you understand the mutual attraction between Flannery and Melvin Whiteson? Is the character of Melvin based on a real life figure in O’Connor’s life, or did you simply invent him?
Ann Napolitano: I invented him. Flannery was very lonely for long stretches, living on the farm with only her mother and her work, writing these weird, fantastic stories, and I was fascinated by the idea of normal life--friendship, relationships, love--intruding on her routine. Melvin is obviously drawn to this interesting woman, with her honesty and integrity, but I felt that Flannery could be similarly drawn to a "normal" man, to the idea of a normal life. She provokes Melvin and challenges his basic assumptions about life and he feels more alive in her presence. But I felt the flipside was at least as likely--that she would relish the company, the break from monotony, the freedom to leave the farm.
I learned afterwards that--in reality--Flannery befriended a young Danish textbook salesman called Erik Langkjaer; they went for walks and drives around Milledgeville. When he went back to Europe and got engaged, Flannery was reportedly upset. Not much is known beyond that. Anyone interested in Flannery’s life should reach Brad Gooch’s biography, which is great. Melvin wasn’t based on Erik at all, and I felt somewhat vindicated in my intuitions when I learned about this real life relationship.
Paula McLain: Flannery seems to have a difficult relationship with hope. When Regina pressures her to go on a pilgrimage to Lourdes and invite a miracle, Flannery’s characteristic cynicism slips away for the briefest moment, and she "feels the risk in her bones." How does her relationship with Melvin represent a similar risk?
Ann Napolitano: Flannery is fiercely unsentimental, and this is captured in the quote at the start of the book: "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it." Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it ain’t so. And the flipside applies here: just because you like the idea of something doesn’t make it true. Flannery might like the idea of a romantic relationship with a handsome, wealthy man but her hooks are so bedded in reality that she doesn’t allow herself such idle fantasies.
However, I also wanted to explore the vulnerabilities of this strong, independent woman. She knows how to handle herself; she’s smarter than everyone else in the room; she’s been raised by an incredibly strong mother who literally does heavy labor on the farm. It must have been very difficult for Flannery to admit to lacking something, or needing something. (She actually wrote letters to friends from her deathbed that didn’t mention her illness.) What Melvin offers--the prospect of love, of a human connection--makes her feel inherently uncomfortable. She finds the connection with him very appealing, but she fundamentally distrusts it. It’s as if she’s constitutionally incapable of lying to herself, which is partly why I consider her so remarkable.
Paula McLain: At one point in the action, Flannery thinks about how violence seems to rise into her work naturally and of its own accord. She has simply learned to sit back and wait for trouble. Did you have an intuition that violence would crop up at some point in your novel, or did it surprise you?
Ann Napolitano: I could feel the story building towards something big--all the narrative strands seemed to be headed in a similar direction--but I didn’t know what that "something big" would be. When I got there, the violence felt both inevitable and surprising. I had only written relatively quiet stories until this point; it seems a little strange to say, but I was surprised to find that I had that kind of scene in me. It’s entirely likely that Flannery’s presence--and her facility with extraordinary violence--helped me to write these scenes.
Paula McLain: O’Connor once made a statement that she "felt a lack" in her life until instinct led her to peacocks. Why do you think Flannery felt admiration and awe for peacocks? You seem quite drawn to them as well, and use them both dramatically and symbolically in the novel. What do they represent for you?
Ann Napolitano: Everyone should read Flannery’s essay "The King of the Birds" (collected in Mystery and Manners) which is a great account of what she saw in these feathered beasts. It’s hard not to feel admiration and awe in the presence of a peacock’s fan--it’s an instant reminder that we live in a majestic world and that nature rules supreme. They also have this quality that Flannery and I both seem to admire--that peacocks don’t give a fig about the expectations of others. They do what they want to do, when they want to do it. You can wait all day for a peacock to show you his feathers; they’re not beholden to anyone. Flannery would laugh when people described them as "pets".
As to what they represent in the novel, I really don’t know what to say. I’m too close to the story; I don’t have the perspective. I didn’t write them to represent something, but that doesn’t mean they don’t. I look forward to hearing what other people think about the peacocks; I know the readers will be a lot wiser in this area than me.
Paula McLain: Your first novel, Within Arm’s Reach, is a family saga that, like A Good Hard Look has multiple narrators. Do you see other similarities between the two books?
Ann Napolitano: Creatively, I love going into different characters’ heads and looking at the same events through different pairs of eyes, and I certainly do that in both books. Beyond that, though, I don’t think so. Within Arm’s Reach contains elements of my family’s history, and A Good Hard Look has none. I feel like in order to sustain my interest (and sanity) for the years it takes to write a book, each story should be as different as possible from the last one.
Paula McLain: What’s next for you?
Ann Napolitano: I’ve started taking notes on a novel, which is a new experience for me. I’ve never tried to plot or plan before beginning a book, so I’m finding it to be an interesting (and frustrating, and hopefully rewarding) experience. The book is inspired by a news story I was obsessed with last year, but that’s all I can say about it at this point.
Photo of Anna Napolitano by Nicola Dove