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3Q with Ann Napolitano

Last night I went to Decatur to hear Ann Napolitano talk about her new book, A GOOD HARD LOOK, a novel I have fallen absolutely, unabashedly in love with. SO in love with it am I, I can end a sentence with a preposition over it, and not even BLINK.

It’s set in Milledgeville, Georgia, and my favorite writer, Flannery O’Connor is a central character. O’Connor’s life intersects with a young married couple. The bride is effortlessly all that Flannery isn’t — beautiful and in love and connected and healthy. Her new husband, a young man born with the world in his sippy cup, has yet to take a drink.

The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, discussing Napolitano’s take on a writer who looms large and bloody and ferocious as an arrow-studded saint in my imagination, says the novel, “does the Georgia author proud. Be prepared to like this book. It’s complicated and peacock-haunted and strange.” It is recommended on O Magazine’s Summer Reading List, has been selected by Southern booksellers as a summer 2011 Okra Pick, and is an Indie Next List Pick for July 2011.

I loved it. Here is what I said in a blurb, and I meant every freakin’ word: “This is a purely gorgeous book, completely unafraid, that takes its own good, hard look at what it means to forgive, to be redeemed, and to stumble back home. Ann Napolitano’s Flannery O’Connor is flawed, brilliant, devout, and entirely human. What a bold, wise writer; I am in love with her Milledgeville, her Flannery, and her hope-soaked world-view.”

You should go buy it. Right now. Really. I bought three copies last night to give as gifts as far off as CHRISTMAS; it’s that good. I got the chance to meet Ann and regale her with 3Q for your delectation.

JJ: I know you blog yourself over at annnapolitano.com. Why do you blog and does it feed you or take energy from you?

AN: I’m new to blogging, so I’m hopeful that it will feed my brain, rather than exhaust it. It’s helpful for my stamina that I’m blogging about a personal obsession, which is the question of how to live life well.

Ann signing last night

I’ve been interested in this since my early twenties, when I was sick for three years with an autoimmune virus. That experience really drove home for me the fragility of life, and since then I’ve been viscerally afraid of wasting time. I look at myself and at the people around me and think: What do you really want to do? Let’s figure out a way to do it now. How do you want to live? Let’s start living that way today. Not surprisingly, this way of thinking has also bled into my writing—how to live life is a major theme in A Good Hard Look.

Practically speaking my blog is a list of well-lived lives. I’ve tried to choose individuals who have not only achieved something extraordinary, but who have lived their lives with integrity and industry and courage. People I look up to, and find inspirational as I go about the business of living my own life. Flannery O’Connor, one of the main characters in my novel, is number one on my list.

JJ: What is the relationship between writing and motherhood?

AN: I think of writing and mothering as my two great passions. From an early age (ten, maybe) I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I knew I wanted to be a mother. Those were always the two non-negotiables in my life; they were the paths I chose for myself. And I was serious; when a long relationship ended in my late twenties, I started to make a plan for how I could become a mother on my own. (I wasn’t going to “settle” and marry just in order to have kids; I would get my kids, somehow, and then the right man could come along at his leisure.). As it turned out, I didn’t have to resort to alternative measures; I met my husband when I was thirty, and we now have two pretty spectacular sons.

My two passions, however, don’t complement each other. In my experience, there is a tension between parenting and writing. To write, and dive deeply into a story, I need to be alone. Small children don’t like to leave you alone. (Who knew?) My life is now divided into blocks of childcare and no childcare. My writing brain idles until the babysitter shows up; I type notes in my email, or on my phone, but basically I write in orchestrated bursts. I don’t think my writing has suffered in quality, but I definitely have less time for it than I did before.

Ann posing with a crazed and google eyed fan. (I have to say, google-eye lunacy aside, the fan is wearing an extremely cute elephant T shirt she found at TJ MAXX for 5 dollars. Win.)

Let me be clear, though: I am fiercely grateful to have achieved both my goals. I am who I wanted to be—a mother and a writer—and that makes me a lucky woman. What I tell myself, walking from one part of my life to the other, is that it’s not supposed to be easy to juggle two great passions. I give all of myself to each, and they both empty me out and fill me up every day. Exhausting, yes, but also satisfying.

JJ: So, Jersey girl, tell us about your fear of writing about Flannery O’Connor and the South.

AN Okay. So, first of all, I didn’t intend to write a book about Flannery O’Connor, or any real person. When I started A Good Hard Look, it was about a wealthy New Yorker named Melvin Whiteson who had been given every possible opportunity, but didn’t know what to do with those opportunities. I worked on the book for about a year, but it was terrible; there was no spine, and no real heartbeat.

I was on the verge of giving up and throwing the novel away when—essentially out of the blue—I had the idea that Flannery O’Connor should be in the book. The idea seemed both crazy and correct at the same time, the way the best ideas do. But mainly, it seemed crazy. How could I pull it off? Having Flannery in the book meant setting it in Milledgeville, Georgia in the 1960s. It meant trying to make this brilliant, ornery, fierce woman come alive in a truthful way, and it meant recreating the world she lived in as believably as possible.

The challenge terrified me. I’m from New Jersey, and I live in New York City. When I showed the first draft of the story to one of my closest writer friends—who happens to be from Alabama—she raised an eyebrow: “Really? You’re going to take on the South?” She meant it as a challenge, and I took it as such.

The South has a rich history, and a particularly rich literary history. So many of our great American writers are Southern writers: William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, to name just a few. Southerners are rightfully proud, and even territorial, of this heritage. The novel took seven years to write, in large part because I couldn’t bear to do a disservice to Flannery, or the community she lived in. That’s why I was so thrilled when a great contemporary Southern writer like yourself enjoyed the book, Joshilyn. I hope other Southern readers will also see past me, to the story.

9 comments to 3Q with Ann Napolitano

  • Michelle-who-is-Shelley

    Flannery O’Connor as a character in the book, AND a recommendation from you (who I was google-eyed with when I met you). I am off to buy the book. Plus, the cover is so PRETTY!! Thanks for the 3Q!

  • Sounds *wonderful*. I love the purpose-driven blog idea. Will check it out.

    It strikes me there would be a tension between wanting to optimize life and enjoy it as is, too. I know I feel that way particularly since entering my forties.

  • linda j

    Can’t wait to read it. It sounds wonderful. Alas summer vacation and reading is like ann’s ability to write, except no child care to read for days on end which is they way I read… Good buy world hello characters, plot and …bliss

  • Sounds EXCELLENT!!!! Can’t wait to get my paws on a copy.

  • Emily

    I’m not sure what it means or says about me that when this page loaded and my eyes were drawn to the book cover art that I saw the peacock and thought “I wonder if this has something to do with Flannery O’Connor.”
    It sounds really interesting!

  • Aimee

    Oh, it sounds WONDERFUL. And I happen to be on vacation next week and planning a book-shopping trip to pick out what I’m going to read. How timely! This book just jumped to the top of my shopping list.

  • kimberlyHdM

    As a google-eyed fan of yours, I couldn’t have asked for a better reason (not that I need one) to buy this book that your lovely post. Great, thought provoking interview.

  • Elizabeth J

    I cannot wait to read this! Apart from wilting at the thought of humidity, I have always felt some draw to the South. I had never heard of Flannery O’ until enlightened by a fellow Native NYer and now of course, I see/hear of her everywhere.
    PS Love the cover art! how can anything w/peacock feathers fail to please. Thanks for another great tip.

  • […] when she herself contracted an autoimmune disorder, and was chronically ill for several years. In an interview with Joshilyn Jackson, Napolitano said “that experience really drove home for me the fragility of life, and since […]