Listers, seeing books as a means of entertainment or escape is the common misconception of many people because they fail to acknowledge that a book can be very dangerous (sometimes they are dangerous in a good way and other times dangerous in a bad way). All books, no matter if it is either light bubblegum fiction or some great masterpiece, have the potential to leave a lasting impression on the minds and hearts of its readers. For example, I realized this the first time I read the The Silver Chair when I was young girl. I ended up bursting into tears because I began to doubt my own existence, thinking that it was a possible that I was part of someone else’s dream (Clearly I was a gullible child). Having the power to leave such ideas, sensations, fears, and passions on their audience, authors, therefore, have a lot of power.
It follows, then, that it is the audience’s responsibility for their own sake to know who they are allowing to make a mark on their minds. Discernment is essential. I am not saying that they should boycott every single book that has the potential of leading them astray because then they wouldn’t read anything at all. I believe, however, it is necessary to be vigilant in knowing at least in some part what they are getting into and whether they can handle it or not. A great way to do that is by acquainting themselves with who the author is of any particular book they are reading.
As I have recommended to you all, Listers, the book Christopher (a very dangerous book in all the right ways), I feel that it is incumbent upon me to give a little information about the author, David Athey. He graciously has allowed us to interview him.
David teaches creative writing at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He also happens to be an unabashed Catholic poet and author. He has written and published loads of poems including “Celestialness“, which can be found in my favorite literary journal, Dappled Things. He has also written two novels, Danny Gospel and Christopher. He has a cool website (davidathey.com) that offers daily writing tips, reasons to love the Church, and mystical quotes. You can also view his writing resume on the website as well.
Now on to the interview:
#1 How would you describe yourself?
A quirky writer and professor who drives a black pickup that smells like dark-roast coffee.
#2 What inspires your work?
As far as I can tell, a combination of God, nature (including human nature) and coffee.
#3 Your novel, Christopher, shows the impact great literature makes on a person’s soul. What is your opinion of the state of modern literature, Catholic, secular, or otherwise?
We have a treasure chest of great works (The Canon of Western Literature) that we can enjoy for the rest of our lives. And many great books were written in the 20th century that should end up in that treasure chest. One thinks of the stories of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, J.F. Powers, Walker Percy, etc…. There may be some writers today that will rise to that level—I’ve had a few genius students in my classroom—and so I am hopeful about the state of contemporary literature. However, while we wait for the next Flannery O’Connor to arise (it might take a thousand years) we need to support the writers of today who are crafting excellent stories.
#4 How do you think Catholic literature can be improved?
Catholic writers have their metaphysics right, and that is crucial to the making of the highest art. Along with that, the trick is to master the various techniques of fiction so that our stories are enlightening, unique, and entertaining.
#5 What do you mean by “mastering the various techniques of fiction”?
Christian writers need to spend less time feeling inspired and more time sweating over the details of setting, character development, plot, dialogue, and overall creativity. There are dozens of good books about the craft of fiction writing. My favorite is The Art of Fiction by John Gardner.
#6 Can you give us an example of how modern literature has frequent bouts of flawed metaphysics? How do they get it wrong?
They seem to get it wrong in every way. Look at the New York Times list of bestselling novels. It is rare to find anything that reflects the fact that God has visited this earth, founded a Church, and is with us until the end. Again, we’re not asking for sermons, but merely a sense of reality as taught by the Incarnation.
#7 What other reasons are there to supporting good Catholic writers?
I don’t think there are many patrons out there, willing to donate money to writers because they believe in a certain vision. However, if we can write stories that enlighten and entertain, I believe the audience for that is enormous. The best thing a person can do for a writer, after buying and enjoying a book, is to shout it from the rooftops. And I think rooftops today are blogs. God bless the bloggers. They have the power to change the culture.
#8 Do you think it is necessary or even possible for an author to separate himself from work? In other words, can and should he separate his religious inclinations from his work?
I don’t understand how a person can be a Christian in every area of his life, but not when it comes to writing. That doesn’t mean every story needs to be a catechism, but there should be a sense in every story of correct metaphysics. I live in sunny Florida, one of the darkest places on earth when it comes to sin and crime. Authors are free to write about those sins and crimes, and yet I think we are obligated to include, somehow, the fact that God is here, the Church is here, and millions of people are trying to love God and neighbor. Some artists seem to think that holding up a mirror to the world means showing only the shadows. That is not the whole picture. A mirror to the world will include beauty, grace, and glory.
#9 The chapters in Christopher are very short compared to the average book. Why did you choose this approach to writing Christopher?
The short chapters are like snapshots, or stepping stones, or perhaps poems that all add up to a partial interpretation of a spiritual journey. We live in a fragmented time, and yet, with eyes to see, we can visualize connections along the path.
#10 What specifically inspired you to write Christopher?
The landscape was the first character in the story. The area around Duluth, Minnesota, always inspires me to write. And so my wife and I went on adventures one summer, including going on a harbor cruise, climbing rocky trails, washing clothes in a laundromat that doubled as a bird sanctuary, etc… and I simply gave many of my experiences to Christopher, yet in a way that became his own. I must say, however, that Christopher was not his original name. Through the many drafts, he went from David to Augustine to Dylan to Christopher.
#11 You also write poetry. What do you think of the present state of poetry?
As in any form of the arts, there is good and bad in contemporary poetry. I still enjoy reading through various literary journals, seeing what people are doing with syllables and images. Many of the poems should have been merely confessed (to an actual priest) instead of confessed and written. Like the rest of modern society, the shocking is taking precedence over the sublime. And yet I am always impressed by the work of my students. They’ve read the Bible, and I show them Hopkins and the other masters, and so they have a real passion for the sublime. We publish a literary journal at Palm Beach Atlantic University (Living Waters Review) that is as good, I believe, as any campus journal in the country.
#12 Do you have any favorite journals besides Living Waters Review? Can you give us a couple examples?
Image has earned its due respect through the years, but I think Dappled Things is just as strong. I like how Dappled Things is overtly Christian while maintaining the highest artistic standards. The poems and stories are theological without being preachy.
#13 What role does or should the Catholic Church have in the improvement of secular and Catholic art, literature, and music?
The Church should spend less time condemning bad books and more time promoting good books. Who is that guy on TV who is always yelling at people about anti-Catholic art? He needs to show as much enthusiasm for good art. I really believe that is how the culture can be transformed: by simply putting your money where your heart is. Do you love the True, the Good, and the Beautiful? Then buy books that promote those ideals. And shout your positive reviews from the housetops. That way, the books will get made into TV shows and movies, and we all know the power of TV and film, especially on the minds and souls of young people. I think we need about ten thousand Christian writers, making great poems, songs, novels, scripts, internet content, everything. And then the culture will have more light. I don’t think we can take over the arts and the media, but we can certainly infuse a good amount of truth and beauty.
#14 What are your top five favorite books?
What a great and terrible question. I think my answer would change every day of the week, but here is my answer today. And to make it easier, I’m going with five novels, and not in any order.1
#15 Is there another novel coming?
I have two more finished, and a third that is nearly complete. I’m looking for a literary agent who is willing to work with a quirky writer and professor who drives a black pickup that smells like dark-roast coffee.
#16 Who is your favorite theologian of all time? Why?
One of the things I love about Catholicism is that we can have someone as logical as St. Thomas Aquinas and someone as creative as St. Hildegard of Bingen both considered Doctors of the Church. Some days I love the rational theologians, and some days I love the mystics. St. Augustine is perhaps my favorite theologian, but ask me again tomorrow.
#17 Who is your favorite Saint? Why?
Today it’s St. Philip Neri. I love how he took God so seriously that he played the fool and won people over with creative charm.
St. Philip Neri, pray for us
- Favorite Books: Links to David Athey’s top favorite books are provided by St. Peter’s List and may not reflect Athey’s choice of translation or edition. [↩]