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Brad Gooch, author of Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor and City Poet: the Life and Times of Frank O’Hara, is one of the numerous writers participating in the Missouri Literary Festival Oct. 2-4 at Hammons Field and the Creamery Arts Center. KSMU’s Randy Stewart spoke with Gooch by phone recently from his office in New York.
It keeps showing up in Brad Gooch’s bio that he is a former model. Laughing, Gooch says it’s a rather “overplayed” factoid about him, since his stint in the modeling industry barely lasted a year and a half. “I was kind of a ‘B’ model!” But it did supply material for his first novel, Scary Kisses.
Flannery O’Connor and Frank O’Hara, the biographical subjects of Gooch’s most famous books, seem highly dissimilar subjects at first blush. Gooch admits that one of the main things that holds them together is his own “sensibility”--O’Hara is his favorite poet, O’Connor his favorite short-story writer, especially when he was in his 20s. But there are unusual connections between them that never even occurred to Gooch when he starting writing the books: both O’Connor and O’Hara are Irish Catholics; they both died within a year of each other, their 39th and 40th birthdays; and both received posthumous National Book Awards in Poetry and Fiction the same year, 1972. Another commonality between O’Hara and O’Connor, says Brad Gooch, is they were both considered “minor” writers when they were alive--“and unlike a lot of literary careers that kind of die down when the Klieg lights go off, they’ve endured, and actually keep growing” in popularity. They were certainly both very original writers in the postwar period, says Gooch.
At the Missouri Literary Festival, Gooch will be discussing Flannery O’Connor and his book about her, and signing copies afterwards.
Much of Brad Gooch’s literary output concentrates on gay issues. Asked if that’s more a matter of simply “writing about what you know”, or whether he has perceived a genuine gap in the literary world that needed to be filled, Gooch notes that “probably all my work has an aspect of ‘discovery’ to it,” but especially in the 1970s and ‘80s, writing gay fiction was an area “that hadn’t really been done--it was wide open, to tell those stories.” Then in 2002 he wrote Finding the Boyfriend Within, a sort of self-help guide for gay men searching for greater self-acceptance, and a larger work, Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America. “Again, I just sort of saw there was this place on the bookshelf where there were all these ‘self-help’ books, and books about spirituality--for every audience except a gay audience. So partly the inspiration was doing something that hadn’t been done. And that remains true with these two biographies (of Flannery O’Connor and Frank O’Hara).”
Sally Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor’s friend and literary editor, was working on an authorized biography of O’Connor for some 20 years before she passed away in June 2000 at age 83, leaving the biography unfinished. Gooch says everyone who might have written an O’Connor bio was standing back all those years, waiting for Fitzgerald’s to come out. Finally Gooch decided to become “pro-active” and write one himself. One book Fitzgerald did manage to publish before her death was a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters in 1980. Intrigued, Gooch--a fledgling young poet and grad student at the time--wrote Fitzgerald suggesting he would like to write a biography of O’Connor. Fitzgerald wrote back telling him basically to “forget it,” as she was writing one! That only added to Gooch’s interest and anticipation over the next two decades. In the meantime, he says Fitzgerald published some great articles about different areas of O’Connor’s life (particularly her childhood) that she was researching, which Gooch found “very helpful” in preparing his own book.
Brad Gooch is Professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. When asked if he enjoys working with students, Gooch coyly hesitates and says carefully, “Sure…!” and laughs heartily. In a more serious vein, Gooch says part of the inspiration for his O’Connor biography came when he was teaching “Introduction to Literature.” “I discovered that, among these teenagers in New Jersey, Flannery O’Connor was, surprisingly, always their favorite writer… I think it was partly the violence (of her stories), and the cinematic immediacy and clarity of her stories.” He was struck by how contemporary this relatively unheralded writer from the 1950s and ‘60s seemed to these “non-literary specialist” kids. In fact, Gooch thinks even today O’Connor’s subject matter seems very contemporary, dealing as it often does with religion and “these sort of extreme backwoods preachers,” not to mention the almost “apocalyptic” mood in most of O’Connor’s stories.
Gooch isn’t currently working on any new material, as promoting Flannery has been keeping him quite busy. He was recently on the Queen Mary II lecturing about O’Connor. However, he has been “mulling” over a few ideas.
Flannery O’Connor’s life, much of it spent suffering the effects of lupus, seems so meek and mild compared to the violence of much of her writing. Gooch even uses a quotation from one of O’Connor’s letters at the beginning of his book, to the effect that she figured there wouldn’t be any biographies written about her, for the simple reason that “lives lived between the porch and the chicken yard don’t make exciting copy!” “But actually,” says Gooch, “it was a very compelling story--in her dedication to her art; her having lupus and dying of this disease at age 39; living with her mother. I mean, it was a ‘constricted’ life, but as I told it, she was such an original personality, and had such almost unique dedication to her art and the way she combined it with her religion and spirituality, that it almost becomes a race with death at the end when she’s writing her last book. So to me, it’s very dramatic, though kind of ‘interior’ drama.
To find out more about Brad Gooch and the Missouri Literary Festival, visit their website www.missouriliteraryfestival.org.