Report from Andalusia Farm!

Main farmhouse – Flannery’s bedroom and writing haven is the front room to the left. This beautiful porch with its wide white rockers was where she met with her many friends and admirers.

“You’re going where?” asked my mom. “Milledgeville,” I told her. More specifically to Andalusia Farm, the home of Flannery O’Connor in Georgia. I also told her it would be a day trip…6 hours there and 6 hours back because I had to be at work the next day. When she still didn’t understand, I said: “It’s a little like Graceland. Remember how you felt when you took the bus to Elvis’s home?”

That did the trick. And while Andalusia is about as far from Graceland as you can ever get, for Flannery fans, it’s a “must-see.” I’m happy to report that we did not encounter the “Misfit” but we did indeed experience a little of the culture that Flannery wrote about when we stopped at a gas station for directions and were told by a charming and bemused  septuagenarian that we simply had to wait for the “bump” in the road (“You’ll feel it, you can’t miss that!”) and to turn right after the speed limit sign.

U.S. 441, the highway leading to Andalusia, with its fast food restaurants and hotels, would have been unrecognizable to Flannery these days, but as soon as we swung onto the dirt road, we were immediately transported back to her world. It seemed as if time had stopped. The sun was bright, the air was balmy, and of course, there was the eerie cry of a peacock who announced our arrival. The house and the interior had changed very little, thanks to the fact that the property had remained in the family since Flannery died in 1964. Her room was intact, even with her single bed and the curtains sewn by her mother, along with the Hotpoint refrigerator she had bought with her earnings from the sale of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”

Meet Mr. Manley Pointer, the peacock named after the shyster Bible salesman in “Good Country People.” Talk about the grotesque…too beautiful to be real.

Save a busload of retired tourists who were delighted to see us “young people,” we had the place nearly to ourselves. This gave us plenty of time to walk the grounds and imagine the world through Flannery’s eyes. Later, we were lucky enough to sit down with the executive director, Craig Amason, who graciously gave us his personal attention and answered all of our questions. Flannery didn’t suffer fools gladly, Craig told us, which is proven out by her proclivity to satire. But she didn’t spare even herself from the razor of her wit, as she tended to save her worst for the “intellectuals” and the writers in her stories. However, if you look deeply enough, you can’t help but see a little of yourself in her characters. I admit to sometimes sounding a little like Mrs. Hopewell in “Good Country People,” as I have a tendency to see the glass half full.  And who hasn’t believed in other people a little too much, as did the mother in “The Comforts of Home?”

Of course I had to ask Craig if they ever felt the spirit of Flannery at the farm. While we know that Flannery would have decried the idea of the supernatural, he did acknowledge that from time to time, they felt a special energy about the place.  And as we sat there rocking on the porch talking about her life, her religious fervor and her taste in literature, it did feel as if she might indeed turn the corner and join us. And in that sense, perhaps Flannery never really died, as her legacy endures, in her books and the joy her words continue to give us. I know I’m loving what I’m learning in the book I picked up: At Home with Flannery: An Oral History. 

We ate lunch downtown at The Brick (making sure to stress that Andalusia had sent us there!) and our pixie of a waitress vaguely remembered her own high school journey to the farm but admitted she hadn’t read much of her work. However, when she found out that we had driven all the way from N.C. just to be there, she was inspired enough to say that she might just have to give Flannery another look, we are proud to say.

The journey passed fairly quickly thanks to the recordings of her stories that we listened to along the way. Of course we laughed and were shocked yet again by old favorites such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and the sometimes overlooked “Greenleaf.” I loved Jen’s reaction to the end of that one: “Why did the bull have to die?”

So what’s next on our literary jaunts? There’s talk of a drive to Connemara (vacation home to Carl Sandburg in Flat Rock) and perhaps to Edenton for a glimpse into the life of Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. But as Mrs. Hopewell might say, if you can drive to Georgia in a day, anything is possible!


Getting Ready for Andalusia Farm…and Flannery!

ImageAs my readers and friends know, one of my literary heroines has long been Flannery O’Connor, the great Southern writer and master of the short story. One of my goals this year was to go on a pilgrimage to Andalusia Farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, and I’m so happy to say that it will finally come to pass this upcoming week, weather and God willing!   

Andalusia was Flannery’s family home and the place where she moved shortly after earning her MFA from the University of Iowa. The region (and its characters) was the inspiration behind her most famous works, and I hope to gain more insight into the all-too-short life of a woman who crafted such unforgettable characters as the Misfit, Manley Pointer and Ruby Turpin. 

My friend and fellow Flannery fan Jen kindly agreed to drive if I would read aloud Flannery’s short works to pass the time. It’s a six-hour drive so we’ll have plenty of time. We both are half-hoping to run into some of these characters; well, maybe not the Misfit, but perhaps “The Grandmother!” At the very least, we expect to see some peacocks, who are reputedly in their full plumage this time of year.

To prepare, we’ve both read Brad Gooch’s biography, the latest biography, which is chockfull of delicious details from her life and is one of my most favorite literary biographies of all time.

I promise to share an update and pictures soon!

A Little Menace

Got writer’s block? Don’t try to conquer it on your own. Find a little menace.

“I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it’s good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won’t be a story.” — Raymond Carver. On Writing. 1981.

The legendary short story writer Raymond Carver held Flannery O’Connor in such high esteem that it’s easy to imagine he was thinking of her most famous story when he penned these words. Here he outlines the perfect recipe for a rich and satisfying story, and the fiction writer would do well to study this advice within the context of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” While a violent criminal known as “The Misfit” does emerge, this classic story is driven by the “menace” of the protagonist. The scheming grandmother delivers the conflict, the motion, and the tension.

A first lesson for any beginning writer is to recognize the importance of conflict to a story. This one provides a textbook example of how to establish it quickly and effectively. In fact, in what other story is the conflict so quickly laid bare? With the very first sentence, “The grandmother did not want to go to Florida,” the stage is set. Although she is unsuccessful in changing the destination of the family vacation, she does manage to control the motion by engineering a detour.

In an attempt to relive her youth, she baits the children into convincing their father to take them off the main highway in search of a mysterious plantation house with secret hiding places. By the time she remembers that the house is actually located in Tennessee, the cat she had stowed in a basket suddenly springs forth and causes the wreck that delivers them directly into the path of the Misfit. Their doom is sealed by her arrogance. Her desire for supremacy overrules any sense of caution for as soon as she knows who he is, she immediately confronts him. “You’re the Misfit!” she says. The Misfit’s reaction is calm but ominous: “It would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn’t of reckernized me.”

The menace is also responsible for simmering tensions in the form of family dysfunction, which heightens the conflict in the story. The grandmother is a master of manipulation, and her weak son is easy prey. Bailey has many opportunities to stand up to her but fails. In the end, once they are at the mercy of the Misfit, he tries unsuccessfully to take charge but finds himself immobile. “ ‘Hush! Everybody shut up and let me handle this!’ He was squatting in the position of a runner about to sprint forward but he didn’t move.” To the end, even as he is pulled into the woods to be shot, he acknowledges his mother’s hold over him. “I’ll be back in a minute, Mamma, wait on me!”

Either tyranny skips a generation in this family or June Star and Wesley are simply emulating their grandmother but nonetheless these two are despots in miniature. They are more than disrespectful to their elders; they use aggression—both verbal and physical—to have their way: “John Wesley kicked the back of the front seat and June Star hung over her mother’s shoulder and whined desperately into her ear that they never had any fun even on their vacation, that they could never do what THEY wanted to do.” In spite of their obnoxiousness, however, they are nothing more than their grandmother’s pawns. She knows precisely how to rally them to her cause. “ ‘There was a secret panel in this house,’ she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were, ‘and the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found . . .’ ”

The story reaches its climax when the grandmother locks horns with the Misfit, and the story’s most meaningful showdown ensues. Here she has met her match. While she continues to employ manipulation as her weapon, there is a new desperation. Helpless against the physical power of the tall Misfit, his henchmen, and their guns, the grandmother’s superiority dissolves into obsequiousness: “You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people!”

The two do forge a bond of some sort, and the Misfit unburdens his heart. He apologizes for his lack of a shirt and divulges details about his upbringing and his supposed injustices. The tension escalates as the members of the grandmother’s family are shot, one by one, and in a futile attempt to save herself, the menace turns evangelist. “If you would pray,” she says, “Jesus would help you.”

Their conversation ends abruptly when she goes too far and hits a nerve. “She saw the man’s face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, ‘Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!’ The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.”

Even though she has to die in this story, the grandmother and the Misfit appear to have an enduring impact on one another. She may indeed have found salvation, as indicated by her smiling dead face and he, by acknowledging his own distaste for his crimes, does confess to owning a conscience of some sort. The story’s most famous line reinforces her murderer’s role as redeemer: “ ‘She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’ ”

Much has been written about religious symbolism and the question of grace in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” but for the student seeking to understand the more basic elements of a story, he or she can learn volumes about conflict by studying the role of the grandmother. Such characters can propel the conflict, tension and even the plot of a story. The menace may be annoying, despicable or even downright evil, but such a character is never dull. And their appearance is sure to help you solve even the most stubborn case of writer’s block.