Carlene Bauer, whose memoir, Not That Kind of Girl, is about faith and its loss, talks about her debut novel, Frances and Bernard, and how she made fiction out of the lives of writers Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell.
What got you thinking about O’Connor and Lowell?
I read Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, which is about four Catholic writers, and I found out that Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell had been friends and that she was infatuated with him, and I thought, wow, Flannery O’Connor had a crush on someone! Years later, when I was trying to start something new, I remembered that and thought, I should make Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell fall in love. I was interested in what happens when someone effusive, passionate, and grandiose gets involved with someone tough-minded, cranky, and aloof. And in what it would be like to be called a “saint,” which Lowell once called O’Connor.
The book jacket indicates that the characters were inspired by real people; given the many ways Frances and Bernard differ from O’Connor and Lowell, why do you want readers to know this?
I didn’t want to write historical fiction, but I want readers to know that it was the temperaments, minds, and voices of these specific people that set me off. As I was writing, though, I forgot that they were them; I used the information I’d been given, but they became my people. I want people to read it and think about Frances and Bernard.
People think of Flannery O’Connor as Southern, Catholic, tough-minded, to use your phrase, and ill. Your version has some but not all of these traits; how did you decide what to keep?
I didn’t have faith in my capacity to write illness, but I know how to render a confinement of mind and faith. And Southern I couldn’t do, but my grandparents were Irish-German Catholics in Philadelphia, and I thought I could do that.
Frances gets to do a lot of things we don’t associate with Flannery O’Connor...
Yes. I think people aren’t as honest about everyday sexuality as they could be. I wanted to do something in a tiny way that contradicts that, even if it’s happening in the late ’50s.
And why write the book in letters?
The intimacy of letters was a way to cut to the chase dramatically and emotionally, to tell the story in first person, but with the dramatic conflict of two first-person narrators. And it seems like character has receded as a mode of ideas in fiction, and writing it in letters made it easier to create fully realized people whom I’d invested with passion and who were responding passionately to each other.