In my experience, anytime there’s a conglomeration of writers, the fiction writers tend to separate from the poets in the same manner that boys divide from girls at a middle school dance. There are, of course, free floating radicals who permeate the barrier, but typically the poets are louder, more raucous, and linger longer at the cocktail station, while the fictionists melt into the corners to observe the drama of conversation. Nary a brow lifted in condescension nor condensation on a Collins glass escapes the watchful eye of a novelist whose inner narrator never sleeps.

However, as I read Katy Carl’s Fragile Objects, her collection of short stories from Wiseblood Books, I’m convinced that Carl is hoping to stand even further back in the room. The vantage she’s attempting to find, in both life and fiction, is contemplation. Fragile Objects is Carl’s third book; she’s also the author of the novel As Earth Without Water and Praying the Great O Antiphons, a book of meditations. She serves as editor-in-chief of Dappled Things magazine and is a senior affiliate fellow of the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society. She lives in the Houston area with her husband and their family. We emailed the following conversation over several days.

Seth Wieck: You live in Houston now, but you have lived in many cities over the course of your life. I know that stories in your new collection are set in very specific places, even if they are fictionalized. Can you look at your life and try to map how the places you’ve lived have influenced you to become a writer?

Katy Carl: I’ll start with a literal map, which draws a slightly listing St. Andrew’s cross over the American South, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic: from Mobile to St. Louis to the DC area to Houston. This maybe helps explain my habit of starting a story in transit: Travel is for me a deep psychological cue that something noteworthy is about to happen. I’m attuned to the ways in which change of place represents possibility—and have frequently been in flight from the ways place represents limitation.

But I’ve slowly come around to the thought that it’s in attending to limitation that we come to see human choice, and therefore character, most compellingly. For me, where a story unfolds directly influences how it unfolds. This is true both in life and in fiction: Possibility is both a function of character agency and of physical, aesthetic, natural, and social environments—neither overriding or fully controlling the other, both working in relationship. It’s in that tension that the most exciting, the most human events and choices and chains of causality happen—those that can never be reduced to type or fully, satisfactorily explained in material terms.

When I was first beginning to write seriously, though, I really rejected the idea of being a ‘regional’ writer. “What, you mean provincial?” I would probably have said, with enough acid scorn to burn the whole idea right out of the conversation. I now think this was wrongheaded, but it’s an accurate picture of where I was then: seeing place primarily as frustrating restriction.

Maybe a story will help illuminate this. Late in high school I attended a two-week summer program for young writers, hosted and run by students in the fabled University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Half the other kids were from New York and had never seen either corn or stars. They teased me about my (now-lost) accent in a way that, I can now see, meant to be affectionate and intrigued by difference. But it seemed to me then that, to them, my place of origin was all I represented. And I had so wanted to be more than that.

Poet Franz Wright has this deceptively simple but profound line I think of often, in his collection God’s Silence: “You can’t choose / where you come from.” I couldn’t choose where I came from, and at the time, that gave me the distinct sense of being innately shut out. Of course this was the sheerest nonsense, but remember I was seventeen and really sheltered and already kind of isolated from my existing community. The Deep South, though it gives rise to lots of writers and artists, still sometimes tends to construct us socially as “weird” and “other,” and to cast a suspicious eye on us. This certainly felt like the case to me then, anyway. So it stung that, where I had hoped to be finally welcomed and recognized, I came to feel judged and to be found wanting on the basis of facile assumptions about my “place,” social and physical.

This feeling, unexamined, itself solidified into a reciprocal judgment on my part, and an unwarranted one which I had to undo. In retrospect, it just reveals that I hadn’t yet realized how questions of locality and limitation could cut more ways than one. It helped tremendously to run across the scene in Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder where two New York writers, Charlie and Sophie, are talking about how they can’t see the stars in the city, and how what they think they lose through this is a visceral sense of awe and wonder, of human scale relative to the universe, of responsibility to something larger than themselves. As soon as I read that, the real answer hit me like a car crash: It might be, not despite, but partly because of where I came from that I hadn’t yet lost this awe the way some human communities seemed to. I could still talk in concrete terms about what that awe had once meant and what it might still mean.

To switch back to place itself for a minute: I hope this isn’t repetitious of overplayed themes in contemporary conversations, but I think we don’t think nearly enough about the ways in which human place is linked to human body. True, we do hear a lot about an incarnational art and the importance of embodiment. Yes, yes, of course. But too often, we balk at specificity. Both in fictional character development and in personal relationships, we rightly enough want to leave room for each unique and unrepeatable self. So we tend to ignore the commonalities, the ways in which people across every kind of line and division can often be predictable and similar and iterative.

And then, on a more literal level, we don’t want to despair too badly at the mess that’s been made of the environment and food systems. So on both counts, we avoid laying too much emphasis on the ways place literally contributes to making us: the formation of cells from proteins that in turn are shaped by whatever’s in the soil that grows the food we eat that our bodies then convert into themselves. I think that when we look too much away from this sort of thing it’s because, if we thought about it too long, it might make us seem helpless or in the grip of forces larger than ourselves, and that idea is really too threatening for a lot of folks even to think about.

Then, too—I know I’m far from the first to make an observation along these lines—but we’re all mortal and we all leave the body behind, so much so that at the point of burial body becomes place. And it’s part of Christian hope to think of this transformation as a temporary metamorphosis, something that will change again in the general resurrection. We’ll be returned to bodies in a mysterious way—and as a corollary, and in ways we also can’t now understand, that return will mean either total joy or total horror.

Other traditions work that out differently, but I have to work within the frame of my understanding, and this is how I have so far been given to understand the mystery. In trying to accept it, I think it’s a funny irony that the most challenging thing God seems to be asking me to face and accept is not any kind of thorny problem in theology or sticking point in praxis, but just the conditions by which all this water and iron and nitrogen and carbon and calcium, all this cell wall and synaptic tangle gets to somehow call itself by my name, by the name of the machine-ghost I have the illusion of being, and gets to have its part in consciousness of the choice to accept or reject any truth at all. It’s more than fair to say that in order to accept this, that is in order to have any hope at all, I have to war against my own sympathy with our moment’s characteristic scorn for the body, limitation, and suffering. I look for ways to honor place and embodiment not because I don’t see their challenges—up to and including the ways they crucify us—but because, for me, the alternative would be to yield to despair.

SW: Your Franz Wright quote reminds me of R.J. Snell’s book on acedia, or the sin of sloth. In modern terms, sloth is usually considered mere laziness, but Snell traces the word out to mean “lack of care for the gift of one’s existence.” At one point, I think he even calls it a hatred for the place you’re from. I see this tendency in several of the characters in Fragile Objects, especially the male characters. One character is caught in a malaise of cursing the evils of the world but spends most of the story inebriated on the couch. Another character ironically hates his suburban strip mall existence, so rather than love the place, he decides to throw it all out and become a Berry-esque homesteader with absolutely zero competence. Yet your stories also have characters who see the world they inhabit with love—maybe not all the time, but at least these flashes of love. For example, a stressed mother compelled to volunteer at a school carnival is delivered from a running commentary about budgets and plastic waste by a sudden hyper-attention to light moving across the faces of children and clothing. In her eyes, even the trash becomes luminescent. A moment of awe.

How do you, as a fiction writer, talk about moments of awe in concrete terms? Is awe something a good writer can conjure, or is the agency outside of the writer?

KC: I love this question. Awe is a gift of the Holy Spirit which most assuredly does not originate with us. It’s received. It also lives rather close in the human organism to fear, which may be why—and this is something the Greeks had already noticed—we sometimes need high events, cataclysms, to jar us into a sensibility for awe. But then, shock value palls when it’s repeated too often or too extremely. Stops working. The good angels in Scripture certainly know this. They’re always telling folks not to be afraid. They know they’re terrifying to behold, but they also know they know something their listener needs to hear and that a human who’s been petrified—almost literally turned to stone—won’t be able to hear it. I’m also thinking of the passage that was just read at Mass last weekend, where the prophet finally hears God not in the noise but in the still small whisper. The Holy Spirit can show up as cataclysm—wind and fire—but if we’re always expecting Him in such violent grace, much of the time we’ll miss Him.

But I still haven’t taken on your other question of how or whether writerly craft can “conjure”—marvelous word—a sense of awe, and that’s maybe because I’m stuck on the word. Marvelous as it is, I don’t know that it suits my sense of what we’re doing when we sit down to write. I could always be wrong. But conjuring makes me think of force and manipulation, which as writers we have to forswear. Readers will either notice they’re being manipulated and throw our books aside—or maybe worse, they won’t notice, and then we’ll be called to account for whatever it is we’ve irresponsibly done to them. You also evoked “agency,” though, which for me maybe comes closer to the heart of the matter. Agency is another kind of action of the will, but it seems more pluripotent. It could be action that consciously chooses to step aside, receive, and serve as a conduit.

Donna Tartt noticed in an essay back in the ’90s that although for the Catholic writer the Holy Spirit and the creative human spirit are not the same thing, we sometimes find them behaving analogously. So if there’s any trickery at play, it’s in the strategies we have to use to be ready for the spirit when it decides to show up. Both in prayer and in art, inspiration arrives on its own inscrutable timetable. This has no easily traceable relationship to our human timetables, schedules, or routines. But as a precondition of being visited we seem to be expected to keep to ours, all the same. The act of writing is, as Flaubert noticed, monastic in this way. This is not the only reason, but it’s one reason: we hear quite a lot these days in general culture about attention and, in art, about enchantment, I tend to want to talk instead—or additionally—about contemplation.

SW: I want to talk about contemplation as well. I know that you’ve written about it a lot, but before we do, I want to return to your comment: “Readers will either notice they’re being manipulated and throw our books aside—or maybe worse, they won’t notice, and then we’ll be called to account for whatever we’ve irresponsibly done to them.”

To whom is the writer held to account? This strikes me more as millstones around the neck rather than a social media mob.

KC: Right, the millstone haunts me: I think it would even if I weren’t a believer. Even on the natural level, there’s that sense of responsibility to take care of something vital, and of healthy fear that you might not meet the mark. Even before we rise to any spiritual concern, the writer is accountable to the reader for—this is Raissa Maritain’s phrase—”truth, taste, and intelligence.”

There’s something else, too, which is so essential I have trouble naming it and so far only know how to call it attunement. As in, are you alive to the human experience and to its inherent core meanings—both that which is of your moment and that which is of every human time? Because, to go back to “truth, taste, and intelligence,” someone can be aware of and able to say lots of true things, and have a certain facility for diction and the selection of detail, and be overall very, very clever—and still be, in this essential respect of attunement, just dead inside. I don’t mean in terms of emotion. There can be lots of gusty emotion and still, without attunement, it’s all just wind over waste land. Nothing grows.

But I think anyone engaged in any kind of creative labor is responsible to steer away from places and practices that drag them or their audiences down into this kind of sterility. Not that the desert doesn’t have its potential too. But most of us eventually need to go back and till the fields and gardens we were given. And ultimately, to my mind, all this work is referred back to God. He gave the talents; He’s looking for the harvest.

SW: Now let’s talk about contemplation. For the last year, you’ve been writing a Substack exploring a mode of writing fiction that’s been dubbed contemplative realism, which I take to be an antidote to the acedia we spoke of earlier. If acedia is a meditation on all that one might despise in the world, then contemplation—in the spiritual practice sense—might be gratitude for the world by way of attention; having eyes to see, as it were. Enchantment is the subject of so much conversation around art these days, but you’d rather talk about contemplation. Why contemplation instead of enchantment? How are those two things related, and how might contemplation, in your mind, be a better way of thinking about reality?

KC: That’s an incisive definition of acedia—which is so often both symptom and cause of an all too easily courted despondency. Acedia represents the easy way out; it mimics sorrow but lacks sorrow’s cleansing effect. Contemplation on the other hand is compatible with the whole emotional range—which seems relevant since we were just talking about attunement a minute ago. Josef Pieper talks about contemplation putting you “in tune with the world,” in harmony with being. This seems to me like a good place for any kind of artist to be.

To that end, I also want to add something to our qualitative definition of contemplation here, because I think the way you’ve put it gets at something true and really important: Contemplation often rises from, and generally leads to and nurtures, a sense of gratitude. But to my mind contemplation also precedes gratitude. Contemplation is just a type of looking. Natural contemplation is deep attention given to created things. Supernatural contemplation is deep attention given directly to God. Natural contemplation can dwell on things in themselves or on the meanings of things. Supernatural contemplation is always prayer. You can move between the two with some ease, which is why I think they’re commonly confused with each other. But they’re distinct. And then, any habit of art requires the kind of contemplation that is “seeing, beholding, perceiving some reality … an attitude of receptive observation” (Pieper). Naturally or spiritually, as artists, we can’t depict what we haven’t perceived. Or we can only depict it to the depth and with the completeness we’ve perceived it.

This is why I’m hesitant to totally embrace the idea of art as enchantment—even though it’s well defended by many writers I have not only respect but a real reverence for. I’m sure the hesitation is an individual quirk on my part and, as such, maybe suspect. But I find as a reader that it’s easy to fall under the spell of a skilled operator, and as a writer that it’s often a facile enough matter to create effects, to make your reader feel this way or that way, just for its own sake. To perform a kind of verbal pyrotechnics. But at a certain point you want to ask: yes, all those fireworks are great, but what are we celebrating? And why? If the reason for celebrating is shallow and ephemeral, or engaged in a shallow way, the impact of the celebration will be too. Contemplation for me makes all the difference because it checks my tendency to want to set off all the fireworks all the time. It makes me ask why I would want to enchant the reader, to what good purpose. Is it to the reader’s ultimate benefit? Is it just arising from my selfish desire to be paid attention to? Or is there a significance at the heart of the experience being depicted that we benefit from paying shared attention to?

Image credit: “Près de Newport” by Frederick Kensett

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