LOS ANGELES — Heather King has battled alcoholism and cancer. Her ever-increasing faith proved an invaluable aid in her fight and an inspiration that helped illumine key moments of her earthly pilgrimage for herself and for her many readers.

“My writing always had a subtext,” said King, the author of Parched: A Memoir and Shirt of Flame: A Year With St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

But while some memoirists fear that an openly Catholic sensibility might discourage interest from mainstream publishers, King discovered that she “couldn’t write any other way.”

“I am not like Flannery O’Connor, who can create characters. I write about my own life and experiences and let the chips fall where they may,” she told the Register.

King, who has two new books coming out this year, joined a gathering of Catholic writers, scholars and students who met in February at the University of Southern California for a conference on the Catholic literary imagination that was hosted by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies.

 

‘The Catholic Imagination’

“What we are trying to do is bring people together and have them participate in a conversation they need,” said Dana Gioia, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and an award-winning poet who teaches at the University of Southern California.

“It is rare to hear a conversation about the Catholic imagination, and Catholic artists and writers feel isolated within their own parishes and dioceses,” said Gioia, who helped spearhead the conference.

“We wanted to create a gathering that was absolutely elitist in quality and absolutely democratic in access,” Gioia told the Register.

The conference was free to the public and drew 200 high-school students, who gathered for workshops with published authors.

“I am old enough to remember growing up in a vibrant Catholic culture,” said Gioia, who has written  about the declining role and impact of Catholic writers since the mid-20th century, when Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy were widely read and discussed.  

“Young people today are coming into adulthood in a culture that is not only secular, but also anti-Catholic,” he said. “Some wrongly feel they have to hide their Catholicism.”

Meanwhile, a cultural preference for irony over sincerity, combined with new technologies that make it easy to be entertained and connect with friends, can subvert the habits of thought and routines that foster a rich imagination and distinctive voice.

 

Inspired by St. Thérèse

Ron Hansen, a bestselling novelist who explored the spiritual passion of a contemplative woman religious in Mariette in Ecstasy: A Novel, recalled his own decision to choose an unusual protagonist.

The inspiration for the novel came from a “book of photographs of Thérèse of Lisieux. I thought, ‘Someone should write about this milieu.’ Then, I thought, ‘If I don’t do it, no one will.’”

“Initially, when I began Mariette, I thought about a young woman in a love affair. And then it was her love affair with Christ,” he said.

“Where is your passion?” he asked. “People need to ask themselves that question.”

Budding writers also need to do a great deal of reading.

“When I was in college, there were the books you read for class and the books you have with you to read in spare moments,” recalled Hansen, who also teaches at Santa Clara University.

“Now, students text in their free moments, and their favorite books are always the ones they had in class.”

At the conference, speakers suggested that the power of Catholic worship, from the poetry of the liturgy to the beauty of stained-glass windows, also helps to anchor the faith and imagination of young Catholics.

“For many of us, the first poems we ever knew were the poetry of prayer,” said Angela O’Donnell, a published poet who teaches creative writing at Fordham University in New York.

“Poetry is about symbol, story and song. And when we were in Mass, we were immersed in this,” she told the conference attendees.

 

Memoir of Suburbia

Yet Donald Waldie, the author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, in 1996, found his inspiration in the transcendence that imbued the everyday lives of his neighbors in Lakewood, a southern California suburb.

Lakewood had become a notorious symbol of what was wrong with planned communities, which were neither urban nor rural and featured cramped, cookie-cutter neighborhood blocks.

But Waldie, who grew up in Lakewood and still lives and works there, didn’t approach his hometown through the lens of the intelligentsia, who decried the deadening conformity of suburbs.

“While Lakewood is not a paradise, it is not an anteroom of hell or a place of aching loss,” Waldie told the Register. “It is where ordinary people assemble the materials of life, and many thought it was a dignified life for them and their children.”

When his memoir of Lakewood was published, book reviewers were impressed. But he also noted that people of Lakewood “got it. It raised the possibility that everyday lives have enormous worth.”

This message is deeply familiar to Catholics and to fans of Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor’s short stories and novels celebrated the action of the Holy Spirit. She did so by depicting often grotesque characters and situations that exposed the brutal fact of original sin matched by the astonishing gift of redemption.

 

‘Tragicomedy of the Cross’

The South was O’Connor’s terrain, but Heather King has pondered the beatitudes and God’s unfathomable mercy in Los Angeles, where she has resided over the years, in exile from her home state of New Hampshire.

“To have a Catholic literary imagination, you have to be the recipient of unmerited mercy, and that is so much at the heart of my thinking, psyche and gratitude,” said King, whose Stumble: Virtue, Vice and the Space Between is available from Franciscan Media.

“I call it ‘a collection of essays on crisis, salvation and the daily tragicomedy of the cross,’” she told the Register.

Her books are the fruit of deep spiritual contemplation set against the backdrop of Los Angeles neighborhoods like Koreatown and Hollywood. Readers have followed her battles with alcoholism and cancer and her cross of a painful divorce.

“I converted to Catholicism in L.A. and was confirmed and did my first Communion at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood,” she said. “For me, Los Angeles has always been this sacramental, consecrated place.”

While some American Catholics might view Tinseltown as an improbable setting for a spiritual work, this place stirs King’s blood.

“Why would Christ not be anywhere where people who love him are? It excites me that I get to ponder the Gospel in a place of great paradox,” she said. “Part of it is the paradox of my own life, which is a hidden, contemplative life.”

King has won national recognition for her writings. Meanwhile, many writers who are faithful Catholics still struggle to find their voices in a culture that seems to have little patience for their faith-inspired sensibility.

 

Significant Challenges

Mark Brumley, the president of San Francisco-based Ignatius Press, a Catholic publisher that began offering fiction in the 1990s, agreed that Catholic writers face significant challenges.

“The Golden Age of Catholic fiction in the 20th century was partly a function of the fact that society in general was more open to a Catholic worldview,” Brumley told the Register. “Nowadays, there is a more implicit or explicit secular hostility toward Catholicism.”

But great fiction is also about excellence, and Brumley said he couldn’t think of any current writers “in the same league as O’Connor or Percy.”

That said, Ignatius Press’ editors have witnessed a surge of fiction submissions, and Brumley speculated that this development may be an omen of another renaissance of Catholic fiction to come.

“Catholics are interested in telling stories,” he noted, and he suggested that Pope St. John Paul II, who was a poet and playwright, as well as a philosopher and pontiff, helped inspire this nascent trend.

“He stirred people’s imagination and shored up Catholic identity,” said Brumley. “That has led all sorts of people to rediscover the Catholic writers of the 20th century. And now they want to try their hand.”

 

 

 

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.