Catholic Creative: Fiction Writer Eleanor Nicholson
“The Church witnesses to the presence of God — the True, the Good, the Beautiful.”
“Without ‘the eyes of faith’, life can so easily appear a succession of petty frustrations, meaningless annoyances, and insipidities—the stuff of a James Joyce novel. With ‘the eyes of faith’ (to paraphrase Gerald Manley Hopkins in the most reckless manner) every aspect or detail of life is charged with the grandeur of God — even dishes, diapers and crafting dialogue.”
NC Register Correspondent Katie Warner interviews Catholic artists and artisans about their crafts, asking how their art impacts the Church and their faith impacts their work.
Tell me a little about who you are and about your craft.
Recently our eldest child asked me what, when I was her age, I dreamed of being when I “grew up.” Since my fiction tends toward adventure, amusement and vampires, perhaps I haven't entirely “grown up.” Even so, I realized I am living the dream: I'm a wife, mother, homeschooler and a writer. In addition, I am the Director of Religious Education at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish, serving the University of Virginia, a Victorian literature instructor for Homeschool Connections, and work freelance in Catholic literary circles. My fiction tends to take on a period hue, usually British 19th century. I am utterly incapable of crafting tales in the present day.
When did you start writing fiction? What inspired you to do this as a career, part-time work, ministry or hobby?
I've been writing stories ever since I learned to wield a pencil with something like accuracy. My early attempts were thankfully lost to the world, as were the tortuous narratives of my adolescence. Now I write as life permits. I wrote The Letters of Magdalen Montague in a frenzy of inspiration at the end of my graduate school endeavors. In contrast, it took me seven years to finish A Bloody Habit. I began it a few days after meeting my future husband and when I first saw it in print I was pregnant with our fourth child. That moment at the end of my time at the university was the tipping point, actually. I decided to walk away from the highly-secure career path I had doggedly pursued for myself and work as a freelance editor so I could dedicate time to writing – thereby becoming one of those living jokes people make about English degrees.
How does your faith influence your art?
For me they are really inseparable, because the faith permeates my life. Saint Faustina has a quote I love: “O life so dull and monotonous, how many treasures you contain! When I look at everything with the eyes of faith, no two hours are alike, and the dullness and monotony disappear.” Without “the eyes of faith,” life can so easily appear a succession of petty frustrations, meaningless annoyances and insipidities — the stuff of a James Joyce novel. With “the eyes of faith” (to paraphrase Gerald Manley Hopkins in the most reckless manner) every aspect or detail of life is charged with the grandeur of God — even dishes, diapers and crafting dialogue.
How does your art impact your faith?
I hope it has brought some discipline to my overactive imagination, which can be a serious stumbling block to growth in virtue or maturation in prayer. Narrative expression can be an organizing principle and an outlet. Artistic endeavor needs to be rooted in contemplation (or my unimpressive attempts at it) — to come from a deep grasping of truth, something I can't force to come about, but can only receive. In some ways, I feel like the narratives in my head are a delightful co-creative activity God permits me to do. It's rather like an immeasurably patient Father lavishing His attention on a toddler who wants to "do craft time." Incidentally, I loathe crafting and have to force myself not to squash my children's enthusiasm for glitter, scissors and stickers. Because of this, I'm doubly grateful to God for His patience.
Can you pick a favorite work you’ve done recently? Tell me a little about it.
The best work I have done recently is about 10 lbs., sleeps irregularly, and isn't very good at sustaining eye contact yet. Artistically, I've mostly been in a Gothic/mystery mode, working on my Dominican vampire slaying novel as well as a werewolf-focused follow-on book (midnight feedings of a newborn are really inspirational when you're dealing with vicious, moon-mad changelings), and presenting my favorite novels and my favorite genres in high school literature classes for Homeschool Connections. I agree with Aristotle (to his immense relief, no doubt) that literature should instruct and delight. Working with those students brings back so many happy memories for me as a graduated Catholic homeschooler — lying on my bed binge-reading Austen, Dickens, Trollope, and Golden Age mystery fiction.
Why do you think Catholic art has such an important role to play in the Church?
The Church witnesses to the presence of God — the True, the Good, the Beautiful. Art is one critical mode of expressing this. Additionally, speaking specifically to my own genre: the novel historically has been a Protestant genre. By that I mean the novel arose and developed during and after the Protestant Reformation and that development was strongly influenced by what was the dominant culture in Europe. Because of this, Catholicism has always been a sort of "outside player" in recent centuries of the English literary tradition and on both sides of the Atlantic. I believe that the language, aesthetics, and even the characters of Catholicism have an unique opportunity in the novel to express essential truths about man and his relationship with God. I don't mean awkward proselytism; I mean the articulation in terms of human relationships and a human narrative of the reality of God.
To whom do you turn for inspiration?
In addition to the many Dominicans (saints and a few who are still on the road to sanctification) on whom I rely, I have a strong devotion to the English Martyrs, and in particular to Saint Philip Howard. His faithfulness during his long imprisonment in the Tower seems to me to capture a great deal about artistic endeavor. His descendant, Mrs. Josephine Ward, a remarkable Catholic novelist who is unfortunately little known today, is also one of my heroes. My other literary heroes are Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Dorothy L. Sayers, P. G. Wodehouse, and many, many others. For contemporary inspiration I look to the incomparable Joseph Pearce, who graciously supported me nigh on a million years ago when I was an unhappy undergraduate student. His work is really remarkable, both as a scholar and as an evangelist for the humanities. He represents for me what traditional literary studies should have to offer the world.
Name one piece of advice/wisdom that has had a great influence on your work.
“Take a nap.” That's what a Dominican friar told me while on retreat many years ago — and during that nap I had a nightmare from which came the first chapter of A Bloody Habit. Unintentionally though, that's become a critical point in spiritual and artistic health. Self-care, sleep, and silence. These are all things I handle badly and yet indubitably require. When I speak with teenagers, I like to compare artistic endeavors to sports: if you're not sleeping, eating properly, training, seeking the support of a coach and team, you're going to perform dreadfully on the field. In the same way: if I am not sleeping, eating properly, training (spiritually and artistically), and seeking the support of my own “coaches” and team, I won't be able to write.
If people want to explore your work in more detail, where can they look?
Ignatius Press has a page for A Bloody Habit on their main website and on ignatiusnovels.com. Additionally, you can find A Bloody Habit at Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, and on Goodreads. My work at Homeschool Connections is available on their site. Finally: I have an author's Facebook page to collate it all (when I remember to do it).