May 4 2016 12:12 AM

Bonnie Jo Campbell talks Flannery O’Connor’s legacy

Southern writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) loved fowl. As a child, she enjoyed teaching chickens to do tricks. She also loved stories with foul characters. Her two novels and 32 short stories are teeming with sordid characters.

In her short story, “Good Country People,” a traveling Bible salesman attempts to seduce a one-legged girl. Failing that, he steals her prosthetic leg.

So it seemed appropriate when Michigan writer Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of two novels and several collections of short stories that also feature life’s misfits, was selected to give a lecture on O’Connor’s writing at the Library of Congress earlier this year.

Campbell loves the writing of Flannery O’Connor — and also loves chickens. Campbell’s writing style, usually called “Southern grotesque” is often compared to O’Connor's. The Guardian, in a recent list of top 10 “rural noir” novels, included both “The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor” and Campbell’s “American Salvage,” a finalist for the National Book Award in 2009.

Campbell, speaking to Lansing City Pulse by phone from the Washington Mall after her talk, said she sees a similarity between Georgia resident O’Connor’s writing and her own: Both are “based on failure.”

“The South had failed to win the Civil War, and the Midwest also lost a war. American industrialization is kind of gone,” Campbell said. “Both had a fall from grace.”

The losses lead to extremes in writing. Take, for example, the rural meth addicts in Campbell’s “American Salvage.” While the time and setting has changed, the desperation and depravity in these characters is the same found in O’Connor’s denizens.

O’Connor, a devout Catholic with an acerbic wit, would likely have found the Library of Congress’ scheduling a talk on her work for Good Friday as the ultimate irony. The event was timed to commemorate O’Connor’s birthday, March 25, which fell on Good Friday this year.

O’Connor’s literary career lasted just over a decade — she died of lupus at 39 — but her body of work still influences writers today. Her short story collection, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” won the National Book Award in 1972, which was awarded posthumously.

In 1956, Lansing residents were among the first to hear O’Connor’s own interpretation of her work when she made two appearances in the city: one at a meeting of the American Association of University Women at Eastern High School and the other at the convention of the Lansing Diocesan Council of Catholic Women.

Brad Gooch, in his biography of O’Connor, notes that the author’s visit to Lansing was the first of her out-of-state literary trips. O’Connor referred to these trips as “literary vaudeville.”

In Lansing, she delivered a speech titled “The Freak in Modern Fiction.” An article in the Lansing State Journal called the author’s presentation “provocative.”

O’Connor, the article reports, told the audience, “What is often overlooked is that a good writer is trying to present his view of truth, and that the more blindness there is to this view, the more shocking the means he must use to get it across.”

During her four-day stay in Lansing, O’Connor was the guest of Rumsey and Alta Haynes at their appropriately gothic looking Tudor revival home. The house still stands at the corner of Jerome and Marshall streets.

In letters to friends about the trip, O’Connor adapted a sarcastic tone. In one letter, O’Connor commented on Alta Haynes’ offer to have her husband help O’Connor, who walked with crutches, up the stairs.

“There is nothing more dangerous to a woman on crutches than a gentleman’s assistance,” she wrote.

She also wrote a friend about the Haynes’ claim that there were many interesting young writers and intellectuals in Lansing that she would enjoy meeting.

“Anything I can’t stand it’s a young writer or intellectual,” she wrote. At the time, O’Connor herself was only 31.

After returning home from her visit, O’Connor wrote a polite thank you to Alta Haynes for her hospitality, calling her “consistently gracious” and thanking her for a parting gift of cookies and candy. Always the storyteller, O’Connor wrote in the letter about how the peachickens, in her absence, had eaten all the strawberries from her mother’ garden. (Other letters about O’Connor’s Lansing trip can be found in Brad Gooch’s “Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor,” and in “The Habit of Being,” a collection of O’Connor’s letters.)

To show her admiration for O’Connor, Campbell brings a life-size cardboard cutout of the author to her book signings and conferences. Campbell will have the cardboard O’Connor with her on May 10 at the Okemos Public Library, where she will discuss her latest book, “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters.” The book was named a 2016 Michigan Notable Book earlier this year.

O’Connor, like Campbell, was unpretentious. She was fond of telling audiences about how she, as a young child, once taught a chicken to walk backwards. She and her backwards-walking fowl were featured in a British newsreel.

“It was the high point in my life,” she once said. “Everything since has been anti-climax.”

Meet author Bonnie Jo Campbell

6:30-7:30 p.m.
Tuesday, May 10
CADL Okemos Branch
4321 Okemos Road, Okemos
(517) 347-2021,