“When I Could No Longer Bear the Pain of Not Being Catholic”: The Anne Redmon Interview

“When I Could No Longer Bear the Pain of Not Being Catholic”: The Anne Redmon Interview

Editors Note: Anne Redmon is another very fine–great or near-great Catholic novelist you probably have never heard of.  At CatholicArtsToday.com we live for these discoveries: to find Catholic creators and to share their work. 

I can’t remember, now, who put me on to Anne Redmon’s novels.  For months before launching Catholic Arts Today I scoured the internet for lists of Catholic novels and novelists, I asked my 4,000 Facebook friends to make recommendations, and I bothered nearly everyone I lunched with the same question: Who is the greatest living Catholic novelist? (Many people could not name a Catholic novelist; 99 out of 100 who did name a Catholic novelist named a dead Catholic novelist.  Usually very dead.  Most often Flannery O’Connor, but occasionally Graham Greene. Or Walker Percy. Someone–and it was only one–included her in their list. Thank-you anonymous friend. 

This gap between the Catholic creators and the Catholic audience is why we founded Catholic ArtsToday and why we continue to believe focusing on the life and work of living Catholic artists is innovative, important, potentially groundbreaking, if we can build an audience for their work. So thanks for coming along for this very important ride.

Anne Redmon is New Jersey born and bred, and despite living in England since she married at a young age, considers herself an American novelist, a Catholic novelist, and most of all a novelist (as Flannery O’ Connor once savagely put it). She was considered a rising literary star in the 1970s and 1980s (see the attached list of accolades from the New York Times, etc, attached below if you doubt me). But here’s just one example:

Reviewing Music and Silence in the New York Times, Harvard Prof. (now Emeritus) Robert Kiely wrote: “Miss Redmon’s sentences—long, supple, ambiguous—are Jamesian, but her themes are more reminiscent of Graham Greene. This is a pleasure to read: a novel of order and beauty and lovely phrasing.”

She was a visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan, was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was also for many years a writer-in-residence at a large British prison. For many years, she reviewed fiction for the London Sunday Times. She is still writing novels and looking for publishers.

Oh, and she married She-Evelyn’s oldest son the distinguished British literary critic, Benedict Nightingale. For her insights into The Hon. Evelyn Florence Margaret Winifred Gardner, the Bright Young Thing that Evelyn Waugh married, in her later years, read on. 

Anne Redmon has no Wiki page herself (Can someone please fix that?). But eventually, I was able to track her down and get an email for her.  We at Catholic Arts Today feel very privileged to publish this fascinating interview with a major Catholic artist.

The Anne Redmon CAT Interview

CAT EditorsHow and why did you become a novelist?

Anne Redmon: By osmosis: I married at 20, had my first child at 22, then moved to London where we bought an old house but had no money to do it up. In an effort to make some, my husband was working 24/7. I knew no one and missed my friends in America where I had grown up.

I was desperately lonely and had no idea how to manage the culture into which I had parachuted. So, during my baby’s nap, I started a journal, writing it on the dining room table, one of our few pieces of furniture.

The impetus for this was a letter from an old school friend who told me she had a mysterious illness. She was a vivid, original character and I began to ponder –  and even question – her story. One day, all of a sudden, I saw that the ‘I’ of the journal was a character in the story and not myself and that the ‘she’ of it was not my friend but another person altogether.

It was a very strange experience to find a me/not-me and a she/not-she emerging from the scrawled pages: sheer alchemy. It was extremely exciting. This eventually became my first novel Emily Stone.

I had no plans to become a novelist. Writing was in my bloodstream though. My Kentuckian parents, exiled in the North, were voracious readers and, as Southerners will, told stories from childhood, making scenes and characters come alive; Each version was an improvement on the last. It seemed completely natural to me to turn events of my life into stories, and also quite natural to shift them from my own ego to invented people and situations.

CAT EditorsWhat can a novel do that no other art form can do? How is a novel different than say, poetry or film?

Anne Redmon: To me, a novel is like a house; it involves architecture and interior design. A good novelist must be a good host, making readers welcome. They must be properly introduced to the novel’s inhabitants so that they can be absorbed in the milieu, first as observers, then as participants who care what happens next. Between the reader and the novelist is a unique and private friendship.

Poetry has to do with is-ness, ‘the sacrament’, if you like, ‘of the present moment’ (of course I am deliberately omitting the epic precursors to my craft). For me, the art closest to the novel is film – not Netflix on the plane but in the dark with popcorn.  Both arts take you there. You can be sitting with someone but essentially you are alone with the story. Film actors, like characters in novels, are avatars of the creator’s idea. You are invited in and taken along, participating with your feelings.

My favorite film has to be Babette’s Feast which evokes the generosity of God unfolding in the bleak, Puritan landscape where Babette finds herself exiled. I could not achieve this same effect in a novel, but my experience of this film is like my experience of a good novel.

CAT Editors: Do you consider yourself a “Catholic novelist”? If not, why not? If yes, what does that mean to you?

Anne Redmon: Yes, I do. I discovered that I had been a Catholic all along when I wrote Emily Stone, my first novel.

I don’t see myself as having become one as much as I see it being a profound ontological state which I drilled into by mistake, rather as one might find an oil well with a pickaxe. I knew that Ms. Stone had to traipse on into her fearful Siberia; she is probably wandering there still. But my heroine, the dying Sasha, rose a phoenix from the ashes of her dreams through embracing the Church.

A life-force herself, she knew eternal life when she saw it. My model for the character of Emily Stone did not become a Catholic, but I did.

My own conversion, the result of a powerful dream, was a seismic shift:  painful both because my horrified parents held the Catholic Church in odium and because I was received seven years after I had been married in an Anglican church.

I like to tell people that the first Catholic I ever knew was myself. That is not strictly true, but I had no direct Catholic influences unless you include Thomas Merton and the Gospels. I sought out the local priest when I could no longer bear the pain that not being a Catholic caused me.

Having said all of this, I am not sure a ‘Catholic novelist’ is as meaningful a category as it first appears. Most novelists can only write what they see, and I see the truth of the Catholic faith. If you see life ‘against the backdrop of eternity’ as Evelyn Waugh puts it, then perspectives change.

The Church has superb window dressing, and this invites many people in. It is fair to say that Christian art lured me: Italian to begin with, but I have since fallen in love with Flemish. I also have an ongoing relationship with Byzantine icons. There was music too. Where do I start? Bach’s B Minor Mass is about it for me.

It is, however, the house itself that matters; the one, the Host Himself invited a pretty grubby me into His home, to participate in the eternal is-ness so fathomless that angels cannot measure it. As Graham Greene better said: ‘I don’t believe in God. I touch God.’

I want to be a good guest so when I write I tend to try to incorporate what I have observed inwardly.

My second novel Music and Silence was my first attempt at this. The character Beatrice Pazzi became the avatar for religious experience, a sort of a wedding present to me from God which has sustained me through many a dark and arid patch since.  I foolishly took such felicity for granted. It’s the marriage that counts, not lights and graces.

The priest who brought me into the Church spotted a mystical disposition in me and introduced me to the Carmelites. I devoured St Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross and St Thérèse of Lisieux. It was a relief to discover I was not insane after all! Either that or they were. Putting the ineffable on paper is quite another matter, I’m afraid. I’ve been very clumsy with it.

CAT EditorsTell me what Pope Francis means to you.

Anne Redmon: For 15 years I taught in a London prison, thought then to be the toughest west of the Urals. My then-confessor, when appealed to for his blessing on this undertaking, said: ‘Good idea! It will stop you being so self-centered!’

I started out as a special visitor with the Catholic chaplaincy, moving later to the education department where I created a journalism course based on the prison magazine the inmates and I developed.

I knew men who had done unspeakable things, some who were clearly insane, some possibly innocent and others taking the rap for the ones who don’t get caught. You find that the Holy Spirit is a very real entity when you’re trapped in an unguarded room, as I once was, with an angry rapist, but much more so when you are persuaded by the same Spirit that there is ultimate value in every human being no matter how depraved.

No one, but no one, is beyond redemption. People who do not believe this cannot, in my view, call themselves Christians.

The Word of God itself should persuade people that it is the tax collector and not the Pharisee, the Magdalene and not (again) the Pharisee, the woman caught in adultery and not (once more) the Pharisees who really interest Jesus.

I’m with the lost sheep, the lost coin and the Prodigal, and so is Pope Francis. He reaches out.

I have been to Rome four times to see him and I have watched him do it. Warmth and charity exude from him – a radiator in these cold latter days. He includes people in the great mystery of God’s love for them whoever they are.

I understand that there are Catholics who believe the Holy Father to be an apostate pope and I am wary of that way of thinking. It reminds me of another Gospel event: Christ laments that when John the Baptist came fasting and eating bugs, he was seen as a fanatic. And that now, when He Himself has come feasting, they call Him a gluttonous, drunken crony of sinners.

In our time we have had the magisterial Pope St John Paul, the scholarly, contemplative Pope Benedict and now we have Pope Francis. Is it possible to suppose that the Holy Spirit chose these three for a very good reason? Each one expresses our faith in a necessary but individual way.

To me, they complement rather than contradict each other; Pope Francis, above all, speaks to me of mercy (not, of course, that the others don’t). What part of mercy don’t people understand? I need it but maybe they don’t.

CAT Editors: Okay, I have to ask: what was it like for a New Jersey girl to move to London and marry the son of Evelyn Waugh’s first wife?  

Anne Redmon: There is New Jersey and New Jersey: I lived for ten years in Old-Money- Rock-Rib-Republican territory replete with fox hunting and debutante parties. My contemporaries and I went to East Coast boarding schools.  I met my husband when I was 18 and, after a long courtship, arrived in England to be warmly greeted by ‘She-Evelyn’, who was to become my mother in law.

If I thought The Shipley School and waltzing around in white-kid gloves prepared me for marrying into her family, I was quite mistaken. Early on, she gave me a guided tour of the stately homes, Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey) included, which were, or had been, her family’s and I got a measure of the formidable task ahead. I often say that I had, in becoming Evelyn’s daughter-in-law, the benefit of a Swiss finishing school for free: And this when my husband was at that time, left-wing bordering on radical.

This interview gives me an opportunity I have longed for because, in the many things written about our Evelyn, no one has seen fit to mention it: She was a deeply religious woman.

There were reasons for her running amok in her youth. By the time I knew her, she had morphed from the Jazz Age flapper into Mrs. Tiggywinkle. She even taught me how to bake.

She was much loved in the village; the pews were jammed at her funeral; Auberon Waugh, He-Evelyn’s son, sent a letter of condolence which my husband read out at the wake. Auberon Waugh had been, as he warmly wrote, her cousin: His Evelyn married our Evelyn’s first cousin Laura Herbert after the annulment, so their children are our relations. It is redemptive, isn’t it, that we have become great friends?

Our Evelyn and I talked a lot. I only wish I had written it all down but our interest in religion was what we most held in common. Sometime during the war, she had had a conversion experience. In fact, she told me she had seen a vision of Jesus. Although her broken marriages precluded, at the time, her reconciling herself to the Anglican Church, she was latterly and gladly received back into the fold. She went to Communion twice a week (unusual for Anglicans).

Her favorite poet was Rilke, whom she read in German. Her favorite painter was El Greco. She had a great devotion to St John’s Gospel. A much-loved icon of Our Lady went into her coffin.

More than once she told me how sorry she was that she had hurt Evelyn Waugh, especially as it had appeared so to embitter him. When I became a Catholic she was one of the few who understood why.

No one seems to want this information. They much prefer the razzle-dazzle Brenda of Last of A Handful of Dust fame. I don’t think Waugh modelled Brenda on our Evelyn. Novelists don’t really do that. They take an arm from here and a leg from there and zap it with the creative lightning bolt, but she is commonly thought to have sat in the life-class for Brenda.

It’s a bit of a family joke because if our Evelyn had a failing it was the intensity of her motherhood. That she could have been glad her son had died rather than a lover is actually hilarious.

CAT Editors: What novelists influenced you the most?  

Anne Redmon: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Henry James, Emily Brontë, Dickens, Jane Austen, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Graham Greene.

CAT EditorsWhat books are on your nightstand right now? 

Anne Redmon: Silly ones. I love my Kindle and have a passion for thrillers. Having said that, I am currently revisiting of books I have loved to see if I still love them, why I loved them in the first place and if anything has changed in me that makes me read them in a different light. As an instance of this, I recently rediscovered Bleak House. Wow!

CAT EditorsIf you had to name your top 5 Catholic novelists whom would they be?

Anne Redmon: Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark, Walker Percy.  I’m afraid I recently revisited Brideshead and thought it rather flawed except for the final nobility in the renunciation but you might as well chuck Waugh in for good measure. He can make me weep with laughter.

CAT EditorsAny advice for aspiring novelists or other storytellers of faith?

Writing fiction is a craft not a vehicle for prophets. The romantic fallacy that the first thing that comes into your head is the divine afflatus is the enemy of art.

Once on paper swirling thoughts become concrete artifacts, so do not turn that into an idol, worshipping your own imagined cleverness (Been there, done that!).

Manuscripts in the British Museum show that even the sublime Keats savagely revised. Write it, print it, put it in a drawer. Take it out after a few days (or even weeks if the content is personally upsetting). Read it as someone else might. Does it make sense? Does it convey what you want to say or are you just talking to yourself?

Like iffy things in the fridge, when in doubt, throw it out. Keep what’s good and make a meal from that. You must turn your vision outwards so that readers can see it too.

Don’t over-egg the pudding. The best advice I had when I was writing Music and Silence came from my husband. I began to draw Beatrice Pazzi from life after an encounter with an exceedingly holy woman. I really did see what painters paint, a nimbus, around her. It took my breath away.

So, I worked on the nimbus and had the most awful time with it. Epiphanies are very hard to do, theophanies even worse. My husband Benedict, who is, after all, an eminent critic, cleared his throat and urged me away from angels.

My ego was bruised! I loved my heavenly vision!  But suddenly I saw it: I must not introduce my character to my reader with her halo but with describing, quite literally, her shoes. Like Dorothy, she clicked her heels so emphatically together that we left Oz and returned with a bump to Kansas. Her hair changed, her nationality changed, her job and stature changed. In fact, she started to live, no longer a creature of light but a human being and not the woman I had met.

‘Humility’ is from the Latin root for ‘earth’. It was, in fact, my saintly model’s chief virtue, so starting from the ground up was a good idea and I pass this on.

It is sometimes the absence of God that expresses His presence best as Flannery O’Connor does in Wise Blood. I’ll never forget Hazel Motes staring into an empty motel nightstand – a metaphor for the tabernacle without Christ in it. And, though no Catholic, Samuel Beckett conjures up God for me in braving out the Dark Night in his plays, that is, except when he seems to wallow in it.

But Catholic novelists ought to take cheer. Ours is a story religion – the procedure of the Mass, the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary all have movement: a beginning, a middle, and an end in eternity.

And the greatest storyteller ever was Jesus. Try beating the Good Samaritan for what one might call a divine economy of style.

 

Accolades for Anne Redmon

For Emily Stone

“A strong and original flavor.” John Spurling, playwright, novelist

For Music and Silence

“That rarest of novels…complex, suspenseful, and exceptionally well written.” Novelist Joyce Carol Oates.

“To discover Anne Redmon is like coming upon a treasure rich and deep. . . .a remarkable, memorable work.” Publishers Weekly

“Miss Redmon’s sentences—long, supple, ambiguous—are Jamesian, but her themes are more reminiscent of Graham Greene. This is a pleasure to read: a novel of order and beauty and lovely phrasing.” Harvard Prof. Robert Kiely, New York Times

“Anne Redmon’s style has an Edwardian grace, yet despite her luxurious prose, the book is disciplined and forthright. It deals with some rather ponderous questions, but with such elegance and delicacy that the lessons seem subliminal, persisting only in retrospect.” Playwright and book critic Elaine Kendall, The Los Angeles Times

“Both the music of her impressive talent and the silence of what she leaves unsaid are what make Anne Redmon’s novel so memorable.” The Chicago Tribune

“The subjects under consideration are nothing less than art, mortality, love, evil and death…a brilliant and challenging book.” Chicago Tribune Book World

“…[W]e are captivated by Anne Redmon’s gracefully nuanced and musical prose.” NYT Book Review

For Second Sight:

“This book is a journey in many sense, for at the end of it, there is emotional and spiritual light, though attained at a terrible, sacrificial cost. Redmon’s is a very strong, pure voice.” Mary Flanagan, BBC

“Ann Redmon’s talent imbues Irene with such a surprisingly sympathetic voice that we trust her.” Elaine Feinstein, (award-winning poet, novelist, translator, short-story writer and literary biographer) The (London) Times

“[B]rilliant vignettes of a damaged childhood…Powerful” The Literary Review

 

 

 

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