Novelist of the Last Days | An Interview with Michael O'Brien
Novelist of the Last Days | An Interview with Michael O'Brien | April 30,
Ignatius Press recently published Michael O'Brien's
Sophia House, the sixth novel in the acclaimed Children of
the Last Days series. It is a prequel to the best-selling Father
Elijah. IgnatiusInsight.com spoke to Michael about the new novel, the
series, and the worlds of literature and art.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Sophia House is the sixth novel in the Children
of the Last Days series. How has that series of novels evolved over
time? What has surprised you or intrigued you about the development of the
series over the years?
Michael OBrien: In the late 1970s I wrote two novels, Strangers
and Sojourners and A Cry of Stone, simply responding to an interior
prompting to write down these stories, which just kept fountaining up in
my imagination. They were overtly Catholic in content, and I was young enough,
naïve enough too, to think it was possible for them to be published
in Canada. Over more than a decade I amassed a hefty collection of rejection
letters from publishers, who usually said something like, "Loved the
characters and the writing, but the reading public is no longer interested
in this worldview." Translation: no orthodox Catholic vision of reality
is acceptable in the mainstream of culture. I didnt even ponder venturing
south of the border, just tucked my novels away in a box, chalking it up
to experience, an exercise in writing, and no more. Years later a friend
high up in the Canadian literary establishment, who was himself an agnostic,
assured me with utmost conviction that the problem with my books was their
Then in the mid-nineteen nineties, one day I found myself praying in my
local parish church, deeply grieving over the devastated condition that
is my particular Churchthe Church in Canadaand for all the associated
troubles of raising a large family in an anti-life society, moreover as
a Christian painter, which is a difficult calling at any time in history.
Needless to say, the demon of discouragement was hacking away at me full
force. I was weeping and crying out to God, pleading with Him to save my
Church, my land, my work as a Christian artist. At the time I had long given
up even thinking of writing.
Suddenly, with an extraordinary supernatural peace, there came a powerful
sense that God was bringing good out of all the desolation. There flashed
into my mind the story of a priest at the end of the ages, an apocalyptic
tale. This experience was so unexpected, certainly without any prompting
from my musings or imaginings, that I was stunned. I shook it off as a distraction.
But it wouldnt go away; it just grew and grew in a moment of timelessness,
peace, consolation. I kept kneeling there in front of the Cross, watching
the story unfold in my mind, as if watching a film. Yes, it was like that,
as if I were merely an observer. With this came an inner sense that I was
supposed to write it down, and that I must ask the Holy Spirit for an angel
For the next eight months I spent every spare moment writing the story,
and went each morning to the Blessed Sacrament to ask for that days
grace for writing and for an angel of inspiration. Of all my novels, before
and since, Father Elijah was the easiest to write. This was really
something more than an Irish imagination fired up on all eight cylinders;
it was entirely different from anything that had ever happened to me in
creative work. I wouldnt want to call it a divinely inspired novel,
because it has lots of flaws, but perhaps it is inspired in the sense that
every work of art created from a desire to serve Gods glory is a co-creative
labor, grace building on nature.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What are the themes and ideas that connect the novels
to one another?
OBrien: The themes are many, and my answer would be too long if
I were to try to enumerate the narrative connections of the six novels published
to date. The spiritual themes are, I believe, more important. In essence
all my books try to express the dignity of the human person, the great mystery
that is to be found in each and every one of us. To look inside even the
most "ordinary" life one finds heroism and tragedy, suffering
and joy, birth and death, love and loss, folly and wisdom. I am always trying
to incarnate the truth that our man-made measures of greatness and smallness
are badly skewed. True vision necessarily asks of us to learn to see with
the eyes of God, not in any Olympian sense, but in the deepest sense of
the eyes of Lovelove and truth integrated.
A second thematic layer in these stories is the
damaged icon of the father in late Western man, and an examination of the
true nature of fatherhood. The damage stems from the fracturing of modern
mans sense of the hierarchical cosmos, and the resulting divisions
within human nature, the false dichotomies between intellect and emotion,
faith and reason, heart and mind, spirit and law, love and truth
As a result man no longer knows himself. One of the roles of art is to reveal
man to himself. All of the arts do this in their own waysthat is,
art when it seeks to express the truth in beautiful forms. The arts are
languages through which man begins to hear the truth about himself, opening
locked gates within the mind and heart, permitting the truth to take up
residence within him.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Sophia House is a prequel to Father Elijah.
Was it a different experience going back in time, so to speak, to write
the novel? Or did this story already exist, at least in your mind, while
you were writing Father Elijah?
OBrien: While I was writing the section in Father Elijah
on Count Smokrev, the background plot of David Schäfer hiding in the
bookshop during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw grew in my mind as a distinct
story-within-a-story, again almost film-like. But it seemed to me that Fr.
Elijah would have become too cumbersome if it had been included. Hence,
the need for Sophia House. There was, if I recall correctly, some
overlapping in the writing of both.
I had mapped out the entire series by that point, almost as a fatalistic
hobby, because I was convinced there was no possibility that my books would
be published. I wrote in a spirit of obedience to the "still small
voice," the inner prompting. I can recall feeling a little perturbed
that this second story, Sophia House, was emerging in my mind with
the same kind of urgency, but I took a deep breath and began it as well.
Not all the sequence in writing is clear to me now, ten years after the
fact. However, most of the major development and fine-tuning of Sophia
was done during the two or three years preceding its publication. My wife
Sheila and my oldest son John have been invaluable critics; they did painstaking
work on the manuscript, always challenging me to do better in style and
in expression of the themes. They have saved me a lot of grief over the
IgnatiusInsight.com: Much of this novel is set in the 1940s in Warsaw. How
did you go about researching that era and the way of life during that time?
OBrien: Ive been fascinated by the Second World War since
I was a young man. At four different times in my life, in different parts
of the country, I have met survivors of Auschwitz, two Jews and two Christians,
none of them connected to the others in any way other than their common
experience of that horror. I also know a Jewish convert to the Catholic
faith who was a twelve-year old child in Bergen-Belsen.
Maybe its roots go back still farther, to the First World War. My paternal
grandfather, an uncommonly tall adolescent who had lied about his age in
order to get into the Canadian army, was sixteen years old when he was captured
by the Germans and put in a POW camp. For the next forty years he was in
constant pain as bits of shrapnel worked their way out of his body. My maternal
grandfather was gassed at Ypres, was unconscious in a hospital for six months,
and spent the rest of his life carrying horrible scabs on his body that
simply wouldnt heal. Both men were to some extent damaged emotionally
by their experiences, the effects of which have been passed down the generations.
I have known several survivors of the Nazi occupation of Poland, a number
of people in our parish, and others who were dear friends in various places
Ive lived. They all loved to tell their stories. Loved is the
wrong word, for a profound, sometimes unresolved, grief often poured out
as they related their experiences to me, as if compelled by an inner desire
that their personal histories not be wasted. Experience purchased at so
great a cost must not be lost, not be forgotten. Their inner wrestling revealed
the pain of those who have been struck by severe blows from absolute evil
and are still trying to make sense of it.
It has seemed to me, for a long time now, that in their experience we can
find our common human struggle laid bare. We all suffer the blows of unjust
suffering in our lives, in one form or another. How we deal with it turns
us either toward life or toward death. The survivors have a lot to teach
us in this regard. But they must be asked for their stories, and we must
listenlisten deeply. I am often moved by their humility, and by their
capacity for forgiveness.
Which brings me to a third major theme in all my work: Forgiveness frees
us to believe in a benevolent God and in the saving power of Christ, and
thus to become who we truly are. Unforgiveness locks us into unbelief, into
the enclosed universe of the self.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In the middle of Sophia House there is a playan
entire play. What inspired you to write and include the play and how does
it fit into the flow and logic of the novel?
OBrien: I was bowled over by Andrei Tarkovskys film, Andrei
Rublev, when I first saw it in a theater in the 1970s, then again
on screen in the mid-1980s. Later I obtained a video of it and have
watched it several times since. Tarkovsky is a phenomenon, a miracle, a
Christian filmmaker in Russia producing a very great film at one of the
darkest periods of the Communist era. It moved me profoundly as a story,
as a vision of redemption, and as art. So rare is this combination in any
genre that it must be seen as a extraordinary grace. It well deserves its
place on the Vaticans list of ten best films of all time.
At one point I discussed the life of Rublev with a man who had, in years
gone by, produced a Broadway play. He suggested I give playwriting a try.
So I did, but when I read the finished manuscript I thought little of the
results, and stacked it with my other unpublishable manuscripts gathering
dust on the shelf.
Then, ten or so years later, it struck me that it might become a viable
section of Sophia House. Of course, to interrupt the flow of narrative
in a novel with a play runs the risk of creating a patchwork, an add-on.
But it seemed to me as I worked on the novel that my central character was
a man turned in upon himself, suffering some deep psychological and emotional
wounds that had spiritual repercussions. It is precisely his narcissism,
his angst, and his isolation that pushes him toward sin. Combined, the novels
Father Elijah and Sophia House reveal that such a sin (if
it were committed) would have had disastrous results for the unfolding of
When Pawel turns all his pent-up anguish to a creative act, he begins to
move outward, away from the world of self-obsession and sin. The writing
of the play reveals himself to himself, not as a narcissistic exercise,
but rather as a window will reflect ones face, yet also offers a view
outward to the exterior world. So it seemed to me that the play was essential
to Pawels growth as a character.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In the preface you mention the painters Georges Rouault
and Pablo Picasso. What influence did they have on you as you wrote the
novel? How do they embody radically different views of art and life?
OBrien: Both artists developed styles that pushed the frontiers
of cognitive realism, without plunging into absolute abstraction. Picasso
was a man who embodies the apotheosis of ego, a self-styled protean being
in submission to no authority other than his will and the impulses of
his nature. In a sense he was a new kind of Gnostic magician, but his
gnosis was entirely to do with his passions and his art. It is
always so interesting to see how readily the "autonomous self"
succumbs to totalitarian ideology. Picassos painting, Guernica,
for example, is not the great icon of human suffering that liberal ideologues
would have us believe; it is Communist propaganda.
Rouault, by contrast was a much deeper man. Though he was committed to
exploring new forms of artistic language, even to the outer edges of intelligibility,
he was at the same time rooted in an incarnational vision of the created
universe. A sense of love and grief permeate his work. He was a friend
of Léon Bloy and Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, he was a family
man who loved his children deeply. He loved Christ and he loved art, not
as a promethean power but as a gift from God. He embodies one of the many
genuine paths open to Christian artists. His Miserere series, for
example, is a meditation on the sufferings of mankind and the sufferings
of Christ, giving a visible form to the truth that Christ suffers with
us until the end of time.
Sophia House is really about how man deals with suffering, interior
and exterior suffering. The interior, of course, is the most difficult
of all, because it strikes to the very heart of the soul, the core of
mans being. My central character must wrestle at close quarters
with the tendency within himself (within all of us) to despair and its
ugly corollaries, or alternatively to union with Christ on the Cross.
Pawels fictional encounters with Picasso and Rouault are signposts,
revealing the parameters of the choice.
IgnatiusInsight.com: There's no doubt that your work as an iconographer
has a deep impact on your work as a novelist. Do you view writing novels
as the creation of a sort of literary icon? What is the relationship between
the literary arts and visual arts?
OBrien: Ive been painting as a Christian artist for close
to thirty years now. The first seven years were almost entirely devoted
to Byzantine iconography. So, yes, the icon has definitely influenced
my sense of what Christian art can be, should bea "language"
in which spirit and truth are working in harmony in a beautiful form.
This integration is possible regardless of the style a Christian artist
chooses as his personal creative language. But it was submission to the
spiritual and technical discipline of Byzantine icon-painting that taught
I am cautious about using the word "icon", since it has a specific
meaning, distinct from the other fields of Christian art. The icon is
a world of theology and spirituality, of uninterrupted tradition reaching
back (and going forward) through nearly two millennia. It is a particular
grace which we must avoid trivializing.
However, in the broader and more modern usage of the word, I would have
to agree that there is an iconographic dimension in all genuine Christian
art. By this I mean that, like the Byzantine icon, truly inspired artistic
works can be windows onto the infinite, gateways of grace. Christian art
is not a Sacrament, nor is it a defined sacramental, yet it approaches
closely our Catholic understanding of sacramentals, because it is an outward
sign through which the Holy Spirit can touch human souls. A Catholic novel
can be an instrument God uses to bring souls to conversion, and indeed
it frequently proves to be so.
Moreover, it remains in a readers memory as something like lived
experience. Although it is vicarious experience, deep connections are
made within the readers memory with his own personal experience,
enlarging his understanding of his sufferings and joys. Such a story remains
in his mind as a reference point, a light, a signpostforgive my
mixed metaphorsand even, one might say, an icon in the heart of
IgnatiusInsight.com: Youve written essays and columns about the
New Totalitarianism. How is it different from the "old" totalitarianism
described in Sophia House? What qualities of totalitarianism remain
consistent, despite external changes?
OBrien: This subject is so urgently in need of consideration
by all of us that I hesitate to attempt a thumbnail sketch in reply. For
those of your readers interested in the topic, my longer essays can be
found at my studio website.
The new totalitarianism rarely reveals itself for what it is: a top-down
imposed social revolution that has spread throughout the world with unprecedented
force and speed, redefining man to himself at every turn. It is a Picassoesque
anthropology, not a Roualtian anthropology, if I may continue our earlier
discussion. Or more accurately, it is a concept of man that reduces him
to a cell in a collective, a consumer without conscience, an autonomous
self in a sociology of autonomous selves. As I mentioned earlier, the
autonomous self so easily becomes the prey of totalitarianism, as long
as the regime rewards him with pleasurable "rights" and lifts
from his shoulders the burden of responsibilities.
The new totalitarianism, like all forms of totalitarianism, reduces the
absolute, eternal value of the human person, what John Paul II called
"the whole truth about man." Tragically stunted in its philosophy,
anthropology, sociology, and its cosmology, it is perhaps the most powerful
and wealthy force we have ever seen in history, and for that reason alone
it must be examined according to its fruits.
What are its fruits? An increase in material prosperity at the cost of
homogenized world-culture that works relentlessly to sweep aside the moral
conscience of nations in the name of a theoretical "peace."
The imposition of a set of moral "values" that are in fact radically
immoralabortion, contraception, euthanasia, same-sex "marriage",
etc. These are ominous signs. Whatever reduces the meaning of the human
person, regardless of the form it takes, a Marxist, a fascist, a globalist,
or even a capitalist form, it is in essence Materialism. And materialism
in the long run does great damage to individuals and to peoples. The new
Europe, for example, while it has reduced some tensions geopolitically
and economically, has narrowed the spectrum of the diverse expressions
and cultural richness that is a sign of a healthy community. It is also
violating moral conscience in many previously Catholic nations.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Yet the emerging world order seems to value culture,
and speaks a great deal about it.
OBrien: Rhetoric about freedom always increases as the real
thing declines. It is the same with rhetoric about culture (at least it
is so on my continent of North America). A certain amount of State-funded
culture can be a help to the arts of a nation, but if culture only arises
from political or economic sources, genuine artists are more and more
pushed to the sidelines, and only those artists with political connections
or who share the dominant social philosophy will be given assistance.
In my native land, for example, the social revolution of the autonomous
self is promoted at every turn by the State, by universities, by the media,
and by industrial-technological funding that is subservient to the cultural
theorizing of "experts," promoting along with it nihilistic
anti-human art that is exalted as "revolutionary" (a term which
is generally understood as high praise for superior vision). At the same
time genuine Christian culture has been entirely banished from the public
sphere of my nation. This is a tangible example of what our new Holy Father
Benedict XVI calls "the tyranny of moral relativism."
Permit me to say it again: What I have observed over thirty years as a
painter and writer is that, as in the case of freedom, rhetoric about
culture increases as the real thing declines. Im not referring to
the numbers of cultural events but rather to the quality of cultural expressions,
which arise from the deep waters of a peoples life, through its
artists and thinkers. The new globalist culture may increase the quantity
yet it is narrowing the spectrum of human thought and expression. Its
like a river thats a mile wide and an inch deep.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Is there another Children of the Last Days
novel to be written and/or published? If so, what is it about?
OBrien: Originally the series was planned as six novels, but
during the Millennium year (the Year of God the Father as Pope John Paul
II named it) I wrote the first draft of a novel titled The Fathers
Tale. Its a modern retelling of the parables of the Prodigal
Son and the Good Shepherd combined. Ive been working on it for the
past four years and think its ready for publication. Im really
very excited about it, maybe because the central character, the father
of the title, is of all my characters the one most like myself (gifts
and flaws included). I believe also that this novel draws together all
the spiritual and moral themes of my previous books. In this sense it
isif youll permit meiconographic.
Ive also begun writing a story that has been closest to my heart
for the past few years. Its a novel I call The Poet. It erupted
and grew in my imagination in the same way Father Elijah did, and
in this aspect its unlike my other novels. Its set in Croatia
and Bosnia-Hercegovina, beginning in the 1930s with the birth of
a boy (the central character) and following his life to the present day.
Its about the call of the gifted creative person to be a kind of
witness to his own people, and for them also. Considering the trials which
countries such as Croatia have undergone during the past century, such
a person is a crucially important sign of hope about all that is best
in human nature. He must be, therefore, a "sign of contradiction"
against sociopolitical forces that would negate the whole truth about
man. He has no weapons, no power, no riches, save for the fire in his
heart, the passion to express the truth in forms that are beautiful.
D. OBrien is the former editor of the Catholic family magazine,
Nazareth Journal. He is also the author of several books, including
his seven volume series of novels published by Ignatius Press, notably the
Elijah. For more than thirty years he has been a professional artist.
Michael's most recent novel is Sophia
House, the sixth novel in the acclaimed Children of the Last
Days series. It is a prequel to Father Elijah.
Michael and his wife Sheila have six children. He writes and paints full-time
at his home near Combermere, Ontario. His paintings and published articles
can be seen at his gallery website: www.studiobrien.com.
Visit Michael's page at IgnatiusInsight.com
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