Novelist of the Last Days | An Interview with Michael O'Brien

Novelist of the Last Days | An Interview with Michael O'Brien | April 30, 2005


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 O’Brien
: 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 didn’t 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 Catholic vision.

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 Church–the Church in Canada–and 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 wouldn’t 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 of inspiration.

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 day’s 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 wouldn’t 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 God’s 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?

O’Brien
: 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 Love–love 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 man’s 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 ways–that 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?

O’Brien
: 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 years.

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?

O’Brien
: I’ve 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 wouldn’t 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 I’ve 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 listen–listen 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 play–an entire play. What inspired you to write and include the play and how does it fit into the flow and logic of the novel?

O’Brien
: I was bowled over by Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Andrei Rublev, when I first saw it in a theater in the 1970’s, then again on screen in the mid-1980’s. 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 Vatican’s 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 history.

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 one’s face, yet also offers a view outward to the exterior world. So it seemed to me that the play was essential to Pawel’s 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?

O’Brien: 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. Picasso’s 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 man’s 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. Pawel’s 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?

O’Brien
: I’ve 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 be–a "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 me this.

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 reader’s memory as something like lived experience. Although it is vicarious experience, deep connections are made within the reader’s 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 signpost–forgive my mixed metaphors–and even, one might say, an icon in the heart of the soul.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You’ve 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?

O’Brien
: 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 immoral–abortion, 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.

O’Brien
: 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. I’m not referring to the numbers of cultural events but rather to the quality of cultural expressions, which arise from the deep waters of a people’s 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. It’s like a river that’s 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?

O’Brien
: 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 Father’s Tale. It’s a modern retelling of the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Shepherd combined. I’ve been working on it for the past four years and think it’s ready for publication. I’m 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 is–if you’ll permit me–iconographic.

I’ve also begun writing a story that has been closest to my heart for the past few years. It’s a novel I call The Poet. It erupted and grew in my imagination in the same way Father Elijah did, and in this aspect it’s unlike my other novels. It’s set in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, beginning in the 1930’s with the birth of a boy (the central character) and following his life to the present day. It’s 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.


Michael D. O’Brien 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 best-selling Father 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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