Though novelists Gina Ochsner and Paula Huston first met only five years ago, they’ve developed the kind of friendship that usually takes decades to mature. Both mentors in Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, they’ve shared quarters every winter and summer during ten-day residencies on Whidbey Island and at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, along with annual meetings of the Chrysostom Society at Laity Lodge in Texas. They’ve also exchanged work, in the process discovering that they share significant common ground. Both have traveled alone in far-flung and sometimes dangerous places. Both have written about the evils of war and its aftermath. Both find their best characters in cultures not their own.
In between MFA workshops and craft lectures, they’ve conducted an on-going conversation about their faith (Ochsner is Pentecostal; Huston, Catholic) and their fiction. One cold and rainy morning on Whidbey Island not so long ago, they asked each other a series of questions. Do you think that being a Christian makes it harder for you to be taken seriously by the literary world? Do you feel there are topics you can’t write about, given your beliefs? Have you found that your faith constrains your art? Their answers revealed passionate convictions that surprised them both. The following dialogue grew out of this conversation between friends.
Ochsner: Every artist develops over a period of time an idea of what makes good writing good and also a sense of which topics are most worthy of exploration. Your characters include concert pianists, guerrillas, archaeologists, and war-zone photojournalists, most with dark, complicated problems. Are there certain topics you think should be kept off limits in authentically Christian literary writing? Can artistic excellence and genuine faith co-exist in the same work?
Huston: Absolutely! Why should being a Christian preclude being a great writer? Most of the finest writers in the Western pantheon were Christian: Dante, Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Wordsworth, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and many more. Even the heterodox, hopeless, or staunchly atheist writers of the 20th century were somehow responding to the magnificent Christian vision, which was so much deeper, richer, and more artistically fertile than anything modernism had to offer. In the hands of a great Christian writer, even the most despairing stuff is saturated at the molecular level with eschatological hope. I think the real question is whether contemporary intellectual prejudices against Christianity are strong enough to keep writers of faith from writing.
In that regard, Gina, you are clearly a great exemplar for young Christian writers. Based on the literary acclaim your work has received, not to mention how long you are willing to spend writing a novel—your most recent took you twelve years, didn’t it?—you clearly hold yourself to a very high standard. It’s obvious that you have learned well from the contemporary masters. Does this mean that you also embrace the strain of irony that runs through 20th- and 21st-century fiction? Is it possible to be a significant literary writer today without adopting that ironic stance?
Ochsner: Horace recommended that literary compositions be kept from the public eye for nine years at least. I took his advice and added a few more years to it. During that time, I noticed the ironic strain (stain?) in literature. I think irony may have been so enthusiastically embraced by artists because it looks and sounds smart. There’s nothing wrong with being smart, nothing wrong with examining the absurdity of the world we live in with a detached eye, a stance that allows some room for examination, play, even. But what I’m noticing is a not-so-subtle cynicism that pervades the current strain of literature like a foul odor. The tone in these works represents a slide from irony to cynicism, an intellectual petulance in regard to everything and everyone. When cynicism becomes the default posture, meaning and beauty are leached from all that is seen, remembered, apprehended. What the artist offers the reader is a husk, a body with no spirit. The job of artists is to challenge whatever is currently trending. To this end I am battling the toxicity of cynicism. And what disturbs or confounds cynicism more than joy? Pure, ineluctable, inexplicable joy. Fleet-footed, gravity-defying leaps of image or thought that radiate curiosity and wonder.
But Paula, I’d like to go back to my first question about craft, specifically about the temptations a literary Christian novelist might face that other writers do not, which is to reach for easy Christian clichés. Why do you so stubbornly resist using them in your work? After all, they exist because on some level they bear truth, don’t they?