Catholic Writing Today: Michael O’Brien

by | Feb 6, 2014 | Catholic Writing

Michael O'Brien

Michael O’Brien

This week, TJP’s Catholic Writing Series features Canadian author Michael O’Brien, whose novels number among the best-selling fiction titles at Ignatius Press. Details about his writing come up quickly in the interview below, so I won’t go into much detail here. Instead, I’ll remind the reader of one of the key questions in our conversation on Catholic writing thus far: How explicitly does faith feature in a given writer’s work, and just how does this choice speak to our times?

In a recent column for The Wall Street Journal, Gregory Wolfe identified two approaches that stand as answers to this question. Combining O’Connor’s famous dictum with Elijah’s patient discernment, he pointed out that some writers choose to shout the great themes of faith. Others, he continued, opt to present the same great themes in subtle form – as still, small whispers.

Whatever the benefits of the latter approach, O’Brien has chosen to shout. One does not have to search far to find classic, even biblical, themes and struggles in his writing – good and evil, light and darkness, Christ and Antichrist, sin and conversion, virtue and vice, utterly good protagonists beset by utterly evil antagonists. Indeed, such dramatic, spiritual tensions are writ large in his works. In this sense, his literary choices are reminiscent of those of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: There is good and there is evil, and there is little doubt where each is to be found.

TJP owes a vote of thanks to Nathan O’Halloran, S.J. for conducting and editing this interview. Nathan is currently in studies at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, CA. He is also an avid O’Brien reader – hence his fittedness for this week’s project.

As always, keep the conversation going. And be sure not to miss an excerpt from O’Brien’s forthcoming novel after the conversation.


Nathan: I first read Father Elijah back when I was in high school.  The word on the street is that you’re writing a sequel?  I’m struck as I think back on that novel, along with the trilogy Strangers and Sojourners, Plague Journal, and Eclipse of the Sun, how apocalyptic and dystopian they are, and how many novels now, whether in the adult genre – such as The Road, Oryx and Crake, even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – or the young adult genre –such as The Hunger Games and Divergent – have profited immensely precisely from their apocalyptic and/or dystopian vision. Why the need for apocalyptic literature?

O’Brien: Only three of my ten published novels deal with apocalyptic themes, and in the sequel I’m now writing, Elijah in Jerusalem, I return to the theme. It has always been my belief that Catholic reflection on “end times” matters should never succumb to the vertigo that seizes many Protestant and New Age writers, in other words, a kind of neo-Gnostic fortune telling. Dipping fictional gnosticism in holy water does not make it Catholic. By contrast, our ponderings and imaginings on the matter should always reflect the balance exhibited by Jesus himself—“No man knows the day or the hour,” and “Stay awake and watch.” My novels ask questions that should be asked by every generation of believers, such as: Are we awake? Are we spiritually prepared, if indeed our times prove to be those predicted by Christ, the prophets, and the apostles? My novels do not try to predict the future. It’s my hope that they evoke increased awareness of certain apocalyptic elements in late-Western civilization, the potential for the spirit of Anti-Christ, which has ever been with us, to move to a new level of total control and unleashed malice against mankind.

Nathan: What is the contribution of dystopian literature to society?

O’Brien: Dystopian novels—one thinks of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World—are valuable contributions to culture, in the sense that they “incarnate” in forms beyond the theoretical the dangers now latent and growing. A civilization that has lost its sense of history and the moral absolutes that are the foundation of any truly human society becomes vulnerable to political manipulation and secular messianism in a multitude of forms. The end result is the dehumanization and destruction of some portion of humanity, and the degradation of us all.

Nathan: Do you see your early novels speaking to something going on in people now that has caused dystopian literature to become so popular?  What are the major shortcomings of the contemporary dystopian genre?

O’Brien: I think the proliferation of disaster films and neo-apocalyptic books and films are expressions of a profound angst, largely subconscious, in contemporary man. They are, I believe, intuitions and intimations of the great drama of unfolding salvation history, including the final battles yet to come. However, modern dystopian fiction (literature and film), almost without exception, posits a truncated version of the dangers and solutions. In short, authority in any form is presented as tragically flawed, and the solution presented is individualism combined with physical powers and, increasingly, distorted supernatural or preternatural powers. We all agree that tyranny is bad, but most people think it will be countered only when we, the “good” people, have enough knowledge and power—power of all kinds. In most story-lines this is usually combined with romance and sexual licentiousness—all the usual clichés about what freedom is. It’s basically an adolescent psychology. It would not stand up against any real tyrant, and surely not an Antichrist.

Nathan: I don’t often see your name on the same lists as Ron Hansen, Alice McDermott, Marilynne Robinson, or even many past Catholic writers such as O’Connor and Waugh. Personally, when I read your novels, I usually think of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, George Orwell and Walter Miller. Among past and current Catholic writers, who do you read most, and who would you say has most influenced your own work? How about non-Catholic authors?  

O’Brien:  Tolkien stands head and shoulders above any contemporary novelist I can think of. I also love Dostoevsky’s work, especially his novel The Idiot and also Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Solzhenitsyn’s novels have strongly influenced me as well, especially his Cancer Ward. To these I would add Dante’s Divine Comedy and Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. In two very different ways, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy have given us fiction that stimulates reflection on the human condition in our times. I have enjoyed the novels of Paul Horgan and Willa Cather, these mid-20th century authors writing in varying degrees of explicitly Catholic consciousness. I would add to this a Catholic novelist now writing in England, Lucy Beckett, whose work is superb and less well known than it should be. Other than that, I’m embarrassed to admit I almost never read contemporary fiction.

Nathan: Your later novels, like Cry of Stone and Island of the World, seem to be much more Odyssey-like in character.  In Island of the World especially, you explicitly reference the Odyssey quite often, especially with the idea of nostos or “homecoming.”  I have to come clean here: I taught freshman Homeric Greek for three years at Jesuit High School in New Orleans, and at the beginning of the year I would always give a now-famous speech (famous within very small circles) about the nostos as the meaning of the Odyssey, and Heaven as the true nostos.  What caused you to move from the earlier apocalyptic/dystopian themes to your later Odyssey homecoming theme?

O’Brien:  That’s a delightful “coincidence.” Your students are blessed to have you as a teacher. I often think about what Pope Benedict said a few years ago to a gathering of European parliamentarians, at a conference in which the undermining of Europe’s Christian foundations was the central theme. He said, “We are losing the basic memory of mankind.”

I believe we are losing understanding of our place in the continuity of time, the flow of mankind’s course through the ages, our connections to the generations that came before us and those yet to be born. If we lose our essential Story, manifested in a myriad of creative forms, then we are less able to know ourselves, both our weakness and our greatness, and our pathway to an eternal home.

Here is where the arts can come to our rescue, if they are true and beautiful and faithful to the moral order of the universe. In presenting human dramas in all their variety, a novelist, for example, can help reveal the actions of divine providence (very present but usually mysterious and hidden from our eyes). In this way a reader or a person listening to a symphony or gazing at a good painting can come to know that he is more than he thinks he is, more than the definitions of man given by ideologues and theorists. A true work of art helps him apprehend, by some interior sense, that while Man is damaged he is not destroyed; he is beautiful and beloved by his Father Creator.

Nathan: I mentioned Ron Hansen earlier, one of my favorite contemporary Catholic authors.  I just happened to read Atticus for the first time right around the same time that I read The Father’s Tale – even though they were written 14 years apart from each other.  Both are retellings of the story of The Prodigal Son.  And both focus on the father leaving home and going to any lengths necessary to find his son, whether in Mexico (Hansen) or England, Russia, China (you).  Had you read Atticus before you wrote The Father’s Tale?  What inspired you to write that story?

O’Brien: I regret I haven’t read any of Ron Hansen’s novels, but I will try to do so. The story of The Father’s Tale came to me as a total surprise many years ago, around 1997-98, at a time when I felt I had written everything I could possibly say. It came nearly full blown in my imagination while I was in prayer, and I continued to pray every day for the co-creative grace for the work, during the research and writing the book. Years of rewriting brought it to publication in 2011. I think it ranks beside Island of the World, which is the best of all my novels, if an author is permitted to say such things.

Nathan: In your opinion, what makes Catholic writing “Catholic”?  Your novels are very explicitly Catholic.  Is this explicitness needed more these days in “Catholic” novels?  Do you mark a difference between fiction inspired by Catholic faith and Catholic fiction? 

O’Brien: You are rightly raising the basic question faced by a person of faith who has received creative gifts: Should his work explore explicitly Christian themes or should they be embedded implicitly? Should he risk being locked into the ghetto if he chooses the explicit? Can he hope to do some good if he chooses the path of implicitness? Will he fail? Will he succeed?

These questions are not the core of the matter. Those who follow Christ should be praying earnestly and discerning carefully whether the Holy Spirit is calling them to the explicit path or to the implicit. In a healthy culture both are needed. However, the near absence of explicit Catholic writing tells us something about ourselves as a people. There are around 70 million baptized Catholics in North America, and yet we can hardly sustain more than a tiny handful of explicitly Catholic fiction writers. Why? What do our Catholic people really value?  “Where your treasure is, there your heart is.”

Nevertheless, this present situation should not be a determining factor in our discernments of personal missio or calling. The problem of possible success or failure is none of our business, if I can put it that bluntly. Our task is to respond to the graces that are given, to work hard, to pray without ceasing, to love. To love the work as a good in itself and to love the souls who may (or may not) read my story or novel some day.  Anything else is God’s business.

Nathan: You say: “The problem of possible success or failure is none of our business.” That sounds a lot like Ignatius’ First Principle and Foundation, or the Second Class of Persons in The Spiritual Exercises, who are called to put aside all ambition for career success in order to focus entirely on being faithful to following Christ.

O’Brien:  In my own “career” as a Catholic writer, there was a gap of nineteen years between the writing of my first novel and the publication of my first book. It was a hard testing, but also a necessary one–a process of purifying motives and vision. For the younger generation of Catholic writers there will probably not be such a long “desert” to cross, though the principles remain the same for us all: We must love and be faithful to truth. And we must always keep in mind that pride and ambition – even striving to make oneself a success in the world’s terms “for the sake of the Kingdom” – are poison. Poison for the soul and mind, and poison for the works of art God desires to be brought into the world as a new created “being,” a living logos that is for the purpose of bearing good fruit. This fruit can be lost if the young writer does not understand the times, the temptations, and the terrain that he must cross.

Nathan: There is an ongoing conversation between authors and critics as to how Catholic writers fit in with wider culture. In general, all seem to agree that Catholic writers now are just not making as broad an impact on society as past giants. In your mind, what are the challenges and opportunities that face Catholic writers in making a broad impact on wider culture? Do you think there’s any difference when we consider different English-speaking cultures – between a Catholic writer in the U.S. versus in your native Canada or elsewhere?

O’Brien: It’s true that we are not making as broad an impact as we did when society was more or less Christian, at a time when pseudo culture had not yet begun to flood and addict the modern imagination. At the same time, I believe that our present milieu offers opportunities for the creation of great works of art that would not be created in easier times. A time of crisis is always a test of character. Many fail the test, but magnificent phenomena can arise in precisely the time and place where we think it’s impossible for it to happen. Such phenomena are gifts from above, a great grace, mediated through human nature. They are signs in the desert of our age, pointing the way to the eternal promised land.

Creators and critics need to remind themselves that the crucial question is the good or excellence of the work of art. And we must be very good in these times, if we hope to speak to the modern imagination and evoke awareness of the inexhaustible beauty of mankind and the universe, and of the metaphysical.

Yes, the resistance to the Catholic vision entering the mainstream does vary from country to country. I think that the United States is large enough, and has enough resources, and has such a long tradition of freedom of expression, that your opportunities are far greater than in many a nation where an imposed social revolution controls nearly all organs of public and commercial “culture.” I am not speaking about overt tyrannies here, but rather about my own nation, Canada,  and most of western Europe

Having said this, I believe that our God is a God of surprises. Jesus is the Master of the Impossible.

Nathan:  In his piece The Catholic Writer Today in First Things Magazine, Dana Gioia observes: “There is so much Catholic literary talent—creative, critical, and scholarly—but most of it seems scattered and isolated. It lacks a vital sense of cultural community—specifically, a conviction that together these individuals can achieve meaningful change in the world. If Catholic literati can recapture a sense of shared mission, the results would enlarge and transform literary culture.”  Your thoughts on the fractured nature of the Catholic writing community?

O’Brien:  Though Catholic novelists certainly feel isolated and overwhelmed at times, we need to understand that discouragement is a temptation. Both anger and discouragement arise whenever we have desired the blessings of God more than what He desires to teach us—and do through us.  Most of all we need to take confidence in the graces combined with the creativity we’ve been given. It has been given from above, and for a purpose. It would not have been given if fruitfulness were impossible. Moreover, there are very many gifted people doing what we do, more and more, especially among the young.

Our influence is the kind that is real and profound. Which is to say that our creative works help to enrich the lives of others one by one, person by person. It’s the slow method but the authentically human one.

Nathan:  To quote Angela Alaimo O’Donnell in a recent America magazine article about Gioia, do you feel as a writer that you “participate in a small Catholic subculture that has little impact on literary life,” or you do you feel that there is a growing Catholic community of writers or a growing Catholic literary culture that is a viable challenge to the reigning secular religion of therapeutic humanism? 

O’Brien: While few in number compared to secular humanist fiction writers (in their myriad manifestations of tragically stunted anthropology and cosmology), Catholic writers by contrast live in a bigger universe. Moreover, we belong to a communio, united in the Body of Christ. It is a mistake on every level to see ourselves as isolated partisans shrinking in number and influence in a losing war. That is simply not the case. Catholicism is not a numbers game; its “success” can never be properly measured by statistics or polls.


From Michael D. O’Brien’s novel Voyage to Alpha Centauri. The following is a transcript from a meeting onboard the starship Kosmos between Dr. Elif Larson, Director of Social Infrastructure (state security), and Dr. Neil de Hoyos, the central character of the novel. Dr. Hoyos has been alerting passengers to the fact that a crew member who unmasked secret surveillance is now missing.

Elf: Listen to me, Hoyos, and listen carefully. I will not permit your delusions to disrupt life on board this ship. Your hallucinations are becoming very destructive.
Me: Arbeit macht frei?
Elf: What?
Me: An old saying, made popular by another group of social facilitators.
Elf: You think you’re funny do you? Why don’t you grow up? Why do you go about the ship playing games like an adolescent who never matured properly? That ridiculous costume you wear, your cultural idiosyncrasies, your pathetic conspiracy theories—it’s all an act. But now the act is getting worse and harming other people. If you don’t—
Me: The costume and the idiosyncrasies are just a bit of fun, Elf. You should lighten up a little.
Elf: Stop calling me Elf, you moron! If you think your Nobel prize is going to protect you—
Me: Protect me from what, Elf?
Elf [growling in a very aggressive manner]: Stop calling me Elf.
Me: Actually two Nobel prizes.
[Ay, ay, ay, caramba! Elf now proves himself capable of extremely crude language. We shall pass on quickly.]
Me: I’m not banking on my prizes, Dr. Larson. I have a bad taste in my mouth from the last time I visited Stockholm. My acceptance speech—
Elf: Yes, yes, I read your acceptance speech.
Me: Of course you would have. It would be in my Security dossier. Somewhat problematic, that speech, wasn’t it?
Elf: One of the greatest errors Security ever made was permitting you to be aboard this ship. Your speech in Stockholm—
Me: Did you read the original Spanish?
Elf: I read the English, the Swedish, and the Norwegian versions of that drivel—that political drivel.
Me: I found it so informative, so revealing, that all translations, all transcripts (save my paper original), had altered my words. Did you know that? You probably don’t realize that I stated very clearly—
Elf: The stench of paranoia came through clearly enough. Don’t repeat it.
Me: I said, “Contemporary civilization is poised on the brink of a quantum leap in science, precisely at the time of history when we have regressed to sophisticated barbarism in the realm of ethics. Our civilization is based upon, and prospers by, legalized murder on a global scale.”
Elf: Ridiculous. You never said that. And even if you had said something like that, it would prove my point that you are both irresponsible and irrational.
Me: You may recall that they translated the sentence to read as follows: “Contemporary civilization is poised on the brink of a quantum leap in science, having transcended the unethical behavior of the past. Our civilization has overcome through global efforts the barbarian tendency to genocide.” There’s a name for that kind of translation, Dr. Larson.
Elf: Oh, really? And what name is that?
Me: It’s called lying. It’s also character theft.
[He snorts, followed by silence and scowls of professional disgust.]
Me: Push the record button again, Elf, there are a few more things I’d like to say.
[He does not comply.]
Me: A civilization that destroys tens of millions of children annually, confiscates about as many from their parents, enforces sterilization and other punitive measures—well, wouldn’t you say that such a civilization suffers from a very deadly fixation? So what’s one janitor more or less, right?
[He leans forward and taps the button. When he speaks, his voice is the quintessence of kindness and rationality.]
Elf: Dr. Hoyos, the Department is very concerned about your health. I must ask you to reconsider your recent behavior, which I regret to say, has had a disruptive and depressing effect on some of the expedition members.
Me: I can’t stop being who I am, Dr. Larson. And why don’t you disclose where David—
[His voice drowns me out:]
Elf: Dr. Hoyos, much as I respect your achievements in science—your very great achievements—you are suffering from delusions, sir. It is with considerable personal pain that I must ask you to cease spreading these ugly insinuations. Your increasing habit of instability is jeopardizing the mission to AC-A-7.
[He taps the button. We’re now off. He’s fuming through his nostrils, his lips so tight they’re turning blue. He says:]
Elf: If I hear one more word from you, either today or in the future, or learn about any act or any utterance which even hints at a recurrence of your insane pranks, I will mandate that you be held under sedation in a medical ward for the remainder of the voyage. I cannot afford madmen to roam loose on this ship. Do you understand me?”
Me: I’m rational enough to understand you completely, Elf. Completely. Why don’t you just erase me too?
Elf: Don’t push me, Hoyos. I will do exactly what I said I will do, if you don’t shut up. Beginning now.
Me: [silence]
Elf: Now, get out.
[I got out.]