Long before there was an Anne Lamott, a Rob Bell or a Brian McLaren there was a pioneer already shaping their genre of spiritual memoir: Frederick Buechner.
Buechner carved out this niche with such understated style and grace that many of those who say they love his work are barely aware of the entire range of his literary skills. He has written some of the 20th Century’s best spiritual memoirs, but he also has produced sophisticated fiction, expert literary analysis and theological dictionaries!
He has even written sermons so memorable that people pay good money to buy them in book form – and that’s a feat that few pastors will achieve.
In a word, he is: Good.
He’s so good that The New York Times Review of Books pays attention to his works, even though the Times seems unaware of most other religious publishing.
So, when Dale Brown released his recent book about the life and letters of Frederick Buechner, called “The Book of Buechner,” well, that’s an ambitious project that few of us would want to tackle. It’s a salute to Brown that, when I telephoned Buechner in his Vermont home and spent an hour in the following conversation with him, the 81-year-old writer said that he likes what Brown has written about him.
Buechner rarely tours anymore, so this is an exceptional opportunity to hear from him. Here are excerpts from my Conversation With Frederick Buechner:
BUECHNER: I’m glad you called. I was sitting here, between writing and reading at the moment, and was I just thinking: What shall I do next? This is a perfect time for a conversation.
CRUMM: Good to speak with you again, too. And, first, I want to ask you about this new book by Dale Brown. I know that you wrote the Foreward to Dale’s book, but I’d like to hear more about what you really thought as you read his book about you.
You’ve written so many books yourself, over the years — about two dozen of them in all — that people who want to introduce themselves to your work these days may start by picking up Dale’s book.
So, tell us — beyond what you say in the book’s Foreward — what do you really think about the book?
BUECHNER: Well, you have to imagine how a man might read a book about himself. My main and burning interest was: Did he have it right?
I mean, I read the book with such burning interest that my fingers were trembling.
I wanted to know the answer, too: Did he get my life and my books right?
And, after reading it, I think he does have it right.
CRUMM: His “Book of Buechner” starts with your first novel, “A Long Day’s Dying,” which you say in your Foreward sort of embarrasses you. You compare that first novel to “hanging my baby pictures in the front hall.” So, where do you suggest that readers should start with your work?
BUECHNER: I usually suggest a little book called “Listening to Your Life,” because it’s a daily collection of short pieces. It’s a sampling of all the books I’ve ever written. There’s something to read every day of the year, so I think that might catch readers’ interest in the other books I’ve written. They may see a little something that they like and want to read more. I like that idea.
But it depends on whether people like novels or nonfiction. That matters in deciding where they should start.
Recently, I’ve been giving people copies of, “On the Road of the Archangel,” because it seems to me to be accessible and funny in parts. Then, I think that if I had to name a book that I feel closest to, of course I would say “Godric.” That’s because “Godric” was so useful to me in the writing of it. Godric was a very comforting and healing figure for me.
CRUMM: How about your own tastes? Which of your books do you enjoy picking up again?
BUECHNER: Most of the time, I’ll pick up one of my books and sort of leaf through it. I won’t read the whole thing. But, “The Eyes of the Heart,” which is a memoir that talks about a lot of people I’ve loved throughout my life, is important to me. My grandmother appears in the book. I don’t mean that I thought of her actually as a ghost appearing to me as I wrote it or as I read it now. But, in the book, she appears many years after her death and says some very interesting things about her life and death. Of course, I put those words into her mouth in the book, but they come from her life, and she is someone I loved, so I enjoy picking up that book again.
CRUMM: Is there anything you’ve written that you avoid these days?
BUECHNER: Well, you mentioned the novel, “A Long Day’s Dying.” I look back on those first two or three novels with a certain degree of horror, because I was so young. I was only 20 and still at Princeton when I started, “A Long Day’s Dying.” I don’t think I’ll ever sit down and read it from start to finish again. Picking it up is like finding a letter you wrote when you were 16 years old. You feel: My God, how could I have been so young!
I don’t want to dishonor those early books because there were some good things in them, but those certainly were written when I didn’t know as much as I know now.
CRUMM: But you obviously had so much fun with “The Book of Bebb” novels in the 1970s. Those were witty and wise and Leo Bebb was such an unpredictable fellow. I still remember scenes from the Bebb stories. I can still close my eyes and picture Bebb’s little assistant, Brownie.
BUECHNER: Oh, yes. I don’t think anything I wrote gave me so much pleasure in the writing as those stories did. I loved writing them. I feared I would get run over by a truck before I could finish them! That’s how eager I was to write those books. Bebb was a life-giver for me.
CRUMM: As we’ve followed your memoirs through the years, clearly your family also is an important source of life and creativity for you. Tell me a little about your family these days.
BUECHNER: I have three children. They range from my daughter who was born in 1964, my middle one born in 1960 and my oldest born in 1959. Fortunately for me, they all live in New England and I can see them quite often. Equally important, they all had children, so I have nine grandsons and one granddaughter and we see them a fair amount. And that is the best thing in my life right now.
CRUMM: Do your three children talk with you about your books –- and what they say about you and their family? You’ve written some wonderful things, but you’ve also written about some tragedies like the suicide of your father.
BUECHNER: My children and my books — that’s a curious subject to me. I always say to my children: “I know perfectly well you’ve never read anything I’ve written!” And they say, “Of course, we have!” But this is curious to me: I don’t think I’ve ever had a discussion with any one of them about any one of the books.
But then, in a way, I understand this. One doesn’t want to know too much about one’s parents. They remain in some sense the pillars of your world, the gods of your pantheon and to know too much about them might somehow threaten that role, so I sympathize with my children. But, I’ve written so many autobiographical books that I do think that, someday, they may pick up those books and think to themselves: I wonder what he thought about this or that, perhaps what he thought about my great grandmother or someone else in the family.
It’s a curious subject to me – and I don’t know too much about it. I can’t remember there ever being a conversation with them about my books.
CRUMM: You’ve written about your family quite a bit, though. You wrote about your daughter in “Telling Secrets.” I think that’s one of your most powerful books. I’ve bought copies of that book to give to friends over the years. It has helped me and a lot of other people, too.
BUECHNER: Thank you for recommending my books. Yes, I did include a daughter in that book, but I did it without naming which daughter was involved, so that gave them some anonymity. And that’s the only time I recall really writing in any depth about one of them. I wrote in that book about the one who almost died because of anorexia. And, I did ask her ahead of time before I did that.
CRUMM: You’ve written a number of times about your life-long love of the Wizard of Oz books by L. Frank Baum and other writers. You’ve described your collection of first editions of the books and how much they meant in your own childhood. Is Oz something you shared with your children?
BUECHNER: Yes, but they were never as interested as I was.
As a child, those stories were my refuge. There were so many disturbing things in my childhood: the Depression, my father looking for one job after another and then drinking too much and having an unhappy family and so on. And I had respiratory problems and was in bed a lot of the time.
I lived in Oz more than in whatever house we were living in at the time. Now, I have the books still with me in different rooms in my house. They’re all around me, still.
CRUMM: I have loved reading your pieces that touch on Oz over the years. I read the L. Frank Baum Oz novels, start to finish, to our children and then went on to the Ruth Plumly Thompson novels about Oz after that.
BUECHNER: Good for you. You know, so many people have no idea that there’s anything other than the first novel. I remember reading reviews of that movie they made some years ago, “Return to Oz,” I think it was, and the reviewers even got it all wrong.
CRUMM: You mean that movie back in the 1980s with Fairuza Balk as Dorothy?
BUECHNER: Yes. And I remember a review that treated the film as though someone had added something to the original Oz story. They didn’t seem to be aware of the other novels. In fact, that movie was put together from the novels that followed the first one. I wish people would rediscover those books.
CRUMM: So, what do you enjoy reading when you step out of Oz?
BUECHNER: Many things. The religious writer who I feel has given me the most tremendous benefit from his books is Marcus Borg. He has written about the New Testament in ways that are meaningful and affirming and encouraging to me. Especially his book, “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.” That’s one thing I should do: tell Marcus Borg how deeply indebted I am to him for his marvelous books.
CRUMM: Well, by coincidence, I’m talking to him soon. I’ll tell him.
BUECHNER: Oh, please do.
CRUMM: I know you that, actually, you love many other writers, as well. You’ve written a book analyzing the works of Shakespeare and Mark Twain and G.K. Chesterton. You keep saying, throughout your works, that you see common connections in all of these seemingly very different stories.
BUECHNER: It’s more powerful than that, in a way: Every life tells the same story, I believe.
Once, I experienced this on stage with my friend Maya Angelou. We were scheduled to appear on the same stage somewhere and the plan was that, first, I told my story and, I think, they also had me read from one of my memoirs.
Then the man who introduced me came out again and introduced her. And he said, “It’s hard to imagine two people with more different stories than our two speakers tonight.”
I thought he was right. When I thought of Maya, I thought: No one superficially could be more different from me. I’m a man; she’s a woman. She’s black; I’m white. She grew up in the worst redneck period of life in the South; I grew up in the North in a home with relative advantages.
But, when she came out, the first thing she said was: “No, you’re wrong. I have exactly the same story to tell.”
She was right about that.
Not only do we all have our stories of ups and downs, nightmares and high hopes in our lives. It’s more than that. We all really have the same story only with minor variations. That’s the point of being a memoirist: You’re not only telling your own story; you’re telling everybody’s story and giving them another handle to hold onto their lives.
AND, with that exchange, we will take a break in our Conversation. We touched on one final subject before we finished our call that evening: the spirituality of aging. It’s a subject we plan to explore in occasional stories over the next year at ReadTheSpirit, so stay tuned.
Buechner, as usual, had some remarkable things to say about the aging process. So, please continue on to Part 2 of our interview for more on that.