Ordained to Write: An Interview with Frederick Buechner

Article excerpt

FREDERICK BUECHNER, 76, is a Presbyterian, but he attends an Episcopal church. He's ordained, but he's never been a parish minister. His first book (A Long Day's Dying) was not supposed to sell many copies, but it turned out to be the only best seller of the 32 books he's published. In fact, this novel held such promise that some predicted he would become the next Henry James. Instead, he's carved out his own un usual literary niche, including memoirs, theological writings and fiction, developing a loyal following along the way.

Here's another contradiction: he doesn't consider himself an evangelical Christian, yet evangelicals love his writing. The evangelical Wheaton (Illinois) College, in fact, has become the repository for his papers; they reside alongside those of Madeleine L'Engle, not far from the Billy Graham Center, which honors the figure with which Wheaton is most closely associated.

"I'm a Christian writer in the sense that somebody from this country is an American writer; it's no more complicated or sinister than that," Buechner says of himself.

His latest book is Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say) (HarperSan Francisco),just out in paperback. It reflects on life's most perplexing questions as raised by some of the writers who mean most to Buechner: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain, G. K. Chesterton and William Shakespeare, whom he classifies as "vein-opening writers" because they pour their own life into their writings.

I recently spoke with Buechner when he was in Chicago on a speaking engagement.

In a number of your writings you've discussed your father's suicide and your daughter's struggle with anorexia. Why disclose those family secrets?

My father's suicide was the formative moment of my life. When I wrote that first memoir (A Sacred Journey), I wondered: how did I get to be who I am? How did I get to be a minister, having grown up in a family that had no connection to the church? I looked back for signposts, for whispers from the wings; and one of the events that became most vividly alive was my father's suicide, which has a great deal to do with everything I've become. It happened when I was ten years old, 65 years ago. I still live with it every day of my life. So writing about my father's suicide was an attempt to understand myself.

My daughter's anorexia was one of the most horrific things, and yet in the long run one of the most grace-filled things, in my life. She came so close to death that the hospital called saying if they didn't feed her through a tube she would die. Her meddling, loving, caring, trying-to-fix-everything-up father was 3,000 miles away. I was so much a part of her problem. Then she joined AA, because her illness involved drinking, and AA gave her a leg up out of the abyss. She's now become my role model. She's married, has three children and was ordained to congregational ministry not long ago.

Isn't there a chance that in telling family secrets you risk breaking a sacred trust with family members?

I asked permission of my daughter. I didn't try to tell her story, I simply shared the effect it had on me. My mother was angry that I wrote about my father's suicide, even though the first time I told about it was in a very disguised form in a novel (The Return of Ansel Gibbs). But I think it was just as much my story to tell as it was hers not to tell. It's very healing to write about it; you can't keep a thing like that bottled up.

In your latest book, Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say), you start out with Red Smith's observation that writing is very easy: you just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein. Do you consider yourself a vein-opening writer?

Yes, I'm writing out of my passion, my sense of wholeness and despair. I'm writing out of the deepest parts of who I am as a human being.

In your nonfiction you are very much in touch with your inner life and you allow yourself to be very transparent--a rare quality in men. …