Interview with Michael O’Brien in the journal Katolicki tjednik, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, November 19, 2008 issue.
VJERA JE TEMELJ SVEMU by Bojana Dukic
Can you introduce our readers to your novel “Island of the World”?
O’Brien: The Island of the World [Otok Svijeta] is the story of a child born in 1933 into the turbulent world of the Balkans, and tracing his life into the third millennium. The central character is Josip Lasta, the son of an impoverished school teacher in a remote village high in the mountains of the Bosnia-Herzegovina interior (a fictional village named Rajska Polja). As the novel begins, World War II is underway and the entire region of Yugoslavia is torn by conflicting factions: German and Italian occupying armies, and the rebel forces that resist them — the fascist Ustashe, Serb nationalist Chetniks, and Communist Partisans. As events gather momentum, hell is unleashed, and the young and the innocent are caught in the path of great evils. Their only remaining strength is their religious faith and their families.
The story takes place in the Balkans. What inspired you to situate the novel in this place?
O’Brien: The seed of the novel was planted several years ago, in 1995, when I was writing my novel, “Father Elijah” [Posljednja vremena]. Without warning, a fictional character appeared in my imagination, though he was one I had not expected, named Brother Jakov, a Franciscan friar who had survived terrible experiences during the war of independence, 1991 – 1995. Years later, my books were translated into several foreign languages, among them Croatian. The publisher Verbum in Split, in conjunction with the Catholic apostolate MI, sponsored my visit to Croatia, where I gave several talks throughout the country. That was the first of four journeys I have made to the Balkan region. As I heard more and more stories told to me by Croats in both Croatia and Bosnia i Herzegovina, I began to realize that an enormous catastrophe had occurred here—more terrible and more significant than we in the West realized. I had read much about it, of course, but I learned that the media of Europe and North America had not really seen beneath the surface. I began to understand that the situation was more than a geo-political crisis, more than the horror of genocide. I saw it as a spiritual crisis that had consequences for the whole world. In prayer it came to me that I must tell this story in a way that people of the nations outside former-Yugoslavia would come to a deeper understanding. Readers would then see that your sufferings are representative of the cosmic war that will continue until the end of time—and is a warning about what will come to all the world, if mankind does not repent of its sins.
Your novel “Father Elijah – An Apocalypse” at the end seems unfinished, and readers can feel that soon they will be able to read the second part of this novel. Do you plan writing a second part and when? What happens to Father Elijah in the second part?
O‘Brien: I have no inner “yes” from the Holy Spirit to write a sequel to the novel. There is very little in my mind about a possible story, though sometimes I think about it. The ending of Father Elijah was intentional. I did not want to do what so many apocalyptic writers do. I wanted to avoid being a kind of “fortune-teller” who would predict future events, which is not truly a Christian approach to the Apocalypse. I ended the novel with the long quotation from the 10th and 11th chapters of Revelation, which is about the Two Witnesses who will testify against the Antichrist. I want to raise questions in the mind of my readers, not to supply easy answers. Above all, I hope to return them to reading the true source of wisdom for these times, the sacred scriptures.
Reading your novels, readers can get impressions that your primary theme is apocalypse. Can you tell us why?
O’Brien: I have written nine novels, and only three of them deal overtly with apocalyptic themes. However, it is my personal sense (and belief) that we are now living in a definitive stage of the events prophesied in the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse), and in Christ’s warnings about the end times in the Gospels, and also the Book of Daniel and the letters of St. Peter, St. Paul and St. John. This subject is vast and complex. Perhaps it is enough to say that the Church teaches we have been living in the “final hour” or “last days” ever since the time of Jesus’s ascension into heaven. Yet the final battle, which is also the worst the followers of Jesus will pass through, is yet to come. I encourage people to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 675.
Where did you find inspiration for your writing?
O’Brien: The inspiration for my novels always seems to come as I am praying, sometimes when I am not even thinking about writing. Often it has come after receiving Holy Communion. I think it is because during those moments my mind is quiet, and my heart and soul are wide open to receive a grace. Sometimes a novel is born as an interior image I see in prayer, and a story grows up around it. With others, such as Fr. Elijah, it was almost fully formed in a moment. Island of the World was much like that too.
Can you describe the way you make one of your novels?
O’Brien: I write intuitively, with only a general outline of the plot. I do not construct it like a mechanism, but rather I cooperate with a grace to make it grow organically. As the story materializes in my imagination I let the grace or inspirations flow out onto the paper, and then I edit them carefully. Writing is a hard labour that demands strict discipline and developed craftsmanship. It cannot be only skill, or only inspiration. It should be both. But prayer and a full sacramental life integrates the process. I pray very much throughout the time I am writing a book and during the later editing stages. Every day I ask the Holy Spirit for that day’s inspiration, and also a holy angel of inspiration for the particular book I am working on. When I was writing Otok Svijeta, for example, I made novenas to Bl. Alojzije Stepinac, and all the martyrs of the Balkan regions, especially the Franciscan martyrs of Siroki Brijeg. Many living Croats were also praying for me during the writing of this novel.
Can you tell us how much your personal faith influences your writing?
O’Brien: My Catholic faith is the foundation of everything. Faith is more than an intellectual assent to doctrine. Of course it is that, but Jesus also desires the transformation of every aspect of one’s personhood, including heart, mind, soul, spiritual life, and creative gifts.
When did you decide to write about religious themes?
O’Brien: As a young man in my middle twenties. For many years my manuscripts collected rejection letters from secular publishers who told me that the reading public is no longer interested in Christian themes. They liked my writing and told me they would publish my novels if I cut the Christian faith out of them. I refused and remained unpublished for almost 20 years. It took a little time for me to realize that I had been told a colossal lie about no one being interested in the Faith. We in the West are in the grip of a merciless cultural revolution that tries to lock authentic Catholic culture inside a ghetto, rarely (if ever) permitting us to surface in the mainstream. I realized that this was totalitarianism in a soft costume, and decided to refuse to cooperate with its rules. I kept on painting and writing Christian themes, even though it appeared to be “hopeless”. I struggled to keep on trusting that divine providence would open doors, and little by little the Lord did open doors. There were many hard years, and in some ways it is still very difficult to survive in this work. But God provides. If we keep trusting Him and let him shape us, He will provide all that is necessary for the fulfillment of our missions in life.
Why did you choose religious themes?
O’Brien: I hope you can see me smile as I say, “Why does a person fall in love?”
What goals are you trying to achieve with your writing?
O’Brien: In the core of my soul is a desire to tell a story that will move the hearts and open the eyes of others to the splendid beauty of existence, and the eternal value of each human life. I hope the readers will see how beloved they are in the eyes of God, even with our weakness and wounds and sins. I hope most of all that readers will come away from my books healed in some way of the terrible demonic lie of our times, which tells us God is absent and that our sufferings are meaningless. I pray that my work is an instrument of hope for others, so they will see the greatness of their own personal stories, their own lives.
Today, in this our world, it seems that Catholic books are pushed to the edge of popularity. What do you think about this problem and why is like that?
O’Brien: We must understand that this injustice is a major part of the spiritual battle between good and evil in our times. Culture exercises very great power in shaping human perceptions and moral conscience, and also our actions. Culture has become the primary battle-front of the war for souls. For this reason, we must never give up. Please may I say it again: We must NEVER give up, never stop responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Many souls depend upon our fidelity.
Can you tell us, from your point of view, if future seems good for Catholic writers?
O’Brien: The world is changing rapidly, and the times are increasingly anti-Christian. We cannot presume that our fidelity to grace, and fidelity to the gifts God has given us, will guarantee a secure or comfortable life. But if we are faithful, we can be sure there will be abundant joy, and great fruitfulness for eternity.
All yours novels contain experience of deep human suffering, but at the same time also contain messages of hope and love. Can you say something about that?
O’Brien: Suffering puts us to a test. The most severe suffering tests everything within us. Then we choose. We choose either to turn inward to the darkness of despair, or we look up to the great wounded hands that reach down to embrace us. Mankind very much needs the living Jesus who longs for us to come to him, to open our hearts to him. He is love itself. But love never forces itself upon another. He invites.
In the end, what would you like to say people in Bosnia and Herzegovina?
O’Brien: I thank you for your courage. I thank you for your greatness of soul, because after passing through the most terrible sufferings you are now working with dedication, in very difficult circumstances, to build a society based on Christian and democratic principles. Above all, I thank you for teaching us that it is possible to forgive.
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