Flannery O’Connor turned her keen observation of Southern life into transcendent tales of the human condition. In the biographical children’s story The Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor, author Amy Alznauer says that at an early age, O’Connor trained her sight on the birds in the backyard of her childhood home in Savannah. As she fancied ever-more exotic birds on the family farm, Andalusia, in Milledgeville, the peacock became a totem for O’Connor’s spiritual search for meaning.
Daniel McDonald: In the author's note of your book, you describe childhood as “the place where our deepest work begins.” How do you explore that idea through the life of author Flannery O'Connor?
Amy Alznauer: Well, I think something that a lot of people don't know about Flannery O'Connor is that she was an avid author and illustrator, even when she was a very young child.
So, she began life from a very young age, maybe three, four or five, drawing all the time. Biographers describe her room as being littered with her sketches, and she then began writing stories and wrote so many stories that she drove her teachers crazy with all of her stories about birds and geese, chickens.
And so, I think about so many famous people whose lives I have explored at various times. And you see that in retrospect, looking back, you can see who they were already present in their fascinations and their predilections and their obsessions in what they spent their time doing.
So, I think it gives us a vision of childhood. We take it more seriously. The work children are doing, even if it seems in the form of a game, is actually serious work.
The work children are doing, even if it seems in the form of a game, is actually serious work.
Daniel McDonald: The book really looks at her relationship with birds. Did you gain any insights into Flannery O'Connor's relationships with the birds that she had or with what she saw in the birds that she surrounded herself with?
Amy Alznauer: Flannery just had an obsession with them from a very young age. And not only was she interested in birds, but she was very particularly interested in strange birds. She wanted ones with one green eye and one orange, with long necks.
But she was just obsessed with these birds from a very young age. [And] that continued on into her adulthood, [when] she eventually found the peacock. Not only did she see divinity in the peacock's tail and the eyes of the peacock, but she saw Revelation, which became a real symbol in a lot of her books.
Peacocks actually show up in a lot of her books. So you see this continuity from her childhood. And I think that quest mirrors, very closely, her similar quest to write the strangest, most beautiful story.
Daniel McDonald: And of course, Flannery O'Connor is a writer who has been much thought of—even obsessed about. Was there any danger in taking that journey with this beloved author?
Amy Alznauer: Yes, I definitely think that's true. And to me, the biggest risk was making it hagiography, right?
Turning her into kind of a saint and just writing from that perspective rather than really bringing vision to it. And that's one of the reasons why I was so happy that the illustrator, Ping Zhu, that was chosen by my press was chosen — because she's not a Flannery O'Connor insider. So, I think she was able to bring such a fresh vision to Flannery O'Connor's life.
Daniel McDonald: And might you use words to evoke what you see in these lush illustrations that Ping Zhu contributed to your book?
Amy Alznauer: I think she captures the strangeness, the darkness, the humor, the hilarity — all of which is so present in Flannery O'Connor’s work.
But she did it with a fresh vision. So, you get not only these birds in their funniest, most bizarre form early on. I think that will make children laugh out loud at one point.
There's this little bird poking its head up through a window, watching Flannery O'Connor read to her friends when she's little. And then later, you have the peacocks spreading its tail, which Ping Zhu does in the most glorious way.
So, you really get that sense of the transcendent vision.
Daniel McDonald: Who is the person that you are celebrating through this book on Flannery O'Connor?
Amy Alznauer: I am celebrating the person that had a vision—a vision that began when she was a very young child and continued throughout her life. As Flannery O'Connor would say, she is a realist of distances. She was somebody who saw into the distance.
But what was absolutely important to her was to have the concrete, first and foremost. So you always have that delightful engagement with the feelings of the people. The dialect, the roads, the descriptions of the places they lived, their physical being, et cetera.
We're always so tangibly immersed in a world. And then beyond that, she uses that world to get to something beyond existential reality, a spiritual reality, reality that asks deep questions about who we are as humans, what the meaning of life is, where we are headed, why we are here.
That is who I’m celebrating, somebody who is able to come in to her own by following her vision. And the vision was this incredibly beautiful one.