The Quality of Our Imaginations
The University Bookman is pleased to present this interview with Gary L. Gregg, II, who holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership at the University of Louisville, where he directs the McConnell Center. He is the author or editor of nine books, including a new series of young adult novels called The Remnant Chronicles. Elsewhere on the site this week we have a review of his new novel, The Iona Conspiracy.
Gary, thanks for joining us. Tell us a little bit about how you came to write The Iona Conspiracy.
In 2003, I led a student trip to Scotland. Upon returning from that trip, the muse inspired me to start a little story relating to the places I visited. It really was a wonderfully unexpected gift: an image, really, that I was drawn to explore in writing. That attempt turned into The Sporran which was published in 2007 (and will be republished in a new edition later this year). My little story about Jacob Boyd opened up a whole new world to me and I knew one story would not do. Though I wrote it so it could stand alone, The Iona Conspiracy is the further unfolding of Jacob Boyd’s connections to “The Remnant” and the ancient treasures of Isildane.
Scotland plays a large role in The Iona Conspiracy, as it did in your earlier novel, The Sporran. What is it about Scotland that fires your imagination?
You are right to say that Scotland fires my imagination. As a Gregg, we trace our ancestry to Clan MacGregor and some old Scot rebels and outlaws from long ago. I am sure having Dr. Kirk as one of my major literary and conservative heroes reinforced my natural instincts to love all things Scottish. My writing, though, all began on that 2003 trip through Scotland. The land, buildings, ruins, and people all struck my imagination. I was particularly taken by Dr. Kirk’s beloved St. Andrews.
Before I started writing, however, I started reading more of Scottish history, literature, lore, and legend. The Celtic and Scottish stories are full of wonderful images, characters, and understandings of the world that I am now trying to bring to the modern audience. I set my latest book on the Island of Iona because that is the sacred place where Saint Columba first brought Christianity to Scotland. That island allowed me to bring in clear Christian themes and stories as well as having tombs of ancient kings, a wonderful Abbey, and the Book of Kells as essential story elements.
How has Russell Kirk and his work informed your narrative style?
I am not sure I understand enough about the craft of writing to say what Kirk has meant for my own style. I have no question that reading Kirk has impacted my writing. I occasionally do find myself using certain phrases or words that strike me as coming from Kirk’s old typewriter in Mecosta.
It is easier to pick out Kirk’s influence on the substance of my writing. Kirk stands as a giant literary influence looming over me and I even occasionally experience moments when he seems to be whispering in my ear. A devotee of Kirk’s writings will find numerous places, I am sure, where I am directly influenced by Dr. Kirk in The Iona Conspiracy. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can give a few clear examples. Where did my character of the Gorgon Frost come from? Undoubtedly it was because I had been reading Kirk’s A Program for Conservatives while I was writing, and he uses the image of the Gorgon to explore the nature of evil through time. In that book he calls out for a modern day Perseus and, well, I give him one. There is a key scene that is inspired by T. S. Eliot through Kirk’s Eliot and his Age. There is a certain “black house” in my book that I hope any reader of Old House of Fear might recognize with its cotters bed and smell of Hebridean salt air.
Kirk stalks about my mind and my imagination with an authority held by no other writer. He has influenced my style, my substance, and the basic atmosphere of my writing. In fact, he is such an important character in my own mind that I made a character that might just resemble him—a teacher at the Iona Academy by the name of Ramos Kirk who goes about quoting Chesterton and cursing the “neoterists and gnostics” of the age.
Any other influences on your work?
I am not sure any of us can untangle the web of influences upon which we rest, much less can a writer. Except for the most pedestrian of pieces, everything we have read probably leaves some kind of imprint on who we are, how we write, what we write about. I’ve been influenced by a lot of writers, I am sure. C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald come most readily to mind. MacDonald, of course, was a major influence on Lewis and, as Lewis claimed, “baptized” his imagination. I first read MacDonald’s Phantastes in Scotland just months before I was inspired to begin writing The Sporran and I am sure it had some level of influence on me.
Lewis has been more direct. I have studied not only his writings but what he said about writing and imagination. His masterful The Abolition of Man helped unlock for me much about the nature and power of the human imagination that I had read about but never really understood in Plato, Burke, Kirk and others. The major book in my mind when I wrote The Iona Conspiracy was Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. Many of the themes relating to art, nature, science, and education probably come directly from that novel. During the last stages of writing that book, I was also reading dystopian literature by Zamyatin, Orwell, and Huxley. They probably left an imprint in those pages.
Of course, I am a child of the modern conservative movement and so everyone from Richard Weaver and Wilmoore Kendall to Mel Bradford and Milton Friedman have left their mark on how I think and what I write about. Living in Kentucky this last decade has also led me to Wendell Berry, a man who I think Russell Kirk would appreciate very much. Indeed, someone should do a joint study on Berry and Kirk someday. Perhaps I have just given myself another project . . .
How has your fiction writing informed your work at the McConnell Center and its mission of developing political leadership? Do you see a connection between what people read and how they lead?
Napoleon once said that it was imagination that ruled the world. I have come to believe this to be true and in many ways it has become the guide to what I do. It is the quality and power of our imaginations that set the parameters of our actions and what we can achieve. Entrepreneurs, statesmen, even advertising agents are great because of the quality of their imaginations. Businesses are not born on spreadsheets, but in people’s imaginations. Statesmen only become worthy of the name if their imaginations are inhabited by great political heroes of the past and if they can love a posterity yet unseen. Our great filmmakers, advertising agents, authors, computer programmers, social activists, entrepreneurs, and military leaders are men and women of imagination. At the McConnell Center I am tasked with nurturing outstanding young leaders for the future of Kentucky and the nation. I think I can do them no better than helping form their imaginations by giving them great works of literature, history, biography, religion, and philosophy to read and discuss.
Through reading we build a storehouse of images, characters, settings, lessons that can later serve, consciously or not, to help guide our actions. We are capable of no more than the pictures in our heads allow us to accomplish. You can look at a political figure’s heroes and tell a lot about how they will act in similar circumstances. To appropriate C. S. Lewis’s phrase, I want to help produce men and women with “chests,” that is, people whose sentiments are properly aligned because of the lessons and exemplars held in their imaginations. Reason cannot rule our basest instincts without the aid of the imagination and the imaginations of those who do not read good literature are withered and unable to assist in this battle for our souls.
So, yes, I think we can tell much about a political leader by the books she has read. I think they have an impact and I think we ignore this link at our peril.
Can you point to any particular example of this link between reading and leadership?
A really great example is George Washington. Since I really started seriously looking at his life in 1999, I have come to admire him more and more with every new aspect of his life I study. If you look at all his letters, diary entries, and documents, the most recurrent literary reference beyond the Bible is to Joseph Addison’s play Cato—A Tragedy. Addison was a very important 17th and 18th century literary and political figure. He first published Cato in 1713 and it became the most popular play in the colonies up through the Revolution. The play is about the final days of the Roman Republic. Caesar has crossed the Rubicon and Cato with the remnant of the Senate and its army have fled to north Africa in an effort to save the republic. Washington was particularly taken by the play and began quoting it in his twenties. He used lines from the play to inspire his troops. He had it enacted during that terrible winter at Valley Forge.
I think the play is foundational to his character in a way few have appreciated. Just one example will do to show what I mean. In March of 1783, Washington was facing a rebellion in his ranks not terribly unlike the one faced by Cato in the play. Inspired by the play, Washington faced down the rebellion with language that seems lifted from Cato himself and ends it with a flourish and a statement that is right out of the play. In putting down the Newburg Conspiracy, Washington saved America for republican government and insured our vital tradition of civilian control of the military. We can be thankful that it was the courageous republican Senator Cato that stalked about in Washington’s imagination and not Caesar!
Russell Kirk once said something to the effect that if young people will not have good literature, they will turn to Mad Ghoul comics, to great detriment to the formation of their moral imagination. What is your assessment of the world of young-adult fiction?
I might surprise you by my answer. I am a writer of young adult fiction who reads very little young adult fiction. I did not grow up as a reader. Then I became a political scientist and discounted the importance of reading fiction of any kind. It was only after years of reading Dr. Kirk and considering what he said about the moral imagination that I started to come around to the essential importance of “story” in our lives. I have since gone back to read George MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien and other classic figures in children’s literature and it has all left me little time for contemporary young adult fiction. That said, I think there is some really excellent work being done—and there is complete trash out there as well.
The Harry Potter phenomenon gripped the world at a time when I was not reading fiction at all. I dismissed it all rather out of hand. I have since become convinced, however, in the real underlying sophistication and good of the J. K. Rowling series. I am also a fan of The Hunger Games (though I have only read the first novel in that series so far), and the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan is well done and brings the Olympic Gods into the world of our children in a way that the average public school kid might never be introduced to at all.
I will say that browsing the young adult bookshelves these days can be a depressing experience. If the covers are indicative of the content, I might be worried about the health of the souls of our older young adults. It seems the formula for selling books to teens these days is to have a sexually suggested black or otherwise very dark cover that introduces them to a taboo world of tattoos and leather and darkness. Since I have not read those books, however, I can’t say if the content lines up with the cover or if the publishers have just figured out a cover formula and stick to it.
I think if Dr. Kirk were writing today, he might reflect that the danger is less Mad Ghoul comics than our children’s imaginations being filled with a toxic brew of video games, movies, television, and the constant bombardments of the influence of other teens through Facebook. “If they will not have good literature, they will turn to Facebook, to the great detriment of the formation of their moral imaginations,” he might say.
Still, there is good work being done and I hope in some small way I can contribute to the formation of a few imaginations that are moral and prepared to deal with the world we inhabit.
Posted: February 27, 2011 in Interviews.
Timothy S. Goeglein