A Writer’s Flashback: My 2005 Interview with Father Andrew Greeley

“The purpose of story is to illuminate.”

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I interviewed author Father Andrew Greeley, along with nearly 75 other creatives, for a motivational non-fiction book, How to Survive a Day Job. My intent with the book was simple: I would interview a number of successful writers, actors, and others who have worked in a given creative arts field, to motivate those of us who had not yet attained our own artistic career goals.

The original introduction to Father Greeley’s 2005 interview follows …

Father Andrew Greeley is the author of over fifty bestselling novels, and one hundred works of nonfiction. His latest novel, the much-anticipated “The Priestly Sins,” is presently in bookstores.

In the Spring of 2004, Father Greeley celebrated his fiftieth year as a priest. One of the more decorated Catholic thinkers of the modern era, he pens a weekly column for the “Chicago Sun-Times” and is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Arizona.

Father Greeley’s philanthropy is legendary. In 1984, he contributed a one million dollar endowment to establish a chair in Roman Catholic Studies at the University of Chicago. In 1986, he founded the Catholic Inner-City School Fund, providing scholarships and financial support to schools in the Chicago Archdiocese with a minority student body of more than fifty percent. He also funds an annual lecture series, “The Church in Society,” at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois.

Father Greeley:

I was born in the west side of Chicago just before the Great Depression, and went through a Catholic grammar school, a Catholic seminary … was ordained in 1954. I was sent to the University of Chicago in 1960 to get a doctorate, and I’ve been at the University ever since. I also teach. For twenty-five years I’ve taught here at the University of Arizona in the winter semester.

I’m writing about what we sociologists would call the final stage of the acculturation process of the Catholic immigrants. The history of my people are all in the upper middle professional class, but they’re still pretty much Irish and Italian and Polish, and so it’s something that my sociology has helped me to think through.

The character of Blackie Ryan has appeared in many of my books. Like Venus he emerged fully created in my imagination. I didn’t have to wonder about who he was or what he was or what he did. It was all there. And that’s the way I think characters appear in novels. For a moment, your imagination sort of freezes and there is this person, and he becomes part of the story.

My first professional ambition was to be a good priest.

I developed as a sociologist a theory that religion was story before it was anything else, and then after, it was everything else. It occurred to me that the popular novel might be a way of telling stories roughly parallel to the stained glass windows in the Middle Ages. I started to write stories to test the hypothesis that you could teach religion or illuminate religion, I prefer to say that than teach, because you can’t educate people with novels … I wanted to test that hypothesis, and it seems to have worked out.

So, the purpose of story is to illuminate. You can’t indoctrinate or educate people with stories but you can invite them into the world of story, and hope that they go out of that world when they finish with the story with enhanced possibilities for their lives.

It is not easy to earn a living by being a writer. It is very, very difficult. The writing industry is a crazy one. And unless a person has a little bit more freedom than someone with familial responsibilities and a full-time job, they’d better have an awful lot of talent. They may dream of being a writer. Lots of people do. But they may not have the ability to be a writer. If they do have a lot of ability then they can squeeze out stories, I think, in their spare time.

Dealing with people in an intimate way as a priest does, you learn a lot about human nature, but then when you try to use that insight into human nature to create characters in the stories, you also learn a lot more about the people you’re working with. There’s a reciprocal causality doing that. A reciprocal causality …

When do I have time to sleep? Well, I think that’s there are two answers for that question. One is celibacy and the other is glib Irishman. I mean, I can talk and write very quickly. The stories just flow on my computer. I just don’t have a family to worry about.

Father Greeley passed away on May 29, 2013. I only hope his words live on …

Thank you for reading.

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Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and producer. The Oscar in the profile pic isn’t his but he’s scheming. WGA and Pen America member.

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