Tuesday, October 01, 2013
Scoop up the ebooks below on sale from $1.99 from participating retailers during October. Click on any cover to learn more about that title.
Rhoda K. Faust is the administrative assistant for the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing. She is the former proprietor of the Maple Street Book Shop, an independent bookstore in New Orleans, Louisiana, founded by her family in 1964. Walker Percy was a frequent visitor of the Maple Street Book Shop; Faust met him when she was a child and maintained a close friendship with him for many years. Recently, she agreed to help Open Road celebrate Percy’s legacy by sharing some of her memories about him and his work. To learn more about Faust, please visit the websites of the Maple Street Book Shop and the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing.
How did you first meet Walker Percy?
I didn’t remember meeting Walker Percy for the first time until he mentioned much later that he particularly remembered the circumstances around his meeting me. He and his wife, Bunt, had invited my family to their house in Covington to go on a picnic... with Walker’s brother Phin, (through whom my father, Dick Faust, met Walker), his family, and some Covington friends of the Percys. Walker was a doctor, as was my father, who was a surgeon and rather strict and obsessive. He used to go on Catholic retreats at Manresa with Walker, Phin, and some other friends. My mother later confirmed Walker’s memory that I was about six or seven years old when we first met, because she remembered that my little brother, Robbie, was in a basket on the beach at the picnic.
When we arrived at the Percys’, Walker said that he answered the door and that one of the first things that happened is that my father asked me if I’d brushed my teeth that morning. When I said no, I had not, my father asked Walker if he’d let me use some toothpaste so I could “brush” my teeth with my finger. Walker said sure and led me to the guest bathroom and gave me some toothpaste.
After Walker told me this story about thirty years later, I asked him why he was so struck by it and remembered it for so long. He said that he was interested in my dad’s strange question and in my “confession.” He said it was very unlike any interchange he as a father had had with his own daughters—and that it made him want to see how I would turn out.
How would you describe his personality?
He was warm, soft-spoken, welcoming, and present—but still sort of elusive. Not shy, exactly, but quiet and never attention grabbing. Normally he asked questions more than he made revealing remarks or conversation.
His body language bespoke of a certain awkwardness or embarrassment that I think he felt when he was in a situation that he thought he’d have to escape from—such as a long, rambling conversation with someone he didn’t know very well, or a request or invitation he knew he’d want to refuse.
At autograph parties that he graciously allowed my book shop to host, Walker would be in some degree of misery because he was afraid of hurting people’s feelings if he forgot their names. He got me to sit to his left in order to help “prep” him. While he was signing and inscribing for the person whose turn it was, I was supposed to tell the next person in line that I needed to write his name on an index card. This was ostensibly so that Walker would spell it correctly when he inscribed the book, but in reality so that I could slip the card to Walker to remind him of the person’s name. People would look perplexed when I insisted on writing down their name even after they told me that the book was to be inscribed to someone else.
There were four or five regular gatherings that Walker organized in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I was part of one weekly get-together that met every Thursday at 1:00 p.m. for lunch at Bechac’s (a restaurant on Lake Pontchartrain in Mandeville, Louisiana—near Covington, where Walker lived). He liked meeting often with friends as a committed way of staying connected. And sometimes he’d tell me I should come early and bring books of his from my shop for him to sign. He would occasionally invite his visitors from out of town, as well as authors, students, journalists, movie stars, and other people wanting some time with him.
Another get-together was a Tuesday night great books group (the Mortimer
Adler course) in Covington that my boyfriend Bob Milling (a writer friend
and neighbor of Walker’s) and I used to attend—I think it met every
couple of weeks.
I was sometimes frustrated because I especially wanted to hear what Walker had to say and people wouldn’t, in my opinion, give him enough of an opening. At times Walker would start to say something and stammer a bit, and then someone else would jump in. Maybe that was OK with him because he was much more inclined to listen than to talk.
Walker loved to laugh and I think he probably made lots of jokes that went right by me. Eventually I realized how funny he was and had the opportunity to make up for my whatever-you-call it. Dullness? When he asked me and several other lunch people to read some of his books in manuscript, most of the comments I made in the margins were about how funny he was. He definitely enjoyed hearing how much he cracked me up.
What did you admire most about him?
What I admired most about Walker Percy was that he became committed to living up to his beliefs. Being a good husband and a good father were all-important to him. He wanted to be a moral person. He was hardworking and trustworthy. He was a loyal friend.
Not that he was perfect. When he realized one time that something he was doing was causing someone else pain, he consciously decided to change his behavior, and he explained his moral reasoning to those affected.
I admired his intellect. While he was alive, I was only beginning to understand his brilliance as a writer, and I hadn’t even read his essays yet, so I had no idea yet how brilliant he was as a thinker.
I admired his strong convictions and I am eternally grateful to him for helping me find my way back to the Catholic Church. I had been lapsed for thirty years and was definitely being a “jellyfish,” to use a word the nuns would say. When I asked him one time if he believed the whole bit about Jesus being the Son of God and coming to earth to be crucified to save us from our sins, he said he was “choosing to believe it.” And he said he was committed to practicing his Catholic faith, and that he and Bunt walked to Mass almost every day. He made me understand that even though faith in Jesus is a gift, it’s on offer to everyone, so yes, we can choose to accept it.
And I admired him for his courage in risking ridicule for his writings, especially in The Thanatos Syndrome. (See below.)
Do you have a favorite Percy novel? If so, why that one in particular?
I am transformed whenever I read any of his writings—fiction or nonfiction. I “come to” and feel more alive—as he describes in his books. No, I don’t have a favorite. I love them all. If a customer of mine at the book shop would ask which Walker Percy novel to start with, I always said The Moviegoer, since I like going chronologically. And if the person preferred nonfiction, I would suggest Lost in the Cosmos.
Walker would say that you can’t use a hammer to make your point to your readers or you’ll lose them right and left. He would say that he had to convey his ideas carefully and subtly. He once asked our lunch group to review a certain section of Lost in the Cosmos because he was worried that he’d come on too strong.
Nevertheless, he was willing to come on very strong in The Thanatos Syndrome. I think he was willing to risk personal and artistic attacks by literary critics and his own fans because he was so horrified by the evil of abortion and euthanasia. In this book, at any costs, he decided to let his readers know in the very clearest terms what he thought.
How did the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing come about?
After Hurricane Katrina, Loyola University looked to create Centers of Excellence that would give Loyola national exposure. The people at Loyola who were responsible for making the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing a reality were Robert Bell, Chris Chambers, and Mary McCay (the current director). Happily for me, after running the Maple Street Book Shop for thirty-seven years and then retiring, I became administrative assistant to Mary in the summer of 2010.
In what way do you think Percy’s work continues to speak to our time?
I believe his work speaks to the essential nature of mankind, which does not change with time. I believe it is in our nature to need help and guidance. What so many people find in Walker’s books is a recognition of those needs. Along with the recognition comes the joy of feeling connected to someone else who shares that recognition. No wonder people love his books.
“This world is not our home . . .” as Reverend Barnes and Sister Brown sing in one of their gospel songs. If you believe that, and I do, there will always be a need for the “search,” as Walker Percy puts it.
ABOUT THE WALKER PERCY CENTER
The goal of the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing is to foster literary talent and achievement, to highlight the art of writing as essential to a good education, and to support authors, teachers, students, and readers. The Center was named for Walker Percy to honor his work as an author, Catholic, and former Loyola faculty member.
The Center’s Press publishes fiction, poetry, philosophy, and religious studies—all part of what Percy called “the search,” work that contributes to the expansion of the intellectual and cultural landscape. The WPC Press also publishes the New Orleans Review, a biannual journal of contemporary literature and photography.