On Writing “Good Country People”
The indispensable Maud Newton has an excerpt from a Flannery O’Connor piece in which the writer explains how she came about creating the characters of the Bible salesman and the “lady Ph.D.” with a wooden leg in “Good Country People” (one of my favorite short stories.)
Now a little might be said about the way in which this happens. I wouldn’t want you to think that in that story I sat down and said, “I am now going to write a story about a Ph.D. with a wooden leg, using the wooden leg as a symbol for another kind of affliction.” I doubt myself if many writers know what they are going to do when they start out. When I started writing that story, I didn’t know there was going to be a Ph.D. with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women that I knew something about, and before I realized it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. As the story progressed, I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn’t know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable. This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is that it produced a shock for the writer.
Now despite the fact that this story came about in this seemingly mindless fashion, it is a story that almost no rewriting was done on. It is a story that was under control throughout the writing of it, and it might be asked how this kind of control comes about, since it is not entirely conscious.
The excerpt is taken from O’Connor’s essay “Writers on Writing,” which was collected in Mystery and Manners.