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NEWS FEATURE: Frederick Buechner Writes of Life and Death

c. 2000 Religion News Service (UNDATED) It was more than half a century ago that a cocksure young Frederick Buechner packed up the typed pages of his first novel and sent them off to a prospective New York publisher. Today, a much older and more mellow Buechner wistfully recalls how the pages in which he […]

c. 2000 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) It was more than half a century ago that a cocksure young Frederick Buechner packed up the typed pages of his first novel and sent them off to a prospective New York publisher.

Today, a much older and more mellow Buechner wistfully recalls how the pages in which he had invested so much of his soul were immediately rejected, the publisher saying that “not only did he find them completely unpublishable but he couldn’t imagine anything I might do to change them that might make him feel differently.”

Buechner found another publisher for “A Long Day’s Dying,” which appeared in 1950, quickly entered the best-seller charts, and inspired glowing articles in Time, Life, Newsweek and The New York Times, transforming the unknown author into an overnight sensation.

But 50 years and more than 30 books later, Buechner, considers how none of his subsequent highly acclaimed works of fiction, nonfiction and memoir have returned him to the literary limelight.

“The success of any book is a fluke,” says the 74-year-old author, whose weathered but serene voice is carried by a cell phone from the yard outside his Vermont home, where, he says, his aging body is seated in a wrought iron lawn chair, his feet are resting on another chair, and his eyes are focused on a nuthatch flitting through a nearby maple tree. “Over the years there has been a small but faithful group of people for whom, I think, my books have been important, and that’s fine by me.”

In his fourth and latest memoir, “The Eyes of the Heart,” Buechner, who was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1958 but never served as a full-time pastor, muses on a life’s worth of writing and preaching. He also reflects on matters of life and death by mourning the departure of his father, his brother, his maternal grandmother, his great-grandfather and poet friend James Merrill, who lived with Buechner during the summer that produced his debut novel.

Thoughts about his own death _ as well as questions about whether he will have the time to write another book _ also fill the memoir’s pages. But Buechner, who describes himself as “hopelessly religious,” speaks of the end of his life with anticipation rather than dread. “It’s sort of like thinking about a journey you’re going to be taking,” he says.

A self-confessed “compulsive-obsessive rememberer,” Buechner began chronicling his own life with 1982’s “The Sacred Journey.” That was long before Frank McCourt’s best-selling “Angela’s Ashes” helped usher in today’s memoir renaissance.

Buechner says the title for “The Eyes of the Heart” came to him as he was reading Paul’s New Testament epistle to the Ephesians (“I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which (God) has called you”). And while most of the memoir explores the earthly lives and worldly traumas of various friends and family members, much of it seeks to probe hidden realms of the spirit.

“I often wonder why I should expect anybody to care what has happened to me in my rather unexciting life,” he says. “But the justification for it is that in a sense, all of us have the same story. We are all afraid of the same things at night. We all have the same hopes and dreams. If anyone is willing to tell his or her story with honesty and candor, that enables or empowers people, if not to write their own stories, at least to think about them.”

HarperSanFrancisco, Buechner’s longtime publisher, has also recently released new paperback versions of “Godric” and “Brendan,” two earlier books that find the writer bridging the gap between fiction and history.

Originally published in 1980, “Godric” is a creative retelling of the life of Godric of Finchale, a 12th century English monk and mystic whose life is a combination of deep devotion and troubling temptations.

In writing the book, Buechner hearkens back to an earthy English vernacular language that was still untouched by the cadences of Latin. Hailed by Newsweek as “a remarkable tour de force,” the book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

“Brendan,” originally published in 1987, revives the fascinating story of world-traveling Celtic monk St. Brendan the Navigator. Thomas Cahill, who would later achieve fame with “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” his own book on Celtic lore, reviewed “Brendan” for the Los Angeles Times, calling it “a lusty, bawdy, teeming, festooning, dancing marvel of a book.”

As with all his books, his works on these two saints confirm his calling as “a clergyman of letters” who can make the Christian message plausible and even palatable to readers who otherwise shun overt religiosity.

“When I am preaching, I’m talking to those who have bought the whole package,” he says. “But as a writer of fiction, I am hoping to attract people who wouldn’t touch religion with a 10-foot pole but might pick up a book where the mystery of things seems real to them.”

Today, Buechner thinks about his own death while he busily works on a new book that explores themes of spiritual darkness in the works of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

“I wonder,” he says, his voice trailing off slightly, “will I live long enough to read “Gone With the Wind,” or to see the Holy Land, or to write another book? I certainly hope so.”

KRE END RABEY