By Sena Jeter Naslund
Spalding MFA Program Director
One of the most satisfying aspects of my long career as an academic administrator, teacher, and writer lies in my founding—with others—and continuous editing for forty years of The Louisville Review, which began publication in 1976. Equaling gratifying has been the founding in 1996 with Karen Mann of TLR’s book press Fleur-de-Lis, which is named for my mother Flora Lee Sims Jeter (1901-1990), who introduced me to the world of worthy literature and often served in her old age as a fine proofreader for the magazine. It’s an honor to announce Fleur-de-Lis’ most recent publication of The Unfinished Man, by Jim Wayne.
As a teacher of creative writing, how often I’ve seen marvelous work that never found its way into print! I wanted to be able to edit and publish a magazine (and later a book press) that in some small way helped to remedy that situation. Nothing has given me greater satisfaction in my career than to be able to do that. First comes the joy of recognizing excellence and originality in a manuscript submission, and finally comes the satisfaction of seeing a book in the author’s hands and hearing his or her reading before an appreciative audience from that work. My only regret is that there are not funds or time to do more editorial work. I personally know of at least half a dozen books I greatly admire as being unique, accomplished, and needed to fill gaps in the literary landscape that I’d like to publish.
For the press, we do have two rules: we publish only first books and the author must have previously published in The Louisville Review. Authors may or may not have been students in the Spalding MFA program.
Congressman Jim Wayne is a graduate of the Spalding MFA in Writing, but his fiction first caught my attention when he was a student in one of the writing classes I taught when the University of Louisville was my primary academic home (1973-2014). Most memorable to me from that period of my work with Jim was his story for young readers in which a Quaker boy (committed to non-violent resolutions of all personal and political problems) meets Abraham Lincoln, on the occasion of his Gettysburg Address, for the dedication of a cemetery for Union soldiers killed in huge numbers after a battle in Pennsylvania. We think of Abraham Lincoln, properly, as a courageous moral leader, but in Jim’s story a mere boy has the courage to raise a larger moral question, perhaps, than the Civil War struggle itself: is killing justified, even when questions of freedom from slavery or national union are at stake? Jim’s story was remarkable for its philosophical courage, its tenderness, and its sense of balance. He dared to let a small voice be heard questioning the moral basis for the American Civil War, not from the point of view of States Rights but from a much larger humanist and spiritual seeking.
Of course I was delighted when Jim decided to continue with his writing at Kentucky’s first MFA in Writing, at Spalding University, and the nation’s first low-residency program committed to the interrelatedness of the various arts and various genres of writing, including instruction in poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, writing for children and young adults, playwriting and screenwriting. During his MFA studies, I did not have a close-up view of Jim’s writing. At Spalding, I teach ALL the students through large lectures about the craft of writing, applicable to all genres, and occasionally I teach a workshop and critique the work of those workshop fiction writers, but I don’t mentor students in the one-on-one independent study that is really the most meaty part of the MFA program. And so, it was after his graduation and after he had published in The Louisville Review, that Jim’s novel manuscript came to my attention.
Before I go on about Jim’s wonderful new novel The Unfinished Man, I do want to add another personal note. Jim’s book for young readers about moral issues surrounding the American Civil War stirred an awakening in my own creative psyche. I had written a novel about the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, titled Four Spirits, and dedicated to four young African-American girls killed in a racist church bombing in my birth city, Birmingham, Alabama; however, I had never wanted to be caught up in re-living the Civil War. The degree of interest I felt in Jim’s Quaker boy’s moral questioning of a president began my realization that I ought to turn myself around, face the past, and think about the perhaps unresolvable issues spotlighted by that conflict, as well as by the more recent Vietnam War. I wrote some other novels first, but there it was, waiting for me–what I considered a gap in the literary landscape: a serious, comprehensive, novelistic treatment of the American Civil War. As of this blogging, I’m almost five hundred pages into the first draft of that novel.
I think it will be my last novel, this book number ten; then I hope to write a series for children, inspired by the books I enjoyed as a child about the maturation of young female/future-writer protagonists—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, Little Women and its sequels, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
As I imply above, I believe there is a great family of the arts and among the various genres of writing. Jim Wayne’s novel The Unfinished Man starts with a quotation and finds its title in a poem, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” by W.B. Yeats: “What matter if I live it all once more? /. . ./The ignominy of boyhood; the distress / Of boyhood changing into man; /The unfinished man and his pain?”
When Karen Mann and I discussed Jim’s novel, one of its glories that we both marveled over is its ending and the aptness, on many levels, of its title. I’m not going to reveal the ending, but I will say something about the central conflicts in The Unfinished Man.
This is a novel that begins with the inner struggle of a middle-aged priest, Father Justin Zapp. He is a highly successful scholar in Catholic religious writing circles, but he is an extreme introvert. Being with others is an ever-increasing torture for him. His discomfort is rooted in his victimization as a youngster by a Catholic priest, and Father Zapp has unfinished business with his own psyche. While his struggle begins as an internal struggle—and Jim takes us inside the fascinating world of psychoanalysis—Father’s Zapp’s issues are part and parcel of much larger social issues and of political and spiritual corruption within the Catholic Church. The reader journeys with Father Zapp from his inner life to a community in rural Indiana in the late1950s, to the archdiocese level and on, all the way to Rome in the early 60s; the book is both local and global in its scope. I mentioned Jim Wayne’s balance in his Quaker/Civil War story; this narrative also achieves an amazing and thoughtful balance. While Jim embodies evil in The Unfinished Man, with equal success he embodies goodness—a major challenge for an unsentimental fiction writer. In its complexity and its nuances, this fictive mirror-held-up-to-life achieves a rare and important truthfulness. And it also stimulates thoughts beyond its main focus.
In my view, in addition to exploring sexual predation, The Unfinished Man also broaches the issue of celibacy required for centuries by Catholic doctrine of priests and nuns. Because this novel contextualizes Father Zapp’s healing partially through his embrace by an ordinary, loving Italian family, I’m led to remember an alternative tenant of the Eastern Orthodox Church: that priests who serve a community must be married, for how else can they wisely counsel married couples? More broadly speaking, Jim’s novel may cause a reader to ask if there is a more true relationship between the spiritual and the physical than our philosophies have provided.
It’s a pleasure for Fleur-de-Lis press to present a book unlike any other in our series, (I feel that way about each book) and I’m happy to have this opportunity not only to blog about my own relationship to Jim Wayne’s novel The Unfinished Man, but also to invite you to order it, read it, and attend Jim’s upcoming presentations at Carmichael’s in Louisville and elsewhere.
Jim will be reading from his novel at the Frankfort Avenue Carmichael’s here in Louisville on Thursday, June 9 at 7 p.m. If you aren’t able to come celebrate in person, you can buy his book on our website: http://www.louisvillereview.org/product/the-unfinished-man/
Sena Jeter Naslund is the Editor of Fleur-de-Lis Press; Program Director and Co-founder, low residency MFA in Writing, Spalding University; author of nine books, most recently The Fountain of St. James Court or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman