Interview With Author Gregory Roper
By Carrie Gress
ROME, 28 JAN. 2008 (ZENIT)
Good Catholic writers need to be sustained
and nourished by a rich culture, and look to the great authors of the
past for inspiration and guidance, says author Gregory Roper.
Roper, author of "The Writer's Workshop: Imitating Your Way to Better
Writing" (ISI Books), is an English professor at the University of
In this interview with ZENIT, he discusses what future Catholic writers
can do to become great Catholic writers.
Q: You grew up the in South and attribute your love of language to
your father. Why do you think there is such a rich heritage of Catholic
writers from the South, such as Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy?
Roper: Well, this is a phenomenon that has been studied extensively,
precisely because there have been so many fine Southern writers, and
because Southern literature was one of the first, like the Irish
literature of the early 20th century, to show that a specific, grounded,
regional literature could be universal and speak to universal truths.
But a strange thing has happened: People have realized that all great
writing is like this, grounded in the specific, regional voice of its
time and place. Whether it is Homer or Shakespeare, Gabriele d'Annunzio
or James Joyce, the vibrant voice comes out when it is grounded in the
particular accents and idioms and phrasings of a people.
But to comment specifically on the South: I wonder if, because it was
rural, agrarian, underdeveloped, and just plain hot and often humid,
Southerners just moved more slowly, took their time more than other
early 20th-century people. While T.S. Eliot and Igor Stravinsky were
showing a world increasingly hurried and dislocated and fragmented,
Southerners were still sitting and talking, telling stories.
I'll never forget my grandmother bustling about the kitchen, an entire
state's genealogy in her head, telling us stories about relatives we
never knew we had, or my grandfather, seemingly asleep, toothpick in his
mouth, in white cream recliner, correcting her on a minor point
regarding which third cousin was married to whom. That tie to the
concrete in which we find the universal
that is, the image
is what makes southern speech so vibrant.
Q: There seems to be a dearth of good Catholic literature in the world
today, and with the ever-growing text-messaging culture, writing well
seems to be threatened all the more. What other factors do you see
working against the art of writing?
Roper: That's a complex set of issues, but in some ways the answer is
very simple, and I say it on the first pages of "The Writer's Workshop":
People don't read. Or they read, but they only read e-mails and
self-help books, not the rich, sustaining literature that gives them a
world in language.
My students who are already pretty darned good writers by the time they
come to me all report the same thing: There was reading in their homes.
There were magazines scattered about; there were regular trips to the
library. Most of all, there was reading out loud, so they learned from
mom's dramatizations and dad's different voices the beauty of words and
the flow of a well-crafted sentence.
These students know how a sentence works; they know what a paragraph
sounds and feels like; they know the rhythms of prose, and how different
writers sound. As they matured, their parents directed them to better
writing, and it grew with them. Most of them can't tell you where they
learned to write, but when you press them, this is the one factor that
is always, always present. Conversely, for those who struggle in their
writing, the one factor is almost always that they grew up in a family,
and a wider culture, with very little reading.
Another problem is simply the poor state of teaching of grammar and
usage in schools. You simply can't write well without the basic tools,
just like you cannot play an instrument well without being able to play
scales and arpeggios and knowing the fingerings. But if you do know
those things, and know them cold, you can then move on to make music.
This is where John Paul II's wide concern with the culture at large was
so significant; he saw that good theology, like good arts, good
literature, comes from a rich, significant culture, and really can't
come about from a thin, harried, rushed, impatient culture, or one that
doesn't have a grasp on truth in its schools and other cultural organs.
Good Catholic writing will come from thoughtful Catholics, sustained by
the culture of this new exciting "JPII Generation," who will put words
on a page to say the truth. I don't think we should be worrying
specifically about creating a Catholic literature, but about creating
the culture that will nourish those who will write.
Q: Your book suggests that people can learn to write or improve their
writing by imitating the greats, such as Dante, Virgil, St. Thomas
Aquinas, Chaucer? How is this effective?
Roper: The way it has always been effective for 2,500 years ... and not
just in writing, but in every art. By working with a master
master cobbler or blacksmith or violin maker or writer or musician
you get careful, up-close time with real craft; if you slow down and
take apart how it works, you can see how the writer crafted effective,
beautiful, evocative sentences. You start to see how this vibrant, vivid
voice makes a person, a scene, an argument, come alive. This is how all
arts have been learned, and it's only recently we've forgotten that.
Part of the idea for this book came when I found myself in the
afternoons coaching women's soccer. Now soccer is an enormously fluid
sport; it never stops for 45 minutes, and the situations are changing
all the time; the coach can't come out, stop the action, and tell the
players what to do. The players have to see, understand and do it
How could I teach players how to move, to get open for a pass, or better
yet, how to run to set up a teammate to receive just the perfect pass? I
had to think, how did "I" learn to do that? It came, I realized, from
watching professionals and others over and over again, so that I "just
knew" what to do.
So I had to break this down for the players into discrete small "moves."
I played videos showing them pros doing this
then we'd walk through, imitating an overlap run, a flat pass, a pass to
split the defense. And they got it
they started to see how you move on a soccer field, how the whole thing,
done well, becomes a beautifully improvised ballet. I began to realize,
this is what I have to do with their writing
break it down by showing them the real greats doing these moves.
Q: What about those who say that there is nothing creative, and
therefore, worthwhile in such an exercise? That writing is best done in
Roper: I would say they are the victims of a kind of debased Romanticism
that is sadly all too present in our culture. And that they are just
historically ignorant of how writers have always worked.
How did Virgil create the greatest Latin epic except by modeling the
"Iliad" and "Odyssey"
and yet in doing so creating something entirely new in the "Aeneid"? How
did Shakespeare create "Hamlet," "King Lear," and others except by
adapting and creatively engaging with his sources? The greatest art is
always imitating, adapting, commenting upon, and creatively talking back
to the work it is imitating.
This is precisely what T.S. Eliot taught us in "Tradition and the
Individual Talent," and it is what the Church knows is what makes
authentic Catholic tradition at once so faithful and so vibrantly new at
Q: What role does logic play in good writing?
Roper: One of the most thrilling things to me about the Holy Father's
papacy so far is his call to clear thinking, to logic and the West's
tradition of philosophical understanding, testing, verification,
understanding. Good writing is good thinking and vice versa; there's no
way around it.
Again, some early reviewers for other presses thought this book was only
about style or the dressing of good thinking, but I am trying to suggest
that nothing could be further from the truth
how you lay out your words is crucially how you are thinking; form and
content are inseparable, and the students start to see this as they
shift from one writer's voice to the next, taking the same content in
Good, clear thinking can come from working with these writers. For many
of my students, some of whom have never encountered Aquinas before, the
Thomistic proof is a revelation and a challenge to them
that someone could be so careful in his thinking, could so meticulously
and fair-mindedly lay out his opponents' views first, and then engage so
fruitfully with his opponents' views in order to arrive at the truth! It
is a real turning point for them. My hope is that they begin to see and
dedicate themselves to the truth by seeing Aquinas' dedication to it.