What is your latest book about?
“My Life with the Saints” is the story of my lifelong relationship with 20 favorite saints. Each chapter relates how I first heard about them, tells the story of their lives, and offers a reflection on their relevance for contemporary believers.
The book’s underlying theme comes from the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who wrote, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.” None of the saints was a carbon copy of another — think of how different Mother Teresa was from Joan of Arc — because all of us are meant to be ourselves. Holiness comes from being who you are.
What is your writing routine?
Since I struggle with some carpal-tunnel syndrome, I have to limit my typing to a half-hour in the morning. As a result, I rarely suffer from “writer’s block,” since, for the most of the day, I’m thinking about what I’ll type the following morning.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
The best way to learn how to write is to read good writers. So pick up Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead,” or Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” or some of Gustave Flaubert’s short stories. You’ll get a feel for what sounds right and what doesn’t. Second, trust your own voice. Just as in the spiritual life, in the writing life you’re meant to be yourself. You don’t have to write exactly like Robinson or Waugh or Flaubert: you just have to write like you.
Name three books that are memorable for your reading pleasure.
The books to which I most often return make up a strange trio. The first is “The Cloister Walk,” by Kathleen Norris. This autobiographical work, which tells the story of a Protestant writer’s relationship with the monks of a Benedictine Abbey, is a modern spiritual classic. Second is “Out of Africa” by Isak Dinesen, not only for its terrific prose, but because it reminds me of the two years I spent in Kenya during my Jesuit training. Finally, I love “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories,” by the American humorist Jean Shepherd. It’s flat out the funniest book ever written.
What are you currently reading?
I’m right in the middle “My Mortal Enemy,” by Willa Cather, another favorite writer.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
I’m very jealous of Paul Elie’s superb study of four American Catholic writers — Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy –called “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” But I’ve channeled my jealousy into telling other people to read it.
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Name a book you were pleasantly surprised by.
While I’m a huge history buff, nothing prepared me for how much I enjoyed Joseph Ellis’s biography of George Washington, “His Excellency.”
If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
I would love to meet Thomas Merton, and trust that I will, if I make it to heaven–but not for a while, I hope.
What book changed your life?
Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Storey Mountain,” prompted me to leave my life in the corporate world and enter the Jesuits at age 27.
What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
My vow of poverty and a $250 monthly stipend don’t leave much room for travel — except for the subway — so I’ve never been to the land of my father’s family. One day, though.
You’re Irish if…
…like my father, you have Irish music playing at your wake, but, at the very end, the funeral home puts on the wrong tape and out comes “It’s a Great Day for the Irish.” We knew my dad was laughing at that one.