“I never believe nothing unless I got the money.” — Flannery O’Connor, April 1952
American novelist Flannery O’Connor was real about getting paid. In The Habit of Being, a book of her letters, she writes about theology, literary theory, and life on her family’s farm, but she also talks about money. The transactional language that punctuates these epistolary glimpses into her remarkable career reveal that the uncompromising mind behind some of the last century’s finest writing believed firmly in that mind’s financial worth.
O’Connor was demanding of herself, and of her first publisher, Rinehart, whose notes on her work she found “conventional.”
“If they don’t feel I am worth giving more money to and leaving alone, then they should let me go,” O’Connor wrote in a 1949 letter to her mentor. She was 25.
O’Connor didn’t beat around the bush in her first letter to her first agent, Elizabeth McKee: “I am writing you in my vague and slack season and mainly because I am being impressed just now with the money I am not making by having stories in such places as American Letters.” In her second letter, O’Connor says that the book she’s working on (which would become Wise Blood) would be a year in coming. “I will need an advance for that year,” she writes. At this point in O’Connor’s career, she was certainly a promising writer—a graduate of the University of Iowa’s prestigious creative writing graduate program and winner of the Rinehart-Iowa Fiction Award, she’d even published a few short stories—but here she is straight up asking her brand-new agent to make it rain, please and thank you, and lo, it comes to pass!
“I do believe that she was quite savvy about the business side of being a writer, and she understood the difference between art and commerce,” says Craig Amason, the executive director of The Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation.
In 1950, while in her mid-20s, O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus. She moved home, from Connecticut to Andalusia, her family’s dairy farm near Milledgeville, Ga., where she raised peafowl and wrote the majority of her fiction. It is safe to assume she was not a pauper. O’Connor attended college and graduate school, and her uncle Bernard Cline, who owned Andalusia, was an Atlanta doctor with enough wealth to buy a the 550-acre estate. But O’Connor’s mother Regina ran Andalusia as a working farm. “No one ran a dairy in the 1950s as a hobby,” Amason says. “Regina Cline O’Connor must have needed an income.”
That said, O’Connor had the luxury of focusing all her limited energy on writing.1 She was adamant about selling her work to publications like the Kenyon Review and Harper’s Bazaar. In 1961 she received $750 for an essay entitled “Living with a Peacock,” which appeared in the now-defunct Holiday magazine. “More than I have ever got for any piece of writing, by about half,” she wrote. “Crime pays.”
As her career progressed, O’Connor was increasingly asked to lecture at colleges and literary festivals. She saw the engagements as a necessary evil,2 and in letters to friends, she was open about her motives for the work:
I am in terrible shape with the govermint. I made more money than usual one year on the Sisters’ book3 and the next year I had to talk at a lot of places to pay my income tax, which made me more money again so I had to talk at a lot more places which made me make more etc. etc. I’m poor as they come and getting poorer and income tax is getting higher every year and I think this must end somewhere short of the penitentiary or the poorhouse.
In addition to publishing her fiction and lecturing, she pursued and won several writing awards during her lifetime, and many of them came with a cash prize. When she won an $8,000 Ford Foundation grant—”just $8,000 more than I was expecting”—she wrote to a friend that she intended to live for 10 years on that sum.
O’Connor also managed a handful of rental properties, but Amason says that even with her money from writing, it’s unlikely O’Connor was ever her family’s sole breadwinner. When she did splurge, it was usually on upgrades for the house.4 After O’Connor sold the television rights for The Life You Save May Be Your Own in 1956 (“It’s certainly a painless way to make money”), she bought a Hotpoint refrigerator (“the kind that spits the ice cubes at you”) that’s still on display at Andalusia.5
Cash certainly didn’t rule everything around O’Connor, but its importance wasn’t lost on her. She was compelled to write herself ragged, and money was necessary for her to continue that writing life. This was not a lonely, monastic existence, mind you; O’Connor and her mother often entertained visitors who wanted to meet the woman the New York Times called “a writer of power,” and her reams of correspondence speak to the satisfaction she found in the forming relationships she formed. Despite her lupus, and the limits it placed on her life, her letters never reveal self-pity.
A doctor once told O’Connor that her illness precluded a trip she didn’t want to take in the first place, which she recounts with her characteristic wry composure: “I am bearing this with my usual magnificent fortitude.” But the same disease that killed her father was killing her. It’s the kind of thing that could make someone need to lose themselves in work. That’s a reason to chase paper, too. (“For the last two days I have worked one hour each day and my my I do like to work. I et up that one hour like it was filet mignon.”)
As O’Connor’s lupus progressed, her medical bills mounted. Of a lengthy hospital visit: “… That was an awful long time to have to stay, particularly as I was my own guest—no insurance for lupus. I’m all for Medicare myself.” Despite weakness and hospitalization, O’Connor worked with what friends described as urgency to finish her last collection of short stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”
She died from lupus-related kidney failure in 1964. She was at 39. “Revelation,” one of her last short stories, won the O. Henry Prize the next year.6
1. She was only physically capable of writing for about two hours a day, but it was a routine she devoutly clung to; the love of ritual evident in her passion for Catholicism was just as evident in her work habits.
2. She shrewdly maximized time to write fiction by repurposing lectures: “I can use practically the same thing I used at Notre Dame and they pay my way and gimme 100 dollars and I get to see the horrors of Milwaukee…”
3. A Memoir of Mary Ann, a book by the nuns of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. O’Connor helped the nuns compile the book and wrote an introduction for it.
4. Or peafowl, or chickens, or swans: “I never bought the record player,” she wrote in a Jan. 22, 1964 letter to Thomas Stritch. “I saved up the money and then I thought this is a lot of money to spend for something you don’t already appreciate and no guarantee that you ever will, so I ordered me a pair of swans instead.”
5. She also casts some spectacular shade on the eventual adaptation, which starred a “a tap-dancer by the name of Gene Kelly,” emphasis O’Connor’s.
6. In 1962, O’Connor was paid $300 for the 1956 O. Henry Prize, which she won for her short story “Greenleaf.”