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Brothers Judd interview of Caroline Coleman O'Neill, author of Loving Soren
Caroline Coleman O'Neill has done something that may be unique in her new novel, Loving Soren, she's combined a romance novel with a learned and thoughtful presentation of religious and philosophical ideas. On its surface the novel details the infamous romance between the great Christian existentialist Soren Kierkegaard and the young Danish girl Regine Olsen, but it incorporates a meditation on the ideas that make Kierkegaard pertinent, and troubling, to this day.
Ms O'Neill kindly agreed to an e-mail interview which was conducted in late-July/early-August 2005.
Congratulations on a fine book and thank you for agreeing to answer some questions.
Q: One suspects that most of us received some exposure to Soren Kierkegaard in college but don't recall much about him. What got you so interested in Kierkegaard?
I was raised on Soren Kierkegaard because my father became a born again Christian in his early 40's after reading Kierkegaard. My three brothers and I grew up debating his philosophy. But Kierkegaard delights in making such extreme pronouncements - especially on the topics of renunciation and suffering - that I resisted reading him all through college and graduate school and law school. But when I was 32, my father gave me a copy of Fear and Trembling. I still didn't read it, but I read the biographical introduction, which contained a two page summary of the love story between Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen. I was hooked - not just because the love story itself moved me, but because I saw how the love story provided the entree into Kierkegaard's philosophy. Little did I know, the book wouldn't be published for seven more years, and that in the course of writing it, not only would I have to read most of Kierkegaard's books, but I also would go on a Kierkegaardian journey of my own. The latter gave me a much more nuanced view of Kierkegaard and, I hope, makes for a better novel.
Q: Your novel, Loving Soren, centers on Regine Olsen. How did you decide to use her as the lens through which we see Kierkegaard?
I had to write from Regine's point of view. Kierkegaard was so self-obsessed, he already plumbed the depths of his own point of view ad nauseum. It is a device, although it wasn't planned that way, because Regine ended up providing the "evangelical" viewpoint in the novel. As one young Kierkegaard scholar told me recently, with a big smile on his face, "it's fascinating. You've written the American evangelical perspective on Soren Kierkegaard."
I gave him a big smile back. "Maybe."
Q: One of the great things about your novel is that the historical figures speak for themselves so much. How much research did it require for you to be able to render them in their own words?
I had to do a TON of research. I read 2/3 of Kierkegaard's books (a Herculean effort, as I'm not a philosopher by nature, and as I believe SK was probably manic depressive and his output during the maniacal periods was enormous); I read Kierkegaard's obsessive musings about Regine in his private diaries; I read Regine's side of the story and their letters; I read contemporary accounts (all conveniently translated in Bruce Kirmmse's wonderful Encounters with Kierkegaard); I studied biographies; and I read books on 19th century clothing and manners. I also traveled to Copenhagen and the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands). And I pored over the beautiful paintings of the period, known as the Golden Age of Danish Painting. It's probably a good thing I didn't know how much research it would require, or I never would have embarked on such a reckless journey.
Q. What sort of thought process or assumptions did you use when you depart from the historical record for the characters interior lives?
I stayed true to everything I knew, and made up the rest. I ended up writing the dialogue in relatively modern slang. The first time around, my characters spoke in formal, stilted language - and the book was incredibly boring. When I rewrote the whole thing from scratch three years ago when I finally found a publisher, I decided that since the characters were speaking in 19th century Danish slang anyway, I might as well make it fun to read.
Hopefully it's less boring now...
Q: The Regine Olsen of your novel is every bit Kierkegaard's equal, perhaps even more insightful than he about the lack of wholeness that his philosophy must lead to. Was that the Regine you found in your research, or does she deliver some of your own critique of Kierkegaard?
It's a combination. The Regine I found in my research was insightful and kind and a little defensive. Her own father suffered from depression, and so I think she found Kierkegaard's melancholy familiar landscape. But the record of her is far patchier than that of Kierkegaard, which freed me up to invent more about her. So her character in the novel definitely delivers my own critique of Kierkegaard - at least so far as it's relevant to the story.
Q: While your book can stand proudly as a novel alone, what ideas here would you most hope a reader would grapple with after finishing the novel?
My primary goal was to entertain, because it's a novel. But if someone upon finishing came away with the idea that Jesus - not another human being - could satisfy your heart's deepest desires, I'd be thrilled.
On to some personal questions:
Q: Brian Lamb of Booknotes (C-SPAN) always asks a question that I find interesting. How do you go about the physical task of writing?
My schedule is that I write when the kids aren't around. If it were up to me, I'd probably write in the evening and stay up until the wee hours, but that's not an option, so I have to write until it's time to race to the kids' schools. I write at home or in libraries. When the kids were infants I wrote anywhere - on buses, subways and during their ten minute naps. But now I'm much less efficient because I have longer chunks of time.
I write the first draft longhand because I like the fact that it forces me to slow down. Also, when I retype it into the computer, it gives me two chances at "getting it right." If I'm writing a scene with a lot of dialogue, however, I write directly onto the computer, because it's all I can do to "keep up" with what my characters are saying.
Q: Are you working on another book now?
I've been working for the last seventeen months on a novel about a handsome 35 year old Episcopal minister in New York City, and his most evangelical parishioner. But whether it sees the light of day is up to the publishers...
Thank you very much for your time and your consideration. Best of luck with the book, OJ