An interview with Karen Swallow Prior, author of
The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More –
Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist
This week, the Open Table will feature an interview with Karen Swallow Prior about Fierce Convictions, writing, and what is on Karen’s “to do” list for the summer.
thyrkas: Hi Karen! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview for “The Open Table.” You and I met some years ago at an Atlantic Advance that Leonard Sweet held in Ocean City, New Jersey. (To learn more about what an Advance is and how you can participate, go to www.leonardsweet.com). The theme of that Advance was books, and Dr. Sweet asked you to come as a special guest to talk about your first book called Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. At that time, you told us that you were in the middle of writing a book about Hannah More, and you shared a little about this amazing woman with us. Now, three years and a successful book launch later, what do you think of Fierce Convictions? Is there anything that comes to mind now that you wish you had included in the book?
KSP: What I wish is that I had contracted for a greater word count with the publisher! Novice author that I am, I picked a number out of the air that seemed reasonable, not knowing that I could not go over (although I did, by 10,000 words, and the publisher was very accommodating), nor that I could have easily doubled the length of the book! There isn’t anything major about More’s life that I think I left out. What I would have liked to have included was more of the delightful anecdotes that show her personality—both its bright and its dark aspects—and that show how others interacted with her over her long life. There is more of her correspondence of hers extant, held in libraries around the world that I did not have time to research. I would love to have read all those letters and to have drawn from them as well. A longer book would have just added even more color to an already colorful life, I think.
thyrkas: Eric Metaxas, author of Bonheoffer, Miracles, and other excellent books, wrote the foreword for Fierce Convictions. In the foreword, he tells the story about how he spoke with you on a visit to Liberty University, where you teach English. You had invited him to speak on his book Amazing Grace, which is about Hannah More’s dear friend and collaborator, William Wilberforce. According to his foreword, Metaxas learned of your great interest in Hannah More, and I quote Metaxas from the foreword of your book here: “[I]was beside myself. Not literally, but close enough. I prated afresh and later learned that my wild eyedly enthusiastic response to her (Karen Swallow Prior’s) declaration had not merely startled her, but had also somehow prompted her to revisit the idea and then to write the book proposal (for Fierce Convictions). I had involuntarily shouted that she must write as soon as possible because I knew of an editor and so on and so on. That I might in the smallest way have helped midwife the birth of this volume made me wish to trill the nunc dimittis and skip away into the next world. But then I wouldn’t have been able to read the book. It is a book that everyone should read; it is a life everyone should know, and one that many should emulate.” Here’s my question, Karen: What’s your version of this conversation with the ebullient and erudite Mr. Metaxas?
KSP: Oh, isn’t Eric’s foreword to the book a delight? And I have to say that his version is pretty accurate! Although he actually may have downplayed his excitement a bit in that description …. Seriously, the stars all converged for this project. When I first saw the film Amazing Grace, I was astounded and thrilled to see the cameo appearances of Hannah More in the film. You have to realize that when I stumbled upon her in my doctoral research, I didn’t know anyone who had heard of her—not even any of the professors on my dissertation committee. Seeing her in the film was a complete surprise. When I later learned that a companion book had been written for the film and that it had been written by some guy named Eric Metaxas, I immediately reached out to Eric—via Facebook of all things, which I might mention is how Dr. Sweet reached out to me as well—to have him come speak at Liberty University where I teach. When he came, naturally, I mentioned my love of More to him. And the rest, as they say, is history.
thyrkas: At the 2013 Atlantic Advance you spoke of Hannah More’s “moral imagination.” Could you tell us what you mean by that?
KSP: Russell Kirk defines the moral imagination this way: “an enduring source of inspiration that elevates us to first principles as it guides us upwards towards virtue and wisdom and redemption.” Elsewhere it is defined as “an ability to imaginatively discern various possibilities for acting in a given situation and to envision the potential help and harm that are likely to result from a given action.” Both of these definitions help explain the way that More thought and the way she used her literary talent to usher into her age a moral enlightenment. Of course, the abolition of the slave trade was the central scene in her moral imagination. But the way such an imagination works is that it touches upon all other peripheral but contingent issues. Thus More and her friends advanced many other causes at the same time they were fighting slavery. The vision of the moral imagination is large—and so is its power.
thyrkas: I follow you on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and can see that you make a strong, active connection between the Church and the culture at large. This is certainly what Hannah More did in her time. Were you inspired by Hannah More to live your life in this way, or did you discover through your research on More that you and she were kindred spirits in this area?
KSP: You know, I think about that question a lot myself. The fact is that I stumbled upon More after I had already done a considerable amount of bridge building work around contentious issues. But while still in the midst of such efforts, I discovered More. It was just the right time to allow me to be further encouraged and emboldened by her example. So I know I was attracted to her because of our similar philosophies, but I also know that I learned a great deal from the study of her life about both holding fast to convictions while keeping a loose hold on oneself as having any great importance in the drama of the world’s ongoing struggles (the struggles change from era to era, but the underlying principles remain the same). I think it’s often a sense of self-importance that keeps us from building bridges, since such definitely requires a foundation of personal and epistemic humility. More certainly was able to combine conviction and humility in a powerful and exemplary way. That’s a balance I strive to meet even more since meeting her. And I think effective use of today’s social media parallels the way More used cheap tracts in her day to help sway the culture. I think Hannah would have been all over Twitter and Facebook!
thyrkas: At one point on Facebook you posted a picture of a 9 year old girl who had come with her father to one of your book reading/signings of Fierce Convictions. I was very touched by that. I remember as a 10 year old scouring my school and public libraries for books about women’s lives, desperately searching for role models. Would you ever consider doing a book about Hannah More that would be written for young adult audiences?
KSP: I’m happy to say, that such a book was just published shortly after mine was! Hannah More: The Woman Who Wouldn’t Stop Writing was written by U.K. writer Sarah Allen as part of a series of books about leaders in Christian history geared toward readers aged 8 – 14.
thyrkas: I know you have had many invitations to speak since the publication of Fierce Convictions, and there have been more writing opportunities for you as well, apart from your regular contributions to Christianity Today and Atlantic Monthly. Do you have any articles for Christianity Today or Atlantic Monthly coming up? What does your schedule hold for the future? Any new books on the horizon?
KSP: I just finished a personal narrative about nuclear weapons and abortion for Sojourners that will be out later this year. Right now I’m working on an essay on Dante’s Divine Comedy for the Atlantic. My big goal for the summer, however, is to work on at least one, possibly two book proposals. It took me a while to recover from writing Fierce Convictions—it was very hard and stressful in the research and early writing stages—but I’m really itching now to write another book. I do get many requests to write articles and to speak, however, and I can’t do it all. I’m having to learn as I go along to make priorities and to figure out which things will advance the things I feel truly called to and which will not. It’s not an easy thing to figure out, at least not for me. This is why in all I do, as you know, Teri, I rely very heavily on prayer. I don’t believe my work is worth an iota without the Lord’s blessings on it, and I believe all that I have accomplished has come from his hand. I’m just trying to be faithful. As I share in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, I have tried doing it my way. I’m done with that. I plan my way, but the Lord directs my steps.
thyrkas: Thank you Karen, for stopping in at The Open Table. Lord bless you and yours, and all to which you set your hand.
You can read a review of “Fierce Convictions” at https://preachthestory.com/resources/open-table/
Fun to read this. I attended the same Advance in Ocean City where Karen was the featured guest. What a conversation feast that was! Thanks for this interview. The definitions of “moral imagination” are useful–something I can get a handle on and try to be more intentional about exercising. Looking forward to reading more from Karen!