The Back Story: Part 6 – Joseph Schner, SJ
Back Story is a series about some of the regular contributors to igNation. It’s a set of short interviews with writers, their influences, how they go about writing, and what they hope their work for igNation will accomplish. The interviews address their approach to writing in general rather than focus strictly on their work for this blog.
Each of the participants in the Back Story series was interviewed by Kevin Burns by telephone. He asked each participant the same set of questions, plus a few more based on things that surfaced during their conversation. What follows is an edited version of a much longer conversation.
Because the igNation format has a limited word-count, each of the interviews in this series will include an additional audio component: “To hear more about [whatever the topic might be]: Click here.”
Today, it’s Joseph Schner SJ. His reflections and book reviews appear regularly in igNation, in addition to other kinds of observations on the spirituality of daily life. When Kevin Burns interviewed him, Schner was enjoying a sabbatical from his duties as Interim President at Regis College: The Jesuit School of Theology at the University of Toronto. It didn’t take long for Dr. Schner’s background in psychology to surface.
KB: Let’s start with a question I’m asking everyone in this series. Can you tell me about the first time you ever saw a work of yours in print? What is that experience like, seeing something you have written actually in print?
JS: Let me think about that. It was a long time ago. I was a Junior at Guelph, what they call First Studies now. You may have seen the magazine, The Sacred Heart Messenger and I think that Fred Power SJ may have been the editor back then, about sixty years ago now. He asked me to do a piece on the mysteries of the rosary. It was a very simple thing, but I felt very proud to seem something in print even though I don’t think it was anything profound.
It’s fun to see your own words and know that somebody – perhaps? – is going to read them. It’s an experience of both happiness and pride. You know, a feeling of “Oh! I did that! That’s nice!” It the same kind of experience I get now when I know I’ve taught a good class and you think it really might be helpful.
Now, I’m not sure that I thought that my little piece on the rosary was going to be that helpful. I also remember writing a piece when I was still in high school. It was for a contest organized by the Serra Club and my piece was on the priesthood. Although it was never published, it didn’t matter because I knew that I had written something that was read by somebody else.
KB: What we write is influenced by how we write: with a pen or a keyboard. What’s your experience of this?
JS: Well I remember back in 1981, when I moved to Campion College in Regina, this was the first time I ever used a computer. I had used an IBM electric typewriter before that, the kind that could save a letter before finally printing it out. That was a time when copying was also more difficult than today.
But I remember that computer at Campion was a real challenge. It also had a printer that needed to be kept in sound-proof room because it made such a racket!
At the beginning I would never compose on the computer. I know that sounds silly today. I would write, I mean physically write things, and only then type them into the computer. Today my handwriting as such has disintegrated into more of a physician’ scrawl.
But looking back, learning to use that computer was an interesting experience because I think it also changed the way I thought. It made me less careful, in a way, because I knew I could always go back and re-word or re-phrase. At the same time, it probably also made me a bit freer, by not having to have the “perfect” word right away, knowing that I could go back and re-work every aspect of the piece.
KB: Your pieces for this blog are very varied: book reviews, observations of the world around us. How do you see them?
JS: How do I think about them? Well when I was asked to be part of the blog I thought, what are my pieces going to be about? That’s where my interest in detective stories came in. I have this obsessive approach to reading. I want to read all of an author’s work if I can.
The people I have written about, those authors, I’ve tried to look at the corpus of their work and show how this person really writes interesting things, people like Alexander McCall-Smith and especially J.K. Rowling who writes such deeply psychological things.
That’s what I thought I would do and then, every so often, something strikes me, like the day I was walking through Queen’s Park in Toronto and I thought: “This park is wonderful and I’m going to write something about it and tell people just how wonderful this park is.” I just sat down and wrote that piece.
But with those other pieces, the ones about the books, there’s a lot of work that goes into that: identifying the themes and looking at the ways a character advances and comes alive.
[To hear Joseph Schner’s insights into J.K. Rowling’s psychological world, click here
KB: What are you reading right now?
JS: This may be the age thing, but I’m going back and re-reading C.S. Lewis because I remember him as being so instrumental. I remember his science fiction trilogy Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Reading it forty or fifty years later and having studied theology and psychology, I think how extraordinary that is. (Editorial note: Even though this same trilogy appears on Frank Obrigewitsch’s list, Schner insisted that there was no collusion!)
I’ve also discovered, though you might laugh at this, the books of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, especially The Lord of the World (1907), and then there’s Dan Brown’s most recent, Origins (2017). They are all about the puzzle of how science and religion work together, and each one has a very different take on it.
I read Robert Hugh Benson when I was a novice, a time when we actually got to read a novel in the summer holidays. Now, re-reading it, I realise I don’t remember it at all. It’s all new again and this is what makes it all so fascinating. In that vein, I have to mention that I’ve always loved the work of J.R.R. Tolkien. I’ve read and re-read all of his works. I still devour books, but certainly less fiction now.
[The final exchange in this interview returned to Schner’s statement about life as a novice: “We were allowed to read one book that summer.” Click here for a genuinely confessional disclosure.