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Kathryn C. Hulme

I'M A CALIFORNIAN, BORN AND RAISED IN SAN FRANCISCO, a "vintage San Franciscan" as I sometimes call myself proudly, since my father was also born in that city to which my grandparents came in the 1850's via covered wagon and clipper ship. Educated in the public schools and later in the University of California, I concentrated as heavily as the curriculum allowed on literature courses, and I cannot remember a time when the idea of becoming a writer was not the number one desire in my heart. The taste for books came from my mother, a confirmed bookworm who was perennially in debt to the publishing houses which in those days sold "sets" of Mark Twain, Stevenson, and Victor Hugo on the installment plan, their salesmen going from door to door with their handsome offerings. Thanks to her never being able to say 'Not to a book-peddler, I fed on the classics from my earliest reading days.

From that California childhood there emerged many years later what I called my first real writing-an autobiographical story, thinly disguised as fiction, entitled We Lived as Children, published by Alfred Knopf in 1938. A book of African travel sketches and a novel set in Tunisia preceded the autobiographical story, but I never boasted much about these first two fruits bursting with purple passages. Willa Cather was my literary idol at that time. Her clean beautiful prose made me look at my own with dismay. Maybe I wasn't meant to be a writer after all. Then one day, as I sat in a little cafe on the Left Bank of Paris, where I was living and earning my living, I began to write the first of the stories that belonged to me: We Lived as Children. It was a story of early San Francisco, a divorce and a broken family and a gallant little mother who tried to protect her children from the sense of shame that the word 'divorce' implied in the early 1900's. I wanted the book to be a tremendous indictment of divorce, but perhaps I treated the mother-love theme too tenderly to achieve my aim. The book, nevertheless, was a success, reviewed warmly as a charming period piece of a California childhood and praised for the quality of its prose. At last I could believe that I was beginning to learn how to write.

There was another beginning, in that fictionized autobiography, which I can see clearly today, although at the time I was completely unaware of it. There was the certain beginning of my interest in the Catholic Church which forbade divorce, an interest which many years later was to lead me to the doors of the Jesuit rectory in Phoenix, Arizona, to ask for instruction in the Faith.

World War II intervened and the desolate post-war years in Germany afterwards when I gave heart and hands to the Displaced Persons, working as a United Nations relief officer in Bavaria from 1945 until 1951, when at last I was free to come home and try to write again. And I came home burdened with the story of what I had seen and experienced in the refugee camps and so produced the book,The Wild Place, which to my astonishment won the Atlantic Non-Fiction Award for 1953. It was published by Little, Brown & Company, Boston. It was while writing that report on the human debris of World War II that I became a convert and was received into the Church at St. Francis Xavier's in Phoenix. Incidentally, I had chosen Phoenix as the place to try for a writing come-back for two reasons: one, I knew not a soul in the entire State and would not therefore be tempted away from my typewriter by friends; and two, after six winters in the Gotterdammerung fogs of Germany, I felt I needed at least a year of hot sunshine to burn the mold out of my bones!

Phoenix did just that for me, and something more besides. At the risk of having this autobiographical note sound contrived, I've got to confess that my latest book, The Nun's Story, also published by Little, Brown, first took shape in that city as a story possibility, when I was talking one afternoon with my little Jesuit Father in St. Francis Xavier rectory. I had not yet completed The Wild Place and had no inkling even that it would sell. I confided to the Father that I thought all writers were slightly mad to imagine they could earn a living by writing in these days, especially writers like myself who wanted to do serious themes and not escapist stuff. America was fed up to the gills with stories of refugees, I said. Anyone with a grain of sense knew that there was no market for them, yet there was I slaving away day after day on my sorrowful story, fully aware of its dubious saleability but unable to stop the compulsive flow of words. . .

"Because you are a writer, Miss Hulme," the Father said. His Irish blue eyes twinkled as he looked at me wringing my hands. Then he said thoughtfully: "You'll go on writing because that is your gift. And I'll even venture the prophecy that one day you'll use your pen in an apostolic work."

His calm statement startled me into vigorous denials. I should never have the temerity to try such a work: I am a convert barely three weeks old in the Faith. Even if such a desire arose in me, I'd have the good sense to suppress it, I said. What could I possibly have to say about anything religious, I who had spent half my life outside of any church?

Four years later, almost to the day, The Nun's Story was published by Little, Brown. In the long travail of writing it I never once thought of it as "an apostolic work," nor do I now. I thought of it as a salute to the dedicated life which I have always revered wherever and whenever I have encountered it-in my own mother dedicated to motherhood, first; later in some of my teachers and finally in the relief workers I met overseas, most notably of all in the Belgian nurse on one of our UNRRA teams who is the living counterpart of my "Sister Luke," who told me her story in bits and parts through the long winter nights in Germany. And that heroic story of a dedicated life was lying within me like a powerful yeast when I walked away from the Jesuit rectory so certain that never would my pen be used for the writing of anything with a religious theme!

I've learned my lesson. I'll never again sound off on what I can or cannot, will or will not, write. The unexpected warm reception of The Nun's Story guarantees that I may go on writing and that I shall do, God willing, and that is the happiest statement that an author can make- a fitting way to end this little resume of my writer's life.

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