Interviews

Peter Taylor, The Art of Fiction No. 99

Interviewed by Barbara Thompson Davis

Peter Taylor is a storyteller of fixed abode. His ancestral ghosts inhabit an irregular triangle formed by Memphis, Nashville, and the farm at Trenton in Gibson County where Taylor spent much of his childhood.

The power and resilience of his roots have allowed him a peripatetic life. He and his wife, the poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, have owned nearly thirty houses since the first small duplex they bought in 1947 with the Randall Jarrells when Taylor and Jarrell were teaching at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina.

Our conversations over the tape recorder took place, as well, in many locations. The first was in the spring of 1981 in a dim corner of the Cosmos Club, a stately Victorian edifice on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C., where Taylor stayed while conducting a week’s workshop at American University. He sat under a larger-than-life portrait of some long-gone member in a stiff wooden chair that could only remind him that he too was sitting for a portrait rather than enjoying social conversation. He was not, then or ever, fully reconciled to the idea of a recorded dialogue, an extended self-revelation. “There is something offensive to me about a man or woman’s confessing all to the whole world. I never believe a word he or she says, especially when it’s ever so consistent. Always there is that ugly ego exposed. In my own case, how could I possibly assume that the world would have any interest in what I have to say about myself and/or my writing? Anybody but a friend, that is.”

And so we talked “on contingency”—that if at the end it was too hateful to him, the transcript would go into a locked drawer. We met and talked a half-dozen times over a period of years in a variety of places—early on, in a high-ceilinged room with fresh paint but no furniture that my husband and I had just bought in mid-Manhattan. We dragged in the kitchen table and sat at the two small rush-seated chairs until they got too uncomfortable, then adjourned to the Russian Tea Room, nearby, where the tape recorder picked up more of the gossip from the next table than of Taylor’s off-the-record stories of being young with Jarrell and Robert Lowell and Katherine Anne Porter. We met again that winter in Key West, Florida, where he and Eleanor wintered in a white conch house with a deep tree-shaded garden. There was a party that weekend, with the Taylors’ customary mix of local people and old friends, some of whom were poets and fiction writers—James Merrill, Richard Wilbur, John Ciardi, James Boatwright.

His house in Charlottesville, Virginia, is the serene repository of many inheritances: mellow old furniture and tall family portraits, oriental rugs on polished floors. There is a youthful portrait of Taylor over the mantelpiece in the library, across from the carved Victorian settee that he and Eleanor were bequeathed by Jean Stafford (Lowell) Liebling, a friend for decades. In his basement study, books line the walls, floor to ceiling, and a pair of sofas covered with old, Indian hand-blocked cotton offer comfort for the reader, or a place to sit and talk. Across the room his work-desk stands against the wall. It has many small drawers and its writing surface closes up like a box. On one side a dictionary lies open on its own table; on the other his seafoam Olivetti manual. At eye level atop the desk an ornate square clock of polished burl waits, its glass ajar, to be set and wound. Everywhere in these rooms one is conscious of the past as useful, beautiful, and suffused with meaning.

 

INTERVIEWER

Why did you become a writer, a storyteller?

PETER TAYLOR

I think a great part of it was the storytelling in the family. I was lucky to come along out of this family of storytellers. My grandfather was famous for his tales. There used to be cartoons about him in the Washington papers—standing in the senate cloakroom telling stories to the other senators. He was of the generation just following the Civil War; he was a little boy then. His father was of the war generation. He, that great grandfather, was a lawyer, a clergyman, a landowner. He went to Princeton and was a Unionist. In fact, he was commissioner of Indian affairs under the first President Johnson. He was enlightened and freed his slaves. But his wife was for the Confederacy, more or less. Her brother was a Confederate senator from Tennessee. That’s why the younger children of the next generation were afterwards to become Democrats and the older children Republicans. We grew up, in my generation, with political battles, sometimes bloody, at home between those great-uncles and aunts. But I think it did give me a sense of history, a sense of the past. I began to make up stories about these things, the old houses, Robert E. Lee, Southern things that I was obsessed by even then, at eight or nine. And I did have considerable imagination, of course, and so when I began to make up stories about my forebears, I began, you know, to exercise my power over them. That’s one of the satisfactions of writing fiction! One of the reasons that all of this was so interesting to me was that we lived outside the South, away from what we thought of as the South, and yet there was constant talk at our table about Tennessee, constant plans for going back there at Christmas, at Easter, at every holiday. This was when we lived in St. Louis. We considered that far up north! My mother and father thought Nashville was the center of the world. When we lived away from there it was either because my father was in business in St. Louis or my grandfather in politics in Washington. There are no more loyal Southerners than those who grew up just outside the South or in the border states. We lived in a little South of our own in St. Louis. We had a houseful of servants from my father’s farm in the cotton country of West Tennessee, and the adults—black and white—would talk about the South, about the way things used to be there. We had very intelligent people working for us. Lucille, who really ran the house, had been to college for two or three years, and had taught school. That was the tragic thing in those days: Even when the negroes went off to college, there was really nothing they could do with their education—especially during the Depression years—and they would come back home and go into service. Lucille would talk to me about my writing and my efforts to paint. I had more conversations with her than with my mother on those subjects—and of course far more than with my father. Lucille had more influence on me when I was a child than any other adult, unless it was her cousin Basil Manly Taylor, who was our butler. It has always been difficult for me to see how people who grew up in the South, brought up by people like Lucille Taylor and B. M. Taylor, could be guilty of race prejudice. The people that loved me most and that I loved most when I was growing up, I think, were these people.

INTERVIEWER

In the stories those black servants come across as very powerful.

TAYLOR

They were, indeed. My nurse, the Aunt Munsie in “What You Hear from ‘Em?” was the same nurse that my father had when he was a baby. She absolutely belonged to us, or we absolutely belonged to her. She often talked to us about having been a slave. She never knew how old she was. The only way we could estimate her age was by remembering she always said that she was “a girl up about the big house when freedom came.” That meant that she was about twelve years old, the age when she would have gone into her mistress’s house as a maid, and that was before Emancipation. Mammy adored my father, but she made my mother’s life hell. She had run my grandmother’s house as long as she lived, and when her old mistress died she had to be taken on by my mother. Mother would often send her away because she would take it upon herself to dismiss one of the other servants without so much as consulting Mother. She was jealous of the other maids and would send them packing if they were in too much favor with Mother. One of the crises between her and Mother was over the use of butter plates. Butter plates were a fashion Mother had brought with her from Washington. (She and my father had married in Washington when Grandfather was in the senate.) Mammy said, “Ain’t no need in nastyin’ up all them dishes.” When Mother would try to dismiss her, Mammy would say, “You can’t fire me. I was here afore you come here and I’ll be here when you gone.” She felt she was the real authority in the house, and of course after Grandmother was dead my father spoiled her. She was a wonderful character—even Mother recognized that—very tiny, what used to be called a “Guinea nigger.” She came to Tennessee, as an infant I think, by way of South Carolina. One time my father’s most important client—the richest man in the state—was having dinner at our house. He and my father were talking endlessly over the meal. Mammy was in the kitchen—she ran the kitchen and cooked, too. Someone else served at the table. And when the meal had gone on too long she entered through the swinging door and tapped my father on the head with her knuckles, saying, “Quit ’at talkin’ and eat them vittles.” This to my mother’s great embarrassment and to my father’s delight.

INTERVIEWER

In the dedication to your collected stories you spoke of your mother as the best teller of tales you ever knew. 

TAYLOR

She was that. She was constantly pouring out stories. You couldn’t stop her. She would tell a story over and over again, and she would tell it in precisely the same words every time. My father would do that too. She would begin by saying, “Have I told you about the time . . .” Since one had heard it about twenty times, one would say, “Yes, Mother, you have.” And she would proceed to tell it again. When she got very old she became less critical than formerly. That is, her inhibitions broke down and she didn’t censor her stories to the same degree. We would suddenly discover new things in her stories that had been suppressed before. A shocking love affair or a divorce—I mean, that is, the reason for the divorce or the real nature of the love affair had been suppressed.

INTERVIEWER

Many of the early stories are in a woman’s voice or from a woman’s point of view.

TAYLOR

When I first began writing stories I wrote about blacks a great deal, and I wrote about women. I didn’t begin with any conscious philosophy, but I had a store of stories that I knew, that I had been told, and I felt I had to write them. I discovered in writing them that certain people were always getting the short end. I found the blacks being exploited by the white women, and the white women being exploited by the white men. In my stories that always came through to me, and from the stories themselves I began to understand what I really thought.

INTERVIEWER

As Lawrence said, not to trust the teller, but trust the tale.

TAYLOR

I quote Frank O’Connor to my students: that when you are writing a story, at some point the story must take over. You are not going to be able to control it. I think this is true. O’Connor said he thought Joyce controls his stories too tightly—“Whoever heard of a Joyce story taking over?” he asked—and that there is a deadness about them. You have got to keep the story opened up, let the story take over at some point.

INTERVIEWER

Do you always know the ending when you begin?

TAYLOR

I know one ending. But before I’ve worked on a story very long I know another. That’s part of the fun of it. You begin with one thing, but the story itself may change your mind by the end. I always have some idea, but I think it’s important to keep your story free when you are writing it, rather than working mechanically towards a fixed ending. I often reverse my understanding in the course of writing a story. Perhaps my real feelings come out as I write.

INTERVIEWER

In ways you hadn’t imagined?

TAYLOR

That happens to me more often than not. I didn’t know what was going to happen in “The Old Forest.” I didn’t plan all the business of the hunt for Lee Ann or understand its significance. The significance began to emerge as I was writing it, along with my true feelings about the characters. The story came from something I remembered. I did have such an accident in the family car, and there were some incidents and characters like those I describe . . . There was a girl like Lee Ann and there was another set of young people that I sometimes ran with; the accident occurred a few blocks from where she lived, and she was involved in it. But it was only after I began writing the story that I realized the significance of that girl. Obviously it was too carefully plotted, at last, to have happened that way. Then another story of mine called “Guests,” an earlier one about a family who have cousins visiting them from the country—I hadn’t planned for anyone to die when I was writing the beginning of the story, but then it suddenly seemed the only way the story could end.

INTERVIEWER

What do you begin with, in those cases where it isn’t a remembered event or an old family tale?

TAYLOR

I often begin with a character or a situation I’ve observed or even with a joke I’ve heard. Often a very serious story has begun with a joke. If a joke or anecdote sticks in my mind for years I know there must be something in it that means something to me that I am not conscious of. This is what I mean when I say I feel one learns about oneself from writing fiction. If a story has stuck with me for years, even a dirty story, a dirty joke, I’ll think the story must contain some profound meaning for me and about me . . . I’ll give you an example. There’s a story called “Heads of Houses.” Ten years before I wrote it I knew a couple who went to stay in the summer with the wife’s parents up in the mountains of Tennessee. The two couples got on each other’s nerves terribly. Their summer together was a disaster, more or less, and so the young husband pretended he had received a telegram or letter—I think this got into the story—calling him back to the university where he taught. When they set out for home and were starting to drive down the mountainside, they looked back and saw the father and mother and bachelor brother join hands and dance in a circle on the lawn—they were so glad the young couple had gone! And, you understand, the young couple had been feeling guilty about leaving. When I began the story, the very point of it was to be that dancing on the lawn. That’s what had originally appealed to me. But when I finished it, it was all wrong. When I saw how wrong it was I tore up the story without ever looking at it again. Then I wrote it again from scratch—in quite a different form. When I wrote it the first time it was the story of the two couples; in the background was the brother, the one who danced with the parents in a circle. That was really his only role. But by the time I got the story worked out the second time, I saw how he was really the most sympathetic character in it. Everyone else is enjoying (or suffering) a rich family life, but the old bachelor brother is not having any life at all. And by the time I finished the second version there wasn’t even any dancing on the lawn. The parents and the brother are too preoccupied with the significance of the moment. The brother simply stands there juggling apples. So the important image I began with never got into the story at all. Then there is a story called “The Hand of Emmagene,” about a girl who cuts off her hand. Well, I’d heard that story fifteen years before, at least. It was told to me by the same woman, Lucy Hooke, who told me the story of “Heads of Houses.” She was a marvelous storyteller—you know how some people have a great talent for telling a story but can’t write one. Just as many writers can’t actually tell a story. Well, Lucy Hooke told me about the severed hand. It was her brother who found it, I think. It was a young woman’s hand. Why had she done it? What had happened? In real life she was a girl from East Tennessee, which is generally considered the puritanical part of the state, up-country. Nobody knew why she cut off her hand. That’s the mystery we were left with. I only knew that I must imagine why some young woman would do such a thing, what it signified. But I didn’t know how to use it, or what it meant to me. Or how I would fit something like that into the quiet world of the stories I usually write. And then at last I realized that what I had to do to dramatize it was to put it against the background of the most conventional people I could think of, just perfectly plain and unimaginative people. And in dramatizing it I found its significance, at least twenty-five years after the event. I have another story called “Her Need.” I have rewritten it since In the Miro District appeared. I was walking early one morning in Charlottesville and saw a young woman, thirty-five or so, with her teenage son beside her in her car speeding along through the residential streets, driving him somewhere. I began to speculate upon what they were doing, where they were going. I went home and wrote the story that day. Sometimes you have a story that’s been in your mind a long time. I have one story that I haven’t written yet that I want to write. I recently thought about it reading Trollope’s Barchester Towers. I want to bring out the story of the people who leave a town, leave the world they have always lived in and go off and become something else. What reminded me of it was the Stanhopes in Trollope, who had been off in Italy and then came back to Barchester. They are very continental, all their manners are different, and they are rather resented and thought odd by everybody. It’s a big part of the novel. Well, I have seen that happen. People would go off and become very rich someplace else and when they would come back to Nashville or Memphis or St. Louis, they weren’t quite accepted. I don’t know quite what it means: The people who resented them all wanted to be rich themselves. But if somebody went off and got to be president of U.S. Steel or owned it or something, the people back home rather rejected them. I’ll get some little theme like that and go over it and over it and wonder why it interests me and what there is in it, ask myself where does that lead and what does it signify? Is this just a frivolous interest or a profound one? What is marvelous is when your frivolous interests (your interests in the world, just representing it and imitating life) coincide with some serious theme that you are concerned with; when the two coincide, that’s what’s marvelous and fun. Then sometimes a story stays in your mind for a long time and refuses to yield the significance it has for you. It’s like trying to discover what your dreams mean. 

INTERVIEWER

When did you know that you were going to be a writer?

TAYLOR

When I finished school I received a scholarship to Columbia University. But it didn’t cover all my expenses; my father was dead set against my accepting it. It created a great crisis in the family. My mother was all for my going—for doing whatever I chose to do. She went out to the stores and outfitted me, even packed the wardrobe trunk. But my father held out against it. He was determined that I should go to Vanderbilt, where he had gone to college. I was equally determined that I shouldn’t go to Vanderbilt. So, instead, I went out to Southwestern there in Memphis and took some courses and at the same time got work at the newspaper. That was the greatest piece of good luck for me, because there in Tennessee during the Depression some of the best writers in the country (or in the English-speaking world) were teaching: Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren. I knew all those people when I was very young. Also Katherine Anne Porter and Andrew Lytle. Allen Tate particularly made a great impression on me. I had him as my freshman English instructor at Southwestern and he was electrifying. He talked about the art of fiction, taking it seriously as a form. It was his genius as a teacher that he made young people feel the importance of literature, the importance of art. That came just at the right moment for me. I had already realized that I had a welter of stories I wished to tell. I had written stories, I had written poems, but I had no real principles of writing. When I became interested in the formal qualities, art and life itself meant something. Later in life, Allen Tate and I quarreled. I think he did me a great injury. But I was able to forgive him because that injury counted for almost nothing compared to what he taught me when I was young. The next summer I took a writing course with Tate, in fiction, and that was the real beginning. Allen liked my stories immensely. He wrote letters to Robert Penn Warren about them—at that time Warren and Cleanth Brooks were editing The Southern Review—and sent him two of my stories, without my knowledge. That was very like Tate. He was ever generous with young people, to the end of his life. I know he sent those stories because in Warren’s preface to my first book he mentions that he had rejected them and expresses regret for having done so. Actually it was very wise of him and I am grateful to him for it now. But then I am grateful to him for so many things. One can’t have a better friend than Robert Penn Warren, or a more delightful companion. I saw that first story just the other day, in an old copy of a magazine called River. When Warren didn’t take those stories, I sent it to a man who’d written to me from Oxford, Mississippi. His magazine ran just a few issues, but my first story and Eudora Welty’s were in that issue.

INTERVIEWER

What came next?

TAYLOR

Allen Tate persuaded me I should go that next year to Vanderbilt. At Vanderbilt, I met John Crowe Ransom. He was a great poet. One never doubted that. But you never got to know him well—that is, not when you were a student. Later on we became good friends, played bridge together every week for years, but not in the early days. He was very different from Tate, who dramatized everything, even his friendships with students. Ransom’s way was the opposite. He was all understatement. You would go to his office for a conference on a story, bring the story for him to read, and he would say almost nothing. What he would say was very much to the point and counted a great deal with me, but you had to prod him, pull it out and listen carefully. He had pertinent things to say, but he hated what he sometimes called “evangelical teaching.” Ransom was a disciplinarian in his way and narrow: He had little interest in fiction and tried his best to persuade me to write poetry. I remember I wrote a story in which I included a little poem. The poem was necessary to the story, I believe. I kept that paper for years because he wrote on it “B for the story, A for the little poem.” That was his way of pressing me to write poetry. And I have to say that Ransom prevailed, because the first thing I ever published was a poem, the year I graduated from Kenyon. He was the best kind of teacher or the best for me at that time—a satisfying, reassuring person to talk to about one’s work just because he was so impersonal. When you gave him a poem to read the first thing he did was to look at the poem and tap on the desk to make sure the meter was correct. Then he carefully checked the rhyme scheme. He would not discuss other elements of the poem until he had done that. It seems now that what he taught me about writing was compression. And compression is what I have set great store by as a short-story writer. He was so questioning of every detail in the manuscript before him that you felt compelled to make everything functional and to be ready to defend it. That habit carried over into story writing. I believe that’s one reason I write stories instead of novels. As Faulkner is said to have said, everyone wants to write poetry in the beginning but if you can’t write poetry you write short stories, and if you can’t write short stories you write novels. Well, that’s too easy, but still there is some truth in it. And, of course, when I was at Kenyon I was writing poems in self-defense. The general interest there at that time was all in poetry, not at all in fiction. I’ve referred to Ransom’s interest, of course, but it must be remembered I was rooming with Robert Lowell. And Randall Jarrell was there, too. Jarrell knew a great deal about fiction, but his chief concern was with poetry. 

INTERVIEWER

Was Jarrell an important influence?

TAYLOR

He had tremendous influence on me for several years, most of all on my reading. I think I began reading Chekhov under his influence back at Vanderbilt, but I’m not sure. He was the first serious literary person I knew who read Chekhov stories and could talk about them. Other people would tell you they read or admired Chekhov but they didn’t really know his stories. Very few people have read them even now. I think it’s because his stories have the compression of poetry. Most readers don’t know how he is to be read. He gives the illusion that he is just telling a simple tale. Readers often feel it’s not much of a tale, that “nothing happens.” But actually every line is packed. I don’t know how much I have been influenced by him. I don’t ever consciously think, Ah, this is a Chekhov effect! But anything you admire so much is bound to affect you. Without knowing it, you are going to steal from it, or be influenced by its subtle structure and statement. That’s one reason for a young writer to read a master. But one goes through phases. Most people do. Everybody should. After Chekhov it was James for me. Since Jarrell didn’t like his fiction, James became one of our great subjects for debate. He would make condescending remarks about James, say really silly things and bend double with laughter. Finally it got so we avoided the subject. I went through a period when I read nothing but James. Lowell and I tried to read The Golden Bowl aloud! It is very hard to do. I suppose I absorbed something from Chekhov—people have pointed out evidence of it in my work, Jarrell especially did—but James I consciously learned from. I imitated him. And then I had to unlearn some of it. I think it is good to imitate for a time, but then you have to discard what you can’t use. In the long run, a good writer doesn’t have to worry about stealing or borrowing. What he can make his own he will keep without giving it a thought. What he can’t he will discard.

INTERVIEWER

Which were the Jamesian stories?

TAYLOR

I’m almost afraid to say, for fear that his influence doesn’t show in the least. “A Spinster’s Tale” would certainly be one, although other people may not see it. I was experimenting in those days in different ways. One of my ghost plays seems a direct steal from “The Jolly Corner,” but I didn’t realize it until I had almost finished writing it. It is the one where a man comes back to St. Louis to see his old girlfriend and comes upon himself as he might have been had he married that girl. It is perilously near “The Jolly Corner.” Then I had a Lawrence period. I still consider Lawrence’s short stories the greatest stories of this century. I keep going back to them. The feeling for nature in them is quite wonderful. It is rather the opposite of James. That is one of the things Jarrell would say about James, that in all of James you could never imagine finding a description of a landscape. I have dug out a few. But there are not many.

INTERVIEWER

What is your working schedule?

TAYLOR

When I’m teaching I don’t work much on my manuscripts. I keep them open on my desk, look at them every morning, but I don’t press myself. But that’s just September to Christmas. After Christmas it’s different. I devote myself entirely to my writing. I tell myself that my mornings are my writing time, no matter where I am. After an early breakfast I go to my study. Now I may not really write. Often my mind wanders off, I do other things. It may be eleven before I really get going. I’ll be there daydreaming, and then suddenly the thing just starts coming. Then I go on until I eat lunch at two or so. But I have got to the point now where I can write pretty well anywhere at any time. Writing is almost like ladies’ knitting—I always have it with me.

INTERVIEWER

That wasn’t always true?

TAYLOR

No indeed. For a long time I couldn’t write except under the strictest conditions. I began writing on the arm of a swing, on the back porch of our house—those first stories that Allen Tate liked. For a long time I couldn’t write anywhere else. Just superstition. I had to write on the swing on the back porch.

INTERVIEWER

The uncertainty of a beginning writer.

TAYLOR

Yes. You know you have to have two things when you begin to write. You have to have some instinct for writing stories—you may write your first stories just from that, entirely—but you also have to have some ability to learn how you did it and how it’s done: how to improve upon it. I so often see young writers who do what I did, which is to write two or three stories that were quite good, and then for several years not be able to write a decent story because of being so self-conscious about it, afraid of making some awful mistake. That’s when I think it is helpful to have an older writer to talk to about your work, who can say what’s good about it. Often you know it’s good but you don’t know how you did it. But I do still like to write on a porch swing! In Key West I have a swing on the porch where I like to sit to write. It gives you something to do, keeps you from smoking—you push yourself, your feet go . . .

INTERVIEWER

The fallow time, just pushing the swing, is very important, then?

TAYLOR

Your images depend on parts of you that you don’t control. You can’t just “work up” an image. You find the right way of telling the story through your dreams or something—it’s very much more like that.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever do research for a story?

TAYLOR

No, I feel very strongly against that. I read Southern history because I like reading it. Then suddenly I’ll find it appearing in something I write. But as soon as I have a body of ideas and put them in a story consciously, that just kills it for me. When I have done it at times, it has killed it. I have a number of stories I’ve never put in a collection and never would put in a collection, partly because it seemed to me they never came to life on their own. I had forced some idea, something Freudian or political or some idea about history.

INTERVIEWER

I was trying to write something last week and found I couldn’t go on until I found a street map of the city it took place in.

TAYLOR

Well, I might do that. If I didn’t remember something I might look it up, or correct it afterward, but usually my tendency is just to go on. I’ve had things terribly wrong, and had editors straighten me out, at The New Yorker particularly. With “The Old Forest” The New Yorker called and said, our historian tells us such and such, that the trees in that forest had not been there as long as I said they had been there, or that the city was not founded by the person I said it was. I said Andrew Jackson laid out the city and they said it was General Winchester. Well, General Winchester and General Jackson were in business together, they were land speculators. So I had it wrong, but I didn’t care.

INTERVIEWER

You left it?

TAYLOR

I think I changed it. It didn’t matter. But there were some things I left that they had corrected me on. I said, well, for the sake of the story what’s important is the legend I grew up with. I’ve always had a dislike of any form of didacticism, especially when it becomes the dominant element in writing. Character and emotional content should always be the strong elements. I think that was maybe what went wrong with my early novel, that I wanted it to be too profound, I was trying to put too much into it. I learned fairly early that one can handle only so much idea in a story. Well, or rather, I can!

INTERVIEWER

But memory is very important, isn’t it? What is your earliest memory?

TAYLOR

Standing on the lawn of the house at Trenton and seeing a wild sunset, reds, a red-brick sunset, a thing that both exhilarated and terrified me, being out there alone. And another early memory—I was alone again, I played alone a lot, although I had brothers and sisters around—was of seeing the first airplane that I’d ever seen. A little one. They never landed near Trenton. Seeing that tiny plane up in the sky, knowing a man was in it, made me feel very lonely.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think a great memory is important for a writer?

TAYLOR

You have to have a great memory for trivia, for details that are specific and that you want to remember. I do have a good memory. A while ago I got a letter from John Berryman’s first wife, Eileen Simpson, a brilliant woman. She sent me a part of a chapter of a book she was writing about Lowell and Berryman, Poets in Their Youth. Until I read it I hadn’t realized that I remembered every detail from the first crack-up Lowell ever had. Well, of course, it was very important: He was visiting us; there was no hospital that would accept him and we had to put him in jail, until his mother and Dr. Merrill Moore flew in and took him back to Boston. It’s a long story, part of it heartbreaking and part of it very funny. Allen Tate had called me from Chicago, and said, “Cal is not himself at all,” and that he and Caroline Gordon had just put him on a train! Well, of course I was furious—Allen had no business putting him on a train. But I also knew that Allen had a great dramatic sense and I thought he must be exaggerating. I didn’t think it was true when he said that Cal was beside himself. He’d behaved strangely, frightened a child at the station, and he had picked up Allen and carried him down the platform. Allen was very small. Anyhow, Allen said I was to meet him with the police at the railroad station! Well that was something! Because some time before that, when the Tates were in Maine visiting the Lowells, Caroline had thrown a peanut-butter jar at Jean Stafford Lowell and Jean ran and called the sheriff, saying, “I fear for my life.” Allen was outraged. He said, “You don’t call the police on your friends.”

INTERVIEWER

Why did she do it? Throw the peanut-butter jar?

TAYLOR

Oh, Jean said Allen was having an affair with a certain young literary woman and that infuriated Caroline. She started throwing things at Jean . . . But anyway, as soon as Cal stepped off the train I could see he was out of his head. He wasn’t the Lowell I knew. He was dirty and disheveled. So I took him to the faculty club and put him up there instead of taking him home. We had a new baby and I told him the baby was not well. But while we were having dinner in this place he began to sniff, and said, “Do you smell that?” I said no, and he said, “I know what it is, it’s brimstone. He’s over there behind the fern.” I took him to his room, and went to my house. But a few minutes later I was called by the people at the club. They said he had come out of his room and run through the kitchen terrorizing the cooks, and then rushed out into the streets. I spent the early part of the night searching for him, going through the streets calling, “Lowell, Lowell,” at the top of my voice. In the meantime he’d gone up to a movie house and stolen a roll of tickets—just reached in and grabbed the tickets and run off down the street! By now the police were looking for him too. We were all running around the town—Bloomington is not a big town!—and finally he knocked on a door that happened to be a policeman’s house, and they took him in. For me the most traumatic part of it all was the next morning. I was just beside myself because we had been the closest friends—roommates and all—and I thought it was the end. I never thought he would be sane again. So the next morning I went down there to the jail, and he was in a block of cells, and there was nobody there with him. They let me in and locked the gate, and I went into the cell with him. I was scared to death. Finally I said, “Cal, let’s pray,” and he said, “Let’s get down here and pray together to get out of this place.” And I said—because I was scared—“Cal, I never could pray in the same room with anybody.” So I went into the next cell, and we got down on our knees and prayed in adjoining cells. But then time went by and they changed guards. The new guard hadn’t been told I wasn’t also an inmate! I was in there four hours with him. I would call for them to let me out, and Cal would say, “That’s not Christian. You call for them to let me out and I’ll call for them to let you out!”

INTERVIEWER

I know you haven’t written memoirs, but do you write critical essays or reviews?

TAYLOR

The last review I wrote was a review of Allen Tate’s The Fathers, which came out, I think, in 1939. I resolved early that if I was going to teach I was never going to write criticism, and I won’t. It’s too hard. Why, writing criticism takes as much time as writing fiction and is a much less serious business! Teaching takes as much of my life as I want to give to generalization. And I like teaching so much better than I like writing criticism. It involves you with other people. I do all my teaching in conference, one to one. Teaching is always done best vis-à-vis. I worked in New York for a time at Henry Holt, just as a first reader, and I realized I disliked reading all those manuscripts from people I would never see or know anything about. It is so much more fun to see really bright young people trying to write and learning to read intelligently, and seeing them develop, being involved with them. So much of your life as a writer is isolating. When I think of that, I can hardly wait for my next teaching stint at some college or university. And then, too, I have a horror of defining, of limiting. Everything seems to me to be such a cliché as soon as I say it. The other problem is that as soon as I make a point, I am sure I can disprove it; I’m sure that the opposite is also true.

INTERVIEWER

You once said something in that context about Flaubert.

TAYLOR

Yes, well, of course, who can write fiction in this century without feeling some pressure from Flaubert. And some of the writers I’ve been influenced by, to them Flaubert was God. His was the Word. He was the Master. But you know, often I think of Flaubert’s rules and regulations and wish to see if I can successfully defy them. To see how much the narrator can generalize and how much he can come in and exercise his omniscience, how far I can impose the narrator on the narrative. Because, you know, I believe if one thing can be proved by some aesthetic theory, then there is inevitably another theory that can prove the opposite. The delightful thing about writing stories is that you can have it both ways. You can mull it over and cover up and deceive the reader until finally he accepts your way of doing it. The best thing of all is that you don’t have to be consistent, particularly from one story to another. When I was still an undergraduate I wrote a story called “The Spinster’s Tale.” The next story after that was called “The Fancy Woman,” in which I absolutely reversed the characters and the subject. What I wished to present in that first story was a discovery of evil, how the shock of it affected a woman’s whole life. And in the other story the character was so far corrupted that she couldn’t believe in her discovery of innocence. She was beyond any possibility of accepting it. Maybe that is not the right way to write, but I often bounce from one idea to another. So often ideas for stories are born out of other stories. You write one and you see some little minor theme in there that you wish to develop further.

INTERVIEWER

When I was reading your stories chronologically, I was conscious that many of them seemed concerned with revising some view of the past, or with present events in which the past is a vital element.

TAYLOR

I think that’s one way of thinking about one’s fiction. Saying, well, what if I looked at it from this other point of view? Taking stories one has heard and trying to make sense of them, trying to learn what in the closest analysis and profoundest speculation they might mean. In the beginning I wrote many stories about women. Southern women, old ladies, a lot of them. Each story came out of some incident, out of some strong feeling. I am always trying to discover in a story what it is that I am really trying to say about the subject and why it interests me, what it means and what I can do with it. In “Miss Leonora When Last Seen,” for instance, I was trying to imagine what it was like to have been one of those women. To reflect that side, that world. I had seen such women, and I wanted to discover what they meant, what their lives meant. The women that I had seen were the most cultivated people I knew, so much more cultivated than the men in that society. And they had ideas—not explicit ideas but inceptions of ideas as to what the world should be like, what their roles were to be. I had grown up with just so many old ladies: My father, being a lawyer, looked after the estates and affairs of many of them; wherever we were living they’d come to visit us, with their wardrobe trunks. They were delightful, extremely intelligent people. They stood for the intellectual and cultural life of the society.

INTERVIEWER

Jane Barnes suggests in her essay about you that after “Miss Leonora” you began to explore the masculine side of life, and of your own nature.

TAYLOR

I think she hits the nail on the head. In the beginning my sympathy had been all with women, but after that I thought, well, what if I look at it from the men’s point of view of that world. My wife says I’m much softer, easier on my father now when I tell stories . . . that his role changes in them from the way I used to tell them. When I was first married, my father and I had battles. On their visits, my father would insist on staying in bed and having his breakfast brought to him. I would rage and say, “He can’t do that!” and Eleanor would say, “Oh yes.” She would take his meals up, or my mother would. She remembers my raging—but I had other feelings about him, also.

INTERVIEWER

I remember an early story, “Porte-Cochère,” in which the father seems very like the man in “The Gift of the Prodigal” but less sympathetically viewed.

TAYLOR

The man in the later stories is much more sympathetic than the character in the earlier. I like that story dramatically—that’s what I was trying to do then, learn to write a dramatic story—but I feel I never got inside that man in “Porte-Cochère.” I had someone tell me just this week that it’s mechanically fine, dramatically witty, the language is satisfactory, but something is missing, something about getting inside the character. I don’t think the reader is engaged in that story emotionally. I think the new stories have that. I like to think I have made some progress. One makes advances. You do! You come to see what your story is like. That’s part of the fun: to see how you can get the other elements that are not your natural interests or concerns primarily. In that earlier story I was trying to force it really dramatically. He was not a character of the sort I was interested in at that time. I could probably write that story better now because I have more interest in that sort of person, maybe because since then I have seen my father and others grow old. And grown old myself. I can be more sympathetic.

INTERVIEWER

After “Miss Leonora” the next story was—

TAYLOR

“Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time.” Ford Madox Ford says at some point you have to begin to make up stories. Up until then in some stories—the most anthologized like “What You Hear from ‘Em?”—there’s not a word that’s made up. But “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” begins a change in my writing. It is less ironic, less funny, with fewer genteel characters, more eccentrics. I still like it as a story, but when it came out Randall Jarrell didn’t like it. He told me so.

INTERVIEWER

Was that important to you?

TAYLOR

We were very close at that time. In fact, we bought a duplex together. It was great fun. He’d go over my stories and over Eleanor’s poems. He loved to do that, and he’d say devastating things sometimes, but good things. I think he was the finest critic of the generation; it’s a delight to read him. He would spend just an amazing amount of time on his friends’ work, settling down for a whole afternoon over a story or a poem. But in the end you have to throw over your mentor. In my stories he didn’t like it whenever I introduced anything very severe. He wanted me to have a very light touch, Chekhovian, not to have much serious event in it. I think he really thought of me as the Southern regional writer of memoir stories. He used to say, “Write all those stories you can, because that is a world that’s gone, will never exist again, and this record of it should exist.” So when that story, “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” came out, he was very unsympathetic. Your friends often do this. When you want to change and are trying to do something else, they’ve liked that other you.

INTERVIEWER

I remember your saying that “Venus, Cupid . . . ” was your first plotted story—“made” rather than evolved. You started with an effect to be achieved rather than a tale to be told?

TAYLOR

I really had in mind almost an allegory. One of the things it’s about is incest—not just the brother and sister, but all the young people. It’s a form of incest to want to marry only in your class, your own background exactly. That was the world I had grown up in. I had seen my brothers and sisters in it. Some of those young people—it was very sad—couldn’t marry anyone but that way, and never married because there was nobody in that set the right age. They had other chances to marry, but nobody that would fit; it had to be “in the family,” so to speak. It is a sort of incest to marry within a class, especially when it’s within a class in a certain town. People didn’t like it as well if their families married somebody from Cincinnati or New Orleans; it had to be somebody from Memphis or Nashville. That was what my idea was. I had a much clearer synopsis for that story in my mind than I usually do. That really was a turning point.

INTERVIEWER

You often start with just an image, or a single sentence, don’t you? In “The Fancy Woman” it was that first sentence—“He wanted no more of her drunken palaver”?

TAYLOR

Yes. I feel justified in doing that because if you have any profound thoughts or views they will emerge from within the story inevitably. I still believe that. I tell young writers not to worry about writing a profound story because, as James said, a profound mind will produce a profound story and a superficial mind will produce a superficial story. Remember Tolstoy’s saying that Chekhov was so given to truth that he could not possibly have presented anything but the truth. And he said—Tolstoy said—that it’s very much the way it was when he was learning to ride a bicycle. He was learning in a huge gymnasium, and there was one lady, standing in the middle, walking around there, and he kept saying to himself, whatever I do I must not run into that woman. And he circled around her—he could hardly ride the bicycle—and ran her down. That’s the way Chekhov is with the truth, whatever he tries to do . . .

INTERVIEWER

And telling the truth is, finally, what writing is about? That wonderful quote from Montaigne about speaking the truth, not as much as you know but as much as you dare—and daring more as you grow older.

TAYLOR

I think trying to write is a religious exercise. You are trying to understand life, and you can only get the illusion of doing it fully by writing. That is, it’s the only way I can come to understand things fully. When I create, when I put my own mark on something and form it, I begin to know the whole truth about it, how it was put together. Then you can begin to change things around. You know all this after you have written a lot. You really know. And it has become the most important thing in your life. It has nothing to do with craft, or even art, in a way. It is making sense of life. It is coming to understand yourself. That’s what I love about Katherine Anne Porter. She managed to interpret the events of her life in her stories, just by writing them down. She knew what she was really like—and that represents the highest intelligence in the world, to know what you really are. She did. You think of a storyteller as not very intellectual at all—or I do—but someone who writes stories and lets his intelligence come out that way. But she was intellectual in the ordinary sense, too. Her essays are just amazing. Though she knew her art—there was no question about that—she was my idea of the unprofessional. I feel strongly against professionalism, against someone’s feeling he has to write a book every year to keep his name before the public. I see people processing themselves, torturing themselves, for that, rather than writing out of a compulsion some story from their own experience, their own feelings. That’s the way you should write, unless you are just practicing. I tell young writers to steal a plot or an idea or whatever, just to get going. See how a character comes out, how you fit it into your life . . . You see great writers doing it too. Certainly some of James’s stories came right out of Trollope. And some came from Hawthorne. It’s just so clear to me that James took the work of Hawthorne and Trollope and of all kinds of writers and made of them a much greater work. I really don’t think you should make money writing. Oh, I’m not going to turn down money, but people worrying about how they are going to make a living writing ought to worry about making a living some other way on the periphery, doing something congenial to them like teaching or editing. We hear a lot of complaints from writers now, especially from PEN, about the situation of the writer—well, it’s always been awful! I think you should write for yourself, for the joy of it, the pleasure of it, and for the satisfaction that you have in learning about your life.

INTERVIEWER

What about hackwork, copywriting, or journalism?

TAYLOR

Some good novelists have done it. It depends on the energy of the person, whether you can afford to waste that much. If you have enough money I don’t think you should do anything but write, but if you have to earn a living, there is nothing more pleasant than teaching!

INTERVIEWER

What about the alleged insularity of academic life, the Ivory Tower?

TAYLOR

The people affected by that insularity would be affected by something else. I certainly don’t think it hurt Warren and all that generation who taught. Some people can live in an academic community and write about other things. You can do that if you’ve had a fairly rich life, and especially if you live in the part of the world where you’ve always lived, and know people. And in my case, I’ve always made a point wherever we’ve lived, teaching, of having most of my friends from the town be nonacademic people. In Charlottesville our best friends are not the academics. When I taught at Ohio State—I did it for six years—we found a house at the farthest end of Columbus, in a completely unacademic community. Not because we didn’t like the others, but so as not to live entirely inside the academy. But if you’re a writer, if you have something to say, you can find it in anything; you can write about academics . . . they’re people too!

INTERVIEWER

In the last years you’ve been writing stories in a new form. Prose poems? What do you call them?

TAYLOR

Lowell always spoke of them as “story poems” in his homey way. That’s better. I have learned not to speak of them as poems, myself. I call them broken-line prose. I began writing them when I was trying to make things shorter. I am always trying for compression. It fascinates me that my stories get longer and longer when I’m always trying to make them shorter. I began by wanting to get interest in every line, every sentence. I felt if a line is broken, if where the line ends means something, you get another emphasis. When a sentence just ends at that line, you get one kind of rhythm, one emphasis, but if it ends in the middle of the line, you get something else, the run-on lines, enjambment. All these are techniques of poetry. Oh, the sentences mean what they mean, but the fact that they’re put together in a line gives another emphasis, the way it does in poetry. You have the two kinds of syntax, the line endings and the run-on line, and the regular syntax of the language. You can be saying a lot more in a short space. This was my feeling when I began writing them, not really knowing what I was doing. For years I had been very sanctimonious, saying, “I like poetry to be poetry and fiction to be fiction.” In my case that’s a sure sign that someday I’m going to change my mind and do just the opposite. So I began by writing just a few lines that way, in the story called “Three Heroines.” The story itself was easy to write because it’s almost literally what happened: an account of my going home, and my mother and the woman that had always looked after her. The story just fell into place, and I was able to work on the lines, working out the form. I submitted that story, “The Gift of the Prodigal,” to The New Yorker in that form. I knew all along they wouldn’t like it that way. I didn’t like it either; I did it sort of for fun. They wrote back at once, saying they’d like to print it, but they’d like me to put it in the other form. I said I would, but that I’d like the right, if I put it in a book, to put it back in the original form. I haven’t done so, however. Every story in In the Miro District was written in that form originally. That is, I began them all that way, but if I got halfway through and found that it got too long or I couldn’t sustain the concept or that the line ends were not significant, no longer functional, then I’d give it up. It had become artificial. But most of the time I think it puts more emphasis on the texture if you think in terms of lines, if you think of the intrinsic importance of each sentence. That is my ideal in writing, that each sentence should have an intrinsic interest, and then that it should have an interest in terms of the whole story. That is the satisfaction that you get in poetry, and this is the way I think of writing a story. Even the novel-like thing I’m writing now is being written in that form.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever written a full-length novel?

TAYLOR

One that I never published, and finally destroyed. It was the only really long full-length novel I ever wrote. It was about a young man in a city like Memphis, an artist, a painter, a writer, who goes away to New York. It’s about his love affair with an older woman. Then years later he comes back. It’s about his growing up and his discovery of the world outside, and his failures as an artist, really. But it never satisfied me. The poetry of it didn’t work, the poetry of character and context, which is what I care most about. I had too many diverse themes going at one time. I thought that was what one did in a novel, but for me it didn’t work. Finally, just to get it out of my system, I managed to make a sort of synopsis of it in a play called “The Early Guest.” The drama department at Charlottesville did two performances of it, with masks and all sorts of things. There is absolutely not a laugh in the whole play; it’s dead serious, without any irony. One performance was done for a big audience and I thought it was an excellent flop. But then it was presented again to a small highbrow audience of people just wild about the theater and I thought it was a great success, so that was some consolation.

INTERVIEWER

You once spoke of the short story as a dramatic form, more akin to playwriting than to the writing of novels.

TAYLOR

The short-story writer is concerned with compression, with saying as much as he can in a short space, just as the poet is. So he has to choose the right dramatic moment for the presentation. If he can do that in writing a story, he can have as big a canvas as he would with a novel. That’s the genius of the short-story writer—finding precisely the right moment in the vital interplay between the characters. The same is true for playwrights. In a play everything has to be done in a particular scene, at a particular time, and you have to choose that. That’s the business of the dramatist.

INTERVIEWER

Choosing what the curtain rises on, say, in The Cherry Orchard?

TAYLOR

Yes, the curtain goes up and the trees are being cut. You’ll find that Chekhov and Pirandello and many of the great short-story writers ended by writing plays that became their major works. The Irish playwrights. The only really boring thing Chekhov ever wrote was his one effort at novel writing, The Shooting Party. But in this country there’s always been pressure on short-story writers to become novelists. It’s easier to sell a novel than to sell a short story, really, and so there’s economic pressure to write novels. So many short-story writers that I know have agonized for years trying to write the novel that was going to make them rich or famous. Often it does. It’s strange; Katherine Anne Porter is famous because of Ship of Fools, which is not nearly as good as her stories, and Robert Penn Warren is famous for his novels, which are not nearly as good as his poems. I think Faulkner is a greater short-story writer than novelist.

INTERVIEWER

Did you know him?

TAYLOR

No, I never knew him either in Nashville or in Memphis. But when I was overseas, in my early twenties, my sister would see Faulkner at parties. She was a very attractive person; she would tell him that she had a younger brother who intended to be a writer, and he would give her advice which she wrote to me. I have somewhere her letters telling me what to read, what to do. One of the things he said was to “Read Anna Karenina and Anna Karenina and Anna Karenina,” which was marvelous advice, I think, but I wouldn’t have supposed he would have said just that about that book. This went on during the war. When I met him afterwards, he would have nothing to do with me! Oh, he would acknowledge my existence and so on, but he really didn’t like other writers. The only writer I ever knew whom he liked was Shelby Foote. He’s a wonderful historian, especially his Civil War histories. He and Faulkner became good friends. I can see that they temperamentally would have had something in common other than their literary interests—masculine interests in hunting and such things.

INTERVIEWER

You spoke earlier of trying to shorten and compress, but I have the impression that your most recent stories are often very long.

TAYLOR

I’m not trying now to write short stories. A really short story has to be concerned with a limited kind of experience, and be limited in time, I think. But if your tendency is to write longer and longer stories, then you should go ahead, I think. For one thing, I’ve gotten terribly interested in plot, a thing I scorned when I was a young man. When people would mention plot to me, or structure even, I was repelled. I thought there was something crass about plot. I had no interest in it. But I’ve learned through the years that there’s something very useful in it, that there is a kind of emphasis you can achieve with plot used properly. It punctuates! It can say, “Well, we’ve gone this far” and then “this far.”

INTERVIEWER

I know you admire Mann. Was this interest in plot and structure something you saw in him?

TAYLOR

I’m very admiring of the structure of his long stories—“Tonio Kröger” and “Disorder and Early Sorrow” and “Death in Venice.” I had always admired Tolstoy’s stories, but when I came to Mann’s—well, I’d always thought I knew what a short story was and what a novel was, but when I read those stories I saw that here was something that seemed to do the best of both. James loved that form too, that of the long story, but his are different altogether. Lowell used to make fun and say I was the master of the long short novel or the short long story, something like that—but I think there is a difference. In Mann or some of Turgenev’s stories that I admire, like “Old Portraits,” a whole life is suggested, which is not what James’s short novels do. Those are much more tightly made and focus on one certain area of experience. Jarrell didn’t like James’s stories because, he said, “You see how mechanically made they are!” Well, some of them do suggest a whole world, the same world that he gets in his great novels. But in these stories of Mann’s you have it every way. As the story moves and the character is revealed, the whole world opens up. That’s what’s very impressive to me. I don’t feel that one could see any influence in my stories—it was many years before I could even attempt such a thing—but the conception was very influential for a very long time . . . Do you know “Disorder and Early Sorrow”?

INTERVIEWER

Yes.

TAYLOR

What I admire is the whole period in history that seems to come out of that story. He has the historian, and then the drama between the young people in the story—so that it is very significant where and when the poetry of character and context takes place. And very dramatic. But without the need to reveal every part of a life.

INTERVIEWER

As you would feel in a novel?

TAYLOR

Well, in a long story you still do what you do in a short story but at the same time you suggest a great deal about the world; you imply and suggest more. In a novel you expect more explication. A story like Katherine Anne Porter’s “Old Mortality” suggests whole worlds. Almost every page suggests much more than is there—history, psychology, everything.

INTERVIEWER

But it’s still something that can be read in one sitting.

TAYLOR

That’s what I like to think of. These long stories that I’m writing are something that can be read in one evening. That’s what I love, to settle in for a long evening’s reading, several hours. I think there’s no reason to define what’s a novel and what’s a story finally, but in a novel you can often say—with Dreiser or someone—that it’s the cumulative effect that counts. It can be very dull and bad in parts. There’s not a page in Thomas Wolfe that I would really say I admire, and yet in the end he does have an impact. That’s true to a lesser degree of many other important novelists—that they’re not concerned with making every sentence do the kind of work that a short-story writer must. In fact, if you try to write a novel the way you write a poem or a short story, you end up with Finnegans Wake, and I think that’s a dead end. It shows genius. Only a genius could have written it, but does anybody read it except the scholars?

INTERVIEWER

We’ve not talked about marriage. How has it been, having two writers in the household?

TAYLOR

Eleanor has made it possible. Also, we married fairly young and both families were living. Neither of us was alienated from parents or from their culture. We came along in that Southern agrarian movement and were terribly interested in it, both of us. But the main thing was Eleanor. When our children came along, she just made up her mind not to think of her writing much. I mean she wouldn’t admit she was writing—if you write, you write! She devoted herself to her children and to being the daughter-in-law and the sister-in-law. She said she wasn’t going to have a competition between the children and the work. It was a risk because something might have happened; but she survived, and then she began writing again. And I always kept a job. The main reason I’ve always taught is that I didn’t want to pit my family against my writing either. But, after the children were gone, after we had played the traditional roles completely, we were in complete agreement that now we each were going to pursue our own selves, express our own taste, live as we want to, exactly, for some part of the year, and to write independently. In some ways we both write better in separate houses in different parts of the world! But the marriage was so cemented that it worked for us. Eleanor and I totally disagree on so many things, and yet we are able to because we have all this past in common, the family thing, and our affection for each other, and the children. But we totally disagree on all sorts of major topics of the day. She’s all for abortion, so I find myself taking more and more the other line. It’s such a mystery why people do get along. But then we did, all those years . . . I flatter myself that Jarrell used to say that we were the two best writers married to each other. He adored Eleanor. Then, I guess you have to talk in terms of psychology. We did not reject our traditional values and our backgrounds. Southerners are less likely to than people from other parts of the country. And then as other people want other things, I wanted family. I wanted to go on into this world seeing myself as living in a family. In a way it was a great interest of mine, an intellectual interest, I consider it—keeping in touch. From a very early age my mother taught me that you should never say “in-law,” “brother-in-law”; it was always “my brother.” That expresses something of the insistence upon the power of the family. I purposely kept going back. It is a barbarous country in which the family is not the basic unit because that means an end to the relationships between people of various age groups and—inevitably, in the extended family—various economic groups. We always had poor relations and rich relations and common relations. You might not admit it, but you had distant cousins you didn’t like. During the sixties and seventies when my children and other children were living in communes, I would say that’s not nearly as good a commune as the family commune; it’s easy to love people who are your age and exactly your position in life, but it’s not so easy to love babies and trembling old people. I know I sound like an old crank, but I think there really is a great sickness in the country—families are broken and people have no relations except with their own generation. They have better race relations with other people in their generation, but they don’t have any relation with the very old and the very young, with people who are eccentrics, who are totally different from them. We all know how difficult it is to live in families, what a nightmare families are, what a nightmare marriage is. The family’s the worst institution ever invented—but only if society is not supportive. If all society is not built upon it there’s no power in it. Power is very important. If there is no power in the family then it’s just a constraint and a burden. I know better than anybody, as a Southerner and as a member of large families, how terribly you paid, but then see what you pay now by this isolation, and the kind of dependency that you get from old people’s homes, the indifference of bureaucrats. The humanity of the family is lost and lost forever. The particularity of life is lost when we are just so many isolated creatures. I don’t know any solution for it, because for me it all hinges on that tiny little thing, the consolidation of schools, and the breakdown of the small community within this enormous community, all over the country.

INTERVIEWER

How would you like to be remembered?

TAYLOR

I would like to have as many of my stories as possible survive and be read and liked. At my age it’s hard not to want to feel that your last book is your best book. And I’d like to feel that what I’m doing now is still better. When I look back on my earlier things I understand why a lot of them were ignored. They’re not bad, they’re not slick or cheap in any way, but I lacked knowledge of how to say what I wanted to say, and lacked knowledge of what I wanted to say. I always had the inclination to tell a story, but in my early stories I never pressed hard enough to know what it meant, as I think I do now. I wasted many years of effort writing things that were not the kinds of stories I should have been writing. I’m not ashamed of any of them, but I wish I’d written other stories that I would like to write now.

INTERVIEWER

What are you working on now?

TAYLOR

I consider it bad luck to talk about what you’re going to write—bad luck and boring to the listener. I have completed the second draft of a novel—or a long, long story—two hundred fifty pages. And I have put it away for a time. And I have about a hundred pages on another. Both have the same setting as A Stand in the Mountains—that is, an old-fashioned Southern summer resort.

INTERVIEWER

Now, the obligatory finale: What is the function of the artist in society?

TAYLOR

I think he is the ornament of society! Oh, there is not just one role for the artist in society. He has many roles and he has a different role as society changes, and in different societies. In medieval society it was one thing and in the Renaissance it became another, moving far away from doing saints in stone. He can be a seer at times, and in the eighteenth century he was the satirist, the artist stepping back and holding up the mirror to society. Moreover, I don’t think the same kind of person is necessarily an artist or a poet in one century as another. A lot of people would disagree, but I don’t think Milton would necessarily have been a poet if he had been born in the mid-nineteenth century. Or some other poets, Auden for instance. I think what’s possible for the artist in a society attracts different kinds of people. I think Jefferson would have been a scientist in another age and I think John Randolph of Roanoke would have been a poet or a literary man in another age. But because they lived in Virginia at that time they both had to be politicians first, or statesmen, and they were. In Virginia at that time every intellectual pursuit was for the commonwealth. That’s an example, sort of in reverse!

INTERVIEWER

And now?

TAYLOR

I think the artist’s role now is to resist uniformity and all the evils of industrial society and the scientific age. The arts and the sciences are enemies. It’s the particular against the general. The artist is something outside society. I don’t believe in a literary profession. I think that being a writer is much more the pursuit of a religion. I have a religious feeling about it. It’s not a priesthood, but it’s one step back. I think of myself as somebody who writes out of a compulsion, out of a longing to understand his life.


Author photograph by Dorothy Alexander.