Interviews

Katherine Anne Porter, The Art of Fiction No. 29

Interviewed by Barbara Thompson Davis

The Victorian house in which Katherine Anne Porter lived was narrow and white, reached by an iron-railed stairway curving up from the shady brick-walked Georgetown street. The parlor to which a maid admitted the caller was an elegant mélange of several aspects of the past, both American and European. Dim and cool after the midsummer glare, the high-ceilinged room was dominated by a bottle-green settee from the period of Napoleon III. Outside the alcove of windows there was a rustle of wind through ginkgo trees, then a hush.

Finally, a voice in the upper hallway: its tone that of someone talking to a bird, or coquetting with an old beau—light and feathery, with a slight flutter. A few moments later, moving as lightly as her voice, Miss Porter hurried through the wide doorway, unexpectedly modern in a soft green suit of woven Italian silk. Small and elegant, she explained her tardiness, related an anecdote from the morning’s mail, offered a minted iced tea, and speculated aloud on where we might best conduct our conversation.

She decided on the dining room, a quiet, austere place overlooking the small enclosed garden. Here the aspect was a different one. “I want to live in a world capital or the howling wilderness,” she said once, and did. The drawing room was filled with pieces that had once been part of the house on the rue Notre Dame des Champs; this one was bright with Mexican folk art—whistles and toy animals collected during a recent tour for the Department of State—against simpler, heavier pieces of furniture. The round table at which we sat was of Vermont marble, mottled and colored like milk glass, on a wrought-iron base of her own design. There was a sixteenth-century cupboard from Ávila, and a refectory table of the early Renaissance from a convent in Fiesole. Here we settled the tape recorder, under an image of the great god Horus.

We tried to make a beginning. She was an experienced lecturer, familiar with microphone and tape recorder, but now she was to talk about herself as well as her work, the link between, and the inexorable winding of the tape from one spool to the other acted almost as a hypnotic. Finally we turned it off and talked for a while of other things, more frivolous and more autobiographical, hoping to surprise an easier revelation . . .

 

INTERVIEWER

You were saying that you had never intended to make a career of writing. 

KATHERINE ANNE PORTER

I’ve never made a career of anything, you know, not even of writing. I started out with nothing in the world but a kind of passion, a driving desire. I don’t know where it came from, and I don’t know why—or why I have been so stubborn about it that nothing could deflect me. But this thing between me and my writing is the strongest bond I have ever had—stronger than any bond or any engagement with any human being or with any other work I’ve ever done. I really started writing when I was six or seven years old. But I had such a multiplicity of half-talents, too: I wanted to dance, I wanted to play the piano, I sang, I drew. It wasn’t really dabbling—I was investigating everything, experimenting in everything. And then, for one thing, there weren’t very many amusements in those days. If you wanted music, you had to play the piano and sing yourself. Oh, we saw all the great things that came during the season, but after all, there would only be a dozen or so of those occasions a year. The rest of the time we depended upon our own resources: our own music and books. All the old houses that I knew when I was a child were full of books, bought generation after generation by members of the family. Everyone was literate as a matter of course. Nobody told you to read this or not to read that. It was there to read, and we read.

INTERVIEWER

Which books influenced you most?

PORTER

That’s hard to say, because I grew up in a sort of mélange. I was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets when I was thirteen years old, and I’m perfectly certain that they made the most profound impression upon me of anything I ever read. For a time I knew the whole sequence by heart; now I can only remember two or three of them. That was the turning point of my life, when I read the Shakespeare sonnets, and then all at one blow, all of Dante—in that great big book illustrated by Gustave Doré. The plays I saw on the stage, but I don’t remember reading them with any interest at all. Oh, and I read all kinds of poetry—Homer, Ronsard, all the old French poets in translation. We also had a very good library of—well, you might say secular philosophers. I was incredibly influenced by Montaigne when I was very young. And one day when I was about fourteen, my father led me up to a great big line of books and said, “Why don’t you read this? It’ll knock some of the nonsense out of you!” It happened to be the entire set of Voltaire’s philosophical dictionary with notes by Smollett. And I plowed through it; it took me about five years.

And of course we read all the eighteenth-century novelists, though Jane Austen, like Turgenev, didn’t really engage me until I was quite mature. I read them both when I was very young, but I was grown up before I really took them in. And I discovered for myself Wuthering Heights; I think I read that book every year of my life for fifteen years. I simply adored it. Henry James and Thomas Hardy were really my introduction to modern literature; Grandmother didn’t much approve of it. She thought Dickens might do, but she was a little against Mr. Thackeray; she thought he was too trivial. So that was as far as I got into the modern world until I left home!

 

INTERVIEWER

Don’t you think this background—the comparative isolation of Southern rural life and the atmosphere of literary interest—helped to shape you as a writer?

PORTER

I think it’s something in the blood. We’ve always had great letter writers, readers, great storytellers in our family. I’ve listened all my life to articulate people. They were all great storytellers, and every story had shape and meaning and point.

INTERVIEWER

Were any of them known as writers?

PORTER

Well, there was my sixth or seventh cousin once removed, poor William Sidney. O. Henry, you know. He was my father’s second cousin—I don’t know what that makes him to me. And he was more known in the family for being a bank robber. He worked in a bank, you know, and he just didn’t seem to find a talent for making money; no Porter ever did. But he had a wife who was dying of TB and he couldn’t keep up with the doctor’s bills. So he took a pitiful little sum—oh, about three hundred and fifty dollars—and ran away when he was accused. But he came back, because his wife was dying, and went to prison. And there was Horace Porter, who spent his whole eight years as ambassador to France looking for the bones of John Paul Jones. And when he found them, and brought them back, he wrote a book about them.

INTERVIEWER

It seems to me that your work is pervaded by a sense of history. Is that part of the family legacy?

PORTER

We were brought up with a sense of our own history, you know. My mother’s family came to this country in 1648 and went to the John Randolph territory of Virginia. And one of my great-great-grandfathers was Jonathan Boone, the brother of Daniel. On my father’s side I’m descended from Colonel Andrew Porter, whose father came to Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, in 1720. He was one of the circle of George Washington during the Revolution, a friend of Lafayette, and one of the founders of the Society of the Cincinnati—oh, he really took it seriously!—and when he died in 1809—well, just a few years before that he was offered the post of secretary of war, but he declined. We were never very ambitious people. We never had a president, though we had two governors and some in the army and the navy. I suppose we did have a desire to excel but not to push our way to higher places. We thought we’d already arrived!

INTERVIEWER

The “we” of family is very strong, isn’t it? I remember that you once wrote of the ties of blood as the “absolute point of all departure and return.” And the central character in many of your stories is defined, is defining herself often, in relation to a family organization. Even the measure of time is human—expressed in terms of the very old and the very young, and how much of human experience they have absorbed.

PORTER

Yes, but it wasn’t a conscious made-up affair, you know. In those days you belonged together, you lived together, because you were a family. The head of our house was a grandmother, an old matriarch, you know, and a really lovely and beautiful woman, a good soul, and so she didn’t do us any harm. But the point is that we did live like that, with Grandmother’s friends, all reverend old gentlemen with frock coats, and old ladies with jet breastplates. Then there were the younger people, the beautiful girls and the handsome young boys, who were all ahead of me; when I was a little girl, eight or nine years old, they were eighteen to twenty-two, and they represented all glamour, all beauty, all joy and freedom to me. Then there was my own age, and then there were the babies. And the servants, the Negroes. We simply lived that way; to have four generations in one house, under one roof, there was nothing unusual about that. That was just my experience, and this is just the way I’ve reacted to it. Many other people didn’t react, who were brought up in very much the same way.

I remember when I was very young, my older sister wanted to buy some old furniture. It was in Louisiana, and she had just been married. And I went with her to a wonderful old house in the country where we’d been told there was a very old gentleman who probably had some things to sell. His wife had died, and he was living there alone. So we went to this lovely old house, and, sure enough, there was this lonely beautiful old man, eighty-seven or -eight, surrounded by devoted Negro servants. But his wife was dead and his children were married and gone. He said, yes, he had a few things he wanted to sell. So he showed us through the house. And finally he opened a door, and showed us a bedroom with a beautiful four-poster bed, with a wonderful satin coverlet: the most wonderful, classical-looking bed you ever saw. And my sister said, “Oh, that’s what I want.” And he said, “Oh, madame, that is my marriage bed. That is the bed that my wife brought with her as a bride. We slept together in that bed for nearly sixty years. All our children were born there. Oh,” he said, “I shall die in that bed, and then they can dispose of it as they like.”

I remember that I felt a little suffocated and frightened. I felt a little trapped. But why? Only because I understood that. I was brought up in that. And I was at the age of rebellion then, and it really scared me. But I look back on it now and think how perfectly wonderful, what a tremendously beautiful life it was. Everything in it had meaning. 

INTERVIEWER

But it seems to me that your work suggests someone who was searching for new—perhaps broader—meanings . . . that while you’ve retained the South of your childhood as a point of reference, you’ve ranged far from that environment itself. You seem to have felt little of the peculiarly Southern preoccupation with racial guilt and the death of the old agrarian life.

PORTER

I’m a Southerner by tradition and inheritance, and I have a very profound feeling for the South. And, of course, I belong to the guilt-ridden white-pillar crowd myself, but it just didn’t rub off on me. Maybe I’m just not Jewish enough, or Puritan enough, to feel that the sins of the father are visited on the third and fourth generations. Or maybe it’s because of my European influences—in Texas and Louisiana. The Europeans didn’t have slaves themselves as late as my family did, but they still thought slavery was quite natural. . . . But, you know, I was always restless, always a roving spirit. When I was a little child I was always running away. I never got very far, but they were always having to come and fetch me. Once when I was about six, my father came to get me somewhere I’d gone, and he told me later he’d asked me, “Why are you so restless? Why can’t you stay here with us?” and I said to him, “I want to go and see the world. I want to know the world like the palm of my hand.”

INTERVIEWER

And at sixteen you made it final.

PORTER

At sixteen I ran away from New Orleans and got married. And at twenty-one I bolted again, went to Chicago, got a newspaper job, and went into the movies.

INTERVIEWER

The movies?

PORTER

The newspaper sent me over to the old S. and A. movie studio to do a story. But I got into the wrong line, and then was too timid to get out. “Right over this way, Little Boy Blue,” the man said, and I found myself in a courtroom scene with Francis X. Bushman. I was horrified by what had happened to me, but they paid me five dollars for that first day’s work, so I stayed on. It was about a week before I remembered what I had been sent to do; and when I went back to the newspaper they gave me eighteen dollars for my week’s nonwork and fired me!

I stayed on for six months—I finally got to nearly ten dollars a day—until one day they came in and said, “We’re moving to the coast.” “Well, I’m not,” I said. “Don’t you want to be a movie actress?” “Oh, no!” I said. “Well, be a fool!” they said, and they left. That was 1914 and world war had broken out, so in September I went home.

INTERVIEWER

And then?

PORTER

Oh, I sang old Scottish ballads in costume—I made it myself—all around Texas and Louisiana. And then I was supposed to have TB, and spent about six weeks in a sanatorium. It was just bronchitis, but I was in Denver, so I got a newspaper job.

INTERVIEWER

I remember that you once warned me to avoid that at all costs—to get a job “hashing” in a restaurant in preference.

PORTER

Anything, anything at all. I did it for a year and that is what confirmed for me that it wasn’t doing me any good. After that I always took little dull jobs that didn’t take my mind and wouldn’t take all of my time, and that, on the other hand, paid me just enough to subsist. I think I’ve only spent about ten percent of my energies on writing. The other ninety percent went to keeping my head above water.

And I think that’s all wrong. Even Saint Teresa said, “I can pray better when I’m comfortable,” and she refused to wear her haircloth shirt or starve herself. I don’t think living in cellars and starving is any better for an artist than it is for anybody else; the only thing is that sometimes the artist has to take it, because it is the only possible way of salvation, if you’ll forgive that old-fashioned word. So I took it rather instinctively. I was inexperienced in the world, and likewise I hadn’t been trained to do anything, you know, so I took all kinds of laborious jobs. But, you know, I think I could probably have written better if I’d been a little more comfortable.

INTERVIEWER

Then you were writing all this time?

PORTER

All this time I was writing, writing no matter what else I was doing; no matter what I thought I was doing, in fact. I was living almost as instinctively as a little animal, but I realize now that all that time a part of me was getting ready to be an artist. That my mind was working even when I didn’t know it, and didn’t care if it was working or not. It is my firm belief that all our lives we are preparing to be somebody or something, even if we don’t do it consciously. And the time comes one morning when you wake up and find that you have become irrevocably what you were preparing all this time to be. Lord, that could be a sticky moment, if you had been doing the wrong things, something against your grain. And, mind you, I know that can happen. I have no patience with this dreadful idea that whatever you have in you has to come out, that you can’t suppress true talent. People can be destroyed; they can be bent, distorted and completely crippled. To say that you can’t destroy yourself is just as foolish as to say of a young man killed in war at twenty-one or twenty-two that that was his fate, that he wasn’t going to have anything anyhow.

I have a very firm belief that the life of no man can be explained in terms of his experiences, of what has happened to him, because in spite of all the poetry, all the philosophy to the contrary, we are not really masters of our fate. We don’t really direct our lives unaided and unobstructed. Our being is subject to all the chances of life. There are so many things we are capable of, that we could be or do. The potentialities are so great that we never, any of us, are more than one-fourth fulfilled. Except that there may be one powerful motivating force that simply carries you along, and I think that was true of me. . . . When I was a very little girl I wrote a letter to my sister saying I wanted glory. I don’t know quite what I meant by that now, but it was something different from fame or success or wealth. I know that I wanted to be a good writer, a good artist.

INTERVIEWER

But weren’t there certain specific events that crystallized that desire for you—something comparable to the experience of Miranda in Pale Horse, Pale Rider?

PORTER

Yes, that was the plague of influenza, at the end of the First World War, in which I almost died. It just simply divided my life, cut across it like that. So that everything before that was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready. It took me a long time to go out and live in the world again. I was really “alienated,” in the pure sense. It was, I think, the fact that I really had participated in death, that I knew what death was, and had almost experienced it. I had what the Christians call the “beatific vision,” and the Greeks called the “happy day,” the happy vision just before death. Now if you have had that, and survived it, come back from it, you are no longer like other people, and there’s no use deceiving yourself that you are. But you see, I did: I made the mistake of thinking I was quite like anybody else, of trying to live like other people. It took me a long time to realize that that simply wasn’t true, that I had my own needs and that I had to live like me.

INTERVIEWER

And that freed you?

PORTER

I just got up and bolted. I went running off on that wild escapade to Mexico, where I attended, you might say, and assisted at, in my own modest way, a revolution.

INTERVIEWER

That was the Obregón Revolution of 1921?

PORTER

Yes—though actually I went to Mexico to study the Aztec and Mayan art designs. I had been in New York, and was getting ready to go to Europe. Now, New York was full of Mexican artists at that time, all talking about the renaissance, as they called it, in Mexico. And they said, “Don’t go to Europe, go to Mexico. That’s where the exciting things are going to happen.” And they were right! I ran smack into the Obregón Revolution, and had, in the midst of it, the most marvelous, natural, spontaneous experience of my life. It was a terribly exciting time. It was alive, but death was in it. But nobody seemed to think of that: life was in it, too.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think are the best conditions for a writer, then? Something like your Mexican experience, or—

PORTER

Oh, I can’t say what they are. It would be such an individual matter. Everyone needs something different. . . . But what I find most dreadful among the young artists is this tendency toward middle-classness—this idea that they have to get married and have lots of children and live just like everybody else, you know? Now, I am all for human life, and I am all for marriage and children and all that sort of thing, but quite often you can’t have that and do what you were supposed to do, too. Art is a vocation, as much as anything in this world. For the real artist, it is the most natural thing in the world, not as necessary as air and water, perhaps, but as food and water. But we really do lead almost a monastic life, you know; to follow it you very often have to give up something. 

INTERVIEWER

But for the unproven artist that is a very great act of faith. 

PORTER

It is an act of faith. But one of the marks of a gift is to have the courage of it. If they haven’t got the courage, it’s just too bad. They’ll fail, just as people with lack of courage in other vocations and walks of life fail. Courage is the first essential.

INTERVIEWER

In choosing a pattern of life compatible with the vocation?

PORTER

The thing is not to follow a pattern. Follow your own pattern of feeling and thought. The thing is to accept your own life and not try to live someone else’s life. Look, the thumbprint is not like any other, and the thumbprint is what you must go by.

INTERVIEWER

In the current vernacular, then, you think it’s necessary for an artist to be a “loner”—not to belong to any literary movement?

PORTER

I’ve never belonged to any group or huddle of any kind. You cannot be an artist and work collectively. Even the fact that I went to Mexico when everybody else was going to Europe—I went to Mexico because I felt I had business there. And there I found friends and ideas that were sympathetic to me. That was my entire milieu. I don’t think anyone even knew I was a writer. I didn’t show my work to anybody or talk about it, because—well, no one was particularly interested in that. It was a time of revolution, and I was running with almost pure revolutionaries!

INTERVIEWER

And you think that was a more wholesome environment for a writer than, say, the milieu of the expatriated artist in Europe at the same time?

PORTER

Well, I know it was good for me. I would have been completely smothered—completely disgusted and revolted—by the goings-on in Europe. Even now when I think of the twenties and the legend that has grown up about them, I think it was a horrible time: shallow and trivial and silly. The remarkable thing is that anybody survived in such an atmosphere—in a place where they could call F. Scott Fitzgerald a great writer! 

INTERVIEWER

You don’t agree?

PORTER

Of course I don’t agree. I couldn’t read him then and I can’t read him now. There was just one passage in a book called Tender Is the Night—I read that and thought, “Now I will read this again,” because I couldn’t be sure. Not only didn’t I like his writing, but I didn’t like the people he wrote about. I thought they weren’t worth thinking about, and I still think so. It seems to me that your human beings have to have some kind of meaning. I just can’t be interested in those perfectly stupid meaningless lives. And I don’t like the same thing going on now—the way the artist simply will not face up to the final reckoning of things.

INTERVIEWER

In a philosophical sense?

PORTER

I’m thinking of it now in just the artistic sense—in the sense of an artist facing up to his own end meanings. I suppose I shouldn’t be mentioning names, but I read a story some time ago, I think it was in The Paris Review, called “The McCabes.” Now I think William Styron is an extremely gifted man: he’s very ripe and lush and with a kind of Niagara Falls of energy, and a kind of power. But he depends so on violence and a kind of exaggerated heat—at least it looks like heat, but just turns out to be summer lightning. Because there is nothing in the world more meaningless than that whole escapade of this man going off and winding up in the gutter. You sit back and think, Well, let’s see, where are we now? All right, it’s possible that that’s just what Styron meant—the whole wicked pointlessness of things. But I tell you, nothing is pointless, and nothing is meaningless if the artist will face it. And it’s his business to face it. He hasn’t got the right to sidestep it like that. Human life itself may be almost pure chaos, but the work of the artist—the only thing he’s good for—is to take these handfuls of confusion and disparate things, things that seem to be irreconcilable, and put them together in a frame to give them some kind of shape and meaning. Even if it’s only his view of a meaning. That’s what he’s for—to give his view of life. Surely, we understand very little of what is happening to us at any given moment. But by remembering, comparing, waiting to know the consequences, we can sometimes see what an event really meant, what it was trying to teach us.

INTERVIEWER

You once said that every story begins with an ending, that until the end is known there is no story.

PORTER

That is where the artist begins to work: with the consequences of acts, not the acts themselves. Or the events. The event is important only as it affects your life and the lives of those around you. The reverberations, you might say, the overtones: that is where the artist works. In that sense it has sometimes taken me ten years to understand even a little of some important event that had happened to me. Oh, I could have given a perfectly factual account of what had happened, but I didn’t know what it meant until I knew the consequences. If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it. I know where I’m going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God’s grace.

INTERVIEWER

That’s a very classical view of the work of art—that it must end in resolution.

PORTER

Any true work of art has got to give you the feeling of reconciliation—what the Greeks would call catharsis, the purification of your mind and imagination—through an ending that is endurable because it is right and true. Oh, not in any pawky individual idea of morality or some parochial idea of right and wrong. Sometimes the end is very tragic, because it needs to be. One of the most perfect and marvelous endings in literature—it raises my hair now—is the little boy at the end of Wuthering Heights, crying that he’s afraid to go across the moor because there’s a man and woman walking there.

And there are three novels that I reread with pleasure and delight—three almost perfect novels, if we’re talking about form, you know. One is A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, one is A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, and the other is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Every one of them begins with an apparently insoluble problem, and every one of them works out of confusion into order. The material is all used so that you are going toward a goal. And that goal is the clearing up of disorder and confusion and wrong, to a logical and human end. I don’t mean a happy ending, because after all at the end of A High Wind in Jamaica the pirates are all hanged and the children are all marked for life by their experience, but it comes out to an orderly end. The threads are all drawn up. I have had people object to Mr. Thompson’s suicide at the end of Noon Wine, and I’d say, “All right, where was he going? Given what he was, his own situation, what else could he do?” Every once in a while when I see a character of mine just going towards perdition, I think, Stop, stop, you can always stop and choose, you know. But no, being what he was, he already has chosen, and he can’t go back on it now. I suppose the first idea that man had was the idea of fate, of the servile will, of a deity who destroyed as he would, without regard for the creature. But I think the idea of free will was the second idea.

INTERVIEWER

Has a story never surprised you in the writing? A character suddenly taken a different turn?

PORTER

Well, in the vision of death at the end of “Flowering Judas” I knew the real ending—that she was not going to be able to face her life, what she’d done. And I knew that the vengeful spirit was going to come in a dream to tow her away into death, but I didn’t know until I’d written it that she was going to wake up saying, “No!” and be afraid to go to sleep again.

INTERVIEWER

That was, in a fairly literal sense, a “true” story, wasn’t it?

PORTER

The truth is, I have never written a story in my life that didn’t have a very firm foundation in actual human experience—somebody else’s experience quite often, but an experience that became my own by hearing the story, by witnessing the thing, by hearing just a word perhaps. It doesn’t matter, it just takes a little—a tiny seed. Then it takes root, and it grows. It’s an organic thing. That story had been on my mind for years, growing out of this one little thing that happened in Mexico. It was forming and forming in my mind, until one night I was quite desperate. People are always so sociable, and I’m sociable too, and if I live around friends . . . Well, they were insisting that I come and play bridge. But I was very firm, because I knew the time had come to write that story, and I had to write it.

INTERVIEWER

What was that “little thing” from which the story grew?

PORTER

Something I saw as I passed a window one evening. A girl I knew had asked me to come and sit with her, because a man was coming to see her, and she was a little afraid of him. And as I went through the courtyard, past the flowering Judas tree, I glanced in the window and there she was sitting with an open book on her lap, and there was this great big fat man sitting beside her. Now Mary and I were friends, both American girls living in this revolutionary situation. She was teaching at an Indian school, and I was teaching dancing at a girls’ technical school in Mexico City. And we were having a very strange time of it. I was more skeptical, and so I had already begun to look with a skeptical eye on a great many of the revolutionary leaders. Oh, the idea was all right, but a lot of men were misapplying it.

And when I looked through that window that evening, I saw something in Mary’s face, something in her pose, something in the whole situation, that set up a commotion in my mind. Because until that moment I hadn’t really understood that she was not able to take care of herself, because she was not able to face her own nature and was afraid of everything. I don’t know why I saw it. I don’t believe in intuition. When you get sudden flashes of perception, it is just the brain working faster than usual. But you’ve been getting ready to know it for a long time, and when it comes, you feel you’ve known it always.

INTERVIEWER

You speak of a story “forming” in your mind. Does it begin as a visual impression, growing to a narrative? Or how?

PORTER

All my senses were very keen; things came to me through my eyes, through all my pores. Everything hit me at once, you know. That makes it very difficult to describe just exactly what is happening. And then, I think the mind works in such a variety of ways. Sometimes an idea starts completely inarticulately. You’re not thinking in images or words or—well, it’s exactly like a dark cloud moving in your head. You keep wondering what will come out of this, and then it will dissolve itself into a set of—well, not images exactly, but really thoughts. You begin to think directly in words. Abstractly. Then the words transform themselves into images. By the time I write the story my people are up and alive and walking around and taking things into their own hands. They exist as independently inside my head as you do before me now. I have been criticized for not enough detail in describing my characters, and not enough furniture in the house. And the odd thing is that I see it all so clearly.

INTERVIEWER

What about the technical problems a story presents—its formal structure? How deliberate are you in matters of technique? For example, the use of the historical present in “Flowering Judas”?

PORTER

The first time someone said to me, “Why did you write ‘Flowering Judas’ in the historical present?” I thought for a moment and said, “Did I?” I’d never noticed it. Because I didn’t plan to write it any way. A story forms in my mind and forms and forms, and when it’s ready to go, I strike it down—it takes just the time I sit at the typewriter. I never think about form at all. In fact, I would say that I’ve never been interested in anything about writing after having learned, I hope, to write. That is, I mastered my craft as well as I could. There is a technique, there is a craft, and you have to learn it. Well, I did as well as I could with that, but now all in the world I am interested in is telling a story. I have something to tell you that I, for some reason, think is worth telling, and so I want to tell it as clearly and purely and simply as I can. But I had spent fifteen years at least learning to write. I practiced writing in every possible way that I could. I wrote a pastiche of other people, imitating Dr. Johnson and Laurence Sterne, and Petrarch’s and Shakespeare’s sonnets, and then I tried writing my own way. I spent fifteen years learning to trust myself: that’s what it comes to. Just as a pianist runs his scales for ten years before he gives his concert: because when he gives that concert, he can’t be thinking of his fingering or of his hands; he has to be thinking of his interpretation, of the music he’s playing. He’s thinking of what he’s trying to communicate. And if he hasn’t got his technique perfected by then, he needn’t give the concert at all.

INTERVIEWER

From whom would you say you learned most during this period of apprenticeship?

PORTER

The person who influenced me most, the real revelation in my life as a writer—though I don’t write in the least like him—was Laurence Sterne, in Tristram Shandy. Why? Because, you know, I loved the grand style, and he made it look easy. The others, the great ones, really frightened me; they were so grand and magnificent they overawed me completely. But Laurence Sterne—well, it was just exactly as if he said, “Oh, come on, do it this way. It’s so easy.” So I tried to do it that way, and that taught me something, that taught me more than anybody else had. Because Laurence Sterne is a most complex and subtle man.

INTERVIEWER

What about your contemporaries? Did any of them contribute significantly to your development as a writer?

PORTER

I don’t think I learned very much from my contemporaries. To begin with, we were all such individuals, and we were all so argumentative and so bent on our own courses that although I got a kind of support and personal friendship from my contemporaries, I didn’t get very much help. I didn’t show my work to anybody. I didn’t hand it around among my friends for criticism, because, well, it just didn’t occur to me to do it. Just as I didn’t even try to publish anything until quite late because I didn’t think I was ready. I published my first story in 1923. That was “María Concepción,” the first story I ever finished. I rewrote “María Concepción” fifteen or sixteen times. That was a real battle, and I was thirty-three years old. I think it is the most curious lack of judgment to publish before you are ready. If there are echoes of other people in your work, you’re not ready. If anybody has to help you rewrite your story, you’re not ready. A story should be a finished work before it is shown. And after that, I will not allow anyone to change anything, and I will not change anything on anyone’s advice. “Here is my story. It’s a finished story. Take it or leave it!”

INTERVIEWER

You are frequently spoken of as a stylist. Do you think a style can be cultivated, or at least refined?

PORTER

I’ve been called a stylist until I really could tear my hair out. And I simply don’t believe in style. The style is you. Oh, you can cultivate a style, I suppose, if you like. But I should say it remains a cultivated style. It remains artificial and imposed, and I don’t think it deceives anyone. A cultivated style would be like a mask. Everybody knows it’s a mask, and sooner or later you must show yourself—or at least, you show yourself as someone who could not afford to show himself, and so created something to hide behind. Style is the man. Aristotle said it first, as far as I know, and everybody has said it since, because it is one of those unarguable truths. You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being. Symbolism is the same way. I never consciously took or adopted a symbol in my life. I certainly did not say, “This blooming tree upon which Judas is supposed to have hanged himself is going to be the center of my story.” I named “Flowering Judas” after it was written, because when reading back over it I suddenly saw the whole symbolic plan and pattern of which I was totally unconscious while I was writing. There’s a pox of symbolist theory going the rounds these days in American colleges in the writing courses. Miss Mary McCarthy, who is one of the wittiest and most acute and in some ways the worst-tempered woman in American letters, tells about a little girl who came to her with a story. Now Miss McCarthy is an extremely good critic, and she found this to be a good story, and she told the girl that it was—that she considered it a finished work, and that she could with a clear conscience go on to something else. And the little girl said, “But Miss McCarthy, my writing teacher said, ‘Yes, it’s a good piece of work, but now we must go back and put in the symbols!’“ I think that’s an amusing story, and it makes my blood run cold.

INTERVIEWER

But certainly one’s command of the language can be developed and refined?

PORTER

I love the purity of language. I keep cautioning my students and anyone who will listen to me not to use the jargon of trades, not to use scientific language, because they’re going to be out of date the day after tomorrow. The scientists change their vocabulary, their jargon, every day. So do the doctors, and the politicians, and the theologians—every body, every profession, every trade changes its vocabulary all of the time. But there is a basic pure human speech that exists in every language. And that is the language of the poet and the writer. So many words that had good meanings once upon a time have come to have meanings almost evil—certainly shabby, certainly inaccurate. And “psychology” is one of them. It has been so abused. This awful way a whole segment, not a generation but too many of the young writers, have got so soaked in the Freudian and post-Freudian vocabulary that they can’t speak—not only can’t speak English, but they can’t speak any human language anymore. You can’t write about people out of textbooks, and you can’t use a jargon. You have to speak clearly and simply and purely in a language that a six-year-old child can understand; and yet have the meanings and the overtones of language, and the implications, that appeal to the highest intelligence—that is, the highest intelligence that one is able to reach. I’m not sure that I’m able to appeal to the highest intelligence, but I’m willing to try.

INTERVIEWER

You speak of the necessity of writing out of your own understanding rather than out of textbooks, and I’m sure any writer would agree. But what about the creation of masculine characters, then? Most women writers, even the best of them like George Eliot, have run aground there. What about you? Was Mr. Thompson, say, a more difficult imaginative problem than Miranda?

PORTER

I never did make a profession of understanding people, man or woman or child, and the only thing I know about people is exactly what I have learned from the people right next to me. I have always lived in my immediate circumstances, from day to day. And when men ask me how I know so much about men, I’ve got a simple answer: everything I know about men, I’ve learned from men. If there is such a thing as a man’s mind and a woman’s mind—and I’m sure there is—it isn’t what most critics mean when they talk about the two. If I show wisdom, they say I have a masculine mind. If I am silly and irrelevant—and Edmund Wilson says I often am—why then, they say I have a typically feminine mind! (That’s one thing about reaching my age: you can always quote the authorities about what you are.) But I haven’t ever found it unnatural to be a woman.

INTERVIEWER

But haven’t you found that being a woman presented to you, as an artist, certain special problems? It seems to me that a great deal of the upbringing of women encourages the dispersion of the self in many small bits, and that the practice of any kind of art demands a corraling and concentrating of that self and its always insufficient energies.

PORTER

I think that’s very true and very right. You’re brought up with the notion of feminine chastity and inaccessibility, yet with the curious idea of feminine availability in all spiritual ways, and in giving service to anyone who demands it. And I suppose that’s why it has taken me twenty years to write this novel; it’s been interrupted by just anyone who could jimmy his way into my life.

INTERVIEWER

Hemingway said once that a writer writes best when he’s in love.

PORTER

I don’t know whether you write better, but you feel so good you think you’re writing better! And certainly love does create a rising of the spirit that makes everything you do seem easier and happier. But there must come a time when you no longer depend upon it, when the mind—not the will, really, either—takes over.

INTERVIEWER

In judging that the story is ready? You said a moment ago that the actual writing of a story is always done in a single spurt of energy—

PORTER

I always write a story in one sitting. I started “Flowering Judas” at seven p.m. and at one-thirty I was standing on a snowy windy corner putting it in the mailbox. And when I wrote my short novels, two of them, I just simply took the manuscript, packed a suitcase and departed to an inn in Georgetown, Pennsylvania, without leaving any forwarding address! Fourteen days later I had finished Old Mortality and Noon Wine.

INTERVIEWER

But the new novel Ship of Fools has been in the writing since 1942. The regime for writing this must have been a good deal different.

PORTER

Oh, it was. I went up and sat nearly three years in the country, and while I was writing it I worked every day, anywhere from three to five hours. Oh, it’s true I used to do an awful lot of just sitting there thinking what comes next, because this is a great big unwieldy book with an enormous cast of characters—it’s four hundred of my manuscript pages, and I can get four hundred and fifty words on a page. But all that time in Connecticut, I kept myself free for work: no telephone, no visitors—oh, I really lived like a hermit, everything but being fed through a grate! But it is, as Yeats said, a “solitary sedentary trade.” And I did a lot of gardening, and cooked my own food, and listened to music, and of course I would read. I was really very happy. I can live a solitary life for months at a time, and it does me good, because I’m working. I just get up bright and early—sometimes at five o’clock—have my black coffee, and go to work.

INTERVIEWER

You work best in the morning, then?

PORTER

I work whenever I’m let. In the days when I was taken up with everything else, I used to do a day’s work, or housework, or whatever I was doing, and then work at night. I worked when I could. But I prefer to get up very early in the morning and work. I don’t want to speak to anybody or see anybody. Perfect silence. I work until the vein is out. There’s something about the way you feel, you know when the well is dry, that you’ll have to wait till tomorrow and it’ll be full up again.

INTERVIEWER

The important thing, then, is to avoid any breaks or distractions while you’re writing?

PORTER

To keep at a boiling point. So that I can get up in the morning with my mind still working where it was yesterday. Then I can stop in the middle of a paragraph and finish it the next day. I began writing Ship of Fools twenty years ago, and I’ve been away from it for several years at a time and stopped in the middle of a paragraph—but, you know, I can’t tell where the crack is mended, and I hope nobody else can.

INTERVIEWER

You find no change in style, or in attitudes, over the years?

PORTER

It’s astonishing how little I’ve changed: nothing in my point of view or my way of feeling. I’m going back now to finish some of the great many short stories that I have begun and not been able to finish for one reason or another. I’ve found one that I think I can finish. I have three versions of it: I started it in 1923, and it’s based on an episode in my life that took place when I was twenty. Now here I am, seventy, and it’s astonishing how much it’s like me now. Oh, there are certain things, certain turns of sentence, certain phrases that I think I can sharpen and make more clear, more simple and direct, but my point of view, my being, is strangely unchanged. We change, of course, every day; we are not the same people who sat down at this table, yet there is a basic and innate being that is unchanged.

INTERVIEWER

Ship of Fools too is based upon an event that took place ten years or more before the first writing, isn’t it? A sea voyage just before the beginning of the European war.

PORTER

It is the story of my first voyage to Europe in 1931. We embarked on an old German ship at Vera Cruz and we landed in Bremen twenty-eight days later. It was a crowded ship, a great mixture of nationalities, religions, political beliefs—all that sort of thing. I don’t think I spoke a half-dozen words to anybody. I just sat there and watched—not deliberately, though. I kept a diary in the form of a letter to a friend, and after I got home the friend sent it back. And, you know, it is astonishing what happened on that boat, and what happened in my mind afterwards. Because it is fiction now.

INTERVIEWER

The title—isn’t it from a medieval emblem?—suggests that it might also be an allegory.

PORTER

It’s just exactly what it seems to be. It’s an allegory if you like, though I don’t think much of the allegorical as a standard. It’s a parable, if you like, of the ship of this world on its voyage to eternity.

INTERVIEWER

I remember your writing once—I think in the preface to “Flowering Judas”—of an effort to understand what you called the “majestic and terrible failure” of Western man. You were speaking then of the World War and what it signified of human folly. It seems to me that Ship of Fools properly belongs to that investigation of betrayal and self-delusion—

PORTER

Betrayal and treachery, but also self-betrayal and self-deception—the way that all human beings deceive themselves about the way they operate. . . . There seems to be a kind of order in the universe, in the movement of the stars and the turning of the earth and the changing of the seasons, and even in the cycle of human life. But human life itself is almost pure chaos. Everyone takes his stance, asserts his own rights and feelings, mistaking the motives of others, and his own. . . . Now, nobody knows the end of the life he’s living, and neither do I. Don’t forget I am a passenger on that ship; it’s not the other people altogether who are the fools! We don’t really know what is going to happen to us, and we don’t know why. Quite often the best we can do is to keep our heads, and try to keep at least one line unbroken and unobstructed. Misunderstanding and separation are the natural conditions of man. We come together only at these prearranged meeting grounds; we were all passengers on that ship, yet at his destination, each one was alone.

INTERVIEWER

Did you find that the writing of Ship of Fools differed from the writing of shorter fiction?

PORTER

It’s just a longer voyage, that’s all. It was the question of keeping everything moving at once. There are about forty-five main characters, all taking part in each other’s lives, and then there was a steerage of sugar workers, deportees. It was all a matter of deciding which should come first, in order to keep the harmonious moving forward. A novel is really like a symphony, you know, where instrument after instrument has to come in at its own time, and no other. I tried to write it as a short novel, you know, but it just wouldn’t confine itself. I wrote notes and sketches. And finally I gave in. Oh, no, this is simply going to have to be a novel, I thought. That was a real horror. But it needed a book to contain its full movement: of the sea, and the ship on the sea, and the people going around the deck, and into the ship, and up from it. That whole movement, felt as one forward motion: I can feel it while I’m reading it. I didn’t “intend” it, but it took hold of me.

INTERVIEWER

As writing itself, perhaps, “took hold” of you—we began by your saying that you had never intended to be a professional anything, even a professional writer.

PORTER

I look upon literature as an art, and I practice it as an art. Of course, it is also a vocation, and a trade, and a profession, and all kinds of things; but first it’s an art, and you should practice it as that, I think. I know a great many people disagree, and they are welcome to it. I think probably the important thing is to get your work done, in the way you can—and we all have our different and separate ways. But I look upon literature as an art, and I believe that if you misuse it or abuse it, it will leave you. It is not a thing that you can nail down and use as you want. You have to let it use you, too.