Interviews

William Styron, The Art of Fiction No. 5

Interviewed by Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton

William Styron is the first of the 'young writers' to be interviewed by this magazine. He was born 28 years ago in Newport News, Virginia, a section he grew up in and which provided the locale for his first novel—Lie Down in Darkness. This novel, published three years ago, won Styron immediate standing about the best of contemporary writers, and besides critical acclaim gained him the Prix de Rome for Literature.

He was interviewed in Paris, in early autumn, at Patrick's, a café on the boulevard Montparnasse, which has little to distinguish it from its neighbors—the Dome, the Rotonde, Le Chapelain—except a faintly better brand of coffee. Across the boulevard from the café and its sidewalk tables, a red poster portrays a skeletal family. They are behind bars, and the caption reads: Take your vacation in happy Russia! The lower part of the poster has been ripped and scarred and plastered with stickers shouting: Les Américans en Amérique! U.S. go home! An adjoining poster advertises carbonated water. Perrier! It sings. L’Eau qui fait pschitt! The sun reflects strongly off their vivid colors, and Styron, shading his eyes, peers down into his coffee.  He is a young man of good appearance, though not this afternoon; he is a little paler than is healthy in this quiet hour when the denizens of the quarter lie hiding, their weak night eyes insulted by the light.

 

INTERVIEWER

You were about to tell us when you started to write.

WILLIAM STYRON

What? Oh, yes. Write. I figure I must have been about thirteen. I wrote an imitation Conrad thing, “Typhoon and the Tor Bay” it was called, you know, a ship’s hold swarming with crazy Chinks. I think I had some sharks in there too. I gave it the full treatment.

INTERVIEWER

And how did you happen to start? That is, why did you want to write?

STYRON

I wish I knew. I wanted to express myself, I guess. But after “Typhoon and the Tor Bay” I didn’t give writing another thought until I went to Duke University and landed in a creative writing course under William Blackburn. He was the one who got me started.

INTERVIEWER

What value has the creative writing course for young writers?

STYRON

It gives them a start, I suppose. But it can be an awful waste of time. Look at those people who go back year after year to summer writers’ conferences, you get so you can pick them out a mile away. A writing course can only give you a start, and help a little. It can’t teach writing. The professor should weed out the good from the bad, cull them like a farmer, and not encourage the ones who haven’t got something. At one school I know in New York, which has a lot of writing courses, there are a couple of teachers who moon in the most disgusting way over the poorest, most talentless writers, giving false hope where there shouldn’t be any hope at all. Regularly they put out dreary little anthologies, the quality of which would chill your blood. It’s a ruinous business, a waste of paper and time, and such teachers should be abolished.

INTERVIEWER

The average teacher can’t teach anything about technique or style?

STYRON

Well, he can teach you something in matters of technique. You know—don’t tell a story from two points of view and that sort of thing. But I don’t think even the most conscientious and astute teachers can teach anything about style. Style comes only after long, hard practice and writing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you enjoy writing?

STYRON

I certainly don’t. I get a fine, warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it, writing is hell.

INTERVIEWER

How many pages do you turn out each day?

STYRON

When I’m writing steadily—that is, when I’m involved in a project that I’m really interested in, one of those rare pieces that has a foreseeable end—I average two-and-a-half or three pages a day, longhand on yellow sheets. I  spend about five hours at it, of which very little is spent actually writing. I try to get a feeling of what’s going on in the story before I put it down on paper, but actually most of this breaking-in period is one long, fantastic daydream, in which I think about anything but the work at hand. I can’t turn out slews of stuff each day. I wish I could. I seem to have some neurotic need to perfect each paragraph—each sentence, even—as I go along.

INTERVIEWER

And what time of the day do you find best for working?

STYRON

The afternoon. I like to stay up late at night and get drunk and sleep late. I wish I could break the habit but I can’t. The afternoon is the only time I have left and I try to use it to the best advantage, with a hangover.

INTERVIEWER

Do you use a notebook?

STYRON

No, I don’t feel the need for it. I’ve tried, but it does no good, since I’ve never used what I’ve written down. I think the use of a notebook depends upon the individual.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find you need seclusion?

STYRON

I find it’s difficult to write in complete isolation. I think it would be hard for me on a South Sea island or in the Maine woods. I like company and entertainment, people around. The actual process of writing, though, demands complete, noiseless privacy, without even music; a baby howling two blocks away will drive me nuts.

INTERVIEWER

Does your emotional state have any bearing on your work?

STYRON

I guess like everybody I’m emotionally fouled up most of the time, but I find I do better when I’m relatively placid. It’s hard to say, though. If writers had to wait until their precious psyches were completely serene there wouldn’t be much writing done. Actually—though I don’t take advantage of the fact as much as I should—I find that I’m simply the happiest, the placidest, when I’m writing, and so I suppose that that, for me, is the final answer. When I’m writing I find it’s the only time that I feel completely self-possessed, even when the writing itself is not going too well. It’s fine therapy for people who are perpetually scared of nameless threats as I am most of the time—for jittery people. Besides, I’ve discovered that when I’m not writing I’m prone to developing certain nervous tics, and hypochondria. Writing alleviates those quite a bit. I think I resist change more than most people. I dislike traveling, like to stay settled. When I first came to Paris all I could think about was going home, home to the old James River. One of these days I expect to inherit a peanut farm. Go back home and farm them old peanuts and be real old Southern whisky gentry.

INTERVIEWER

Your novel was linked to the Southern school of fiction. Do you think the critics were justified in doing this?

STYRON

No, frankly, I don’t consider myself in the Southern school, whatever that is. Lie Down in Darkness, or most of it, was set in the South, but I don’t care if I never write about the South again, really. Only certain things in the book are particularly Southern. I used leitmotifs—the negroes, for example—that run throughout the book, but I would like to believe that my people would have behaved the way they did anywhere. The girl, Peyton, for instance, didn’t have to come from Virginia. She would have wound up jumping from a window no matter where she came from. Critics are always linking writers to “schools.” If they couldn’t link people to schools, they’d die. When what they condescendingly call “a genuinely fresh talent” arrives on the scene, the critics rarely try to point out what makes him fresh or genuine but concentrate instead on how he behaves in accordance with their preconceived notion of what school he belongs to.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t find that it’s true of most of the so-called Southern novels that the reactions of  their characters are universal?

STYRON

Look, I don’t mean to repudiate my Southern background completely, but I don’t believe that the South alone produces “universal” literature. That universal quality comes far more from a single writer’s mind and his individual spirit than from his background. Faulkner’s a writer of extraordinary stature more because of the great breadth of his vision than because he happened to be born in Mississippi. All you have to do is read one issue of the Times Book Review to see how much junk comes out regularly from south of the Mason-Dixon line, along with the good stuff. I have to admit, though, that the South has a definite literary tradition, which is the reason it probably produces a better quality of writing, proportionately. Perhaps it’s just true that Faulkner, if he had been born in, say, Pasadena, might very well still have had that universal quality of mind, but instead of writing Light in August he would have gone into television or written universal ads for Jantzen bathing suits.

INTERVIEWER

Well, why do you think this Southern tradition exists at all?

STYRON

Well, first, there’s that old heritage of Biblical rhetoric and storytelling. Then the South simply provides such wonderful material. Take, for instance, the conflict between the ordered Protestant tradition, the fundamentalism based on the Old Testament, and the twentieth century—movies, cars, television. The poetic juxtapositions you find in this conflict—a crazy, colored preacher howling those tremendously moving verses from Isaiah 40, while riding around in a maroon Packard. It’s wonderful stuff and comparatively new, too, which is perhaps why the renaissance of Southern writing coincided with these last few decades of the machine age. If Faulkner had written in the 1880s he would have been writing, no doubt, safely within the tradition, but his novels would have been genteel novels, like those of George Washington Cable or Thomas Nelson Page. In fact, the modern South is such powerful material that the author runs the danger of capturing the local color and feeling that’s enough. He gets so bemused by decaying mansions that he forgets to populate them with people. I’m beginning to feel that it’s a good idea for writers who come from the South, at least some of them, to break away a little from all them magnolias.

INTERVIEWER

You refer a number of times to Faulkner. Even though you don’t think of yourself as a “Southern” writer, would you say that he influenced you?

STYRON

I would certainly say so. I’d say I’ve been influenced as much, though, by Joyce and Flaubert. Old Joyce and Flaubert have influenced me stylistically, given me arrows, but then a lot of the contemporary works I’ve read have influenced me as a craftsman. Dos Passos, Scott Fitzgerald, both have been valuable in teaching me how to write the novel, but not many of these modern people have contributed much to my emotional climate. Joyce comes closest, but the strong influences are out of the past—the Bible, Marlowe, Blake, Shakespeare. As for Flaubert, Madame Bovary is one of the few novels that move me in every way, not only in its style, but in its total communicability, like the effect of good poetry. What I really mean is that a great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it. Its writer should, too. Without condescending, he should be conscious of himself as a reader, and while he’s writing it he should be able to step outside of it from time to time and say to himself, Now if I were just reading this book, would I like this part here? I have the feeling that that’s what Flaubert did—maybe too much, though, finally, in books like Sentimental Education.

INTERVIEWER

While we’re skirting this question, do you think Faulkner’s experiments with time in The Sound and the Fury are justified?

STYRON

Justified? Yes, I do.

INTERVIEWER

Successful, then?

STYRON

No, I don’t think so. Faulkner doesn’t give enough help to the reader. I’m all for the complexity of Faulkner, but not for the confusion. That goes for Joyce, too. All that fabulously beautiful poetry in the last part of Finnegans Wake is pretty much lost to the world simply because not many people are ever going to put up with the chaos that precedes it. As for The Sound and the Fury, I think it succeeds in spite of itself. Faulkner often simply stays too damn intense for too long a time. It ends up being great stuff, somehow, though, and the marvel is how it could be so wonderful being pitched for so long in that one high, prolonged, delirious key.

INTERVIEWER

Was the problem of time development acute in the writing of Lie Down in Darkness?

STYRON

Well, the book started with the man, Loftis, standing at the station with the hearse, waiting for the body of his daughter to arrive from up North. I wanted to give him density, but all the tragedy in his life had happened in the past. So the problem was to get into the past, and this man’s tragedy, without breaking the story. It stumped me for a whole year. Then it finally occurred to me to use separate moments in time, four or five long dramatic scenes revolving around the daughter, Peyton, at different stages in her life. The business of the progression of time seems to me one of the most difficult problems a novelist has to cope with.

INTERVIEWER

Did you prefigure the novel? How much was planned when you started?

STYRON

Very little. I knew about Loftis and all his domestic troubles. I had the funeral. I had the girl in mind, and her suicide in Harlem. I thought I knew why, too. But that’s all I had.

INTERVIEWER

Did you start with emphasis on character or story?

STYRON

Character, definitely. And by character I mean a person drawn full-round, not a caricature. E. M. Forster refers to “flat” and “round” characters. I try to make all of mine round. It takes an extrovert like Dickens to make flat characters come alive. But story as such has been neglected by today’s introverted writers. Story and character should grow together; I think I’m lucky so far in that in practically everything I’ve tried to write these two elements have grown together. They must, to give an impression of life being lived, just because each man’s life is a story, if you’ll pardon the cliché. I used to spend a lot of time worrying over word order, trying to create beautiful passages. I still believe in the value of a handsome style. I appreciate the sensibility that can produce a nice turn of phrase, like Scott Fitzgerald. But I’m not interested any more in turning out something shimmering and impressionistic—Southern, if you will—full of word-pictures, damn Dixie baby talk, and that sort of thing. I guess I just get more and more interested in people. And story.

INTERVIEWER

Are your characters real-life or imaginary?

STYRON

I don’t know if that’s answerable. I really think, frankly, though, that most of my characters come closer to being entirely imaginary than the other way round. Maybe that’s because they all seem to end up, finally, closer to being like myself than like people I’ve actually observed. I sometimes feel that the characters I’ve created are not much more than sort of projected facets of myself, and I believe that a lot of fictional characters have been created that way.

INTERVIEWER

How far removed must you be from your subject matter?

STYRON

Pretty far. I don’t think people can write immediately, and well, about an experience emotionally close to them. I have a feeling, for example, that I won’t be able to write about all the time I’ve spent in Europe until I get back to America.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel yourself to be in competition with other writers?

STYRON

No, I don’t. “Some of my best friends are writers.” In America there seems to be an idea that writing is one big cat-and-dog fight among the various practitioners of the craft. Got to hole up in the woods. Me, I’m a farmer, I don’t know no writers. Hate writers. That sort of thing. I think that just as in everything else writers can be too cozy and cliquish and end up nervous and incestuous and scratching each other’s backs. In London once, I was at a party where everything was so literary and famous and intimate that if the place had suddenly been blown up by dynamite it would have demolished the flower of British letters. But I think that writers in the U.S. could stand a bit more of the attitude that prevailed in France in the last century. Flaubert and Maupassant, Victor Hugo and Musset, they didn’t suffer from knowing each other. Turgenev knew Gogol. Chekhov knew Tolstoy and Andreiev, and Gorki knew all three. I think it was Henry James who said of Hawthorne that he might have been even better than he was if he had occasionally communicated a little bit more with others working at the same sort of thing. A lot of this philosophy of isolation in America is a dreary pose. I’m not advocating a Writers’ Supper Club on Waverly Place, just for chums in the business, or a union, or anything like that, but I do think that writers in America might somehow benefit by the attitude that, What the hell, we’re all in this together, instead of, All my pals are bartenders on Third Avenue. As a matter of fact, I do have a pal who’s a bartender on Third Avenue, but he’s a part-time writer on the side.

INTERVIEWER

In general, what do you think of critics, since they are a subject that must be close to a writer’s heart?

STYRON

From the writer’s point of view, critics should be ignored, although it’s hard not to do what they suggest. I think it’s unfortunate to have critics for friends. Suppose you write something that stinks, what are they going to say in a review? Say it stinks? So if they’re honest, they do, and if you were friends you’re still friends, but the knowledge of your lousy writing and their articulate admission of it will be always something between the two of you, like the knowledge between a man and his wife of some shady adultery. I know very few critics, but I usually read their reviews. Bad notices always give me a sense of humility, or perhaps humiliation, even when there’s a tone of envy or sour grapes or even ignorance in them, but they don’t help me much. When Lie Down in Darkness came out, my hometown paper scraped up the local literary figure to review the book, a guy who’d written something on hydraulics, I think, and he came to the conclusion that I was a decadent writer. Styron is a decadent writer, he said, because he writes a line like “the sea sucking at the shore,” when for that depraved bit he should have substituted “the waves lapping at the shore.” Probably his hydraulic background. No, I’m afraid I don’t think much of critics for the most part, although I have to admit that some of them have so far treated me quite kindly. Look, there’s only one person a writer should listen to, pay any attention to. It’s not any damn critic. It’s the reader. And that doesn’t mean any compromise or sellout. The writer must criticize his own work as a reader. Every day I pick up the story or whatever it is I’ve been working on and read it through. If I enjoy it as a reader then I know I’m getting along all right.

INTERVIEWER

In your preface to the first issue of this magazine, you speak of there being signs in the air that this generation can and will produce literature to rank with that of any other generation. What are these signs? And do you consider yourself, perhaps, a spokesman for this new generation?

STYRON

What the hell is a spokesman, anyway? I hate the idea of spokesmen. Everybody, especially the young ones, in the writing game jockeying for position to give a name to a generation. I must confess that I was guilty of that in the preface, too. But don’t you think it’s tiresome, really, all these so-called spokesmen trumpeting around, elbowing one another out of the way to see who’ll be the first to give a new and original name to twenty-five million people—the Beat Generation, or the Silent Generation, and God knows what-all? I think the damn generation should be let alone. And that goes for the eternal idea of competition—whether the team of new writers can beat the team of Dos Passos, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. As I read in a review not long ago, by some fellow reviewing an anthology of new writing, which had just that sort of proprietary essay in it and which compared the new writers with the ones of the twenties, the reviewer said, in effect, What the hell, there’s plenty of Lebensraum and Liebestraum for everybody.

INTERVIEWER

But you did say, in the preface, just what we were speaking of—that this generation can and will—

STYRON

Yes, can and will produce literature equal to that of any other generation, especially that of the twenties. It was probably rash to say, but I don’t see any reason to recant. For instance, I think those “signs in the air” are apparent from just three first novels, those being From Here to Eternity, The Naked and the Dead, and Other Voices, Other Rooms. It’s true that a first novel is far from a fair standard with which to judge a writer’s potential future output, but aren’t those three novels far superior to the first novels of Dos Passos, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald? In fact I think one of those novels—The Naked and the Dead—is so good by itself that it can stand up respectably well with the mature work of any of those writers of the twenties. But there I go again, talking in competition with the older boys. Anyway, I think that a lot of the younger writers around today are stuffed with talent. A lot of them, it’s true, are shameless and terrible self-promoters—mainly the members of what a friend of mine calls “the fairy axis”—but they’ll drop by the wayside and don’t count for much anyway. The others, including the ones I’ve mentioned, plus people like Salinger and Carson McCullers and Hortense Calisher—all those have done, and will go on doing, fine work, unless somebody drops an atom bomb on them, or they get locked up in jail by Velde and that highly cultured crowd.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of atom bombs and Representative Velde, among other such contemporary items, do you think—as some people have been saying—that the young writer today works at a greater disadvantage than those of preceding—uh—generations?

STYRON

Hell no, I don’t. Writers ever since writing began have had problems, and the main problem narrows down to just one word—life. Certainly this might be an age of so-called faithlessness and despair we live in, but the new writers haven’t cornered any market on faithlessness and despair, any more than Dostoyevsky or Marlowe or Sophocles did. Every age has its terrible aches and pains, its peculiar new horrors, and every writer since the beginning of time, just like other people, has been afflicted by what that same friend of mine calls “the fleas of life”—you know, colds, hangovers, bills, sprained ankles, and little nuisances of one sort or another. They are the constants of life, at the core of life, along with nice little delights that come along every now and then. Dostoyevsky had them and Marlowe had them and we all have them, and they’re a hell of a lot more invariable than nuclear fission or the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. So is Love invariable, and Unrequited Love, and Death and Insult and Hilarity. Mark Twain was as baffled and appalled by Darwin’s theories as anyone else, and those theories seemed as monstrous to the Victorians as atomic energy, but he still wrote about riverboats and old Hannibal, Missouri. No, I don’t think the writer today is any worse off than at any other time. It’s true that in Russia he might as well be dead and that in Youngstown, Ohio, that famous police chief, whatever his name is, has taken to inspecting and banning books. But in America he can still write practically anything he pleases, so long as it isn’t libelous or pornographic. Also in America he certainly doesn’t have to starve, and there are few writers so economically strapped that they can’t turn out work regularly. In fact, a couple of young writers—and good writers—are damn near millionaires.

INTERVIEWER

Then you believe in success for a writer? Financial, that is, as well as critical?

STYRON

I sure do. I certainly have sympathy for a writer who hasn’t made enough to live comfortably—comfortably, I mean, not necessarily lavishly—because I’ve been colossally impoverished at times, but impoverished writers remind me of Somerset Maugham’s remark about multilingual people. He admired them, he said, but did not find that their condition made them necessarily wise.

INTERVIEWER

But getting back to the original point, in Lie Down in Darkness didn’t your heroine commit suicide on the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima? This seems to us to be a little bit more than fortuitous symbolism, and perhaps to indicate a sense of that inescapable and overpowering despair of our age, which you just denied was our peculiar lot.

STYRON

That was just gilding the lily. If I were writing the same thing now, I’d leave that out and have her jump on the Fourth of July. Really, I’m not trying to be rosy about things like the atom bomb and war and the failure of the Presbyterian Church. Those things are awful. All I’m trying to say is that those things don’t alter one bit a writer’s fundamental problems, which are Love, Requited and Unrequited, Insult, et cetera.

INTERVIEWER

Then you believe that young writers today have no cause to be morbid and depressing, which is a charge so often leveled at them by the critics?

STYRON

Certainly they do. They have a perfect right to be anything they honestly are, but I’d like to risk saying that a great deal of this morbidity and depression doesn’t arise so much from political conditions, or the threat of war, or the atom bomb, as from the terrific increase of the scientific knowledge that has come to us about the human self—Freud, that is, abnormal psychology, and all the new psychiatric wisdom. My God, think of how morbid and depressing Dostoyevsky would have been if he could have gotten hold of some of the juicy work of Dr. Wilhelm Stekel, say Sadism and Masochism. What people like John Webster and, say, Hieronymus Bosch, felt intuitively about some of the keen horrors that lurk in the human mind, we now have neatly cataloged and clinically described by Krafft-Ebing and the Menningers and Karen Horney, and they’re available to any fifteen year old with a passcard  to the New York Public Library. I don’t say that this new knowledge is the cause of the so-called morbidity and gloom, but I do think it has contributed to a new trend toward the introspective in fiction. And when you get an eminent journal like Time magazine complaining, as it often has, that to the young writers of today life seems short on rewards, and that what they write is a product of their own neuroses, in its silly way the magazine is merely stating the status quo and obvious truth. The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone’s neurosis, and we’d have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads.

INTERVIEWER

To sort of round this out, we’d like to ask finally what might sound like a rather obvious question. That is, what should be the purpose of a young writer? Should he, for instance, be engagé, not concerned as much with the story aspects of the novel as with the problems of the contemporary world?

STYRON

It seems to me that only a great satirist can tackle the world’s problems and articulate them. Most writers write simply out of some strong interior need, and that, I think, is the answer. A great writer, writing out of this need, will give substance to, and perhaps even explain, all the problems of the world without even knowing it, until a scholar comes along one hundred years after he’s dead and digs up some symbols. The purpose of a young writer is to write, and he shouldn’t drink too much. He shouldn’t think that after he’s written one book he’s God Almighty and air all his immature opinions in pompous interviews. Let’s have another cognac and go up to Le Chapelain.

 

 

Author photograph by Nancy Crampton