Interviews

William Styron, The Art of Fiction No. 156

Interviewed by George Plimpton

William Styron was interviewed by this magazine over forty years ago—actually in its fifth issue. It would seem provident enough that he should be interviewed again; his work since that time has placed him in the forefront of contemporary letters. In 1968, he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner; in 1980, he won the American Book Award for Sophie’s Choice. His account of depression, Darkness Visible, was an acclaimed best-seller. His awards and decorations are many, including the highest rank (commandeur) of the Légion d’honneur from France.

It is especially timely that the interview appear in this celebratory number* since Styron, a friend of the editors, wrote (in the form of a “Letter to an Editor”) an outline of the magazine’s principles in the first issue, back in the spring of 1953.

This interview took place last year in New York City’s 92nd Street YMHA. The place, including the balcony, was packed.

 

INTERVIEWER

When William Styron was interviewed by The Paris Review in 1954, he was the only contemporary the editors knew who actually had written a novel. Peter Matthiessen, one of the magazine’s cofounders, was working on his first novel, Race Rock; Harold Humes, another cofounder, was working on an astonishing novel called The Underground City; I was working on a children’s book called The Rabbit’s Umbrella, a classic known only to those few who have read it. Bill had written this remarkable novel, Lie Down in Darkness; he was the first of a younger generation of writers to join the pantheon of people interviewed by The Paris Review. The interview was done by Peter Matthiessen and myself in a little café called Patrick’s—an odd name for a Paris café. I thought it would be interesting to ask him some of the same questions that he was asked way back then, when he was twenty-eight years old. The first question was, “Why do you write?” You said, “I wish I knew. I wanted to express myself, I guess.” Do you have anything to add?  

WILLIAM STYRON

I think it still applies, but I can’t imagine saying anything so dopey!  

INTERVIEWER

Then we asked, “Do you enjoy writing?” You said, “I certainly don’t.”  

STYRON

That still applies—in spades. I thought that by now it would be a snap, but it’s every bit as hard as it was then, if not harder. It’s hard because there are vast baggages and impediments of one’s personality that one has dragged through life, which intervene rather than open up one’s creative energies—they come between one’s desire and one’s fulfillment.  

INTERVIEWER

What would some of these impediments be?  

STYRON

Probably in my case a chronic history of depression, for which I’ve become, reluctantly, famous.  

INTERVIEWER

I’ve heard you talk about how much music has meant to you. What is your relationship with music?  

STYRON

I’ve said before that I don’t think that I would have been able to write a single word had it not been for music as a force in my life. I come from a musical family: my mother had studied voice in Vienna and she played music a lot. We had a primitive phonograph on which she played classical music, baroque music, romantic music; and she often accompanied herself on piano. I was immersed in music from the beginning and I never lost the sense that music is the ultimate inspiration—the wellspring for my creativity. I became enraptured in my early youth by Country and Western, then called hillbilly music. I remember how appalled my mother and father were when they found out that I was in love with hillbilly music. It disturbed them a little. But for me music has an eclectic appeal—classical, country, jazz, the swing music of the forties, some of the rousing Protestant hymns. At their best all of these modes can transport me.  

INTERVIEWER

Would you rather have been a pianist or a guitar player than a writer? Surely it must have crossed your mind?  

STYRON

No, I don’t think I have the gift for that, although I can still play the harmonica, a talent I acquired when I was around six. Also, my singing voice is reasonably melodious.  

INTERVIEWER

What is the connection between music and writing?  

STYRON

I think it’s the emotion. For many years one of the touchstones of my musical experience has been the Sinfonia Concertante of Mozart for violin and viola. It runs the gamut of human emotion. It’s like opening up windows onto all the magic in the world. I still play it regularly after all these years, responding to it as a writer in terms of the inspiration that it provides me. But there are dozens of compositions—not all of them classical—that come close to affecting me with the same power. In the proper mood I have been as deeply moved by a ballad sung by Emmylou Harris as by the Missa Solemnis.  

INTERVIEWER

In your first interview we asked how you start a novel—with plot or character—and you said with character. Does that remain the same?  

STYRON

That’s a good question, and I’m glad you repeated it because I do think that ultimately character is the sine qua non of fiction. Certainly there are other factors—a captivating prose style, narrative power. But in the end I think that we remember great works of fiction by the characters. For example, I think that Madame Bovary will forever be lodged in my memory because she is the quintessential nineteenth-century French woman who was just dreamed out of Flaubert’s mind and slapped down on the page with such authority and passion and reality—she’s more alive than most people I’ve ever met. Flaubert had a magnificent prose style and he had irony and wit, but basically it was the creation of this tragic woman that makes the book immortal. I think that this is true for most works of fiction.  

INTERVIEWER

You start with a character in mind. Does that character change as you go along? Take Sophie’s Choice for example.  

STYRON

There’s a scene near the beginning of Sophie’s Choice about Sophie’s childhood in Poland, and she begins to talk about her father. I was trying to establish her personality through the memory she had of Poland and her father. As this monologue unspooled and I wrote it down, I began to feel as if I were listening to an actual voice. She tells how her father—a professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow—had become a passionate fighter during the war to save Jews from the depredations of the Nazis. Then the most amazing thing happened: I suddenly said to myself, This woman is lying to me; this fictional character that I’m creating is telling me a lie. This couldn’t be! I knew I had to wait for a long time in the book to reveal it, but I realized that her father was in reality a vicious anti-Semite. This is what I mean about the autonomy of the character: how characters become more real than real. What amazed me was that I discovered this about this young woman even as I was writing—this revelation came out of the blue. But I was totally convinced that she was telling the truth first, and I only realized in my inner self that she was lying. That to me is a testimony of the ability for characters in a novel—at least of the kind I was writing—to take on a life of their own.  

INTERVIEWER

Have you had epiphanies of that sort in other books?  

STYRON

Nothing quite so striking. But there have been certain scenes in all my works that came to me with such mysterious ease—with the sense of being preordained—that I can only attribute them to the same powerful subconscious process.  

INTERVIEWER

We asked if you felt yourself in competition with other writers.  

STYRON

Only with Norman Mailer back then. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t nearly as much in competition with him then as I later became. By the time I wrote The Long March I felt that there was no need for competition with someone as generous-hearted as Mailer, who was one of the first people to write me a fan letter about that novel. I think that competition is foolish. We’re all in this game together. There’s always a sense of rivalry, which is hardly unnatural—we want to achieve on our own—but, ultimately, I think that it’s hard enough to write as it is. It’s such a difficult occupation that we should give support to our fellow writers rather than not—I’m enormously pleased when one of my contemporaries comes out with a good book because it means, among other things, that the written word is gaining force. It’s good for us to be throwing these fine novels into the cultural cornucopia.  

INTERVIEWER

Are you worried about the future of the written word?  

STYRON

Not really. I get moments of alarm. Not long ago I received in the mail a doctoral thesis entitled “Sophie’s Choice: A Jungian Perspective,” which I sat down to read. It was quite a long document. In the first paragraph it said, In this thesis my point of reference throughout will be the Alan J. Pakula movie of Sophie’s Choice. There was a footnote, which I swear to you said, Where the movie is obscure I will refer to William Styron’s novel for clarification. This idiocy laid a pall over my life for a dark brief time because it brought back all these bugaboos we have about the written word. But in the nineteenth century they said that the railroads were going to jeopardize the written word; in the 1920s they said that the appearance of sound movies was guaranteed to drive novels into purdah; then later, television. All of these means of communication have existed happily side by side and parallel with writing. I don’t think for a minute that literature is going to perish. Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy of forty years ago simply didn’t pan out. Even the Internet and the idea of the electronic book reinforces my belief—they will not threaten the written word but actually complement writing, and perhaps even ultimately enhance it.  

INTERVIEWER

The last question we asked you in Patrick’s café was about the purpose of the young writer—should he not be as concerned with the storytelling aspects as with the problems of the contemporary world. You said, “It seems to me that only a great satirist can tackle the world problems and articulate them. Most writers would simply write out of some interior need, and that I think is the answer.” You went on to say, “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 the young writer is to write, and he shouldn’t drink too much.”  

STYRON

I was very cocky in those days. But I do think that my own work has been a demonstration of part of that question. I think that the works I’ve written since then have been in themselves engagé, which is to say that I have dealt the best I could with some very desperate and pressing issues of the twentieth century. I didn’t have an idea in mind of transmitting a message in a propagandistic way. I think that both The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice are literary works, or works of art even (I would like to think so), that have treated very important issues with some style and some substance.  

INTERVIEWER

You must have been profoundly disturbed at the reaction of some black Americans to Nat Turner.  

STYRON

I didn’t think that I was going to get that kind of reaction because I had written the book with the notion that I could tell people what slavery was like by trying to impersonate a black man, namely Nat Turner, and, through his sufferings and travails and miseries, demonstrate what the horror of the institution of slavery was in this country. I did my best, and for my pains I got really trounced by black critics.

I think they felt it was terribly presumptuous for a white man to try to appropriate the persona of a black person. They had been called negroes until a few years before the publication of Nat Turner, suddenly they were blacks, and blacks wanted to reaffirm their own history and their own identity. Along came a white guy and ran away with the little black boy’s marbles once again. It was very tough for them to see a book that tried to interpret their history mount to the top of the best-seller list, get the Pulitzer Prize. In fact, I think most of them must have said, Why haven’t we done this? There was a great deal of resentment for that very reason. I also think it was convenient to use that book as an example of a white man’s arrogance and to lambaste it for that very reason. It was a trying time for me, and the black boycott against the book lasted for years. I’m pleased to say, however, that recently I’ve noticed a distinct shift in opinion among a number of leading black intellectuals—Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West among others—who have endorsed the book and I think helped make way for its acceptance in the black community.  

INTERVIEWER

What did Jimmy Baldwin think of Nat Turner? He lived in your guest house for a while, did he not?  

STYRON

Jimmy was my good friend and he was all for the idea. He encouraged me to write from the point of view of a black man because he himself was writing from the point of view of white men and women in Giovanni’s Room.  

INTERVIEWER

How did you plunge into the mind of Nat Turner?  

STYRON

I would never have written a book having to do with Harlem or contemporary black experience because I didn’t know the idiom—I don’t know the idiom now. But I felt that writing about slavery in 1831 in Virginia was to deal with an area of experience in which I was as knowledgeable as a black person because the lifestyle and the manner of speaking—indeed the entire culture—were entirely accessible to me, no more or less than to a black writer. Also, it seemed to me that for a black to deny me the attempt to enter a black skin would be to deny our common humanity.  

INTERVIEWER

Did Baldwin look at the text as you wrote it?  

STYRON

No. By that time Jimmy had moved on to other living quarters and was traveling around a great deal. He had become an enormously famous figure. He didn’t read the text until after the book was published. His remark, to Newsweek I think, was quite prophetic: Bill’s going to get it, from blacks and whites. He was right.  

INTERVIEWER

Who have been your mentors over the years?  

STYRON

A great professor at Duke, William Blackburn, and an editor and publisher, Hiram Haydn, who was my guide and mentor for Lie Down in Darkness.  

INTERVIEWER

What is the relationship between editor and writer, in your case particularly?  

STYRON

I think that of a mentor. There was an interesting book published some years ago by a Yale psychologist, The Seasons of a Man’s Life, the thesis of which was that people who succeed in any aspect of life usually have a mentor who comes along at a propitious moment. He wasn’t talking specifically about intellectuals or educated people, either—he was talking about plumbers, streetcar conductors. People—both men and women—who find themselves at a satisfactory level in life usually have a mentor to help them rise to that place.  

INTERVIEWER

How much did Haydn, for example, have to do with your work? Would he advise changes in structure or character?  

STYRON

Very little. I’ve always had editors who don’t tamper with my work. I’ve maintained a fierce independence about my own writing and I’ve had great editors who see that independence. Both Haydn and my present editor, Bob Loomis at Random House, have had the same genius for catching me out in my weakest or most slipshod moments, but never tried to impose their ideas on mine. It’s the moral support that’s been so valuable.  

INTERVIEWER

Could you write at all during your years of depression?  

STYRON

No, I was in a shutdown. Clinical depression is the antithesis of creativity: everything in the mind is in deep stagnation. It’s like a fog moving in over the intellect. I once wrote that one’s intellect blurs into stupidity during a siege of major depression, and so creative work is simply impossible. Unfortunately, too, the chronic aspect of the milder depression I’ve suffered from has made serious inroads on my productivity. It’s a little like having a V-8 engine running on four cylinders, and it has sapped my creative juices during much of my life. How wonderful it’s been, however, to make these various breakthroughs and feel the power of creation, which is a great joy indeed.  

INTERVIEWER

You’ve met many people in high places: John F. Kennedy and François Mitterrand and President Clinton. Your friendship with Mitterrand is particularly interesting. The French are very fond of your books. Why do you think this is?  

STYRON

I think that one of the reasons I’ve been so well received in France is that I have been excellently translated. My first works were translated by Maurice Edgar Coindreau, who was Faulkner’s translator and something of a genius. He came across Set this House on Fire when he was teaching at Princeton and greatly admired it and wrote to Gaston Gallimard that he must translate it. He did, and it was a huge success in France. Ever since then I’ve felt very much at home in France.  

INTERVIEWER

And Mitterrand read it and invited you around for supper.  

STYRON

It wasn’t quite as direct as that. During Mitterrand’s first campaign for president he spent most of his time reading (in French, he read no English) Sophie’s Choice, which he liked a lot. I learned that through the grapevine. He invited me and Arthur Miller to his inaugural. We had a fine time, and Mitterrand took time to spend an evening or two with me during those festivities to talk about literature, which was his passion. Politics, he told me, was merely his hobby. It was very invigorating after our having just elected Ronald Reagan. I might add that in a recent memoir about Mitterrand he was quoted as saying that he found Reagan both “a dullard” and “a complete nonentity.” Bill Clinton, on the other hand, he greatly admired—among other things for his “animality.” I like that word.  

INTERVIEWER

You also spent an evening with Reagan, didn’t you?  

STYRON

It was an evening at Katharine Graham’s right during the Libyan crisis, a rather sorry moment. After dinner we lolled around the coffee table, and Reagan sat there for forty-five minutes spinning out tale after tale about Hollywood in the thirties with George Burns and the Warner brothers and the Marx brothers. All of this was good up to a point, but we really wanted to know what the hell was going on in Libya. He didn’t; he wanted to talk about George Burns and Gracie Allen. I was sitting next to Mike Nichols, who looked over at me and mouthed the words “it’s a nightmare!” Can you believe this: there is a Republican congressman who has seriously proposed a bill to have Reagan placed on Mount Rushmore.  

INTERVIEWER

And President Clinton? He compares much better—is he a Mitterrand sort?  

STYRON

Clinton cares about literature and is extremely well-read. We had a fine lunch at our house in Martha’s Vineyard several years ago—he’d passed word along that he would like to meet Gabriel García Márquez, who is a friend of mine, and Carlos Fuentes; they came to the Vineyard and we had a great time. García Márquez and Fuentes wanted to lean on Clinton about the Cuba embargo, but I could see a look of boredom crossing Clinton’s eyes. A friend of mine, Bill Luers, a diplomat, sensed what was going on and very cleverly changed the conversation to books. At which point Clinton took fire. We played a game about what’s your favorite novel. He wanted to talk about books the whole evening, which is pretty refreshing.  

INTERVIEWER

Better than stories about Gracie Allen and George Burns.  

STYRON

A bit better, yes.  

INTERVIEWER

What was Clinton’s favorite novel?  

STYRON

He said The Sound and the Fury, and within seconds, in an appropriate way, began to quote verbatim some remarkable lines from Faulkner. García Márquez’s favorite novel was The Count of Monte Cristo, Fuentes’s was Don Quixote, and mine was Huckleberry Finn, naturally.  

INTERVIEWER

If you had to build a sort of composite writer, what attributes would you give him?  

STYRON

I don’t know exactly, but first would be a background in reading. A writer must have read an enormous amount by the time he begins to write. I remember when I first wanted to be a writer, at the age of eighteen, just immersing myself in books—marauding forays I made at the Duke University library. I read everything I could get my hands on. I read promiscuously: I read poetry; I read drama; I read novel after novel. I read until I realized I was causing damage to my eyes. It was a kind of runaway lust.

The second thing is that you must love language. You must adore language—cherish it, and play with it and love what it does. You have to have a vocabulary. So many writers who disappoint me don’t have a vocabulary—they don’t seem to have much feeling for words.

Those are two of the most important things for a writer. The rest is passion and vision; and it’s important, I think, to have a theme. Melville said, probably in a grandiose way, To write a mighty book you must have a mighty theme. I do think there is something to that. You need not have a grandiose theme but you must have an important theme. You must be trying to write about important things, although a truly fine writer will deal with seemingly unimportant matters and make them transcendentally important.  

 

*This interview originally appeared in issue 150, the forty-fifth anniversary issue.