Much of my life has been lived in such secrecy. It has never been politic for me to let another know my heart. —John Williams, Augustus
Nancy Gardner Williams, John Williams’s widow, lives in a small bungalow in Pueblo, Colorado, close to the desert. This town near the Rocky Mountains was once known for its steel industry. Nancy, a tall woman who holds herself straight, is attentive and observant, friendly yet somewhat reserved. She is not decisively talkative, but you realize immediately that she and her husband must have been on equal terms. “No bluster, no fashion, no pomp,” as Dan Wakefield once remarked about John Williams. That seems to be true for her as well. Nancy studied English literature at the University of Denver. One of her lecturers was John Williams.
Ms. Williams, you met John in Denver in 1959. He was your professor. What was he like?
He always wore an ascot and was always smoking cigarettes, even while he was lecturing. I don’t think he ever came to teach not wearing his ascot. And he was a good teacher. He fancied his stuff neat, and had a neat and tidy demeanor.
He came from a rather poor background.
Yes, his family was poor. His mother loved to read true-romance magazines. When he was twelve years old, he got a little job at the bookstore in town, and the guy in the bookstore took an interest in him. Sometimes John would find his mother crying, but those were tough times, my God. It’s hard to imagine, the worry and pressure to make enough money to have food on the table. They farmed, so they did have food. John once showed me the farm. It was very small, a small building, small acreage.
How did he manage to go to university?
He wouldn’t have had any chance to go to study. There was no money. But anybody who had served in the armed forces in World War II could go to school. The government would pay for it. Lucky for him—I mean, it was just wonderful.
The first book to bring him recognition as a writer was Butcher’s Crossing. The settings of his novels vary, as do the genres. However, Butcher’s Crossing seems very far from the reality of a young professor, as he was at that time. Do you know what made him choose to write a Western?
Well, he lived in the West. And all of that mountainous terrain and the rivers and so forth were just around him. When he was writing Butcher’s Crossing, he would go and camp out in the forests, in the mountains. I think he found that he did not quite agree with Emerson, who talks about how nature is benign. I don’t believe that Butcher’s Crossing is autobiographical, but there is a lot of John’s experience in there—the killing that goes on and on.
An analogy to the war?
Yes. I think so.
What did he do during the war?
He had a big voice. And when he was in high school, he got a job as a radio announcer. Then he took some further radio training, so when he enlisted in the Army Air Forces, they immediately sent him for more training, and he became a radio operator on a C-45, a trip and surveillance plane. So that’s what he did during the war, in China, Burma, and India. He was shot down. The plane was flying very low and zipped along the top of the trees, and finally, gravity brought it all the way down. And John found himself sitting outside the plane. He didn’t know whether he had taken himself out or been thrown out of the plane, but he and the two other men who had been in the front of the plane survived and the five men in the back died. That fact haunted him all his life. How come I lived and they died? When I first knew him, he had nightmares, he had recurrences of malaria, and that was fifteen years after the war. The nightmares subsided with time, but he still had occasional ones. It never went away. Two and a half years of killing, killing, and killing. It never went away.
In the first novel, Nothing but the Night, a son, alienated from his father and traumatized by some early-childhood experience, is at the center of the story. It’s a book that hits you with John’s urge to write and his talent. You feel the energy, the power of a person who went through fire. It amazed me, and then I realized he wrote the novel while he was in Burma during the war, when he was only twenty-two.
Why did he distance himself from it?
I don’t know. I wish I had reread it before you came so I would be up on it. Well, he worked on Nothing but the Night while he was recovering from the plane crash. According to the rules, he should have been sent home, but there was no way to do that. But he was relieved of duty. That was the policy—if you’re injured, you don’t have any more duties. God knows where he got the paper. Imagine, he was in a tent, he had a pet mongoose who came to visit a couple times a day, and there was a clearing in the jungle, several other tents—otherwise nothing, no movie, no radio, no library, literally nothing. He was there in the nothing, in a little clearing in the jungle, and he just wrote to keep himself from dying of boredom.
When he felt well enough, when he had recovered, he volunteered to go take the ID tags off a downed pilot from a plane that had crashed. They knew the pilot was dead, but if they had not gone in to get his ID tags, his family would never have known what happened to him. So he and two other guys went through the jungle, chopping their way in, quite an adventure of its own, but he needed something to do, so he wrote the novel, and he went to take the guy’s dog tags.
Did he make you a partner in his writing?
No, except once when he came downstairs with the end of Augustus and I knew right away—I said, You have gone on too long. You need to stop sooner. But that was the only thing I ever told him about his writing.
And did he follow your advice?
Yes, he did.
Did he write every day?
Yes, when he could. But only during summers. Otherwise, he was teaching. He was an extremely methodical writer, he took great pains with his writing, and he outlined very carefully. Because he didn’t want to have to rewrite anything. He started very early in the morning, around seven thirty, eight o’clock, after some coffee perhaps. He wasn’t a breakfast-eater. Then he would go upstairs to his studio, and I didn’t see him again until lunchtime, except every once in a while I would see him out in the garden. He would be out with his vegetables, a farmer. He loved that garden, and I thought, Oh well, he got stuck somewhere and needs to relax and after a while he’ll go back up and write. Then he would come down for lunch—we often had lunch together—then maybe he would go to the university to get his mail or talk to somebody. And then in the afternoon he would go back upstairs for maybe two or three hours, planning the next day’s work so that when he went to work, he knew what he wanted to accomplish.
In 1973, he received the National Book Award for Augustus. He had to share it with John Barth, and he also had to share the money, which wasn’t much anyway. And yet he is known to have said, “I don’t care. I never expected to earn money with my writing.” Where did he take this attitude from? Allegedly, he also once said that he didn’t care whether he had a thousand or a hundred thousand readers.
He was nothing if not independent and willful. He had a good way of living for the day. He didn’t have any anxiety about whether his work was accepted or not.
Did John have trust in mankind, in the power of reason?
It’s not a question that would interest him, I think. He just wasn’t interested in the abstract. He wanted to get down to cases. I’m just thinking of his teaching twentieth-century poetry. He loved the thing itself. He loved the poems. He probably loved the poets, too. But as far as turning it into some wonderful philosophical something, no, not at all. He wasn’t interested in that.
And yet there is this underlying question, not only in Stoner—What is a good life?
God, yes. But a good life is immediate. A good life doesn’t exist in any philosophical realm. A good life is you and me talking together.
He actually wrote his whole work, those three big novels, between 1960 and 1972—in the era of the Cold War, of the Cuba crisis, the Vietnam War, the Black Panther movement. Did he feel that a writer has a political or a social function?
No. No, he had a personal one. He didn’t feel he carried direct political responsibility with his writing. Though it did come into his writing in Augustus, in the sense of recording or at least inventing a world that bears some relation to our world, to the real world, as he explores the question of war. It’s the same in Stoner. But as far as any immediate responsibility is concerned—for example, to go on television and say something—no, not at all.
There’s a line in Augustus saying something along the lines of, It is so easy to be judgmental and so difficult to increase one’s knowledge.
It’s right out of John’s mouth. He would think being judgmental was the worst thing you could do.
That was in 1972. Thirteen years later, in 1985, he retired from the university. What happened to his writing after 1972?
He was not well. He was not well at all. After Augustus, he didn’t have the energy. He started another novel, Sleep of Reason. God, it’s wonderful.
Talking about his not being well—are you referring to his lung disease or to his drinking?
Was there an event that triggered his alcoholism?
No. He grew up in Texas. Drinking seemed a very grown-up and sophisticated thing to do. It started in high school—drinking beer, he told me.
But at a certain point, apparently, his drinking got out of control?
That’s not the word I would use. He was dependent, he drank every day, but he was pretty quiet about it. He would become less pleasant as the evening wore on, but there was never … He somehow always got up and managed to do what he had to do, every day, mainly teaching.
Did it affect his self-esteem?
No. He had a very healthy ego. Nothing was going to interfere with his self-esteem. He had his demons, and I just let him have his beer. I had seen the nightmares and seen the sorrow from the war, I had seen the malaria, I had seen all of that, and I thought, No wonder he drinks.
In Stoner, he speaks about the self as a jungle, and of living in the self like being in exile.
Well, that’s right. That’s all we have. We just have our selves. I think that would be pretty close to the way John thought about things. The self as a jungle. Something impenetrable, suffocating, hot, wild. He certainly knew the jungle. The mind is a jungle. It’s not a particular place, according to his experience.
Actually, he wanted to choose a motto for Stoner, a line by José Ortega y Gasset. In the end, he didn’t use it, but the line was something like, A hero is a man who wants to be himself. What would that have meant for him personally?
That’s really central and getting right into it, isn’t it? Well, look at how much stands in the way of us being ourselves. Our circumstances—in John’s case, it was poverty. In this context, John came as close to succeeding as anybody I have ever met. He did what he wanted to do. I mean, even though he couldn’t really start writing until he was in his thirties, he damn well started. So he came as close as anyone I can imagine to becoming himself. He was willing to make whatever sacrifice and to face whatever challenge. He just kept going.
I think he wasn’t much interested in exploring himself, or maybe that’s what he did with his novels. I mean, he wasn’t interested in talking about himself at all. He was witty, and he was funny and always doing something, pickling his cucumbers. He was very active. The last thing he wanted was to have an earnest conversation.
Was he a man of contradictions?
No. I wouldn’t think so. He was all of a piece. He was all one. He wasn’t contradictory or contradicted about himself. It’s a big pleasure for me to talk about him. I can’t imagine that I’ve done him justice. He was a good man, good, good.
From John Williams’s Nothing but the Night, reissued this month by New York Review Books Classics
Last / Next Article