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Stegner apologized that his markings are not more revealing: “My methods are prelapsarian and prewordprocessarian. It takes me many rewritings to get a first draft, and all the chapters that went into it have been thrown away successively until I get something that will read consecutively. I go through that with an editing pencil and retype it to make a relatively clear second draft.” 

Wallace Stegner has published thirteen novels, three short-story collections, sixteen nonfiction titles, and has edited eighteen works in the fifty-three years he has been publishing books. His first novella, Remembering Laughter, won a Little, Brown Prize in 1937, and in 1990 Random House published Stegner’s collected stories.

As early as 1944, Sinclair Lewis hailed Stegner as “one of the most important novelists in America.” There are those who know him only as a prize winning- historian; or only as the biographer of John Wesley Powell (Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, 1954) and Bernard DeVoto (The Uneasy Chair, 1974). There are those who know him only as a novelist for Angle of Repose (1971), a transcontinental novel that earned Stegner a Pulitzer Prize. And also, there are those who know Stegner as a “damned environmentalist.” During the Kennedy Administration, Stegner became a special assistant to former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. Later, he served on and then chaired the Advisory Board for National Parks, Historical Sites, Buildings, and Monuments.

Turn the conversation too far in this direction, however, and Stegner alternates between genuine modesty, subversive silence, and cantankerability. (“We all have ethical and moral obligations! I’ve done nothing laudatory or unusual.”) Suggest a connection between Stegner’s teaching years at Stanford (1946–1971) and the success of his students, and Stegner demurs. (“Those writers would have succeeded anyway,” he insists. “Nothing could have stopped some of them.”) Still, the list of those who have held fellowships bearing Stegner’s name during his years at Stanford is itself impressive, and includes the following: Edward Abbey, Max Apple, Peter Beagle, Wendell Berry, Blanche Boyd, Eugene Burdick, Raymond Carver, Max Crawford, Ernest Gaines, Ken Gangemi, Merrill Joan Gerber, James Baker Hall, Jim Houston, Ed McClanahan, Tom McGuane, Larry McMurtry, N. Scott Momaday, Gurney Norman, Tillie Olson, Nancy Packer, Charlotte Painter, Judith Rascoe, Robert Stone, Robin White, and Al Young.

In person, what first impresses many people is Stegner’s appearance. Even at the age of eighty-one he looks exceptionally youthful and handsome. He wears his clothes well, whether an old bathrobe or a workshirt and jeans. He rises early—sometimes too early for a houseguest from Idaho—breakfasts, then retreats before first light to the manual typewriter inside the study adjoining the Stegner home. Both the house and the study overlook the woods and meadows of the Los Altos Hills. On cool mornings, Stegner lights a low fire in the stove and then writes until lunch.

Although far from uncluttered, his study nevertheless seems orderly and neat. On its entrance wall and to the left of it, bookshelves run from floor to ceiling; opposite the entrance, honorary degrees, awards, certificates and memorabilia take the place of bookshelves. To the right sits Stegner’s broad wooden desk, on top of it more books, a few cigars, an ashtray, and manuscript pages. Behind the desk are photos of friends like Bernard DeVoto and Robert Frost; below these, more bookshelves tightly packed with contemporary classics.

 

INTERVIEWER

When did you decide that you had to be a writer?

WALLACE STEGNER

I’m a writer by the sheerest accident. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college. I did, and there they said, You’ve got to major in something. So I said, Fine, economics. And I took one course in economics and that cured that. Then, my freshman English teacher thought I had some kind of gift. So he put me in an advanced class, which gave me the notion that I could put words together in some fashion. I wrote some short stories as an undergraduate, won a little prize at one of the local newspapers. But I was selling rugs and linoleum, and, as far as I knew, I would go on selling rugs and linoleum for a living. I wrote this piece of stupidity into the novel Recapitulation because it seemed to me nobody above the stage of a cretin could have been so completely unaware, so totally naive, so unsophisticated, wide-eyed, going any way he was pushed. I was silly putty.

When I finished college, a couple of my professors pushed me off to graduate school. When I had finished that, I went back to Salt Lake to teach, and after two years of recovering from the Ph.D., I sat down one afternoon and wrote a story just because I wanted to write a story. I wrote it in about two hours and sent it off to the Virginia Quarterly, I think, and they published it. Then you know you’re hooked. By that time I was twenty-six or twenty-seven. I hadn’t been grinding away at a literary apprenticeship, and I had given writing up as a possible career. It never occurred to me that there was a possibility of making a living at it. So it was all pure, brute accident, with some people who encouraged me along the way. That’s probably the way it is. You do get encouraged when you’re young and malleable by people who think they know better than you what you’re good for. And they may be right. Certainly, I’d have made a terrible economist.

INTERVIEWER

Do you consciously go in search of book projects? How did your novel Crossing to Safetybegin? 

STEGNER

No. I don’t go in search of projects. Sometimes they appear before my eyes, and sometimes they grow over a long period of time as I brood. Sometimes I know there’s a book there, and I have to hunt through an awful lot of research material, as I did with Angle of Repose. I have started books without knowing where they were going to end. That’s more dangerous. But in the case of Crossing to Safety the book just grew, more or less, through personal experience in Vermont, Wisconsin, and to a small extent, in Italy. In those places what was gradually developing in my mind could find a home. That’s how the book came about. It took a long time. I had to do it by trial and error, and I was years in getting it finally sorted out. It’s not a conscious process.

INTERVIEWER

Was there any point where you definitely knew this project was a novel?

STEGNER

I knew from the beginning it was going to be a book. You have that feeling. It’s like having a fish on the line. You know when it’s an old boot and when it’s a fish. But I didn’t know whatthe book was. I’ve got piles of manuscripts over there, eight and ten inches high, of stuff written and tossed aside in the process of finding out. At several points the novel was going in entirely different directions. It had different characters from those that now appear, more characters, episodes that never got into the finished book at all. The novel started in a different place. It proceeded toward a different end.

INTERVIEWER

In writing the new novel did you confront any technical challenges you had never faced before?

STEGNER

There were problems in this book, partly because it’s a very quiet book. Not much happens in it. It contains none of the things that seem to be essential for contemporary novels. Much goes on in the mind, in memory. I was doing something that I would have advised almost any student of mine not to do: I let nearly the whole book happen in one head, during the course of one day. There’s a little bit of front-stage action during the day, but most of the book curls back and picks up the past. It’s difficult to do this without being slow and tedious. I don’t know if I succeeded or not. I had to work on that problem constantly to keep the story line from appearing to sag and go nowhere. It had to have some forward motion. It had to have some draft. That’s a technical problem: by the pure force of the writing to create a sense of involvement in real events. Also, the problem of how to get the essence of the lives of the four main characters into the space of one day is not small. I had done something like that before but never in such a concentrated way. In making fiction, one of the things a writer must do is to make absolutely certain that he knows the mind he’s dealing through. In Recapitulation, I was dealing in third-person narration, but through a particular memory and a particular mind. In Crossing to Safety, I’m dealing in first-person; I have to try to become that person as far as possible. If I succeed, I get the tone of voice and the quality of mind that will persuade a reader to see and hear a real and credible human being, not a mouthpiece or a construct. As Henry James said, if fiction is going to be successful, it depends helplessly upon that sense of reality.

INTERVIEWER

You have to convince the reader that the world that he or she is entering is the real world and not the world of dream or memory only. Is that it? 

STEGNER

I believe the real world exists. I haven’t any philosophical doubts about that. Moreover, before you can convince the reader, you have to convince yourself that, in effect, you have invaded and become the person you’re speaking through. Every morning you have to read over what you did yesterday, and if it doesn’t persuade you, it has to be redone. Sometimes it takes me three hours in the morning to get over the feeling that I’ve been wasting my time for the past week and that everything I’ve written up to that point is drivel. Until I can convince myself that I am speaking in the plausible, believable voice of the person I have invented, I can’t go on. So the first job is to convince yourself, the second is to convince the reader. If you do the first, the second more or less follows.

INTERVIEWER

Can we properly speak of traditional forms in fiction in the same sense that we can speak of traditional forms in poetry?

STEGNER

Sonnets and rondels? No. But it seems to me that every story has its own form, which can’t be imposed upon the material but must be discovered within it. I don’t believe, for instance, in such a thing as an all-inclusive form at all. I don’t think there is such a thing in philosophy, either. I don’t believe in method-makers, system-makers; it doesn’t seem to me that life conforms to systems. Only systems conform to systems. The people who feel compelled to make systems, whether out of philosophy or out of human life, or out of words, are deluding themselves. I would rather follow the flow of life as it happens than of life as I can imagine it to be. I don’t think straitjackets are the way to get at fiction. I would rather define the novel as Stendhal did, as a mirror in the roadway. Whatever happens in the road is going to happen in the mirror too. You can’t systematize that. 

INTERVIEWER

What is originality in fiction? 

STEGNER

It’s often thought to be technical innovation, experimentation of one kind or another, which never intrigued me. Whatever originality is, you can tell when it isn’t there. If everything in a story can be anticipated from the start, if the writer begins with a situation and the story develops and concludes in absolutely anticipated ways, then I would say it is unoriginal. The writer is following a pattern practically imprinted on the material. Some element of the unexpected is necessary, or some element, at least, of the—what would you call it?—profound. For a writer to be original, he or she would have to see deeply enough into characters to say something that makes a reader really pause, something the reader might never have thought of at that point in the fiction. And ultimately, the writer would have to make the reader go the writer’s way too.