Issue 68, Winter 1976
The interview with William Goyen took place on a sunny Saturday afternoon in June, 1975—the spring of Goyen’s sixtieth birthday and also of the publication of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition of his first novel, The House of Breath.
Taped over a three-hour period in the home of a friend in Katonah, New York, Mr. Goyen remained seated on a sofa throughout the interview, sipping a soft drink. He requested that baroque music be played over the stereo, “to break the silences.” There were silences—long, considering pauses between thoughts.
William Goyen is slender and lanky, and a handsome figure at sixty. His aspect is intense and patrician, his manner gracious and courtly. Goyen’s hair is silver; he speaks with a strong Southwestern accent.
In the introduction to your Selected Writings, you stated that you began writing at the age of sixteen, at a time when you were also interested in composing and dancing and other art forms. Why writing as a career rather than one of the other arts?
My foremost ambition, as a very young person, was to be a composer, but my father was strongly opposed to my studying music—that was for girls. He was from a sawmill family who made a strict division between a male’s work and a female’s. (The result was quite a confusion of sex roles in later life: incapable men and oversexed women among his own brothers and sisters.) He was so violently against my studying music that he would not allow me even to play the piano in our house. Only my sister was allowed to put a finger to the keyboard . . . the piano had been bought for her. My sister quickly tired of her instrument, and when my father was away from the house, I merrily played away, improving upon my sister’s études—which I had learned by ear—and indulging in grand Mozartean fantasies. In the novel The House of Breath, Boy Ganchion secretly plays a “cardboard piano,” a paper keyboard pasted on a piece of cardboard in a hidden corner. I actually did this as a boy. My mother secretly cut it out of the local newspaper and sent off a coupon for beginners’ music lessons. I straightaway devised Liszt-like concerti and romantic overtures. And so silent arts were mine: I began writing. No one could hear that, or know that I was doing it, even as with the cardboard piano.
You weren’t having to write under the sheets with a flashlight, were you?
You know, I was playing my music under the quilt at night, quite literally. I had a little record player and I played what music I could under the quilt and later wrote that way. So I did write under the sheets.
What was your father’s reaction to writing?
Something of the same. He discovered it some years later, when I was an undergraduate at Rice University in Houston. He found me writing plays, and to him the theater, like the piano, was an engine of corruption which bred effeminate men (God knows he was generally right, I came to see), sexual libertines (right again!), and a band of gypsies flaunting their shadowed eyes and tinseled tights at reality. When my first novel was published, my father’s fears and accusations were justified—despite the success of the book—and he was outraged to the point of not speaking to me for nearly a year.
This could, of course, have been because the book was mostly about his own family—the sawmill family I spoke of earlier. My father, his brothers, his father, everybody else were lumber people, around mills . . . and forests. I went around the sawmills with him, you see, and saw all that. He loved trees so! My God, he would . . . he’d just touch trees . . . they were human beings. He would smell wood and trees. He just loved them. He knew wood. He was really meant for that.
Poor beloved man, though, he later came around to my side and became the scourge of local bookstores, making weekly rounds to check their stock of my book. He must have bought a hundred copies for his lumbermen friends. God knows what they thought of it. Before he died he had become my ardent admirer, and my Selected Writings is dedicated to him.
Do you agree with the theory that an unhappy childhood is essential to the formation of exceptional gifts? Were you genuinely unhappy?
How could it have been any other way? My own nature was one that would have made it that way. It was a melancholy childhood. It was a childhood that was searching for—or that needed—every kind of compensation it could get. I think that’s what makes an artist. So that I looked for compensation to fulfill what was not there.
How have the physical conditions of your writing changed over the years? What is the relation between the creative act and privacy for you, today? In your Note on the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition of The House of Breath, you stated that part of the novel was written on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.
Since my writing began in the air of secrecy, indeed, of alienation—as the work had to be done without anyone’s knowing it—forever after my work has had about it the air of someone in solitude having done it, alienated from the press of society and the everyday movements of life.
On the ship, where I continued working, I found that there are many hidden places on an aircraft carrier where one can hide out and do secret work. And this was easily achieved. Also on the night watches and so forth, there was a lot of time. There is a great deal of free time aboard a ship in wartime, ironically. This kind of tradition in my work has been mine all my life, and I have generally lived in hidden places. In New Mexico it was at the beautiful foot of a mountain (the Sangre de Cristo in the primitive village of El Prado), and also in a mysterious mountain (Kiowa Mountain—the D. H. Lawrence Ranch called Kiowa Ranch, over San Cristobal, near Taos). And in Europe—Zurich, Rome—I worked in backstreet pensions.
Yet more and more, as I get more worldly and have the security of having survived, I feel that it is not necessary to be that far removed from the workings of daily life and the daily lives of people. Indeed, the older I get and the more I write, the more I feel it important to be a part of daily life . . . to know that it surrounds me as I work. I presently live in a large apartment on the West Side of New York City. One of those rooms is mine, and it’s an absolute hideaway, yet all around me in the other rooms the life of a family goes on, and I like to know that. I also like to know that twelve flights down I can step onto the street in the midst of a lot of human beings and feel a part of those. Whereas, in the old days, in New Mexico, I was brought up—taught—by Frieda Lawrence to see that simple manual endeavor is part of art. I would work in gardens and dig water ditches and walk in mountains and along rivers when I was not writing, and I felt that it was absolutely essential to my work. That’s changing for me now. I’m more city-prone. Maybe the world is changing, too. Maybe solitude is best had in the midst of multitudes.
It’s amazing how quickly something gets written. Now, when it comes, it can be on a bus, or in a store. I’ve stopped in Macy’s and written on a dry-goods counter and then suddenly had a whole piece of writing for myself that was accomplished, where earlier in my life I felt I had to spend a week in a house somewhere in the country in order to get that. Conditions change.
Some say that poverty is ennobling to the soul. Is economic stability helpful to a writer? On the other hand, do you think wealth can be harmful?
It can be harmful. This depends on the stage in a writer’s life, of course. As a young man, for me—I speak now not as a wealthy or an impoverished man, but as a man looking back when he was younger—it was imperative that I live very simply and economically. Living in Taos—where, who would have believed it then, fifteen or twenty years later a whole migration of young hippies would come to live and meditate in the desert just where I had lived—I was totally solitary. It was imperative for me and my work that I keep everything simple and have practically nothing at all. I lived in just a mud house with a dirt floor on land that Frieda Lawrence gave me out of friendship. I built it with a friend and a couple of Indians. Yet to live in absolute poverty all his life could harm a writer’s work. The hardship and worry over money in writers as they get older is a social horror; grants given to writers should be sufficient, so that they are able to live with amplitude and, yes, some dignity.