undefined

 

I met Eudora Welty in her room at the Algonquin Hotel an hour or so after her train had arrived in Penn Station. She had given me the wrong room number, so I first saw her peering out of her door as the elevator opened. A tall, large-boned, gray-haired woman greeted me apologetically. She was admittedly nervous about being interviewed, particularly on a tape recorder. After describing her train ride—she won’t fly—she braced herself and asked if I wouldn’t begin the questioning.

Once the interview got underway, she grew more at ease. As she herself might say, she was “not unforthcoming.” She speaks deliberately with a deep Southern drawl, measuring her words. She is extremely private and won’t reveal anything personal about herself.

 

INTERVIEWER

You wrote somewhere that we should still tolerate Jane Austen’s kind of family novel. Is Austen a kindred spirit?

EUDORA WELTY

Tolerate? I should just think so! I love and admire all she does, and profoundly, but I don’t read her or anyone else for “kindredness.” The piece you’re referring to was written on assignment for Brief Lives, an anthology Louis Kronenberger was editing. He did offer me either Jane Austen or Chekhov, and Chekhov I do dare to think is more “kindred.” I feel closer to him in spirit, but I couldn’t read Russian, which I felt whoever wrote about him should be able to do. Chekhov is one of us—so close to today’s world, to my mind, and very close to the South—which Stark Young pointed out a long time ago.

INTERVIEWER

Why is Chekhov close to today’s South?

WELTY

He loved the singularity in people, the individuality. He took for granted the sense of family. He had the sense of fate overtaking a way of life, and his Russian humor seems to me kin to the humor of a Southerner. It’s the kind that lies mostly in character. You know, in Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, how people are always gathered together and talking and talking, no one’s really listening. Yet there’s a great love and understanding that prevails through it, and a knowledge and acceptance of each other’s idiosyncrasies, a tolerance of them, and also an acute enjoyment of the dramatic. Like in The Three Sisters, when the fire is going on, how they talk right on through their exhaustion, and Vershinin says, “I feel a strange excitement in the air,” and laughs and sings and talks about the future. That kind of responsiveness to the world, to whatever happens, out of their own deeps of character seems very southern to me. Anyway, I took a temperamental delight in Chekhov, and gradually the connection was borne in upon me.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever return to Virginia Woolf?

WELTY

Yes. She was the one who opened the door. When I read To the Lighthouse, I felt, Heavens, what is this? I was so excited by the experience I couldn’t sleep or eat. I’ve read it many times since, though more often these days I go back to her diary. Any day you open it to will be tragic, and yet all the marvelous things she says about her work, about working, leave you filled with joy that’s stronger than your misery for her. Remember—“I’m not very far along, but I think I have my statues against the sky”?* Isn’t that beautiful?

INTERVIEWER

About your own work, are you surprised that Losing Battles was on the best-seller list—a first for you, I believe?

WELTY

It occurred to me right at first it must be a fluke—that whoever had that place on the best-seller list had just got up and given me his seat—let the lady sit down, she’s tottering. Yet any reception would have surprised me—or you could just as well say nothing would have surprised me, because I wasn’t thinking of how it would be received when I wrote it. I thought about the opinion of a handful of friends I would love to have love that book, but not about the public.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write for your friends?

WELTY

At the time of writing, I don’t write for my friends or myself, either; I write for it, for the pleasure of it. I believe if I stopped to wonder what So-and-so would think, or what I’d feel like if this were read by a stranger, I would be paralyzed. I care what my friends think, very deeply—and it’s only after they’ve read the finished thing that I really can rest, deep down. But in the writing, I have to just keep going straight through with only the thing in mind and what it dictates.

It’s so much an inward thing that reading the proofs later can be a real shock. When I received them for my first book—no, I guess it was for Delta Wedding—I thought, I didn’t write this. It was a page of dialogue—I might as well have never seen it before. I wrote to my editor, John Woodburn, and told him something had happened to that page in the typesetting. He was kind, not even surprised—maybe this happens to all writers. He called me up and read me from the manuscript—word for word what the proofs said. Proofs don’t shock me any longer, yet there’s still a strange moment with every book when I move from the position of writer to the position of reader, and I suddenly see my words with the eyes of the cold public. It gives me a terrible sense of exposure, as if I’d gotten sunburned.

INTERVIEWER

Do you make changes in galleys?

WELTY

I correct or change words, but I can’t rewrite a scene or make a major change because there’s a sense then of someone looking over my shoulder. It’s necessary, anyway, to trust that moment when you were sure at last you had done all you could, done your best for that time. When it’s finally in print, you’re delivered—you don’t ever have to look at it again. It’s too late to worry about its failings. I’ll have to apply any lessons this book has taught me toward writing the next one.

INTERVIEWER

Is Losing Battles a departure from your previous fiction?

WELTY

I wanted to see if I could do something that was new for me: translating every thought and feeling into action and speech, speech being another form of action—to bring the whole life of it off through the completed gesture, so to speak. I felt that I’d been writing too much by way of description, of introspection on the part of my characters. I tried to see if I could make everything shown, brought forth, without benefit of the author’s telling any more about what was going on inside the characters’ minds and hearts. For me, this makes almost certainly for comedy—which I love to write best of all. Now I see it might be a transition toward writing a play.

INTERVIEWER

Did you know what you were going to write before you put it on paper?

WELTY

Yes, it was there in my head, but events proliferated as I went along. For instance, I thought all the action in the novel would be contained in one day and night, but a folder started to fill up with things marked “Next A.M.” I didn’t foresee the stories that grew out of the stories—that was one of the joys of working the novel out. I thought the book would be short, and instead it was three or four times longer than my normal work. There’s no way of estimating its original length because I had great chunks of things in paper clips, which weren’t numbered until they went to the printer. And I must have thrown away at least as much as I kept in the book.

INTERVIEWER

Did you learn anything new about writing dialogue?

WELTY

I believe so. In its beginning, dialogue’s the easiest thing in the world to write when you have a good ear, which I think I have. But as it goes on, it’s the most difficult, because it has so many ways to function. Sometimes I needed to make a speech do three or four or five things at once—reveal what the character said but also what he thought he said, what he hid, what others were going to think he meant, and what they misunderstood, and so forth—all in his single speech. And the speech would have to keep the essence of this one character, his whole particular outlook in concentrated form. This isn’t to say I succeeded. But I guess it explains why dialogue gives me my greatest pleasure in writing. I used to laugh out loud sometimes when I wrote it—the way P. G. Wodehouse is said to do. I’d think of some things my characters would say, and even if I couldn’t use it, I would write the scene out just to let them loose on something—my private show.