Skip to main content


A Conversation with James West

HUMANITIES, May/June 1997 | Volume 18, Number 3

How does a famous novelist deal with someone probing into his life? Endowment Chairman Sheldon Hackney talks with William Styron and with the man who has just finished a book about him, James West. Although the book is on the way to the publishers, Styron has not read the manuscript. Nor has he asked to.

Sheldon Hackney: First, let me thank you for being willing to talk a bit about your biography of Bill Styron. When is it due out?

James West: It should be published early in 1998.

Hackney: When did you first get interested in William Styron?

West: I discovered Styron's writings as an undergraduate back in 1968. I wrote my senior thesis on The Confessions of Nat Turner. Later, I compiled a bibliography of his work, which I recommend as good training for anyone who's going to write a biography of an author. I searched out and read not just the major publications, but a great deal of fugitive work, recondite material, and apprentice writing. That gave me a sense of the full shape of his literary career.

Hackney: It occurs to me that there are at least two reasons for someone to read a biography of a literary figure. One is that the biography itself might be simply an interesting story, and the other is that it might help explain the author's work. Which is yours?

West: It's both. That's one of the problems that literary biographers particularly have to contend with: Is the biography to be simply a narrative of the life, or is it also to include passages of critical interpretation? I've tried to blend the two; I shift back and forth between exegesis and the actual story of the life. It's like weaving different threads together into a fabric.

Hackney: If you were to be pressed on some future book tour by an interviewer, what view of Styron would you say your book would give?

West: Certainly a sympathetic one. I can't imagine anyone's undertaking a project of this scope without admiring the writer and wanting to give a sympathetic portrayal. He and I are certainly on amicable terms, but we're not intimate friends. I've tried to keep some distance and objectivity.

Hackney: How did you get started on the biography?

West: I began to work on what I thought would be a small book that would trace the beginnings of Lie Down in Darkness, Styron's first novel. Lie Down in Darkness is based on Styron's experiences growing up in Newport News, Virginia. The town of Port Warwick in Lie Down in Darkness is a version of Newport News, and some of the characters in the novel are based on people who lived there. So I went down to Newport News in the summer of 1985 and began to snoop around. It was great fun, but I became aware fairly quickly that I was really operating as a biographer. I felt a little guilty about that. On the other hand, I was uncovering some marvelous material.

So I went to Styron at the end of that summer and said, "I appear to be doing research for a biography of you." And I said, "If you want me to stop, I will. Otherwise, maybe I'll just keep going for a while." He said -- rather casually, as I remember - - that I might proceed. "Let's see what happens," he said. He and I have gone ahead from that point over these intervening twelve years, strictly on a basis of trust. We never had a signed agreement between us, as I know some biographers and their subjects do, about limits or rights or what I could look at or whom I could talk to.

Hackney: Or what he would see.

West: That's correct. He gave me blanket permission to look at anything I wanted to look at, which was extraordinarily generous on his part, and I never showed him anything I was writing.

Hackney: So you have seen correspondence that others have not, that is not open to others?

West: A great deal of it.

Hackney: Where is that material?

West: Some of it is in Styron's possession. Much of it is in the manuscript department at Duke University Library. They have a large collection of Styron materials, but some of those papers are still on restriction to others. I was allowed to see them. And then I have searched out many people -- old classmates and girlfriends and teachers and buddies from the Marine Corps. Also fellow writers, literary agents, close friends. Many of them have letters which they've let me see and copy. I've guided some of that material to Duke; it will become part of the Styron papers there.

Hackney: Oh, excellent. Let me push you a little bit here, Jim, on what your book is going to do for a reader. Bill does a great deal of research. This may not be true of Lie Down in Darkness, but of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice and Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. He reads heavily; he understands the material that he's going to be working with. That leads me to wonder whether a reader of his novels, or Darkness Visible, whether it would help at all to know anything about his personal life. Is there any connection between Bill's personal life and your ability to understand his fiction?

West: There are many connections, and they become closer the farther along one moves in Styron's career. The connections between Lie Down in Darkness and his life, and Set This House on Fire and his life, are not particularly close. But in The Confessions of Nat Turner, even though Styron is drawing on historical material, he begins to blend his own personal voice with Nat Turner's in such a way one hears a composite voice narrating the story. And parts of Sophie's Choice are very closely based . . .

Hackney: That's right. Stingo is Bill.

West: Right. Even the names are similar. Then, in Darkness Visible, he steps forward in the first person and speaks directly about himself.

I've done a lot of work with F. Scott Fitzgerald's writings, and that work that prepared me for the kinds of difficulties that you can encounter when you move from a writer's life to his writings. I've tried to be lighthanded in the biography about pointing out parallels between Styron's life and his fiction. The parallels are there, but it's obvious always that Styron is not working only from reality. It's fascinating, in fact, to watch him transmogrify reality into fiction.

Hackney: Is there anything that is opaque in the novels that becomes more clear if you know about Bill's life? Taking the major themes of the big books, there is a sense of doom there, isn't there? His mother dies when he's . . .

West: Fourteen, just fourteen.

Hackney: How important is that?

West: It's crucial. Pauline Styron was ill with cancer for a very long time, and her son watched her inching toward death even as he moved into the difficult years of adolescence. It was hard on him, hard on his father as well. It had much to do with the formation of his adult personality. All of that I've tried to detail fairly closely.

Hackney: Do you think that adds to his sense that life is going to come to no good end?

West: If Styron has that sense, yes. I'm not altogether sure that he does, though. His outlook is heavily colored by European existentialist thought, postwar existentialist thought, particularly the thinking and writing of Albert Camus. Styron has a dark vision of life, but also a sense of perseverance and endurance and continuing to struggle, to fight off the demons of despair.

Hackney: That is very much Camus, isn't it -- the Sisyphus metaphor.

West: Yes. I find the theme in Styron's writings; I also find it in the living of his life.

Hackney: Why do you think Styron gets more respect in Europe than in the United States, though he's certainly been honored in America. My sense is that he is a bigger figure in Europe than he is in the United States.

West: Styron has tackled some difficult and volatile subject matter, especially racial conflict in The Confessions of Nat Turner and the Holocaust in Sophie's Choice. Readers and reviewers here have trouble distancing themselves from that material.

Styron also writes unruly, uncooperative books. They don't say the expected things. They're difficult to teach for that reason because, even in the college classroom, students -- like many book reviewers -- expect comforting answers. Styron's books don't supply those answers. His European readers seem able to view these matters from a greater distance and with more objectivity. They recognize the artistry and intellectual toughness of the books, but they don't require panaceas...

Hackney: That's an excellent way to look at that. I hadn't really thought of it that way. What do you think his major gift as a novelist is?

West: First, he's a wonderful stylist. He draws the finest tone from the language of any writer of his generation. His novels are also courageous. He tackles difficult subjects and doesn't take shortcuts. He makes us confront questions that we don't especially want to confront -- about guilt, for instance, and about race. He's hard to read. He doesn't let the reader off easily.

It's always been remarkable to me, in fact, that his works have sold in such large numbers and that he's had such a wide readership. These are not easy books to digest.

Hackney: Confessions was the first big commercial success?

West: Yes, and Sophie's Choice an even bigger one.

One of the skills that I hope I've been able to bring to the table as a biographer has been my own study of the literary marketplace in the United States during this century. I've tried to use that knowledge to tell the story of Styron's success as a professional author. When his career began in 1951, American trade publishing was still a gentlemen's club, not so very different from, say, the publishing world in which Henry James and Edith Wharton wrote their books. But through the 1960s and 1970s, American trade publishing grew enormously in size and in its power to reach the public. The ways in which books are now financed and distributed have allowed Styron's writings to reach far greater audiences than he could have anticipated when he began sriting in the late 1940s. I've had access to the files of his publishers and literary agents, and I've been able to detail a great deal of the negotiation and activity that made Styron a famous author..

Hackney: There is the blockbusteritis, which is to say that there are so many tie-ins that are now possible, the movie of Sophie's Choice being an example.

West: Styron's books have never been marketed as blockbusters -- as, say, Sidney Sheldon's or Danielle Steele's have. But writers like Styron have benefited from the apparatus that's been set up for authors like those two.

Hackney: Would you say his novels are accessible to the public?

West: They're certainly written for a broadly educated, sophisticated lay readership. They're not written for college professors and academics.

Hackney: Right.

West: This is partly a matter of language. It's also a matter of technical experimentation. Styron's experiments with language and form tend not to call attention to themselves. His novels have technical hurdles in them, usually having to do with narration, but one doesn't find self-conscious experiments such as one does in the writings of John Barth or Thomas Pynchon.

Hackney: Except for vocabulary -- which is extraordinary, isn't it?

West: It's gorgeous.

Hackney: But do you explain the technical innovations in the biography?

West: I do. I've gone back into the manuscripts, which are at the Library of Congress and at Duke, and have traced out how Styron developed these complex narrative voices and structures. Often it was hard for him to do.

Hackney: In Lie Down in Darkness, there was a section that was expurgated by the publisher, Bobbs-Merrill.

West: That's correct.

Hackney: A sexually explicit section. Would it change the novel substantially if that section had been published as Styron originally wrote it?

West: Yes. The section that was bowdlerized was Peyton Loftis's interior monologue near the end of the book, just before she commits suicide. The expurgations change her as a character. They make her more sympathetic. She remains confused and tortured about many things in the published book, but her sexual history isn't as major a factor in her downfall as it is in the manuscript.

The arguments made to Styron by Bobbs-Merrill and by his editor at the time, Hiram Haydn, were that they didn't wish the novel to draw attention to itself as a dirty book, as had been the case with Ulysses and with some of D. H. Lawrence's works. Styron was not especially happy at the time about having to bleach the text, but he went along with it. He was a first novelist and he trusted Hiram Haydn's judgment. I know, too, that Styron over the years has come to believe that Haydn was right. A few years ago, when he had a chance to restore the passages that had been expurgated, he chose not to.

Hackney: That's fascinating. But his interest in sex has continued.

West: Certainly it has, and he's been very forthright in subsequent novels about dealing with the sexual landscape, particularly in The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice. He's investigated the psychology of onanism, for example, to a rather remarkable degree.

Hackney: Is there a connection? I mean, the sexual activity certainly played an integral role in all of his novels. Why is it so integral for him?

West: I've not thought about that, to be honest with you. Perhaps Styron's openness about sexuality is part and parcel with his openness about a great many other things. He's not a secretive person, as an artist. He's forthright in stating what he has to say; especially in his novels he has always wanted to pull out the stops and explore many dimensions of human behavior. Sexual behavior is one of these.

Hackney: In your study of Bill and in your relationships with Bill, and knowing the family and Rose, you must have run across things that -- warts, to make it quite clear. What do you do with those?

West: I don't deal with Styron's personal life past a certain point. I treat his early personal experiences, before marriage, but after that, there are areas of any person's life that ought to remain inaccessible. I'm not among those who believes that every detail of the subject's life should be catalogued. Julian Barnes writes, in Flaubert's Parrot: "What do we need to know? Not everything. Everything confuses." Anyone who wants to know the interior of Styron's sexual landscape really needs only to read the novels, because it's all there.

Hackney: Were his early experiences in Paris important?

West: They were. That was actually a wonderful chapter to write. Styron went to Paris in the year after Lie Down in Darkness was published, and he was living there when the Paris Review was being founded. He became good friends with George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, John Marquand, Jr., and with others who were associated with the Paris Review in those early years. These people remained his friends in the decades that followed. In fact, the Paris Review crowd is almost the only circle of literary friends that Styron has ever kept company with. And, too, his early experiences in Paris introduced him to the pleasures of French culture, so that when the French began to read and praise his work in the early 1960s, he was already prepared for the attention, and pleased to have it.

Hackney: Yes. He is a political person as well as an artistic person. Is that a big part of his persona?

West: I think it is. He opposed the Vietnam War quite visibly, for instance, and he has been a consistent opponent of the death penalty. He's for also agitated for the rights of prisoners.

His interests coincide with Rose's here; they share a great many political convictions. It's one of the strongest bonds in their marriage.

Hackney: I think you're right. But I'm guessing now that your politics are not quite the same.

West: They're close. Though I'm not the activist Styron is, I go fairly far along the line with him in his political preferences and leanings. There's been no serious jarring.

Hackney: Does that matter between a biographer and the subject?

West: Certainly it does. It would be a great problem if a biographer were almost wholly at odds with a subject's political beliefs. Of course, it could also be a problem if a biographer's own beliefs were so close to those of the subject that the biographer began to use the subject as a mouthpiece for his own views.

Hackney: Excellent point. Have you had any advantages come your way by working with a living subject?

West: The advantages are mirror images of the disadvantages. It's an advantage to know the author and observe him and listen to him, and consult his memory, for example. But any personal relationship with an author, even a relatively formal one, will color what you write, and you must guard against it. Also, your subject's memory won't always be wholly accurate, so you have to check your facts.

One of the great advantages to working with a contemporary figure is that many of the people you need to talk to can be interviewed. They're still around. But interview material is unstable, hard to control. Someone of my training is much more comfortable with documentary evidence from archives. That kind of evidence will sit still and be quoted. Living people often won't cooperate as well.

A disadvantage is that if you're the first biographer on the scene, as I am with Styron, you have to work up the archival material yourself. In Styron's case, blessedly, much of it was already available in the Library of Congress and at Duke. But you must still search out personal letters and business records that haven't made their way into archives yet. The advantage, of course, is that you're the first person to see that material; you have the pleasure of interpreting it for the first time. But a disadvantage is that you're on your own. You tell the story for the first time. You don't augment or correct previous biographers. It can be a lonely feeling.

Hackney: Did you have any particular advantage in taking on this biography?

West: I'm a Virginian like Styron. Part of my upbringing was in the eastern part of Virginia, so I have a feel for the region. I also have the right accent, a Tidewater drawl. Those folks down there won't talk to you unless your accent's right.

I'm also a lapsed Presbyterian, as Styron is, and I'm expatriated from the South. I've lived in the North now for ten years, and I think I understand how one can look back on the South and objectify it more successfully from a distance.

Hackney: On the matter of the interviews and how difficult they are to use, I'm assuming that part of the reason is that memories are unreliable.

West: That's true, though interviewing is also very exciting. My subjects told me a great deal about William Styron, but they also told me much about themselves. Interviews are intense experiences of recollection and reassessment. When I began the interviews, I would go in sometimes with a list of eighteen or twenty questions. I would feel that I had to cover every question. I learned fairly quickly, though, that often the best thing to do is to let the subject dictate the flow of the interview. I also learned the value of remaining silent and letting the other person talk. Finally, I learned that often the best recollection, the stunner, comes just after you've packed away the tape recorder and are heading out the door.

Hackney: What were the best times you had in writing this biography?

West: After I had finished a series of interviews with people from Styron's past, I would see him and tell him some of the stories I had heard. These stories would trigger his own memories, and prompt him to tell his own stories, often wonderfully revealing ones. I think he enjoyed those sessions. I know I did.

Hackney: Tell me about Styron's relationship with Norman Mailer. I'm assuming that's problematic.

West: He and Mailer are on good terms today, but there was a long estrangement between the two. It started when Mailer was living near Roxbury in the 1950s. The two writers saw a fair amount of each other, and there developed a rivalry between them, which also involved James Jones, who was friendly with both men. Mailer broke off the friendship privately in a letter, to which Styron responded privately. Then Mailer attacked Styron twice in print, once in his book Advertisements for Myself and once in Esquire. Styron never responded publicly, but he took parts of Mailer's private letters to him and put them into his novel Set This House on Fire, where he was sure Mailer would see them. It was his private way of answering Mailer. All of this is detailed in the biography.

Hackney: That's fascinating. I can't think of any two more different individuals.

West: They were going in wholly different directions in the 1950s. The things that interested Mailer, modern jazz and the beat scene in the Village, were boring to Styron.

The two men are also very different in their working methods. Mailer is at his best composing in a kind of headlong improvisational style that shows the energy and violence of his mind. Styron is a much more careful writer, more exacting and precise.

They had little common ground in the 1950s. What brought them back together was that both men had taken up the causes of convicts -- Mailer, a fellow named Jack Abbott, and Styron, Benjamin Reed. Both of those people got in trouble during rehabilitation. Abbott murdered a man, and Ben Reed escaped from prison and kidnaped and raped a woman. So Styron and Mailer had their tragedies in common, and it brought them back together. Styron, in fact, defended Mailer for trying to help Abbott.

Hackney: Yes. Their politics are really very close.

West: They often found themselves espousing the same causes and signing the same public letters. By the 1980s, when they got back together, there was no longer any reason for an estrangement.

Hackney: Right. How do you explain the relationship of Bill and James Jones? I know he was devoted to James Jones.

West: I believe Styron made contact with the gentle, vulnerable side of James Jones's personality -- a side that Styron also has, though not many people see it. The two men had military experiences in common, too. And Gloria Jones, who was daring and good-looking and sassy, was a wonderful solvent in that relationship; she and Rose and Bill and James Jones were a close foursome.

Hackney: In the process of living with this biography and the project for a long time with Styron, did your view of him change dramatically?

West: Yes. My respect for him, which was already high, became higher. I learned about some of the interior demons he's had to contend with -- an inherited predisposition toward melancholia being one. I also observed his self-discipline with alcohol. He's defeated some big adversaries in his life and has kept writing with a steadiness and focus that I admire.

Hackney: He works very slowly, as his publisher probably would say.

West: He does have unusual working methods. A good stint for Styron is perhaps five or six hundred words in a day. That will take about four or five hours. He can't compose the next sentence until the previous sentence suits him, and there's little revision between the manuscript and the printed page. This procedure has hobbled him sometimes and has caused him to abort writing projects. But there are benefits. The analogy I use is that Styron writes in the same way that contractors in Europe build houses; that is, they build from the foundation up. The last thing they put on is the roof. The technique over here is to frame in the house first and then to hang the walls from the frames. Styron's never been able to work that way, but his painstaking methods have given his work a solidity and gravity that otherwise it wouldn't have.

Hackney: And his manuscript page is a real manuscript page. He writes in pencil in longhand.

West: He's always composed in the same way, and seems to feel most comfortable with particular materials: long, yellow legal pads and Number 2 pencils.

Hackney: Well, there is a tactile dimension of writing, isn't there? The connection between the mind and the word on the page is quite important.

West: That seems to be the case with Styron. His manuscripts do contain many false starts and places where the narrative has strayed from the original conception. He doesn't try to patch or fiddle with what he's already written. He discards that material and begins again, but he saves the drafts. It's been fascinating material to study. I've made much use of it in the biography.

Hackney: He's been working off and on now on a big war novel, the end of the war, and has even published parts of it, as I recall, in Esquire.

The parts that I've read I thought were wonderful. Why do you think he couldn't finish that?

West: He might yet finish it. I have great faith in him. I think he wants to say something different from what Mailer said or James Jones said. He's always told me that he has to have in mind the central metaphor or concept of a novel before he can proceed with it. He's apparently not yet been able to bring that concept into focus for this war novel. He's still working on it, though.

Hackney: And we will wait for your biography. It does sound fascinating. Thank you very much.