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A Conversation with William Styron

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

Sheldon Hackney: This could be called the year of William Styron. You've got a film biography coming out in Europe and one in the United States, and Jim West's full-scale biography is on its way to the publisher. Why do you think there is this upsurge of interest in you?

William Styron: Be damned if I know. I think these things probably have their own organic energy.

I remember one time years and years ago, my friend Jimmy Baldwin, who was at that time living in my house -- and he was very young; we were both very young at the time -- still, we had a certain amount of work behind us. And he said he was always surprised at how one's work gains weight. That's the exact word he used. What he meant was that interest in one's work is a cumulative thing, cumulative in the sense that, as time goes by, there are other readers who are getting born and achieving the age of readership. As a result, the work has its own energetic meaning for people.

Hackney: You, as an author, have no control over the sequence in which people discover you.

Styron: That's quite true.

Hackney: So you may be understood differently because people will have read Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, for instance, first.

Styron: A work like Darkness Visible, which is quite brief but has its own impact, is a kind of work, I think, which prompts a response on the part of readers to my other work.

Hackney: Darkness Visible is incredibly revelatory. In a sense, obviously, your novels are as well. But I think the novels may read differently after one has read Darkness Visible.

Styron: It could be all unwittingly that I wrote in Darkness Visible what amounted to a Rosetta stone for my other work. I provided a key which probably interests people who are at all involved in the issue -- mental illness -- because, let's face it, I was writing about a very prevalent, almost universal mental disorder. It may be that this work by its very nature created a ripple effect in the sense that it prompted a considerable amount of interest in my other work.

Hackney: I learned, in talking with Jim West, that he is going to use the title that was the working title of Lie Down in Darkness before you changed it to Lie Down in Darkness. Is that right, Inheritance of Night?

Styron: I think Jim and I have decided that the title is a bit ornate. It'll be something simple, I believe, like William Styron, A Life.

Hackney: Well, the obvious thing that occurs to me after reading Darkness Visible and thinking back over your fiction is that there is a dark side to all of it, isn't there? There is a doom.

Styron: There's certainly that. Again, it could be that in Darkness Visible, unbeknownst really to my inner self, I created a work which in effect helped reveal the meaning of my other work.

Hackney: Do you now think that your -- the melancholia, I guess, would be the general term for it -- was there from the beginning?

Styron: I certainly do. I didn't realize it except that it came to the fore as I was writing Darkness Visible. I began to realize, springing out of my subconscious, that the themes of virtually all my work were themes which were probably prompted by a kind of depressive mood, a melancholic mood, that I had within me ever since the very beginning.

Hackney: Yet your conscious self is not defeatist about human life.

Styron: No, no. I think there are too many other things going on in my psyche. It certainly has never been melancholia that has shut down my ability to perceive life on other levels as a fairly pleasant experience, and, I might add, I hope occasionally a comic experience.

Without the humor throughout my work, it wouldn't succeed. It couldn't be work which was shadowed over entirely by melancholy.

Hackney: Jim West mentioned that he thought Camus had been particularly influential in your thinking, not a literary influence but a philosophic influence. Is that accurate?

Styron: To some degree. When I first read Camus back in the late fifties and sixties -- I came to him somewhat later than I might have otherwise -- he had an enormous effect on me. In fact, the architecture of The Confessions of Nat Turner was largely determined by the architecture of his book, The Stranger. I began to see just how the plight of a man condemned to death reflecting on his life from a prison cell, which is true for The Stranger, I might use as a similar structure for The Confessions of Nat Turner, which indeed is what I did.

Hackney: Which is incredibly effective. I think also of a general existentialist view of life, and Camus's in particular. There's this marvelous essay about Sisyphus.

Styron: I read most of Camus by that time, and that included "The Myth of Sisyphus." There's something in the entire world view of Camus's which was similar to mine in the sense that I think we were both influenced by similar melancholic moods. Romain Gary, my beloved French writer friend, often told me that he felt that Camus was basically a man who was preoccupied with suicide most of the time, not only from a philosophical point of view -- it haunted his writings -- but also from an internal impulse toward self-destruction.

Hackney: You have to wonder about his mode of death.

Styron: Indeed you do. That was almost a form of unconscious suicide, that death by automobile.

Hackney: Let me ask you this. Darkness Visible really does open you up. You're incredibly honest there. But you, as you live your life day to day, are not really a self- revelatory person. You're not an egoist. You don't call attention to yourself the way some other writers and public figures do. In view of your own personality, why did you decide to cooperate with Jim West?

Styron: I suppose there are two ways you can look at being the subject of a biography. You can either say, adamantly, "I will not permit myself to be the subject of a biography at least until my death" -- at which point you're fair game for anyone, as we all know; or you can say -- if someone is interested, as Jim was from the very beginning, quite a few years ago -- you can say, "Well, why not at least be the subject of a biographer who is going to not necessarily make a worshipful work out of you, but will at least make it respectably close to the truth, that you yourself can verify."

Hackney: Yes, right.

Styron: I've heard it said that everybody who is the subject of a biography is going to usually have at least three biographies: one that is authorized and therefore respectful; followed by one that is unauthorized and intentionally disrespectful; and, finally, one that seeks to find a balance between the two. That's turned out to be true for a lot of writers. Virtually no writer of any stature has merely one biography. It usually is a series of books that tend to quarrel with the earlier view.

Hackney: Which every scholar is bound to do.

Styron: Exactly, and which is healthy, really, in the end. But I do think that if you have an authorized biography, it does have the virtue of being able to be as close to factually accurate as any other book.

Hackney: Jim West not only likes your work, but he seems to understand it very well. That must be a plus. I would imagine that this first biography is going to fix an approach to you, a view of you, as a literary figure. That will be hard for readers to avoid in some way, and maybe even hard for you to break out of. Is that a worry?

Styron: I don't think it will affect me in any way at all in terms of my work. Aside from the factual aspects, which I think will be very, very accurate, the book will have a point of view which is Jim's. But, as I said before, one biographer's view of a subject is by no means necessarily the same as another's. I think it's quite likely, if my work has any lastingness, there will be other works which may be less friendly.

Hackney: In this tabloid era that we live in, that's almost inevitable.

Styron: It is inevitable and there's nothing one can do about it except to shrug one's shoulders.

Hackney: When any biographer lives with a subject, figuratively, for a long time -- Jim's been at work on this for what, five years . . .

Styron: I think in terms of the actual writing, it's been that, but he's been an accumulating material for much longer than that.

Hackney: Well, he's bound to stumble across a wart or two.

Styron: Uh-huh.

Hackney: Which we all have. Do you worry about those?

Styron: I really don't. Again, there's an inevitability in unearthing -- pardon the expression -- dirt. My life and work have been far from free of blemish, and so I think it would be unpardonable for a biographer not to dish up the dirt. I don't mean that in a scandalous or stupid way, but I think nothing could be more disagreeable than the experience of reading a biography of a person which avoided the underside of a person's life. It would look like Parson Weems's Washington.

Hackney: There is another aspect, though. You have had a lot of famous friends along the way, and a lot of friends who weren't famous when they became your friends long ago but now are. They're still your friends, which is a nice thing. I'm thinking of George Plimpton and those folks.

Styron: Sure.

Hackney: It would be tempting for a biographer, through his writing about you, to maybe say things about your friends that they would rather not have said. Does that worry you? How do you handle that anyway? I would assume that Jim West is going to talk to all these folks as well.

Styron: I think he's going to be diplomatic. But as long as he's fair about my own flaws and failings, I really would almost welcome it. I don't mean to say that in some macho, brave way. I just do think that a work has to include a man's flaws.

Hackney: Has talking with Jim West been fun?

Styron: Yes, indeed. I've told him a lot, the sort of stories about my anecdotes from my father's memory, that sort of thing. And Jim himself has unearthed a great deal about my parental background on both sides.

Hackney: Has this process of thinking about yourself and your life made you see yourself in a slightly different way or see your life in a different way?

Styron: I must say Jim's scholarship and industry have been so thorough that he's unearthed stuff that I didn't know about. That's been fascinating -- about, for instance, my grandfather on my father's side, the old North Carolina patriarch and his trials and tribulations after the Civil War. I think that's stuff that I would not have gotten on my own, and it's been very interesting.

Hackney: But in the process of talking about yourself to Jim, you haven't had flashes of . . .

Styron: I have, yes. I remember sitting down with him after I recovered from this monumental depression, which I memorialized in Darkness Visible -- a considerable amount of time before I wrote the book -- and spilled a great deal of detail about the extraordinary experience of that depression. I think it was useful to both him and me.

Hackney: Let me ask you something else that I've wondered about that you may or may not have an answer for.

You have won almost every honor in the United States that a writer can win: the Pulitzer, the American Book Award, the Prix de Rome, the Howells Medal. You are a major figure here. Yet I have the sense that you're a bigger figure in Europe, that you're more appreciated there than in the United States. Is that so, and, if so, why do you think that is?

Styron: I don't know if I am. Here, I think whatever reputation I have is obscured by the simple fact that very few writers who are not perpetually in the public eye really have much of a reputation at all in this vast country. On the totem pole of reputation and of cultural acceptance, we're not very high, any of us.

Hackney: Right.

Styron: There are exceptions. My friend Norman Mailer because of his -- and I say respectfully -- his flamboyant style and his . . .

Hackney: Advertisements for Myself.

Styron: . . . is an exception. And maybe one or two others. I don't want to sound like I'm singing the blues that writers are doomed to obscurity, because they're not. But on the totem pole, we're somewhere in the area of your local psychiatrist.

Hackney: Just ahead of college professors.

Styron: Just ahead of college professors, and probably slightly lower than college presidents, I might add (laughter). As a result, we don't have this great resonance. In Europe, on the other hand, a writer who has somehow expressed himself in a way that Europeans find appealing can become almost sanctified. I have to say with some element of pleasure that that's what's happened to me in France. It's quite a different experience. I know that I'm a public figure, which I'm not here.

Hackney: But you don't connect it to you yourself and what you've written as much as to the general phenomenon of intellectuals in Europe.

Styron: I do think it's the latter, yes. I do think it's the acceptance of the work on a very closely scrutinized level, and there is a difference there.

Hackney: There certainly is.

Let me ask you about sex.

Styron: Why not!

Hackney: But discreetly.

Styron: Yes.

Hackney: In Lie Down in Darkness, your first novel, which made you instantly a figure in the literary world, there was a section that was expurgated at the request of the publisher.

Styron: Yes.

Hackney: Which was explicit sex.

Styron: Mm-hmm.

Hackney: Now that you look back at that, was that section that was taken out necessary for the novel? Did it hurt the novel to have it taken out?

Styron: I don't think it had any effect. I don't think it damaged the novel one way or another. That was a very repressive time. It was just at the edge of the period between repression and liberation. There was ambiguity in publishing circles about how much sex could be in a book. That was just a year or so after Mailer had to spell the famous four-letter word 'f-u-g.' It was roughly at the same time.

Hackney: It's actually only about twenty years after Ulysses and D. H. Lawrence.

Styron: Lawrence's victory in the United States courts had not occurred then. Lady Chatterley's Lover was still banned at the time Lie Down in Darkness came out, and so there was this repressive overlay. My own built-in restrictions about what I was writing were so intense. My own feeling for self-censorship was so great that I felt that these little forays into sex were pretty daring. They weren't nearly as explicit as what I would have been doing fifteen or twenty years later, so that the fact that they were excised really had no basic effect on the book at all.

For instance, there's not a single four-letter word -- the famous four-letter words that we use now routinely -- in that book, because I had imposed on myself that censorship out of necessity. I knew that in no way would they be allowed. The same thing about the sexual. I thought it was fairly daring for me to try to do what I did, and I think when I was reproached for it, I felt I'd gotten my just deserts.

Hackney: It's cultural training, acculturation of a strong sort.

Styron: That's right. I accepted it. As I look back on it, by our contemporary standards those passages were so relatively tame, even in their attempt at explicit sexuality, that it hardly mattered that they were taken out.

Hackney: That leads to the question, then, since sex does rear its head, ugly or not, in all of your fiction.

Styron: It's beautiful.

Hackney: Why is it there? Is it organic to some part of the novel that is important to the plot or to the character development?

Styron: I don't think I've ever placed sex and sexuality in a work where I didn't feel that these passages weren't aesthetically necessary or required. I have never, to the best of my knowledge, used sex gratuitously in order to just . . .

Hackney: Hype sales.

Styron: Hype sales, or to shock or to add a lubricious gloss to the text. I simply have not. My own view is that when I've used it -- and I've used it graphically and without stint when I felt I had to -- that it was always in the service of an aesthetic need.

Interestingly enough, in support of my own view that probably I've succeeded, more or less, is the fact that while I have been lambasted and criticized as much as any living writer for a lot of other things, I have rarely felt that people have jumped on me for my use of sex.

Hackney: I think that's right.

In some ways, you are a singular figure in the world of American fiction, because you do seem to resist trends. I'm thinking of minimalism and -- maybe Donald Barthelme, very self- conscious innovations in the fictional form. You're not noticeably in that camp. But you do things fresh with the form, do you not?

Styron: I've never much concerned myself with modes of writing. For a while, in a kind of curious way, I felt somewhat excluded from the mainstream, the mainstream being postmodernism. Back in the sixties and seventies I was doing my own thing and I was somehow eccentrically out of the swim of postmodernism. The writing that was attracting all of the attention of the critics and the public was by writers like John Barth and Barthelme and John Hawkes and William Gass and their cohorts. I was somehow square and out doing this traditional narrative stuff. I wish the critics and writers of post-modernism felt more benign about the kind of writing that I was doing as I felt benignly about their writing. I always felt that writing was the expression of a single personality and that writers should be able to express themselves in whatever mode they felt comfortable with. Despite my irritation at the idea that my own work was considered out of the mainstream, I was going to do my own work the way I wanted to.

Hackney: How have you felt about the public? For whom do you write? The American publishing industry has been dramatically changed between Lie Down in Darkness and even Sophie's Choice. The public is given more -- and gobbles up more -- fiction and cultural productions than ever before. Has that changed the way you think about your writing?

Styron: Not really. I have felt at moments in my career that I was in a curious way out of the swim and somewhat in the shadows, but it's only been very temporary. I felt -- and I have evidence, and that's all that really matters -- that my work, from the very beginning, has had a significant readership. We live in such a various, multitudinous society that it's often hard to position oneself, to find oneself, to discover what one's relationship is with one's public. Still, I've never been in any sense dissatisfied. I've felt that my work has been widely read. If there is a concrete index to such matters, I was told by Vintage Books, my paperback publisher, that this little book of stories, A Tidewater Morning, has gone into its fifth printing and the paperback Vintage edition of Darkness Visible is now in its seventeenth printing. And that my other books have a steady readership. I think this is all that one writer can hope for.

Hackney: You've been incredibly successful in that sense. I don't know the figures either, but I'm struck by the fact that Lie Down in Darkness, which was not only a critical success but did very well for the 1950s and still sells, yet I would guess that it just doesn't compare in its reach to Sophie's Choice.

Styron: But the very fact that this book, Lie Down in Darkness, which was first published in 1951, still has a steady readership fascinates me.

Most first novels, even by well-known writers, tend to fade into a kind of curiosity-shop area where they're literary oddities and respected, but not widely read. But while Lie Down in Darkness doesn't have nearly the readership of my other works, still I'm often pleasantly surprised when someone will say to me, 'Well, I just have read Lie Down in Darkness, and I like it a lot.'

Hackney: It's a great novel.

Styron: To have a first novel written as young as I was, to have this survivability pleases me quite a bit.

Hackney: Let me ask you what may be a hard question, and you can dodge it if you want. You work slowly and quite deliberately, almost painfully, I would say, in the way you write. You have avoided several projects, I think.

Styron: I have.

Hackney: The one in particular that I'm thinking about is your big war novel, some of which was even published. How come you can't finish that?

Styron: I've never gotten a handle on it until recently. I now have a handle on it.

Hackney: Is it a technical problem, or is it something else?

Styron: It's a philosophical problem, which I'm happy to tell you that I've solved. I've got the whole thing, abstractly at least, in the palm of my hand. It is proceeding on an entirely different tack from what it originally was, but in a very direct and deliberate way and direction.

Hackney: So you're back working on it.

Styron: It is not going to be big. I think there's virtue in saying a lot within a small compass. That's what I'm going to do.

Hackney: Is it going to incorporate the parts that have already been published?

Styron: Some, yes, but I probably will exclude a lot that's been already published.

Hackney: Well, that's really quite interesting and wonderful news, Bill. That's terrific.

Styron: Yes. I'm very pleased about it. It's just a matter of getting it churned out.

Hackney: I wish you well. Thank you for taking time for a conversation.