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For the week of August 22 - 28, 2001

  Arts & Entertainment

A conversation with William Styron

Express Arts Editor

An argument could be made that the literature of the 20th century was shaped by just a handful of writers. These are men and women who brought original voices, narrative techniques, emotional truth and, perhaps most notably, a power of language to the page. One of those writers is William Styron.

William Styron Photo by Adine Sagalyn/Stills Press

To get some perspective on Styron’s career, consider that he published his first novel at 26. What’s more, that novel was "Lie Down in Darkness." The year was 1951, and Styron was fresh out of the U.S. Marine Corps. Styron then moved to Paris in the early ’50s, and with friends Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton created "The Paris Review," a literary magazine that has continued to publish fine writing for half a century.

"The Long March" was Styron’s next achievement, a novella written out of his experiences in the Marine Corps. He went on to publish "Set This House on Fire" in 1960. "The Confessions of Nat Turner" (1967) won the Pulitzer Prize. Then, in 1979, Styron published "Sophie’s Choice," which won the American Book Award for fiction in 1980.

In the mid-80s, Styron suffered a major case of depression that nearly cost him his life. Remarkably, he recovered and went on to write an account of his sickness titled "Darkness Visible," a piece that has entered into the medical literature on depression.

Styron published "A Tidewater Morning: Three tales from Youth" in 1993.

For many years, Styron and his family have split their time between homes in Roxbury, N.Y., and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. Styron and his wife Rose will travel to Sun Valley next week to participate in the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, held Monday through Thursday.

Last weekend I spoke with Styron about a range of subjects.

IME: I’m curious about the process of choosing a subject for a novel. There are so many things that might interest a writer, how do you know a given subject will carry a novel?

Styron: As a writer you have certain preoccupation and ideas that seize your imagination. They more or less choose you rather than the other way around. Certainly, I’ve had blind alleys—not in any of my major works. But I don’t think any writer has not had ideas evaporate.

IME: When you start a novel, do you envision it whole and the writing becomes a matter of extracting it, line by line? Or are you starting from a single image and spiraling out from there?

Styron: You have a general idea of where you are going. You have to trust your subconscious and imagination to fill in the blanks.

IME: What do you feel is the most important part of a novel to get right?

Styron: One of the more important aspects of writing is to establish characters that are real. If you can do that—that’s more than half the battle.

IME: When "The Confessions of Nat Turner" was published (1967) there was some controversy over it. (Some called his novel immoral and racist. Others considered Styron an enemy of African Americans). Were you intimidated by the attacks?

Styron: It was, I have to admit, disconcerting. It was not pleasant to be attacked when one felt he had done a service to the intellectual community by writing honestly about a thing like slavery. To have it damned and vilified was not a pleasant experience, but I never allowed it to deflect me. I knew I had done nothing to warrant that kind of criticism. So on one level, I felt really quite stable … because it was terribly unfair and politically inspired. So it didn’t alter my general view of being a writer, or anything like that

IME: Do you feel—I presume you don’t—that there are limits to imaginative leaps writers may make?

Styron: No, in fact, I think often it is a testimony to writers’ risk taking abilities to essentially make a leap. It seems to me a challenging aspect of a writer’s life is to jump into a work where he is finding himself in alien territory. Indeed, I think it is the testimony to the high ability of literature to accept any challenge. Not to sound too grandiose about it, but think of an artist like Shakespeare. Think of the leaps he took. He went anywhere and everywhere … That kind of risk taking, any writer would want to emulate.

IME: Writers, in general, seem to be riddled with self-doubt. Is that something writers grow out of, or is it is a healthy quality, or part of the territory?

Styron: It depends entirely on the writer. Some writers seem to have boundless self confidence. Others, myself included, are plagued by self doubt, and it never quite ends. But it is part of the territory that you surmount, otherwise you end up not being a writer at all. Certainly, it seems a natural part of being a writer.

IME: In "Darkness Visible" you pointed that so many writers and creative people have suffered through depression. I’m not sure if you stated it explicitly or not but I’m wondering if you believe there is a direct connection between the creative process and depression?

Styron: I think, on the one hand, depression is universal … Yet, I think it could be argued that creative people are more vulnerable to depression, by far. Now whether it is creative function that creates depression or vice versa, I don’t know.

IME: Was it difficult to go from the somewhat veiled world of fiction writing to "Darkness Visible," a nonfiction work in which you were so open and honest about your personal life?

Styron: No, in fact, I wrote it with a totally open mind. I really wrote it as an exercise in self-expression about my own experience with depression … without any pre-conceived idea that it would be much more than a magazine article.

IME: Was it therapeutic to write it?

Styron: It was in a way cathartic—a sort of freeing of demons by describing what had happened.

IME: Has your perception of what "being a writer" is changed over the course of your career?

Styron: You do change over time, still it has always been a kind of calling … a profession that I had to be involved with … otherwise life wouldn’t be worth living.

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.