William Styron - interview

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William Styron Interview by: William Waterway Marks

WILLIAM STYRON - The Vineyard Voice interview by: William Waterway Marks, (producer/director/host) for "live" television broadcast on Telemedia's Channel 8,[1] Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Interview date, Friday, August 25, 1989. The Vineyard Voice, is a program produced by Marks and subsequently published in Martha's Vineyard Magazine[2] by the magazine's publisher, who was also William E. Marks at time of this article's publication.

Bill Styron in his writing room at his West Chop home on Martha's Vineyard, August 1989.
  • Marks - Welcome to The Vineyard Voice with our guest William Styron.[3] Bill, thank you for joining us on The Vineyard Voice. It's always a pleasure to cross paths with you on the Vineyard.
  • Styron - Thank you William. The year for me begins here. This is the place I care most about.
  • Marks - How long have you been coming to Martha's Vineyard?[4]
  • Styron - My first trip to Martha's Vineyard was in 1959 when I rented a house on Vineyard Haven Harbor, and I have been coming to Martha's Vineyard every year since except in 1960 when I was in Italy.
  • Marks - Where do you live in the off-season?
  • Styron - I live in rural Connecticut,[5] spending most of my time in the Litchfield Hills area.[6]
  • Marks - You're originally from the South aren't you?
  • Styron - I was born in Tidewater region of Virginia,[7] and still to some extent consider myself a Southerner even though I have not really lived in the South for so long that I think perhaps the claim is sometimes an empty one. All my childhood and early youth as a boy was spent in and around Tidewater Virginia, Southern Virginia and Eastern North Carolina.[8] And then I was educated in North Carolina at Duke University.[9] Since then I have lived in the North in and around New York,[10] in Connecticut and of course, Martha's Vineyard.
  • Marks - I love those southern names such as Tidewater Virginia, was it tidal where you were raised?
  • Styron - Yes, indeed, it was right on the James River,[11] "Big Muddy", seven miles wide, one of the widest estuaries in America.
  • Marks - By the way you are describing the area you were raised in, it in some respects reminds me of your writings in The Confessions of Nat Turner.[12]
  • Styron - Yes, Nat Turner was a product of my boyhood and youth. I remember when I was a kid of about 15, I wasn't big enough to be on the high school football team, but I was, however, the manager. We made a lot of trips to what is called Southside Virginia, and that's Nat Turner country, and I remember seeing one of those highway historical markers on one of our trips to play football and I was struck by this marker which said, "Near here in the year 1831, Nat Turner, a fanatical black creature with his men, slaughtered 60 White people", that stuck in my mind. Because it was and still is a rather amazing historical fact. And so this became part of my subconscious and then when I got older in my late 30's I decided I'd get going on a novel about it.
  • Marks - I am curious, was William Styron, who at age 15 saw this historical marker, writing at that stage in his life?
  • Styron - I think I was beginning a little tentative writing. I recall being very immersed and fascinated in the environment that I lived in. You have to remember that this would have been back in the 1930's, when Virginia like the rest of the South was a completely closed society, it was like South Africa is now. It was totally segregated, Jim Crow laws everywhere, blacks in one place whites in another, an extraordinary kind of existence. And if you were at all sensitive and brought up in this society, you had to be puzzled by what was going on. And the fact that this apartheid, this racially segregated society impinged itself on my consciousness very vividly, I think that's the reason why I got fascinated with Nat Turner.
  • Marks - Was the American South as bad as today's South Africa?
  • Styron - In many ways, but not entirely. South Africa is a replica of the American South during its time of oppression. Of course, the major difference being that in South Africa the blacks are in an overwhelming majority everywhere. However, the same racial bigotry applied in both places.
  • Marks - Relative to a writer's impact on society and death threats, we have Ruhollah Khomeini's fatwa, or religious decree of February 14, ordering Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie, the husband of Vineyarder Marianne Wiggins. Did you know Marianne?
  • Styron - Yes. That was a horrendous and quite unique event, I thought. When it happened I was distressed like many writers over the terrorism involved in the act. I have known Marianne Wiggins, she was a friend of mine, and she was an interesting writer who I thought was getting much better as time went along. Her best example being her new novel John Dollar, which is an extremely vivid work of fiction. But for her to get saddled into this absolute nightmarish situation of hiding out as she apparently had to do with her husband, in and around London where they are forced to exist, is an appalling and unique event in history.
  • Marks - So we have this precedence of sorts where a leader of a country places a death sentence on a writer. Do you see this as possibly being a future trend?
  • Styron - I don't see it as a clear and present danger that will become epidemic. I see it as act of terrorism on the part of the Ayatollah. It is what you could call a semi-lunatic sort of act. I hope and pray it would not become epidemic. But I think this particular case is just an isolated event.
  • Marks - I hope so too. I understand you are very involved with writer’s rights and that you are involved with PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists - an international writers organization in about 65 countries - the Editor).
  • Styron - Yes, I am involved to some extent with the writers' organization called PEN. Which in the past four to six years has become an influential force culturally in this country due to the fact that Norman Mailer took control a few years ago. One of PEN's major functions is to oversee matters of censorship in the United States and in foreign countries. My wife Rose is head of the committee that is responsible for matters of censorship and she and her fellows have done a very good job.
  • Marks - What about censorship in the United States at this time in history?
  • Styron - I would say in general we are remarkably free in matters of censorship, but there are many caveats I would add to that. We certainly are not totally invulnerable to individual attacks. As an example, about three years ago my novel, Confessions of Nat Turner, was yanked off the shelves of a school district in Northern Iowa. This caused a big furor and it was on the front page of the New England newspapers. I don't know what has happened to that case since then, but it was an isolated event where a small group of women got together and decided to ban my book. But, from time to time in this country, school boards get the notion that such and such a book is a dangerous instrument of learning for children. The best examples of course are "The Catcher in the Rye", the works of Kurt Vonnegut and those of Mark Twain. These are books that are avidly taught to and read by the young and there is always some puritanical blue nose that wants to intervene in these situations. We do have these outbreaks in this country, but in general the First Amendment is pretty sturdy. I would say, however, that the most alarming recent instance is Senator Jesse Helms' actions against the photographic works of Mapplethorpe. His attack on the sponsoring organizations to remove their funds is a perfect example of the kind of censorship coming from governmental sources that we have to be very much on the alert about. All the arts are potentially vulnerable. One of the truly treasured freedoms is the right to express ourselves. It is justifiably one of the freedoms that Americans have but should not be taken, however, for granted. Because I think there are always a Senator Jesse Helms and other primitive and Neanderthal types ready to undermine our First Amendment rights.
  • Marks - It is curious how governments can feel threatened by artists. One of the world's foremost mythology experts, the late Joseph Campbell for instance, wrote that artists are going to be part of the leadership that will guide our world out of its problems at this stage in history.
  • Styron - Yes, that is a lot of truth to that, because art and writing are potentially very powerful instruments for change and for the demonstration of corruption and evil. Corrupt governments are terrified of the artist's power to expose what's wrong in society. Of course the best example in modern times is the Soviet Union and its complete blackout of art until recent times. I think things are looking better in Russia because of the counter-revolution that is occurring there at this time. To me, this is staggering, to be changed from virtually a dungeon where there has been no freedom whatsoever, to a situation in which there are all the signs of free speech emerging as a reality. I think this is one of the most astounding events of our time. It is my hope that Glasnost will continue since there are all sorts of ominous shaking of heads - especially, amongst the Right Wing in this country, to the affect that it cannot last. They might be right, but I don't think they are. I think that this is a phenomenon that given its head of steam can't be turned back.
  • Marks - It is curious that Russia appears to be opening its doors to the West as a Communist country while at the same time China is doing the exact opposite.
  • Styron - Yes, I think China certainly has demonstrated the truth that Communism is unpredictable. However, there are entirely different historical forces at work in the China phenomenon.
  • Marks - I notice that you entertain various political personages from time to time on Martha's Vineyard. One time, in fact, you were going to have Daniel Ortega as a guest, but due to a perceived lack of security the visit was called off.
  • Styron - I wanted to bring Ortega up here with his wife and some of his countrymen, to give Ortega contact with some of the journalists here on the Island that expressed an interest in meeting with him. I've known Ortega for some time. This was a couple of summers ago. We were perched right on the edge of having this thing come off, when I realized Ortega thought I was still in Connecticut and believed he could just drive a short distance from New York to meet me. After he learned I was here he was going to fly up. As we pursued his coming to the Vineyard, the United States Government and the Secret Service got antsy about the security situation here and eventually we had to call the whole thing off.
  • Marks - It is quite a statement that an author can bring together heads of state, or has the communication to pull off such a thing. Apparently you flow in circles that are pretty influential and apparently, it's the power of your writing that places you, in a fashion, on par with these people.
  • Styron - There is one thing that I think is very important to point out about how men of power regard writing. Men of power in the United States have almost never given a shake for writing. I think it is accurate to say that George Bush has probably never read a book in the last four or five years. I hope I'm not slandering him. Reagan never read a book in his life. Lyndon Johnson wanted to read books, but was virtually a functional illiterate - a man of great power and great dignity but a man for whom the written word was what other people did. I think to find a person who had any regard for the written word who was in power you'd have to hack to John Kennedy. Certainly Nixon and poor Gerald Ford had no use for the written word. So you have to stack these people up against the leaders in the rest of the world. The Nicaraguans revere poets to the extent that their national saint, Ruben Dario, was a poet. Throughout the world, many of the leaders are men of culture. Mitterrand, who is widely read, is a writer himself. Traditionally, Americans have put a relatively low premium on literary and artistic achievement. It is very far down the priority list of our national aspirations. I mean we admire rich surgeons; we admire gynecologists who can amass a million dollars a year. We admire golfers. Look at the presidents of recent years - their admiration has been for movie stars, athletes, and so on. The arts really don't count for much in this country. And maybe that's the way it should be. Because, if artists and writers were beginning to count for too much, they'd possibly lose their incentive to be artists. And perhaps too, they'd lose some of their freedom.
  • Marks - When I visited you at your house, I saw the little cubbyhole you write in off the kitchen. You mentioned that you purchased an old school desk at a Vineyard garage sale and you've been using it as a writing table for 24 years.
  • Styron - Yes, when I was fixing my place up in 1965, I stopped in at a junk shop along State Road in Vineyard Haven, and picked out what I believe is an old school desk like the one's they used to use in high schools by teachers. It's like one of those sturdy Mission Oak desks that have fine workmanship. I got it for 15 dollars and I still use it to write on, it's a wonderful desk.
  • Marks - Do you always write in long hand?
  • Styron - I write in long hand because there is a flow between my head and the paper that goes through the pencil and it is the only way I find I can compose. I can type, and often do, but I never write the original on a typewriter much less the word processor. So in affect, I'm really back not only in the 19th Century but also in the 18th century as far as writing is concerned.
  • Marks – Interesting point. However, even though your physical methods are 19th and 18th century, your words are impacting the 20th century. Could you share with us what Bill Styron is working on at this time?
  • Styron - I'm writing a series of essays on various subjects. I'm writing a book or short novel about the Marine Corps and World War II, and a reflection on war. World War II seems to have faded so far in the past, that it has become demoted to a civil war. And since I was fortunate or unfortunate enough depending on your view, to have been just old enough to have participated in it, I want to get some of it down on paper.
  • Marks - I also find it interesting that in spite of all the demands placed on your time, Bill, that you still find time to help out the Vineyard community. For instance, you and especially your wife, Rose, help out a lot with the celebrity tennis event put on by the Nathan Mayhew Seminars. I find it commendable that someone such as you gets involved in giving time to help our local community.
  • Styron - I'm very fond of the Vineyard. I feel totally at home here. It is my home. I think that I wouldn't have decent obligation to my responsibility unless I did some of these things I do because they are useful to all of us. I think the Nathan Mayhew Seminars is a wonderful, idealistic enterprise that people should support. Plus all the other things that go on here on the Vineyard.
  • Marks - When will your new works that are in progress see daylight?
  • Styron - I wish I could say. That's in the fog bank of the future. I just don't really know. I never am able to predict about my own work.
  • Marks - Bill, thank you for joining us on The Vineyard Voice, we covered many subjects during this interview, and that's what William Styron is all about. (facing camera) And, thank you for joining us today for another installment of "The Vineyard Voice".


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