- Conversations with William Styron, and: The Root of All Evil: The Thematic Unity of William Styron's Fiction
In the last forty years recorded interviews—even more exact and complete than the incredible memory of Truman Capote—have become a new method or even genre of the criticism of literature. Nothing before this except an author's own writing or speeches and talk brought the literary artist and his readers and critics so close together. Interviews seem to place a reader in an author's presence, to reveal an author and his enduring personality, his willful and tricky subterfuges, his direct honesty to his listeners or readers or his putting them on. Even after thirty years Faulkner's interviews are on the one hand among the best clues to new understandings of his works and also deliberate deceptions when Faulkner hides behind the bushes like some tricky Pan.
In the interviews with William Styron I see no reticence or connivance—no difference between the man, his works, and his comments about them. Compared to other interviews I have read, Styron's seem open, unbeguiling, and revealing. Some authors (notably Frost and Welty, I think) manage to talk a great deal without ever saying very particular things about the pieces of literature they have written. Faulkner tells the truth, plays with his listeners, and deceives; but he is usually precise. Styron is honest, precise, and unrestrained. In response to questions, Styron seems most interested in the use of autobiography in fiction, his changed attitude toward his unrejected Southern heritage, the processes of writing fiction, and the meanings of the body of his fiction.
About the wellsprings of fiction, Styron believes, "everything is autobiographical, more or less." The Long March (and other works to the same [End Page 623] degree or less) is autobiographical. "The march that took place in the book actually happened to me." "Mannix was a total figment of my imagination. . . . The Colonel is very similar to the Colonel who ran us on this march. . . ." Of Lie Down in Darkness, "There was a girl in my life at the time. . . . She had a family situation somewhat similar, the father who was the rounder with the pretty mistress. The wife, however, was total invention on my part. . . . This girl . . . did not kill herself." The longer and more complex the novel (Set This House on Fire and Sophie's Choice), the more elaborate the use of sources and also the more elaborate the adaptations. As for the sources of The Confessions of Nat Turner, the disputes have been so extreme that even the facts and the interpretations are still confusing.
Styron is "at once a Southerner and not a Southerner." He tersely remarks that all Southern books "have this same resemblance. They are all metaphysical comedies, and all are concerned with roots and being uprooted. Moreover, all deal with transgression, sin, and guilt." How true this is of Southern works—and how exaggerated—and how true and untrue it is of all books set in a definable terrain and culture are questions much to be pondered, but unlikely to be resolved.
Styron's methods of writing exhibit few unusual eccentricities in the creative process. Perhaps his most unusual attribute is the finality of his early drafts. "I have a need to write from the beginning, perfecting as I go, and making each bit as good as I can. What I have written is, in effect, a final draft. I don't write many drafts as certain writers do. . . . I have this compulsion to perfect each page. . . . Stuff that came with a sense of ease and speed in writing, was the best. Stuff that is labored over, sweated over, is often all right." Speed of writing has little to do with the labor and the agony. "Slick writing" results when the writer has "not...