- From the Archive: An Interview with Richard Yates
Reprinted from Issue 3 of Ploughshares, Winter 1972. (guest edited by James Randall)
Richard Yates was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1926. He graduated from the Avon School in 1944, served in the last years of World War II, and until 1952 worked at a variety of jobs, ranging from newspaper rewrite man to freelance ghost writer to publicity writer. He has taught at the New School for Social Research, Columbia University, and the University of Iowa; in 1963, he was special assistant in the United States Attorney General’s office. His first novel, Revolutionary Road, was nominated for the National Book Award in 1961 and has since gone through four editions and is currently available in the Dell “Contemporary Classics” series. A collection of stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, appeared in 1962, was reissued in 1966, and is now out of print. In 1962, under contract to United Artists, Mr. Yates wrote a screenplay from William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness. A second novel, A Special Providence, was published in 1971 and is still available both in hardcover (Knopf) and paperback (Dell). Mr. Yates is presently Distinguished Writer in Residence at Wichita State University, and a new book is in progress.
The interview was conducted during a reading tour last spring at Roger Williams College, and has since been modified by mail. [End Page 207]
In Revolutionary Road, was the ending thought out before you began?
Yes. I thought of that girl dying in that way, and then the whole problem was to construct a book that would justify that ending. And it wasn’t easy.
When you first planned the book, did you have John Givings in there?
No, I didn’t. He occurred to me as a character about midway through the writing of the book. I felt I needed somebody in there to point up or spell out the story at crucial moments, and I did know a young man very much like that at the time, a long-term patient in a mental hospital who had an uncannily keen and very articulate insight into other people’s weaknesses, so I worked a fictionalized version of him into the book.
You really lambasted the suburbs.
I didn’t mean to. The book was widely read as an antisuburban novel, and that disappointed me. The Wheelers may have thought the suburbs were to blame for all their problems, but I meant it to be implicit in the text that that was their delusion, their problem, not mine.
Doesn’t the title suggest an attack on The System?
I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs—a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witch-hunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that—felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit—and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the [End Page 208] revolutionary road of 177 6 had come to something very much like a dead end in the fifties.
You weren’t knocking marriage?
Oh, of course not. That’s another false interpretation too many people put on the book. And in a way Alfred Kazin was at least partially responsible for that, however inadvertently. The publishers sent the book to him in manuscript, and he wrote back a very nice letter that said in part—only in part—“This novel locates the American tragedy squarely on the field of marriage.” So the publishers grabbed up that one quote out of context and plastered it all over the dust jacket, in big red print—they thought it would “sell”—along with a cheap, vulgar illustration. And I let them do it...