Styron’s four words to me

Styron in 1989. Credit: William Waterway

Styron in 1989. Credit: William Waterway

 

When I was working for the newspaper, I remember calling William Styron to ask him to write something for us.  Even before I picked up the phone, I knew he wouldn’t do it.  I couldn’t imagine a literary master agreeing to spend time writing a humble little review for us.

If there’s such a thing as a Hail Mary pass in the book review world, I was Boston College’s Doug Flutie the day I made that call.

But I wanted to do it anyways.  I just wanted to have a chance to tell him what his work meant to me.  In my teens and twenties I had read many of his books — Sophie’s Choice, Lie Down in Darkness, The Long March, Set This House On Fire — and I wanted him to know that his work had really affected me.  Whenever I felt alone in those days, I just thought of Stingo or poor Peyton Loftis or Cass Kinsolving and didn’t feel lonely anymore.

And I felt dazed by his sentences … by the nuance, the delicacy and fullness.

So I made the call, he answered, and I quickly introduced myself and why I was calling.  Then, I launched into my declaration of his work’s influence on my life.  There was silence on the other end of the line until I paused, and then he said his four words to me:

Wait, here’s my wife.

You probably think I was devastated by being completely shutdown.  But, I’m being honest here,  I was more perplexed than anything else.  I couldn’t believe it.  I just couldn’t connect the gruff, impatient voice I heard with all those characters I’d come to love so much.

But I realized later — as I think we all did — what was happening to Styron in those years.  He describes his battle with depression and madness in Darkness Visible.  He was also working hard to produce another novel after the enormous success of Sophie’s Choice.

The publication of The Suicide Run, which contains unpublished stories and fragments, shows us how hard he was trying.  He also spent a lot of time writing nonfiction (not for my paper, of course), which Phillip Lopate discusses in his insightful, recent TLS review of a collection of Styron’s nonfiction.

The great tragedy of  Styron is that he never published another novel after Sophie’s Choice.  He died in 2009.  He published Sophie’s Choice in 1979.  That gave him 30 years of writing with no finished result.  Can you imagine how painful it must’ve been?

I’ve thought a lot about Styron’s four words as I’ve written a novel of my own (for my friends who are interested, it’s done, finally done).

I had plenty of days and weeks under dark clouds over the past few years … stretches of time when I was unable to go on, convinced of my idiocy. Paralyzed.  The last thing I wanted was for anyone to ask me about my writing at those times.

Now, hang on: I wouldn’t dare to equate my few years of struggle with Styron’s 30.  That’s ridiculous.  But I just understand better why — as I finished reading Lopate’s very nice piece– why Styron  ditched that phone rather than talk to me.  Who wants to be reminded of past glory when they’re struggling in the present?

I’d have passed off that phone to my wife … though I hope I never find myself in such a desperate place with my writing.

Keep going, my friends.

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8 responses

  1. Good news from your writing desk… of course the sadness of Styron’s life: the externals and then that was inside… being aware of just how jealous people were of his outside… as to your own writing…what comes next is just business and accident but I am sure you know this and the waiting for the next book to be demanded to be written

  2. Thanks Tom …. yes, so much sadness for Styron. And I’m looking forward to yours from Notre Dame … and celebrating here on Call of the Siren! Nice hearing from you. Long time.

  3. Good news, indeed, as Mr. McGonigle said above. What a marvelous name, Thomas McGonigle. The push/pull of endings has a familiar echo to it as I’m inching close, maybe a month away, from finishing The Memoir. At least it finally has a title I can live with although it’s always The Memoir in head.

    Sophie’s Choice was a favorite for such a long time. I hadn’t realized he didn’t write another after that. And what an interesting memory to review now that you’ve come to an ending. And will there be another…. ah, yes, that.

    The offer is still open if you need a reader who doesn’t know you well. J.

  4. Thank you J… I’ll keep your generous offer in my pocket as I look at the next steps. I think there’s always a next book in the works, isn’t there? I look forward to trying again … And avoiding the mistakes I made with the next book! Valuable lessons. I could never have learned them without going through all of this. Exciting news about your own book. I wish you the very best!

  5. Oh, and I just read a poem that reminded me of you. It’s called “The Sirens,” and it’s in Lawrence Raab’s new poetry collection: Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts. It’s my understanding that this collection is on the long list for the National Book Award for poetry. I just subscribed to Tupelo Press for 2015 and received Raab’s book, among others published this year. I’m enjoying it immensely. Just for a tease, here’s the beginning to “The Sirens.”

    “After a while we got tired of singing.
    One morning out on the rocks
    with not a ship in sight, we all felt it—

    a certain weariness, a malaise,
    if you will. We felt it together,
    sympathy having become

    one of the finer aspects
    of our nature. We’ve drifted apart
    since those days, yet we’re happy

    being remembered as impossible
    to resist. The legend used to claim
    we knew the future as well….”

    You’ll have to find the poem to read the rest. Intrigued?

  6. Very intrigued, Jil. thank you. I’m going to order it today. The title of that collection is also pretty intriguing. Thanks for connecting me with the work of another terrific poet, as you did with Michael Odom!

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