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The publication of The Suicide Run, which contains unpublished stories and fragments, shows us how hard he was trying.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.