On Books, Writing, and William Styron
An Interview with James L. W. West III
by John T. Kneebone
James L. W. West III is the author of William Styron: A Life (1998). Since March of this year, he and William Styron, the famed Virginia novelist, have appeared at bookstores and libraries throughout the Commonwealth to promote "All Virginia Reads Sophie's Choice, by William Styron," a joint project of the Library of Virginia, the Library of Virginia Foundation, and the Virginia Center for the Book. The program invites all Virginians to read Styron's novel Sophie's Choice, and to participate in statewide community discussions about the issues and themes explored in that book.
West is the Edwin Earle Sparks Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. He specializes in 20th-century American literature, the history of authorship, textual bibliography, and biography, and is the director of the Center for the History of the Book at Penn State. He has published numerous books and articles. He is the general editor for the Cambridge University Press edition of the complete works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and is the recipient of many awards and grants, including Guggenheim and Fulbright Fellowships. This interview was created through exchanges of e-mail and from discussions during Jim West's appearance at the Library of Virginia on 20 June 2000 as part of the "All Virginia Reads Sophie's Choice by William Styron" project. He spoke informally to a noontime audience of some seventy-five persons about how he became William Styron's biographer and his experiences in researching and writing the book. The interview resumed over lunch after his talk.
VL As a Virginia native, you still fall within the Library of Virginia's definition of a "Virginia Author."
JW Both sides of my family are from Virginia -- my father from Louisa Courthouse and my mother from Bedford County. We've been in the state a long time; in fact, I'm one of the few expatriates in my generation of the family. I have pleasant memories of growing up, as a little boy, in Ashland, just north of Richmond, but I've also lived in the southwest part of the state, as a teenager and later as a beginning faculty member at Virginia Tech. So I know the Commonwealth pretty well.
VL Your accent has stayed with you, too.
JW I lived in Ashland long enough to acquire a Tidewater accent. The accent probably helped me when I was interviewing people in Newport News for the Styron biography. It probably opened more doors (and memories) than might have been the case if I had come to the state with a different way of speaking.
My accent, in fact, gave me a little brush with the silver screen. A few years ago a film was based on Styron's story, "Shadrach," from his book, A Tidewater Morning (1993). It starred Andie McDowell, a South Carolinian whose accent was just right for her character. But it also starred Harvey Keitel, whose accent comes directly from Brooklyn. The film's producers brought me to New York for a day to talk for Keitel and his voice coach. Keitel is a fine actor and an excellent mimic; he learned the dipthongs quickly. The film is now out on video, so if you see it, remember that Harvey Keitel has my accent.
VL What roles have libraries played in your life?
JW Many roles. One of my earliest memories is of going in the afternoon to the children's library in my home town and checking out four or five biographies for young readers -- short lives of Thomas Edison and Clara Barton and Robert E. Lee. These were instructive and inspirational little books, and I loved them. I'd start home, meaning to go all the way, but I'd find a tree to sit under, and I'd start reading. My mother says I'd stay there until suppertime; she always had to come out and fetch me. She'd walk the path to the library and find me along the way somewhere, sitting against a tree, lost in a book.
Later, as a professional, I've been almost entirely dependent on libraries, especially on rare books and manuscripts collections. It's impossible to write book history or biography without access to original materials, and I've developed a keen taste for searching through archives-reading letters and trial drafts and business papers, often relying on serendipity to make discoveries. I like to make the archives talk, to study the papers in the collections and then fashion stories from them.
VL As director of the Penn State Center for the History of the Book, how do you define the history of the book as a scholarly field?
JW The field draws its participants (and its energy) from a great many areas: literature, history, education, philosophy, library work, economics, sociology, art history, graphics, and the history of technology. Many people interested in Book History are not from academia. Some of the best scholars are biographers or antiquarian book dealers or private collectors. All these people bring different skills to the table, and all of these skills can be applied to the study of the book-as a repository of knowledge or a commercial artifact, as an object of beauty or a cultural signifier. That makes Book History right now a wonderfully disorganized discipline in which to be involved. The rules for who can play, and even for how the game will be organized, haven't yet been codified. I hope the field stays that way for a long time.
VL How do libraries and library history fit into the History of the Book?
JW Library history is precisely at the center of the History of the Book. Stories of libraries as repositories and cultural gathering places are fascinating, and there are plenty of materials to work with. Old circulation records are interesting, as are the debates in library board minutes over what should be allowed into the stacks. The growth and development of public libraries in this country is a great success story; no other country can match it.
VL Your book American Authors and the Literary Marketplace since 1900 appeared in 1988. Has the literary marketplace changed since then?
JW Yes, certainly, and it will continue to develop. Right now, with the advent of electronic publishing, I see an opportunity for many new small "boutique" publishers to make a go of it, publishing successfully with low overhead and modest sales figures. The corporate giants of the industry might have to downsize.
VL You have published important scholarship on F. Scott Fitzgerald and Theodore Dreiser, both gone to their rewards. How did you come to write a biography of a living author?
JW Out of foolishness, I suppose. But I was lucky to pick a subject whose temperament matched my own and whose work I never tired of reading. The beginnings were rather humble. I first wrote about William Styron for my undergraduate senior honors thesis. It was 1967, the year when Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner was published to great praise and even greater controversy. I had already read his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, which is set in Tidewater Virginia, and it had a special appeal to me. What hooked me on Styron, I suppose, was that I wrote a letter to him. It was long and detailed and overly earnest, but he actually responded to my questions, on a postcard. It was a pithy postcard, and I relied on it for my senior honors thesis. I carefully parceled it out in my quotations, a phrase at a time.
Nearly twenty years later, I was studying the composition of Lie Down in Darkness, a project I later published in a book called Inheritance of Night, which was Styron's working title for the early drafts of the novel. I spent part of the summer of 1985 snooping around Newport News, talking to some of the older citizens about local scandals and family secrets that Styron might have known.
I soon realized that I was gathering the raw materials for a biography. I told Styron that I appeared to be doing a biography of him. Styron just said, well, let's see how it goes.
He and I had no formal contract, nothing more than a gentleman's agreement. Styron was extraordinarily generous to me, allowing me to see anything I asked to see and granting me permission to quote whatever I wanted to quote. I still marvel at how much he trusted me. In his place, I'd have been nervous.
VL How much of a change of course was biography from your earlier work?
JW Most of the research techniques were the same. I was used to working with archival material and shaping it into narratives, but I didn't have much experience with the interviewing of live subjects. I found it exciting, and impossible to control. I learned early on not to try to shape the interview, not to insist on asking every one of the dozen or so questions I'd brought along. I would let the interview take its own course, and I collected some good material that way. Of course, the most intimate revelations always came after I had packed the tape recorder and was standing at the door. I would make addenda to the taped interviews in my car, while the words were fresh in my mind.
VL What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a biography of a living person?
JW A big advantage is that I've actually been able to observe William Styron, to see how he walks, talks, and interacts with people. He also was an invaluable source of information and leads for my research. That helped make it less of a disadvantage that many letters and other relevant documents were not yet in libraries.
The most important advantage was that I was William Styron's first biographer. I got to establish the tone and make the first interpretation. By comparison, say, to a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, about whom there are at least a dozen biographies in print, I did not have to carve out a space for something new to be said.
VL Which biographies influenced you?
JW I read lots of biographies, and not only literary biographies. Leon Edel's biography of Henry James is a classic, but I didn't want to adopt his method of psychologizing the subject. Gerald Clarke's Capote: A Biography (1988) I admire for dealing straightforwardly with the writer Truman Capote, who lived a troubled life. I also like Charles White's The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock (1984). White relied heavily on interviews, and I liked how he blended the voices together.
Biography in general is a blending of the voices of many witnesses. Styron had many voices himself, in his fiction, letters, and interviews, stretching across a span of more than fifty years. It was important to me to cue the reader to the different voices and their vintages as I interwove them in the narrative.
VL You and Mr. Styron are devoting much time this year to "All Virginia Reads Sophie's Choice, by William Styron." What qualities do you admire in Sophie's Choice?
JW It's a brilliant study in character and a troubling examination of guilt. Technically and stylistically it's a very accomplished work. The ideas Styron is treating are difficult ones to contemplate. I admire his courage in tackling this kind of recondite material.
VL Would you undertake another biography?
JW Literary theorists spend most of their time discussing the rules. I'm more interested in playing the game, and biography is a good game to get into: a messy, mongrel genre that no one can control, but that has many readers and reviewers and a large lay public. Biography is great fun. Yes, I'll probably write another one.
On 20 October 2000, William Styron will join Jim West for a talk and book signing at the annual conference of the Virginia Library Association. Their appearance is in conjunction with the project, "All Virginia Reads Sophie's Choice, by William Styron."