Tall, white-haired, and with a Virginia gentleman’s accent, William Styron looked and sounded like a Southern writer. But what really impressed me was that we had the same taste in alcoholic beverages.
This was in 1986. I was nineteen and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author was visiting Washington College in Chestertown, Md., to instruct and inspire the young writers there, which is why I found myself at the door of the President’s House to have dinner with Styron, faculty and students. The president at the time was Douglas Cater, himself an accomplished journalist and Southerner.
A solemn-faced waiter wearing white jacket greeted me just inside the door of the 18th century mansion.
“May I get you a cocktail?” he asked.
Under the circumstances, it felt more like a pop quiz than a question. It didn’t seem likely that the bar at the president’s house was stocked with Natty Boh.
“Ahh . . . I’ll have a glass of white wine,” I said.
I heard a deep voice behind me. The great man himself was coming in the door. “That sounds like a fine idea,” Styron told the waiter. “I’ll have the same.”
At that point I stammered something witty like, “Hello, Mr. Styron,” and retreated – glass of wine in hand – into the crowded house. I hadn’t read any of his books yet and feared that he might ask me how I liked them. The college had invited prospective freshmen to the event, and they were there with their parents, getting a feel for the place. Several parents looked uncomfortable in that genteel Tidewater setting, or maybe it was only the thought of the tuition that was making them sweat.
“What wonderful knickknacks,” one nervous mother remarked to Libby Cater, wife of President Cater and lady of the house.
Libby, ever so polite, replied, “Oh, do you like my jade collection?”
As the newly educated mother and daughter moved on, Libby turned to me and confided how pleased she was that Styron, a one-time neighbor of the Caters, was visiting the college. The college was small enough then that even the first lady had a passing acquaintance with a college freshman she had seen around the Lit House on campus. Then her voice dropped a note as she added, “You know, one day he was out getting his mail when I was in the yard and he showed me a royalty check for forty thousand dollars.” Libby appreciated good writing, but she also knew the value of all things green.
Over dinner, Styron shared how the idea for “Sophie’s Choice” was born in a flash of inspiration that soon had him on a research trip to a concentration camp. Published in 1979, “Sophie’s Choice” became a bestseller and was made into a film starring Meryl Streep as the pale Holocaust survivor. Styron graciously answered the students’ questions on writing. He was self-effacing, even subdued, which makes sense now: this was soon after he nearly committed suicide, as revealed in his memoir “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.” One thing became clear, which was that Styron was a thoughtful man who loved storytelling and the craft of writing.
He read that evening from a work in progress about his days as a Marine during World War II, tough material for a college-age audience forty years removed from their grandfathers’ war. However, that didn’t stop me from reading “Lie Down in Darkness,” an experimental 1951 novel with echoes of Faulkner that nonetheless seemed as relevant to the ’80s as two other hot novels of self-destruction I devoured about the same time, “Less Than Zero” and “Bright Lights, Big City.”
Late at night, I would plow through all sorts of books that had nothing to do with class assignments. On a Styron kick now, and hoping I might be able to pair his advice to something I found in his writing, I plowed through “Sophie’s Choice.” The true horror of Sophie’s situation wouldn’t sink in until I dipped into the novel again after having children of my own. Now, from a parent’s perspective, Sophie’s guilt and grief seems overwhelming. The novel’s language is lush as a steamy Southern night. This is writing that takes its time covering more than 600 pages.
The book I never got around to was “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” about a bloody slave revolt in 1831. Since I seem to have made a habit of catching up on Styron after the man has come and gone, I’ll have to read that one next.
I’ll never write as well as Styron, but I understand from him that it is the writer’s imagination that matters most of all. You don’t have to be a Polish Jew or an African-American slave to understand your characters. A good writer must be able to imagine his way into his characters’ souls.
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted,” Styron once said. “You should live several lives while reading it.”
I won’t say that Styron inspired me to be a writer, but he certainly taught me that it was OK to be one. . . and that a glass of white wine was a perfectly acceptable cocktail.
(I wrote this essay when the author passed away in 2006, and it was distributed nationwide by by Scripps Howard News Service. Lately, I’ve been thinking of those late nights spent reading his books and how rare it now is to find anything so deeply written.)