I recently published a memoir called Reading My Father, about the late American novelist William Styron. Despite the fact that I am the man’s daughter, and the book took me more than three years to write, I’m still surprised by this development. Indeed, if anyone had told me, not so long ago, that I would one day be an expert on William Styron, I’d have thought they were a little bit touched in the head. Indeed, the only person who might be more incredulous, were he here to see it, would be Styron himself. But to explain my sense of wonder, I should go back to the beginning of a circuitous intellectual journey.
One summer afternoon when I was five, I tried hitchhiking. It was 1972 on Martha’s Vineyard, where my family has spent summers for more than half a century. Bumming a ride was a way of life on the island, a totally acceptable means of transportation, particularly for young people. As the baby sister of three teenaged siblings, I was in a rush to catch up in every way. On the day of my experiment I took up a position just beyond my parents’ driveway. Finally, a yellow Volvo pulled out of Owen Little Way. I braced my foot on the curb, cocked a hip, and stuck my thumb way out. When the driver pulled over I recognised her immediately. Harriet Busselle was a neighbour; our families were friends.
“Where are you going, Al?” Harriet asked.
“The library,” I answered.
In case she didn’t know the direction, I gestured with my chin up the road. Harriet’s burst of laughter as she cleared off the passenger seat bruised my dignity, but the genius of my tactic couldn’t be denied. Thirty seconds later I was running down the steps of the Vineyard Haven Public Library. With the jerk of one digit, I’d shortened my daily commute by 10 minutes. Precious time I could now spend lost in the cool stacks of the children’s room, devouring books as I loved to do, until it was time to go home for dinner.
“The Day Al Hitchhiked to the Library” was a funny family story – until it became an ironic one. By the time I hit puberty, I had no interest in reading, hated the library, and instead of hitchhiking would steal my parents’ car, backing it out of the driveway with the lights off after they’d gone to bed. For many of my school years, I was a desultory student at best. Surely it was my legacy and connections, rather than any real promise, which, in 1983, got me past the admissions committee of New York’s prestigious Barnard College.
After graduation I planned to become not a poet – the profession my two sisters had once predicted for me – but an actress. My early twenties saw me play Denise, a hooker in a terrible play; nurse number two on an episode of an Aaron Spelling TV show; and a debutante doing the conga in the background of the 1990 Whit Stillman movie Metropolitan.
Through all of this my father held his tongue, seemingly bemused by my strange trajectory. What, he must have wondered, had become of the daughter who had eagerly recited the newspaper headlines to him when she was four?
Of course I was bemused by my father as well – by his inaccessibility, his need for quiet, his frightening and irrational rages. I had become, for reasons I wouldn’t understand for many years, a girl afraid of silence, of looking inward, and of being alone. My father, behind the door of his study all day, was the very avatar of everything I feared.
Perhaps it was this mystery, our mutual inscrutability, which helped foster a certain respect between my father and me, giving us an unwitting bond. Whatever the case, we got along with each other just fine. And in the years after I left home, he neither persecuted my lapses nor did he seem to judge the choices I made. After a few prodigal years, I became a reader again. At home for the holidays, I’d often talk with him about the books I’d been reading and solicit his thoughts on what I should try next. When I was 23, I at last picked up his 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner about an infamous 1831 slave rebellion. After I finished it – in a torrent of tears on the subway – I wrote and told him for the first time how much I admired what he did.
That’s not to say I emulated him. Around the same time as my first reading of Nat Turner, I produced and was performing in an off-off-Broadway production of a play. The Daily News did a short interview with me. Had I ever considered following in my father’s footsteps, the reporter asked. “I would never, ever be a writer,” I proclaimed. “It’s much too difficult and lonely a profession.”
You can guess what happened next. Three years passed and, having moved to Los Angeles, I found myself standing by as the lights dimmed on my theatrical aspirations. Prompted by creative frustrations, and a frightening amount of time on my hands, I began to craft some short stories. Eventually I enrolled in a writing workshop, and then another one. But I kept my labours a secret, knowing how outlandish this endeavour might seem. Would Buzz Aldrin’s daughter just decide one day to walk on the moon? Might any reasonable grown woman stroll into an operating theatre and expect, by birthright, to perform an excision? “Say, hand me that scalpel. It’s OK, my father’s a surgeon.”
Before this time, the only fiction I’d ever written was a series of adventures for Paddington Bear, when I was six. But I was drawn to writing for the same reason – a fascination with character and with the human heart – that made me want to act. And after a lot of quiet effort, I also felt some command on the paper in a way I never did on stage. When I was 28, I came out of the writing closet, moved back east, went to graduate school, and completed my first novel in 1999. I spent my days alone pretty contentedly, looking inward, and embracing the silence from which I’d once so anxiously fled.
This should be where the strands of my father-daughter story braid together. Where enigma gives way to understanding, and a tenuous filial bond flowers into the kind of special alliance reserved for generations who stay within the family business. The fact is, my adult years did bring me closer to my father. We liked each other’s company, talked a lot about politics and books, shared a sense of humour, a love of dogs, and an appreciation for a couple of glasses of good wine with dinner.
Daddy was very fond of the man I chose to marry. And he took more uncomplicated delight in my children, born in 2003 and 2005, than I think he ever did in my siblings and me when we were small. But we neither of us were ever much for the easy ending. An ironic twist seemed inevitable. For at just the time that I started to find my way with words, my father ran out of them – confounded by a failing muse and the incipient mental illness that had dogged him for many years. The mystery that was my father only deepened in his last two decades. Though he had long stretches of sanguinity, several times he stumbled, without warning, back into the shadows of depression. None of us ever knew exactly how he was doing, or what to expect next. And I daresay neither did he.
In the weeks and months that followed my father’s death in November 2006, I felt a powerful urge to put him out of my head. It had been a pretty agonising end. After a long struggle, clinical depression had, at 81 years old, finally sucked him under. For years, my siblings and I had joined in our mother’s tireless efforts to pull him back to shore. We had given him everything we could. And, to be honest, sometimes it seemed like more than he deserved. In the end, the illness was stronger than all of us combined. Daddy’s death left me bewildered and deeply sad. But I was also relieved that the battle was finally over. Back in Brooklyn, my life – a husband, two children, a wonderful community of friends – beckoned me towards the future.
Also awaiting me were 250 pages of a second novel that, between giving birth and attending death, I’d been at work on for several years. Daddy had once told me, paraphrasing Melville, that “a good novel must have a great theme.” I was certain my story had that. But I didn’t fully know my characters. What’s more, the narrative seemed beyond my control, wandering off into strange and not entirely interesting directions. I returned to work and tried to ignore the hobgoblins of doubt multiplying in the corners of my study. Inexorably, and perhaps inevitably, my thoughts drifted back to my father. Beginning in the early 1970s and continuing, on and off, until his final breakdown, Daddy tried to write a novel about the second world war. The intense privacy he maintained around his work made it difficult to gauge his progress. But I knew that his inability to finish the book had been a source of great unhappiness for him. I began to speculate on the seeds of my father’s troubles. If my own protracted writing process addled me as it did, I could only imagine how frightful my father’s demons were. Here was a man who, unequivocally, lived for his art. And yet his output had trickled to barely a drop. When he died, my father hadn’t written a novel in 26 years. The writer in me could not help but recognise a simple fact: my dead father was far more compelling than any fictional character I was trying to bring to life.
In April 2007, after a fitful winter, I took on a writing assignment that I thought would be a brief diversion. Two editors were putting together an anthology of essays about Brooklyn, the proceeds of which would benefit a local charity. I welcomed the opportunity to explore a fresh subject. I would write about my hometown, maybe walk around, get away from fiction, away from death! Yet every avenue led me back to Daddy. For a few months in his twenties, my father had lived in a boarding house on Prospect Park South, not far from where I live now. His upstairs neighbour was a beautiful Polish woman whose wrist bore a tattoo from the concentration camp in which she’d been interned. He spoke with her only a few times. But a quarter of a century later, she revisited him in a dream, and he began his novel, Sophie’s Choice. The book was published in 1979, when I was 12. His publishers threw him a grand party at Brooklyn’s River Café. The night left such an indelible impression on me that I still think of it every time I cross the Brooklyn Bridge. I wanted to write about something else, but I knew there was only one story I had to tell.
What I wrote for that anthology – about looking for a place to live just as my father was searching for a way to die – was probably the easiest 3,000 words I’ve ever written. Some months later, I was asked to expand the piece to 6,000 words for the New Yorker. Shortly after that, a publisher offered me the opportunity to come up with about 90,000 words more. Buoyed by the recent memory of fluid days at the computer, I readily agreed. And then I realised, in a huge face-meltingly horrible panic attack, that I had an insurmountable problem.
I didn’t know my father.
I didn’t know him, and I never had. Not only that, but all the rich and textured memories I had once possessed were lost, buried under the horrors of his last few years. All I had were a few painful memories from childhood – ones I didn’t know that I wanted to share, and the image of a frail, wizened husk of a man, drowning in despair. I couldn’t and wouldn’t make a book out of that.
I considered giving the money back. But in the end, I pulled myself together and did what everyone does when they want to know more about a person. I Googled him. Then I went to the library.
To say I found my father at the Duke University library would not be an overstatement. There, among more than 20,000 documents that comprise the William Styron Papers, I met the man I never knew and became reacquainted with the father I thought I’d lost. The archive had first been established in the early 1950s with a series of donations from my grandfather, who had kept every scrap of paper ever written by and about his only son. Between 1943 and 1953, Daddy wrote 104 letters to his father, chronicling everything from his boarding school travails to college life, his two stints in the Marines, his apprenticeship as a young writer, and the precocious triumph of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951). My father, I learned, had been a terrible student, just like me. And he also had a father who tacitly encouraged his son’s far-fetched dreams. Over the years Grandpop, and eventually Daddy, contributed ever more Styronalia to Duke. Scrapbooks, manuscripts, monographs, magazine articles, speeches, and thousands of pieces of correspondence, all of which have been exquisitely preserved and curated. My father didn’t edit his contributions much. He seemed to realise his finest legacy, like the literature he created, relied on the diamond-like beauty of hard truths. The William Styron Papers is an unparalleled resource for scholars, biographers, and students interested in 20th-century literature. But for me it is something of incomparable personal value: a key to my greatest mystery. I not only found my father, but something of myself, too. The girl who loved books emerged, like a palimpsest, from all those words. I came out a better writer and, I think, a better person – as most people do when they go ahead and get lost at the library.
Alexandra Styron’s memoir ‘Reading My Father’ (Simon & Schuster) was published in the US in April and comes out in the UK on June 23
This article was adapted for the FT from a talk for New York librarians given by Alexandra Styron in January 2011
Sarah Churchwell on William Styron: Out of darkness came great literature
Soon after he was discharged from the US marines after serving in the second world war, a young aspiring writer sent his father a letter, admitting: “Writing for me is the hardest thing in the world, but also a thing which, once completed, is the most satisfying ... I am no prodigy, but, fate willing, I think I can produce art.”
If the young William Styron (1925-2006) had been familiar with Thomas Mann’s famous definition of the writer as “one to whom writing comes harder than to anybody else”, he might have taken heart. In 1951 (the same year that saw The Catcher in the Rye), 26-year-old Styron published his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, to critical acclaim: he was lauded as a prodigy, and the American literary establishment rushed to confirm that he had indeed produced art.
Lie Down in Darkness won the prestigious Rome Prize; Styron would write only six more books but they would bring him the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the French Legion of Honour and the US National Medal of Arts. His two most famous novels were also, by no coincidence, his most controversial.
The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) is a fictional memoir from the perspective of the leader of one of the US’s most important, 19th-century slave uprisings. A white southerner writing a year before Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, Styron was accused of racism by some, and defended by others.
The book was a bestseller, and was followed just over a decade later by Sophie’s Choice, which managed, remarkably, to be even more controversial, as its central character is a Christian victim of the concentration camps; Styron was accused of anti-Semitism and, again, of illegitimate appropriation of the suffering of others.
Not until 1990, with the appearance of Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, would most of his readers understand that Styron’s small output was largely due to his lifelong struggle with crippling clinical depression.
In recent years Styron has somewhat fallen out of fashion. Although some of his books have dated more than others, he certainly does not deserve to be forgotten: Styron was a deeply intelligent writer who, at the very least, gives the lie to the easy stereotype that Americans are solipsistic and self-regarding.
As he matured, Styron’s writing grew markedly bolder and ambitious: the daring brilliance of both Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice is often nothing less than virtuosic. The details of most books blur with time but no one – even those who objected to the identity politics – who has read those two novels will forget them in a hurry.
Sarah Churchwell is professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia