Issue 153, Winter 1999
This spring entire canon of the readings will be published by Bloomsbury USA. What follows is simply a representation of the whole . . .
WILLIAM KENNEDY: My first short story I wrote for Collier’s magazine. Collier’s didn’t know this when I wrote it. It was called “Eggs” and concerned a man who goes into a diner and orders scrambled eggs. The counterman, Herby, doesn’t want to serve him eggs and suggests goulash. The man insists on his eggs, the counterman reluctantly serves him. The man eats them and leaves. End of story. I was eighteen, the first year of college. After I wrote “Eggs,” I showed it to my mother and, as with everything else I had done in life, she thought it was very good. I also showed it to my banjo teacher. “Very good,” he also said. He did not say “very, very good,” which is what he said when I played well during my banjo lesson. I showed the story to my father, and he read it at the breakfast table while eating eggs of his own.
He liked soft-boiled eggs with a teaspoon of sugar on them and tea with three teaspoons of sugar. I never saw him eat scrambled eggs. How could he know about my story? He read it and said, “What the hell is this?”
“It’s a story, a short story,” I said.
“It’s about a guy who goes in and eats eggs,” he said.
“That’s right,” I said.
“What the hell kind of story is that?” he said.
“It’s a realistic story,” I said. “I’m sending it off to Collier’s.”
“They publish stuff like this?”
“Every week,” I said.
“Who the hell wants to read about a guy who goes in and eats eggs?”
“The whole world reads Collier’s,” I said. “The whole world eats eggs.”
“Is this what you learned in school?” My schooling had cost serious money.
“I don’t want to argue about it,” I said. “You either like it or you don’t.”
“Take a guess,” my father said.
Well, I’d show him. I sent it off to Collier’s that afternoon and I’ve still got the rejection slip to prove it. I never showed any more stories to my father. This is known as writer’s block.
However, I reread the story last week for the first time in forty-five years, and my father emerges from that day as a masterful literary critic. A retarded orangutan could write a better story than “Eggs.” Be that as it may, writing this story was valuable for an assortment of reasons. It was the first step of a career; it proved I’d get better because I couldn’t get worse; it acquainted me with rejection and I didn’t die from it. I revised “Eggs” two more times in later years. I called it “Counterman on Duty” and then just “Eat.” And the story got better without getting good. Finally I abandoned it and put Herby in a novel under another name, and there he is at last even though he missed out on Collier’s.
Eudora Welty once wrote that a writer should write not about what he knows but what he doesn’t know about what he knows. I translate this to mean that the writer should try to understand mystery. And mystery, Luis Bufiuel once said, is the basic element of all works of art. The only mystery about “Eggs” is why I didn’t know it was awful. In time I did put some of my own mystery into the places I wrote about and my fiction improved. I’m sorry my parents didn’t get to appreciate what happened to me as a writer. My mother died while I was still trying to get my short stories published and my father was at the cusp of senility when I finished my first novel. But he bragged about the book down at the State Supreme Court where he worked. He said it was about how 2,000 cows get swept out to sea in Puerto Rico. Actually, the book is set in Albany and doesn’t have any cows. But you can see how, with that kind of imagination and critical apparatus in my genes, it was inevitable I’d become a writer.
LARRY MCMURTRY: In the beginning, aa came in at the ear, wafting to me from radioland, a wondrous domain whose happiest feature, from my point of view, was that it seemed to contain only three animals: Sandy, Little Orphan Annie’s dog; Silver, the Lone Ranger’s horse; and Scout, as in “Get ’em up. Scout,” the faithful Tonto’s equally faithful pinto.
This paucity of fauna was welcome indeed because the world outside the screen door of our little ranch house in West Texas teemed with animals, none of them the chatty, vivacious creatures one meets in storybooks. On our ranch, unfortunately, beasts behaved like beasts. From an early age, I had to be forced outside, always to my peril. The turkeys were aggressive and much larger than me. The hens were irritable.
The guineas went chittering along in neurotic packs. The peacocks screeched. The mules were sullen. The bulls so ominous one’s mind preferred to avoid thinking about them. Most frightening of all were the pigs, watching one cannily from their Hogarthian wallows. My pony was vicious and even my dogs unreliable. They constantly got themselves bitten by rattlesnakes but, faithful as dogs in Baden-Powell, they struggled on only to drop dead at my feet. All this was bad, but the beasts of the barnyard paled in comparison with the beasts of the school bus, and in my first-grade year the bus carried me ninety miles a day to education and back. I was the youngest, smallest and most tormentable person on the bus and always arrived at school so terrorized that I would throw up my Ovaltine and be consigned to the sickroom all day to await in fear and trembling the terrible bus ride home. I could see little in education at that point. Nothing could be worth those bus rides. Within two months I had woven myself a cocoon of illness, which kept my home the rest of that year and portions of several others. The real world was too hard.
I wanted to live in radioland and I did, beginning my day with W. Leo Daniel and the Doughboys and ending it with Fibber McGee and Molly. At least I ended it with them if it was Tuesday. In between there were the bewildering passions of Stella Dallas. For years I assumed the city of Dallas was named for her. The patriotic genius of Captain Midnight and the folksy wisdom of Hackberry Hotel. Then, to my indignation. World War II broke out, disrupting what had been until then a perfectly ordered world. The war meant constant interruptions. One could never be sure what would be on when. But I did like what I heard about hand grenades.
If I could lay my hands on a few of those, I could blow the pigs right out of their Hogarthian wallow. Then one day my cousin Bob showed up at my bedside. He was on his way to war and he wanted me to have his books. Nineteen in all.
I accepted them indifferently. I was still happy enough in radioland, but one day—it may have been Dunkirk or the fall of Manila, I’m not sure—regular programming was interrupted for so long that I began to delve in Cousin Bob’s box, coming up with a stirring tale called Sargent Silk, the Prairie Scout. It was about mounties in Saskatchewan. It instantly sucked me in. Though I was probably six, I remember no book before that one. And I suppose it was on that day, when Captain Midnight was silenced, when Sky King couldn’t fly, when the great horse Silver didn’t gallop, when Fibber McGee and Molly’s closet remained closed, that the literary life began for me.
ROBERT STONE: Many things come together to put you in a situation in which you find yourself a writer. In the house where I was growing up, there were many creepy books, but none of them was creepier or more ghastly than one I particularly remember that had a great deal of dreadful gothic lettering and extremely frightening illustrations and a text of which I could make no sense at all, though I did puzzle at one particular verse and as soon as I had puzzled it out, I realized that the book was far creepier and more dreadful than I could ever have imagined. And the verse in it went, “Like one, that on a lonesome road/Doth walk in fear and dread,/And having once turned round walks on,/And turns no more his head;/Because he knows, a frightful fiend/Doth close behind him tread.” And as soon as I read that, I realized what I was involved with. I took the book and I hid it where I would never find it, but of course I experienced the first of many guilty urges that I was later to experience and I had to go and dig it out and read that again. And I had to ponder and wonder. Did the writer of these verses actually mean me to feel the way I feel having read them? After I read them, my hair would have stood up on end had it not already been standing up on end because of the crewcuts that we all wore in those days. When I finally understood that I had been meant to experience what I was experiencing as a result of reading those verses, and that unlike all the sensations that I’d experienced listening to the radio or going to the movies, this one seemed to go on and on so that I could never contain it, so that it had no bounds, I wanted to approach that force and take hold of it and to deal, of course, not only with fear but with love and the rest and I tried to do that and I’m still trying.
WILLIAM STYRON: When I was twelve and a half I attended a rural school in Tidewater Virginia, about 150 miles south of Washington, which boasted a mimeograph newspaper called The Sponge—soaks up all the news. My first literary creation was a contribution to this journal, a short story entitled “Typhoon and the Tor Bay.” This document has been preserved in my father’s doting papers. Joseph Conrad was, of course, the author of a famous story “Typhoon,” and that was the inspiration for my own story, which I’m afraid lacked even the originality of a truly fresh title. Tor Bay was the name I christened the doomed ship of my little narrative after I found an English bay by that name in an atlas. Upon rereading “Typhoon and the Tor Bay” and comparing it with its model, I am relieved to say that no plagiarism is evident, although there is much deja vu. The word derivative is perhaps too generous, counterfeit too harsh. Let us say this work of about 750 words is an unconscious parody and profoundly Conradian. Here are some brief passages to render its special flavor: “A sickly green haze hung over the East China Sea. ’Typhoon brewing,’ mused Captain Taggart darkly, with an inner shudder gazing at the barometer. 27.2. ’God save the mark,’ he blurted aloud with another inner shudder.”
“The diabolical storm lashed the stricken bridge with a murderer’s vengeance. The great ship was yawing and heaving every which way like a huge berserk animal, ’We’re bound to founder,’ Captain Taggart heard the mate say with a despondent shriek. ’He is a despicable coward,’ Captain Taggart mused darkly.”
“’There are four hundred helpless Chinamen down there in the hold,’ Captain Taggart cried. ’We can’t let them perish.’ The mate swore a vile oath. ’Who cares about a bunch of Chinks. Let them all drown.’ Captain Taggart saw on the mate’s twisted face a look of supreme evil.”
At this point, my literary career was overtaken by a long and merciful silence. A diary that I kept faithfully during my fourteenth year reveals a fascinating detail about my intellectual development. It shows that while I went to and appreciated to one degree or another a total of 125 movies, occasionally seeing as many as two films a day, there is no record whatever of my reading a single book. Not even Conrad.
Books came later. At age eighteen I discovered Thomas Wolfe. In a recent notorious essay on Wolfe, the critic wrote (I think I’m quoting exactly) that “the novelist had no talent whatsoever.” This is a ludicrous misstatement since Wolfe had prodigious talent, as prodigious as Shakespeare or Homer except for the fact that, unlike Shakespeare and Homer, it was a talent that was arrested at age eighteen and, therefore, was the perfect medium for an adolescent like myself to discover the splendor of language and to be provided with the impetus for a desperate falling in love with literature. And so, for the next five years I read. I read passionately, promiscuously, eclectically, critically and uncritically until my mind was dizzy and intoxicated with a thousand wonderful books.
And then having written nothing ambitious since “Typhoon and the Tor Bay,” I decided it was time to be a writer and so, at the age of twenty-two, I sat down and began my first novel, Lie Down in Darkness.