Rose Styron had no idea that her husband, the late author William Styron, was a prolific letter writer. She always assumed that when he was in his writing studio, he was working on a book. It only occurred to her that he might have written some letters when, after his death, she found stacks of letters written to him in the drawers in his office. If these people had written to her husband, perhaps he’d written back.
He had, and in spades. Not long after putting the word out that she was seeking Mr. Styron’s correspondence, Ms. Styron began receiving old letters in the mail. “One day,” she recalls, “I opened the mailbox door and all these white envelopes cascaded out onto the driveway!” Before she knew it, she found herself with upwards of 1,500 letters, all written long-hand. “I was absolutely stunned,” she says. “I called Bill’s friend and editor at Random House, Bob Loomis, and said ‘I think maybe I’d better stop here.’ He said, ‘Yes, you’d better, because I want a 500-page book. You’re going to have to do some editing.'”
A self-professed “computer ignoramus,” she knew that the first step in the editing process — transcribing all of the hand-written letters onto a computer — was beyond her. Fortunately, help arrived in the form of R. Blakeslee Gilpin, who was at the time a Yale Ph.D. candidate in southern literature and history.
When he had previously contacted Ms. Styron requesting permission to write a biography of her husband, she had turned him down, because her daughter Alexandra was writing a memoir of her father. But she invited him to work on the book of Mr. Styron’s letters with her, and he accepted. H
Mr. Gilpin had been interested in the letters ever since he’d held a summer job at age 19 in the West Chop Post Office, where Mr. Styron, a resident of West Chop, went every day to mail his letters. He saw the people to whom he was writing — including literary giants from all over the world — and his curiosity was piqued.
Mr. Gilpin transcribed the letters and put them in chronological order, which is how Bob Loomis wanted them. Ms. Styron had originally wanted the book to be a series of two-way exchanges between Mr. Styron and some of his correspondents, but she came to agree with Loomis. “His way,” she says, “gives you a life through letters.”
Written to his daughters, to literary friends like Carlos Fuentes and Philip Roth, and to others, the letters include in-depth discussions of his work and that of his friends, as well as often humorous descriptions of incidents in his family life and his social life.
While editing the book, Ms. Styron read about events that she’d forgotten. “It brought it all back,” she says. She adds that being on a book tour has rekindled some old friendships. When she read at the Carter Center in Atlanta, she spent some time with Jimmy Carter, whom she had gotten to know through her work with Amnesty International. In Oxford, Miss., her visit was arranged by bookstore owner and former Mayor of Oxford Richard Howorth, with whom she had traveled to Prague two decades earlier for the State Department.
At a book party in Washington D.C., hosted by old friends Miles and Nancy Rubin, Mr. Rubin told everyone a story that Ms. Styron had never heard: One night while visiting the Styrons on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Rubin and Mr. Styron were up late, and Mr. Styron, who suffered from depression, was very low. He said he wanted to get rid of all the things in his life that he hated, and perhaps get rid of his life, too. He gathered many of his papers and personal effects, stuffed them into paper bags and cereal boxes, and took them to the dump. When he returned, he had a sudden change of heart. He said to Mr. Rubin, “What have I done? I like my life!” And he drove back to the dump and retrieved what he could.
“Miles ended by saying that of course it was Bill’s writing that made everyone forgive him for anything he did,” says Ms. Styron.
“Doing this book, and the tour, has refreshed friendships for me,” Ms. Styron says. “It’s made me understand that that’s what life’s all about. And of course, that’s one reason why Bill wrote his letters.”
She jokes that if he hadn’t written so many letters, perhaps “Sophie’s Choice” wouldn’t have taken seven years to materialize. But she understands that letters offered him a way to keep writing when he was stuck in the process of a book. “He needed that in-between kind of writing,” she says. “Writing his thoughts, his own reality, helped him go back to the fiction and invest it with what he’d been thinking about.”
Rose Styron, of Vineyard Haven, will talk about “Selected Letters of William Styron” at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival August 3 and 4. To find out more information, visit mvbookfestival.com. This is the first in a series devoted to Island authors participating in the festival. In addition, Rose will read from her book at Midnight Farm in Vineyard Haven, on July 17 from 4pm to 6 pm.