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alexandra styron


An interview with ALEXANDRA STYRON, author of READING MY FATHER

reading my father by alexandra styron

I first met Alexandra Styron back in the ‘90s, when we were both attending a short story class in Los Angeles taught by Judith Taylor. Apparently that was at the beginning of her career as a writer. I remember her stories being memorable and well-crafted. She had obvious talent. I had no idea her father was William Styron. Everyone just called her Al. I thought she was an attractive young woman taking a class with me. Years later, I learned that she was having her first novel published, All the Finest Girls, and I attended a reading at Book Soup. We briefly reminisced about the class we had taken, and I congratulated her on her new book.

Somewhere along the way I learned that her father was William Styron—the man, the myth, the writer. So that makes sense. She has writing in her blood. No wonder her work is so good. It made me feel a little better about my own writing. After all, I didn’t have the same literary pedigree, or the gifted talent.

So here we are, almost twenty years later. I got back in touch with Alexandra several months ago at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. She was participating in a seminar on memoir writing. The seminar, along with three other writers, was quite fascinating. Afterwards, I asked Alexandra if she would take part in an interview for the journal.

If you haven’t read her memoir, Reading My Father, it is definitely a great piece of writing. So many fascinating people and events, and Alexandra puts it all together in a touching, concisely written book.

We conducted our interview by phone one Sunday morning. Alexandra currently lives with her husband and two children in Brooklyn, NY.


alexandra styron and william styron

The Writing Disorder: First of all, I wanted to say that the book you wrote about your father is amazing. It took me on an incredible journey that encompasses your life, his life, your family, and everyone along the way. It was a fascinating book.

Alexandra Styron: Thank you so much!

The Writing Disorder: What was it like for you when you finally finished it? What was the feeling?

Alexandra Styron: I think when I finished the book, I was in a place where I felt both a sense of accomplishment and some confidence, which came hard won. When I started writing the book, after I signed the contract to write the book, I went through some really deep soul searching and some real fears. People told me I was so brave to write this book and I think to myself, well, not so much, but then when I looked back at the way I felt during the first six months after I agreed to do it, I realized what a leap it took to actually get into it. By the time I finished book, because I felt like I found the story that I was searching for, and that it felt like a story that was much bigger than a personal family story, I think I had some confidence that it was a story that would resonate and that I didn't need to be so fearful of what I was doing.

The Writing Disorder: The way you wrote the book, for me, was very fulfilling because you don't wander around. It’s very concise writing. You get right to the point. For instance, at the beginning of the book you go into all these personal details about your father, and you've given me all this information, and I thought I'd have to wait until the end to read about this. But you just get right into it, and I really appreciate that kind of writing style.

Alexandra Styron: Yes, I think we all find our voices eventually and find the kind of writing that feels the most appropriate. I think I've learned over the years, I tell myself as I'm writing “Is this as clear as I can possibly be, say what you mean to say.” Eventually you learn to follow the rules if you want to be that kind of writer.

The Writing Disorder: Right. And how do you structure a book like this, how did it come together?

Alexandra Styron: The structure was probably the hardest part of this book, even more than the emotional journey and the revelations I kind of had to come to and process. I'd say, as a writer, structure was the most bedeviling part of this book because I was looking at a story which felt to me like three or four pronged. I had my father's history, I had my history, and then I had my father's history as it was revealed to both himself and to me through his work. So there were aspects of my father's life which he didn't himself begin to explore until he was much older. So I had to make choices, and there were aspects of his life I didn't understand until I read his work when I was 24 or 27 or 18. So I had to find a way to tell his life story, have it not be convoluted, but it couldn't be told chronologically, because that wasn't the point of the book. The point of the book was where he as an artist, and a father, and a man intersect. So I tried to find places where I could sort of hitch pieces of his story and make it coherent. The beginning of each chapter I often tried to tie into something that had to do with me, because it's a memoir. It's my father's story, but it's my father's story through my eyes. So I tried to focus each chapter on some aspect of his story as it intersected with mine. I used it as a launching point to return to his life story. But I'd say there were some stretches where I just pulled my hair out. I thought, how do I tell this part of the story? Do I tell it here, do I tell it there?

The Writing Disorder: Yes, I got the sense I was discovering it along with you.

Alexandra Styron: Exactly! And that's what I wanted. This was not a story that wanted to be told. It's not a biography, it couldn't be that way. So much of it depended on where my father's life was revealed, embedded in his work, and those things did not happen chronologically. He wrote A Tidewater Morning when he was into his 60s or 70s, and those were his childhood stories. That's when he finally processed it. So I felt like if you want to create a narrative that is compelling, you want to include the fact that this man who suffered from depression did not deal with his sort of seminal ruins of his life, which was his mother's death, until he had already suffered from depression and was much older. Then he did so in his work. So I had to find a way to tie all those pieces together.

The Writing Disorder: So once you finish the book, and also do the book tour, is there a point where you put it behind you and move on to something else?

Alexandra Styron: (Laughs) I think I may be at that point right about now. It's been a long time between the beginning of this project to now. It's been many years. It's turned out to be a really riveting subject for me, so I've never felt bored by it. But I think there's also a point at which, as my father's daughter and a writer, it's important for me to not be completely defined by this project and move on to the next work.

The Writing Disorder: So what is that next project for you?

Alexandra Styron: Well, I think after a lot of debate and conversation with myself, and I've really been on book tour all year, but I think I made the decision and I think I'll begin in September, to return to the novel I was writing, which I put aside to do this. I will probably start from page one even though I already have 250 pages. I think the story is one that is still really compelling to me but I have to find another way in. I've done enough work on it that I don't think it will be as onerous. It will be easier if I start from page 1 than to fix the 250 pages I have.

The Writing Disorder: So you have 250 pages of notes?

Alexandra Styron: No, I have half a book.

The Writing Disorder: Oh, I just mean you're going to use that material to proceed.

Alexandra Styron: I know my characters and I know my story, but I need to find a different way to tell the story. In part because the novel I was writing, I started a long time ago, there's a certain amount of, not cultural commentary, but the book had a certain point of view that needs to be altered to acknowledge the fact that the world has changed so much in the decades since I started. The book is in part about the nature of fame. The nature of fame has never changed as quickly or dramatically as it has in the last 10 or 15 years. So I think the story has to change to accommodate that time. It's just slightly different.

The Writing Disorder: So they're contemporary characters?

Alexandra Styron: Well, the book actually, as I originally conceived it, takes place in the early ’90s. I think that's the division point. It took place in the early ’90s for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with the way I set the story. But now if I were to begin again, what's changed dramatically since the early ’90s is obviously the rise of the internet and cellphones and TMZ, and the world as we know it is vis-à-vis, the way people respond to the idea of fame. That wasn't even part of my story when I started this book, and now I couldn't write the book without it.

The Writing Disorder: So what is your take on fame now? How do you perceive it?

Alexandra Styron: Well, I think that the book I was writing had embedded in it what would be an almost quaint, I mean even in some ways I could still write this book and it becomes even more of a commentary on the world we live in now, but a kind of quaint notion that people actually guarded their privacy, that people who are famous would actually guard their privacy. But now it feels like kind of a quaint idea. No one guards their privacy anymore. And now I have to acknowledge that if I have a character who guards their privacy they're unusual now as opposed to the way people might once have lived. A desire to have some personal space.

I grew up in a world where there was an idea you could be good at something, first of all that you would be famous for being good at something, as opposed to being famous for taking your top off. That didn't mean you also wanted to be on the stage 24-hours a day. That people who wanted you to be so often could make a mess of your life. So it's a different world, and I'm interested in the subject still, but it's going to have to be a different approach.

The Writing Disorder: You have two children? What are their ages?

Alexandra Styron: Seven and nine.

The Writing Disorder: Are they into anything yet?

Alexandra Styron: My son really loves the screen, so we have to set pretty strict limits about that. He like to play sports games on the iPad, so we sort of have to curtail that, too. And my daughter lives in her head. She likes to draw and dream and read and doesn't really care much for the computer. Thank God! It's interesting raising kids in this new world.

The Writing Disorder: When did you first start writing?

Alexandra Styron: I first started writing in Los Angeles, when you knew me in the early 1990s. You saw me when I was reinventing myself and trying to do so. I was sort of doing it as far away from my family as possible. It was a really seminal time in my life because I realized how unhappy I was doing what I was doing and writing was never something I ever really considered. It's not like I wrote in high school. It never occurred to me it would be something I would do with my life. I was much too conscious about how difficult and lonely a profession it was. I was pursuing an acting career, which is the exact opposite. It's about being in the company of other people 24-hours a day. The life my father led as a writer, not as a celebrity, but as a writer, was unappealing to me. I watched him struggle so much as an artist to do his work. But then part of growing up is recognizing there's great satisfaction in that struggle. The beauty of a well-crafted sentence or a story and the hard work it takes to get there is actually incredibly satisfying. Much more so than the thing that comes so easily.

The Writing Disorder: So when you wrote papers in high school, what was that like?

Alexandra Styron: I was a totally mediocre student and mediocre paper writer. I suppose I may have had some facility, maybe some of it came easily to me but I was never known for my great writing. I wasn't trying either. I think the last time I thought I'd be a writer was when I was six, I thought I'd be a writer like my parents and just write stories. And then I didn't do it again for years. So when I was out there in L.A. and was trying to dig myself out of this dark hole I found myself in, I turned to writing out of a kind of desperation. It was during that period that I realized that actually the creative impulse I was trying to satisfy as an actor was actually more likely to be satisfied and felt more like something I'd successfully accomplish with writing instead of acting. That's when I ultimately found my way to Judith's writing class and I found my voice.

The Writing Disorder: Yes, I remember your stories. I thought you had a lot of experience writing, and your stories were really good.

Alexandra Styron: I had only been really writing for a year or two when I got to Judith's class, and I was writing very much in secret so to speak. I wasn't calling myself a writer and I didn't have any dreams of being a writer at that point. I was writing because I was trying to find a way to express myself when I felt so stifled by the road I had gone down. It's really in Judith's class when she encouraged me. She said, “If you want to do this, you can do this. You should go home and go back to school.” And I did. A sort of light went on in my head and I thought, okay, yes. That's what I needed, someone to tell me I could do this.

The Writing Disorder: Your stories were really well written. So you must have known you had a talent for that.

Alexandra Styron: Yes, but it was such a little fledgling still at that point. Again, having the background that I have, you are well aware that that and two dollars will get you a subway ride, to get from thinking, Oh this isn't a bad story. You know, I understand the rhythms of storytelling and I can craft a good sentence. Between that and finding yourself succeeding as a professional writer is a long road. But I think at that point I was ready to apply myself and there was a sense that hard work wasn't so scary for me. I had worked at and failed at something, as an aspiring actor, or had not found success. That had been a great life lesson. It made me not as afraid of failure and not as afraid of hard work.

The Writing Disorder: So then you left L.A.?

Alexandra Styron: I left L.A. And then I applied to graduate school and I got into Columbia. So I left in the winter of '96 or '97 and then by the fall I had enrolled in Columbia. I started, I had the idea for a novel which I had been thinking about that summer before I started graduate school, and I spent the two years in graduate school almost exclusively working on the novel. I sort of used the two years in graduate school to start my first book. And it took me another year-and-a-half after school to finish the book.

The Writing Disorder: When you told your parents you were going to graduate school, what was their response?

A: I got a pretty mixed response, I think my father was ... it's something I talk about in my book. I remember exactly where I was when I told him, we were at a restaurant with our whole family and there was a lot going on at the table but I kind of laid it out there. He didn't go “That's fantastic” he just sort of nodded. For a long time I thought about what that was about for him. I think it was about a lot of different things. I think he wasn't sure whether this was another path I was going down, that I wouldn't get all the way down, or whether he was afraid I would fail, or afraid I would succeed. There were a lot of possibilities in my father's reaction, but it wasn't ... or that he didn't, that he knew how hard it was to be a successful writer and I was already in my late 20's. I can put myself in his shoes and think, “Ugh, you're going go to school, you're going spend two years to become a writer?” I can see how he didn't want to encourage me — that encouraging me could be a mistake. And that was very disappointing for me. My feelings were hurt. It wasn't the first time he hurt my feelings, though. That said, he had also been very complimentary of the stories that I had written that he read. I think he was just trying to process what this meant and how serious I was. Where this was going to take me. It worked out, so that was good.

The Writing Disorder: I was watching a PBS show about Johnny Carson. His mother never praised him for anything he did. Even at the height of his career, she would watch his monologue and she'd say, “Well, that was okay” or “That wasn't very funny.” So she never gave him the love he wanted. But after she died he found this scrapbook that she saved every single clipping of him — everything. So she just couldn't tell him in person.

Alexandra Styron: That's heartbreaking. It's nice to know in the end, but I imagine anguishing that that couldn't be shared while everyone was still alive. I ultimately think my father was proud of me and I think he actually believed I was a good writer. I do sometimes think about ... I mean people ask me, always ask me, “What do you think your father would think about this book you wrote?” Or sometimes people blandly say, “Oh, I'm sure your father would be so proud of you!” And I think, well maybe but maybe not. The truth is, if you pushed my father, if he was standing here today, I think he would be proud. I think he would be quite astonished that I had devoted so much of my time to figuring him out. I think he would have admired what I had managed to pull out of his story. I think he would be furious at me too. And all those things would be legitimate.

The Writing Disorder: Exactly. And your mother writes poetry?

Alexandra Styron: Mother is a poet. She has written many pieces. She’s also a human rights activist. She's done a fair amount of journalism-style writing on human rights. She's also a very accomplished poet with several poetry books.

The Writing Disorder: Have you written any poetry?

Alexandra Styron: Not since I was a kid.

The Writing Disorder: So what's your writing routine? Do you write every day?

Alexandra Styron: Right now I'm hopelessly out of any routine. I'm living here with my children and I struggle every day to sit down at the desk when I'm not doing much work, but that's different. I'm coming off a year of craziness.

The Writing Disorder: When you are writing, what is your routine like?

Alexandra Styron: When I am writing, which I usually am doing, I am at my office most of the day and in that time I like to say my routine ... I'm like a dog that circles a bed before they sit down. I sit down at my desk and spend an hour or two screwing around doing other stuff. It's the only way to get my brain to settle down. I email and I take care of busy work and I read Gawker. I screw around an hour or two. And in that six hours I might go to my office. When I'm writing well, I'm writing for three of those. I'm like my father, I'm a very slow writer. So it feels very painstaking. Every decent writer faces the desk with dread. Anybody who tells you they can't wait to get up in the morning and write isn't writing probably — or writing badly, anyway.

The Writing Disorder: Have you written with pen and paper?

Alexandra Styron: Not since I first started screwing around as a writer, before I had a computer. I think by the time I became serious about writing I had at least one of those, I think my first machine was one of those high-tech typewriters, the kind that had a one line screen. I think that was my first writing machine. But I'm very different from my father because my father wrote long hand on yellow legal pads all his life. I think about how painstaking he was as a writer, and how I am, and how much easier it is for me because I will rewrite and rewrite a sentence, but it's so much easier on a computer than using a big orange eraser.

The Writing Disorder: What's your office like?

Alexandra Styron: I have a space outside of the house in Brooklyn. I rent a room in a brownstone. I need it to be somewhat aesthetically pleasing. I have paintings on the wall and a rug and a couch I can lie down on and take a nap. I have a big bulletin board stuck with poems and photographs and stuff in front of me.

The Writing Disorder: Do you listen to music when you write?

Alexandra Styron: No, I'm like the princess and the pea, I need complete silence. Without being facetious I sometimes think I really have a touch of adult ADD that I struggle against it all the time. If I'm anywhere and I'm remotely distracted I can't get anything done. I so admire writers who can write anywhere. I have a friend, Arthur Phillips, who is a fine novelist, who has written every book he's written in the past ten years in a coffee shop at Brooklyn Heights. It's not a particularly nice coffee shop, it's not particularly comfortable. He just sits there at a table, he takes the kids to school, and he sits there all day long and he produces these wonderful books. I'm just in awe of it.

The Writing Disorder: So when you were growing up, who were some of your favorite writers?

Alexandra Styron: I think once I finally discovered literature in a proper way I tended to gravitate towards classic literature. I think there's a reason those books endure. I became a Jane Austen fan and Edith Wharton, and eventually Henry James, I had a hard time with Henry James for a while. Nabokov, Garcia Marquez, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I'm trying to think of contemporary women whose work I like. I read pretty broadly. I'm not a writer who had one idol. I feel like I'm always just rushing to catch up to all the books that I've never read that I want to read. I'm pretty Catholic in my approach to reading.

The Writing Disorder: There's so much out there to read!

Alexandra Styron: I've been teaching for the past year and I've been teaching memoir writing so I actually have been, out of necessity, reading dozens of memoirs. And when I was writing, I was reading memoirs so I think I've read every memoir I want to read and I would be very happy if I never read another one.

The Writing Disorder: Which contemporary authors do you read?

Alexandra Styron: I just finished the latest Edward St. Aubyn book, which was fantastic.

The Writing Disorder: In your writing classes, you wrote a lot of short stories. Where are those now, do you plan to do anything with them?

Alexandra Styron: No, no, they're buried deep in a drawer where nobody can find them. It's been so long, I actually haven't read them in a while. I tend not to read anything I've written much after it's done. The Barnard Alumnae Book Club has chosen my book as the book that all the incoming freshman are going to read. It's about 800 kids who will read my first novel. I'm going to speak to them the last week in August when they arrive at school. I haven't even opened that book in almost ten years. I have to go re-read it if I'm going to talk about it. And the stories before that ... I think they become a reflection of your younger self. Those stories are ... I shudder to think what I would think if I read them now.

The Writing Disorder: I still have some.

Alexandra Styron: (Laughs) You do? Dear me. Burn them.

The Writing Disorder: Are you still in touch with the people you grew up with?

Alexandra Styron: Yes, very much, though, here on Martha's Vineyard, some of my dearest friends are my oldest friends. I have a couple of childhood friends I keep in contact with by email. But not so much. The house I grew up in in Connecticut my mother sold last year. I don't get to go there much anymore. The two houses my parents owned, they owned for 50 years. There's a certain permanence to that. I still have these deep connections until recently to Connecticut, and up here, this always felt like home to me.

The Writing Disorder: How do you begin when you start a new project?

Alexandra Styron: Depends on what kind of book it is. Whether it's fiction or non-fiction. I keep a writing journal and it really is a place where I can think, not out loud, but on the page. It's not something I'd ever want anybody to see. It's often just me ruminating. I find if I ruminate on a page I actually find inspiration for the next thought. I usually begin that way. It depends. With the book of my father I had a few documents that I had, the letters he and my grandfather wrote to each other. I have the biography Jim West wrote and I went down to Duke University and started looking through his papers. I definitely spent a good long time researching. It felt like I was just poking around. But poking around is a good way to get started. Giving yourself the space to poke around and not presume you're going to plunge into something. I've never been able to write with an outline. I usually begin with baby steps, just kind of probing and seeing where my imagination and the story takes me.

The Writing Disorder: Do you plan on sticking more with writing novels?

Alexandra Styron: I don't know, I'm at a curious point in my life. This is the first very long non-fiction. I really enjoyed it. It's a pleasure doing non-fiction. There's something appealing about having facts at your finger tips as opposed to having to invent things. So I'm very open to the idea of writing more non-fiction. There was this great John McPhee piece in the New Yorker where he was saying that he always encouraged his students to, there's no reason to think one must choose one genre, but you'll become a far better writer if you explore all of them. If I were strictly a non-fiction writer I couldn't have come to that point until I had matured by trying to write poetry, trying to write sections. Some people are only students to the short story, or the novel, to the biography. I think there's room to be many different kinds of writer.

The Writing Disorder: Do you have a timeline for when you'd like your next book to come out?

Alexandra Styron: Oh no, you know it takes as long as it takes. I would like to think it's not going to take me more than a couple of years, but I know better than to have those expectations for myself. I'm very slow. I think about how long it took my father to write each book. At some point you have to, as a writer, allow yourself to believe your process is your process, you'll get there when you get there. I have an editor I love, and one of her great strengths is she really leaves her writers alone. Once she signs them on she, you know, I think she really believes her writers will bring what they should bring, when they're ready to bring it. I think it just has to be that way.

The Writing Disorder: Do you have a lot of writer friends?

Alexandra Styron: I do have a lot of writer friends. I live in Brooklyn so you can't throw a stick without hitting a writer. So yes, I have a lot of writer friends and Brooklyn people I admire that I have a nice time with. You feel like you can sit at the dinner table and have a morbid laugh over whatever the trials are of doing what we do by ourselves all day long. John Burnham Schwartz is a very dear friend of mine and a terrific writer, and Rebecca Johnson. It's just a nice group of people in Brooklyn doing what we're all sort of plodding along out there together.

The Writing Disorder: There's a huge music scene in Brooklyn, too.

Alexandra Styron: There's a great music scene, yes. Most of it is further north than where we are. Brooklyn is just so incredibly alive. As Manhattan once was and everyone got pushed off the island and onto Brooklyn which is fine. Nice place to be.

The Writing Disorder: So you're close with your sisters and brother?

Alexandra Styron: I am, yes. They're all here. They'll come and go from the Vineyard in the summer. This is when we all get to see each other the most. We're all very close. We talk a lot. I kind of feel like we have very much the same perspective on things.

The Writing Disorder: What kind of work do they do?

Alexandra Styron: My elder sister is a screenwriter and director. She also teaches at Columbia and NYU. My sister Polly is a dancer and choreographer. My brother is a clinical psychologist at Yale. So we're all within a hundred or fifty miles of each other. My mother and us kids just gather with our extended family.

The Writing Disorder: Where does your mother live?

Alexandra Styron: My mother lives here, year round, at the Vineyard. She kept the house in Connecticut for a few years after my father died and finally sold it and consolidated to one place.

The Writing Disorder: Who lives there now?

Alexandra Styron: Right now it's me and my kids and my mother and my sister-in-law and her kids, and one of my sisters just left, and my brother will be here next week. We all sort of shuttle in and out.

The Writing Disorder: That's nice.

Alexandra Styron: It's really nice.

The Writing Disorder: What was their reaction to your book?

Alexandra Styron: They were really great. They totally gave me their full stamp of approval. They were my first readers and I was very anxious about what they would say about it. Their opinion was more important to me than anybody else's. And they really embraced it and felt I told the story right. To my shock, they voiced no objections so I felt like I had done what I had intended to do.

The Writing Disorder: Yes, it really is a great book. Do you ever see yourself going into screenwriting or directing?

Alexandra Styron: Actually, I'm working a little, on the side, on a project, an adaptation, of somebody else's memoir, which a friend of mine, who's a producer, who optioned it. We're sort of ... it's actually what I've been doing up here this month. I've been trying to finish a treatment because it felt like something that was a manageable size, while I was in sort of half-summer mode. Not writing the screenplay but just trying to get the treatment in order. So if that was something that worked out, I would love to, I think it would make a very interesting film. I'm sort of game for all formats.

The Writing Disorder: Alright, well, I don't want to keep you any longer, I know you have things to do. But thank you very much for your time.

Alexandra Styron: Thank you very much, goodbye!

all the finest girls

ALEXANDRA STYRON is the author of Reading My Father and the novel, All The Finest Girls. A graduate of Barnard College and the MFA program at Columbia University, her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal. She currently teaches memoir writing in the MFA program at Hunter College. She lives with her husband and two children in Brooklyn, NY.

More information avilable here: Alexandra Styron

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