In 1929, my grandparents Eugene and Martha Ferris moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and bought a home on Laurel Street. The Welty family lived three blocks away with their children Walter, Edward, and Eudora. My grandmother often told me about the Weltys, who were among her close friends in Jackson.
At the age of twelve, I remember seeing Eudora Welty and a group of her friends when they visited our farm to picnic and sketch the landscape. They sat on a hillside below our home, and after they left, my mother told me that one of the group was an important writer.
I first read Welty’s work at Brooks School, and in my senior year at Davidson College, I invited her to be our book-of-the-year speaker. Much to the amazement of our faculty in the English department, she accepted. I borrowed a school car and met her when she arrived by train one evening at the Charlotte depot. The next morning she read “A Worn Path” before the student assembly in her soft voice, and during the afternoon we walked around the campus where wisteria vines were in full bloom.
Four years later I was working in the folklore collections at the Mississippi state archives when Charlotte Capers, the director, showed me unpublished photographs that Welty had taken for the Works Progress Administration. In these photographs, Welty captured the faces and landscapes of Mississippi with a power and honesty that became a standard for my research as a folklorist.
During the summer of 1975, I visited Welty at her home on Pinehurst Street, and we spoke about those photographs and her writing. Over the years that followed, I visited her regularly and recorded other interviews, film, and videotape with her.
Each time we visited, I brought a large bottle of Maker’s Mark that we opened and shared together. Welty’s wit was always unexpected and refreshingly on point. One day I phoned her and asked, “Eudora, I wondered if we might get together on Saturday.”
She replied, “That would be fine. What time would suit you?”
“Would ten thirty be all right?”
“Did you say seven thirty?”
“No. Ten thirty.”
“Oh, good. For a moment there I thought you were testing our friendship.”
We visited many times over the years. She came to Yale twice, the first time to speak to my students and the second to receive an honorary degree. Later at the University of Mississippi she read from “Why I Live at the P.O.” when the William Faulkner postage stamp was issued. She visited our farm and had dinner there with Cleanth Brooks, Tinkham Brooks, and Charlotte Capers.
Our visits in her home were always memorable, intimate moments as we sat in her living room and spoke about friends and ideas. Welty kept a framed note from Bill Clinton on her mantle, and her oil portrait hung on the wall across from it. When I left, she always walked me to the front door and stood inside the screen door until I walked to my car and drove away.
Welty’s voice reminded me of my grandmother Martha Ferris. Its familiar, nurturing sound assured me I was with a friend who understood all that I knew and would ever be.
As for Jackson, I have always liked being here. My family—my father and mother—were both from away, and they came here when they married. It was kind of adventurous for them. They were making a new life. And my father—he was a businessman—had decided that Mississippi was a place with a future. He was interested in civilized life. I was the firstborn of the first generation in Jackson. He was from Ohio, and my mother from West Virginia. I always felt very lucky—and they did, too—that they had come here.
When I was growing up, Jackson had much more of an identity than now because it was smaller. It was so small that one knew everybody, practically. It was a very free and easy life. Children could go out by themselves in the after-noon and play in the park, go to the picture show, and move about the city on their bicycles, just as if it were their own front yard. There was no sense of danger happening in town. That was a nice way to grow up. The town was easier to know, all of which is gone now, of course, because Jackson is a city.
We had wonderful school principals and teachers that I still remember with great affection and awe. I am sure I was ignorant of all kinds of things. I had no political knowledge. My father was a Republican in Jackson. I do not think anybody but the Pullman porter was a Republican—he was a black man. You know, there were not any Republicans extant around here. My mother was a Democrat. And of course they argued politically at the breakfast table. I early got an idea that there were complications about our system down here.
I met Robert Penn Warren [known to his friends as “Red”] and Cleanth Brooks in Baton Rouge, and our friendship was certainly warm and long lasting. They were so good to me from the beginning. When I was totally unknown, they encouraged me and helped me in every way. I was indebted to both of them. You did not meet people like them, at least in my world. It was a long time before I got to meet them, either one. But when I did go down to Baton Rouge and met them, we had a grand time. I felt so picked out, so favored. They published me in the Southern Review. They were the first people to publish my work anywhere. I was very close to them, even though we did not meet very often.
Then Red came and did a lecture at Belhaven College, across the street from my house in Jackson. I told him about Governor Ross Barnett, and he laughed so hard I thought he was going to strangle. He just loved all those political tales from Mississippi. He said, “Every time I think about that night I still laugh till my ribs hurt.” He loved choice things like that.
I remember going out after programs at the National Institute of Arts and Letters when the Warrens were living in Connecticut. They invited me to come home with them, and that was lots of fun. I always had such a good time with Red, in particular, because his sense of humor was laid right around here, you know, Mississippi and our politics and everything.
At the time I met Red and Cleanth, I was living in Jackson, just beginning to write, and it did not occur to me to think about the world of writing. It is really like a little network. I felt it was solitary to write. Just do a book, and somebody reads it. But they helped me realize what a network it is, a mutual learning society with readers and writers everywhere. They made me see the whole world of writing in a different way, in an exciting way. I did not know how lucky I was. But I became more appreciative as I learned more. They lived in that world, and it was just natural to them. If they saw something they thought was good, they did something about it. There are not many people like that. They made all the difference to my work and to me. And I am sure that was repeated in many other cases.
New York has always been my dream city. I went to Columbia’s School of Business just so I could spend a year in New York and go to the theater. This was during the Depression. In fact, Roosevelt was elected while I was up there. My father and mother both wanted their children to be well educated. They wanted me to go where things were more exacting and liberal and understanding. They wanted me to have all of that, and I did too. I went to the University of Wisconsin, which was then run by Mr. Glenn Frank. I believe that was his name. “This is a college, not a country club”—that was their motto. This was in the twenties. So I did get a good education. I was very grateful to my parents. I felt very aware of my blessings, because I saw how miserable things were down here. I could see the difference.
At the time I arrived in New York, I did not know any other Southerners because I was just a schoolgirl. Lehman Engel was one of the people I met. He was an old Jackson friend, a wonderful person, and open armed with hospitality for anybody from Mississippi who went to New York. He knew everybody in the arts, because he was in the musical theater. He was a conductor and a composer, and he knew people in the entertainment end. I remember once he told me, “Keep your eye out for a young man named Gene Kelly.” I remember that. Lehman was a good friend, and he knew absolutely every-body in New York who would be of interest to a writer or musician. He was so generous and shared everything.
Herschel Brickell was another friend who was from Yazoo City. He was a sweet, good man. I got to know him better down here than in New York. I did not go and look people up. I just could not do that. Herschel was so kind and so abundantly helpful to people. He knew Stark Young, who I knew was up there, although I never got to meet him. I was much too shy. I have been reading his correspondence, which is just beautiful. I read his reviews, of course, in the paper. Such a learned man. I like to think of his living within a stone’s throw of William Faulkner. They could just call out to each other, I should think. I used to see him at the theater. I had a job at the New York Times as a book reviewer. It was just a slight job, but it kept me in the city. I could be there and get off anytime I wished and go to the theater. It was just like a fairy godmother had given me something I wanted. That was when Stark Young was writing his Southern version of Chekhov. All kinds of things were going on up there. And Lehman’s great friend was the dancer Martha Graham. You could learn the whole world by going to her concerts.
Mississippi had a regular little group. They were a tight-knit, self-conscious group. They all knew each other and invited each other around. And they were good to us kids who were going to Columbia. When you are young, you do not realize how lucky you are. There I was, put down in the middle of all these wonderful things, and I just took it for granted. I thought that was being in New York. I certainly appreciated it. I would have been deaf, dumb, and blind not to see what was there. And besides which, I realized later how exceptionally generous they all were as people to the young.
Another person I saw in New York was Katherine Anne Porter. When she was at the Southern Review, married to Albert Erskine, they invited me down to Baton Rouge. That was my first trip down there. I was petrified to go and meet her, but I did. She invited me to lunch, and that is how I got to meet her. She had always been kind to me in her work, and in promoting mine. That was just like standing under a shower of blessings. This was the time Red was writing his political novel on Louisiana, All the King’s Men, and it was fun to hear them talking about it. They were so generous and warmhearted. I am a shy person. I never would have approached them, but they wrote to me. That was their way. I will never cease to be grateful.
From the time I was a child, I loved films. You could go to them in Jackson. I always loved film. It spoke to me through the imagination. It was something you could do without any money to amount to anything. Now you have to pay untold money for a seat. But in those days, in Jackson, you could go for a quarter. I was lucky in every way growing up in Jackson. For a quarter you could go to the movies and see a cat man named Dr. Caligari. You walked where you went. You look back through rose-colored glasses, but I know life was made easy for me and for my imagination. When I went to New York and Columbia, I did the same things. I went to the theater and the movies and read good books. I had books in my family home that I could read and was always encouraged to read as a child.
As for writing, I do not remember making a conscious decision to write. I was a big reader, and I thought in terms of the imagination and words. It was natural, I think, to want to write. But it is an entirely different matter to be a serious writer. I do not know when that began—I guess after I went to college at the University of Wisconsin. There were some good professors in writing and in literature who made me feel that I was in touch with something.
My father died young, and my mother always encouraged me to write. She took it for granted that I wanted to be a writer. I knew she was behind me. In those hard days of the Depression, she thought nothing of paying for me to go to Columbia. Without words, she was encouraging me and channeling me in the right direction. I do not know what my father might have done. He died so young. He was just fifty-two. He did not live long enough to read anything I had written in print, anything professional. I do not know whether he would have encouraged me or not. He was not much for fiction, as he told me. He thought fiction was not the real world, that we should face up to what was out there. In the twenties, that was the way people thought. He was smart, and he read all the time. I grew up in a house where they were always buying books and encyclopedias and dictionaries and things like that.
My family thought learning was a good thing. We always had books. That was a marvelous background. We were brought up with the encyclopedia in the dining room, always jumping up from the table to settle an argument and look up things in the unabridged dictionary and haul out the atlas.
My father was a photographer. He had nice cameras. I began to use a camera when I was young and developed my film in the kitchen at night. The times were conducive, too. Everything was in such poverty here. It was there to be photographed. Anybody could have seen it. Even I, as a child, could recognize it. It was telling its own story in human terms. I do not know what my father would have thought of my photographs because what he wanted was accuracy. And the actual picture taking—that was fine. That was part of it.
My parents nurtured my imagination. From the beginning, we had books in the family. They were both readers, with very different kinds of minds. My father was factual and historical, and mother was imaginative. Fiction was what she liked to read. We read in this house all the time, all of us did. I think that is the luckiest thing you can do for a child, and I cannot imagine how different and bad life might have been to have grown up in a house where there were no books and no interest in the imagination or in what was happening in the world. We had that wonderful advantage.
I would not have dared think that I had a kinship with Tolstoy, or Dostoyevsky. But that is what led me on in reading them. I recognized so much, and I thought, “How good this is. He understands.” I was just an ignorant person reading—a teenager in the case of Chekhov, my favorite of all. I learned so much from reading the Russians—not only in a human way, but as a writer. It opened up the whole world to read the Russians.
I enjoy talking to young Russian writers who come to visit. We have an affinity in that we both have a sense of the human problems in the world. And the material out of which you write interests both of us. It is wonderful to grow up and realize that you can have insight into the whole world of people. I never knew that as a child.
It takes time to come to these things for people who want to be writers. The word “career” will stop me. But as for the work you do yourself, I think it is right there for you to learn and find out, and that is what beckons you on and charms you. Writing comes from reading, from learning what can be done to understand the world around you. But it all comes from inside, of course. Every writer writes from within, but reading is what opens up that world. I am pretty old now. I am in my eighties. I better hurry up and learn some more quick.
I met William Faulkner when I was in Oxford. I never would have looked him up. Miss Ella Somerville was a friend of his, and she invited him to dinner one night as a treat for me. I was visiting in her house with some mutual friends from Jackson. He came, and also his wife. Miss Ella was tremendous. She was one of the great ladies of the South, with a wonderful sense of humor, well educated. And she had an open house there for everybody with pictures on the wall that Stark Young had done for her. She was part of that world up in north Mississippi. I did not know she was going to invite Mr. Faulkner over. She did it as a surprise for me. He and his wife came to dinner, and I think there was one other couple. We just had a grand time. That was the way to meet him. I would have been petrified to just stand up and formally be introduced to Mr. William Faulkner. It was very informal. We stood around the piano and sang hymns after supper (which we all knew, of course—the same ones). He did not have much to say. But he did invite me to go sailing the next day. I was kind of scared to do it, but I did. How could I not have? They had just finished making that lake up there—Sardis Lake. He said, “Just be down there, and I will come up in the boat.” He had made the boat, you know. “I will come up in the boat, and you come out and get on it.”
So I went out there, and there was not any shore. It was nothing but a lot of “stobs” around it, if that is a word, and these old trees. I did not know what to do. I did not want Mr. Faulkner to think that I was inept. So what I did was just walk on into the water and go on out and get in the boat. It was very simple. One, two, three. I just waded out. I do not know if I took my shoes off or left them on. It would not have mattered—through the muck. Then I got in his sailboat. Of course, I was wet. But you cannot ask William Faulkner to wring you out. It had not occurred to me until this minute that I might have. He did not say anything. I did not say anything. Neither one of us said a word. We took a long sailing trip, and it was real comfortable. Nobody tried to make conversation. I am sure he never made conversation. I never got to know him well. But it was so kind of him to do that, and he was so much fun. I was lucky I got to meet him. I never dreamed I would.
I never passed a literary word with him. I would not have brought it up, and he never did. It was pleasant and nice, but it was not like a literary discussion. I was crazy about him. He was one of the gentlest, funniest people to talk to I have ever seen. He was quiet and shy appearing. I was very fond of him, in addition to my admiration for his work.
I never could have just driven up to his house and stopped to introduce myself. But people did. I used to get phone calls. “Do you have the ear of Mr. Faulkner?” “No sir.” “How could I meet him?” “I have no idea.”
I have only been there a couple of times, to Mr. Faulkner’s home. It was a very remote feeling, but maybe anything in that part of the county is. I do not know. I do not mean I was lonesome. But I felt it was very private. I felt sort of like an intruder, an intruder in the dust.
Friendship certainly means a lot to me. It is rather hard to put it into words. I would say that friendship really has love in it. It has meant everything to me both personally and in the art of writing. The existence of your friends, whose words you find such meaning in—it is hard to conceive of living and working without it. It is an essential part of your life. I think that goes without saying. I am lucky to have come along at a time when there were so many people whose words I love. I suppose every writer does. You normally gravitate to the ones who are congenial.
My father was very progressive, and he was not happy with the newspaper situation in Jackson, or Mississippi. He wanted something reliable and quick with dispensing the real news. Radio was new, and it sounded full of possibilities. He wanted radio to have a future in Mississippi.
The year my father died, 1931, the radio station was brand new. My father got Mr. Wiley Harris to say he would be manager of the station and the announcer. He was a friend, a darling man. Out of the kindness of his heart, he asked if I would like a job down there. I had never had a job before, but I thought I could do it. You know, at that age, you think you can.
Since Mr. Fred Sullens refused to carry the schedule of the radio broadcasts in the paper, we got out a little weekly paper. We sent it out to anyone who wanted it, with the schedule, with the programs that came on, the timing. It was a little leaflet kind of thing, four pages long, and I was the editor of it. I had to make up whatever was in it. It was fun because I could write things about the people who appeared on the programs. It was exciting because everything was new.
I was not on the air. I was just publicizing the radio with a complete schedule of programs every day. You know, something like, “Leake County Revelers, the string quartet from across the Pearl River.” “Miss Magnolia Coullet.” It was wonderful. Everybody was learning their jobs, they said. But they all knew so much more than I did to start with. I do remember that the station manager, Mr. Wiley Harris, was absentminded. Every fifteen minutes he was supposed to say, “This is station WJDX in Jackson, Mississippi.” He would forget, and we would say, “Mr. Harris, Mr. Harris.” He would go to the microphone and say, “This is station, er, um, hmmm, this is station, er, um.” We would write it down on a cardboard and hold it up: WJDX. He was real absentminded, but he was so sweet. Everybody was crazy about him. I do not know what he was thinking about. He had the programming on a blackboard over his desk. I got the program off the blackboard and put it in the newsletter that we mailed out. The most popular program was the Leake County Revelers.
When my father died, I was going to Columbia, and I came home. I did not go back to school. I always thought my future lay in New York City if I was going to be a writer, which was not true. But I thought it was. This was the Depression, I should mention, when nobody had jobs.
I got a job with the WPA, the Works Progress Administration. I was in the state office and was called a junior publicity agent. That meant I had to travel around Mississippi talking to people about various projects. There was every sort of project—farm-to-market roads, juvenile-court judges, airfields being made out of old pastures, library work, Braille, even setting up booths at county fairs. I would go on the bus to Meridian or Forest. I went to Tupelo soon after the devastating tornado that was there, because the WPA was helping them to build it back. That job took me to practically every county in Mississippi. It was an eye-opener for me because I had never been in those places before. It hit me with great impact to see everything firsthand like that.
It was a discovery. I was so ignorant about my native state. I was in my early twenties. I had gone to Mississippi State College for Women for two years, and that should have taught me, because I met girls from all over the state. But I did not really get an idea of the diversity of the different regions of the state, or of the great poverty of the state, until I traveled and talked to people—not schoolgirls like myself who were at college with me, but people in the street. I discovered the great kindness of everybody. They were all so glad to see someone in those days, somebody from away coming through. They were glad to see me. Hospitality was everywhere. Nobody was suspicious. It was innocence on both sides.
So I began taking the pictures, not in connection with my job, but for my own gratification on the side. I was not the photographer of the WPA. I was a journalist, and I was doing a newspaper job, interviewing. Everybody I had to see lived in courthouse towns like Canton and Yazoo City— you know, county seats.
Usually, there is one good-sized little town in each county. That is where everyone converged on Saturday. That is where the stores were, the hub of life. If you went on Saturday, you saw everything going on. We usually stayed in a hotel. I can remember the electric fan I would have to turn on me all night in some little hot town. The telephone was out in the hall or down in the lobby, which did not matter a bit.
You did not have to plan ahead. You could just hit town, and everything opened up for you. You could always get a room. That was before people stayed in tourist courts or motels, except for nefarious reasons. So you would stay in hotels.
The people whom I met were strictly acquaintances. I did not make lasting friendships. I would see a person probably only once in my life. Both black and white people never seemed to hold back anything. I would not have expected it. Everything was perfectly open.
I began with no end in view. I just took the pictures because I wanted to. Just impulse. I was not trained and had no good camera. But for that reason, I think, they may constitute a record. I think that is the only value they could have now. I had no position I was trying to justify, nothing I wanted to illustrate. They were pictures because I would see something I thought was explanatory of the life I saw.
I think those experiences are bound to have shaped my stories, indirectly. Never in my work have I used actual happenings transposed from real life into fiction, except perhaps once, because fiction amalgamates with all kinds of other things. When it comes out as fiction, it has been through a whole mill of interior life. But I think nothing could have been written in the way of a story without such a background, without the knowledge and the experience that I got from these things. It provided the raw material. And more than that, it suggested things in a valid way that could never have been made up without this reality. It was the reality that I used as a background and could draw on in various ways, even though indirectly.
My father had died by that time. But my mother was very interested in my traveling and my photographs. She wanted me to be a writer. She knew my wish to be one. But I had to have a job. This was the Depression. I was lucky to have a job. I could have done it better, probably, in better-off times if I could have had a car instead of having to go by bus or train and catching rides. But I could not take the family car away for a week at a time. A lot of the pictures that were taken when I was in my car were close to Jackson for that reason. I would just go out to Raymond or Utica or Port Gibson, or somewhere that I could drive to and come back in a day. And the farthest places I went to, I was not my own commander of where I went. You cannot stop a Greyhound bus to take a picture. Some of the things I could have done better, but that does not matter.
One thing I remember did have an effect later in a story. We had to put up booths at county fairs. I loved that because I always loved fairs, being on the midway and hearing things. I heard about an act that was almost like “Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden.” I did not see such a thing, thank God. That was not my story, although it was the background of my story. My story was about three different reactions of people that have come in contact with such a hideous human event. I heard that, and some time later on I made it into a story because it bothered me for so long—how people could put up with such a thing and how they would react to it. That is one thing I remember, because I did some work that came out of it.
Mostly I remember things visually. I remember how people looked standing against the sky at the end of a day’s work. Something like that is indelible to me. Most of the conversation I had was in the way of interviewing people and writing them up. They were telling me about the project, but not about their lives, except indirectly.
I did stories in school, but they were not any good. There were not any courses given in so-called creative writing when I was in college, which is probably just as well. I think you have to learn for yourself. You could be helped, certainly. I could have been spared a lot of mistakes. But I think you have to learn from your own mistakes. I believe 1936 was when I sent my first story out, and it was published that year. I was working for the WPA right up until it was disbanded with the reelection of Roosevelt. We were through on the day he won. We did not know that was going to be the end, but it was.
For me, doing journalism for work was not preferable. It may be for other people. Everyone has to find out. I would rather do something unconnected with words to earn my living because I like to keep my tool for one thing. But that does not mean it would trouble the next person, or the next. You just have to go by your own wishes.
To me, Mississippi is a special place. Since it is the only one I really know, it is the whole foundation on which my fiction rests. It is a way to test the validity of what you think and see, and it also sets a stage. It helps to identify characters, helps you to make up characters because your characters grow out of place. That is the way you test them as to their validity and their propriety in your work. I have not read the essay I wrote about “Place in Fiction” in an awful long time, but I know I can say anything much better on paper than I can in conversation.
Place—geography and climate—shapes characters. I do not see how it can help it. Place is the world in which they act that makes their experiences—what they act for and react against. Place produces the whole world in which a person lives his life. It furnishes the economic background that he grows up in, and the folkways and the stories that come down to him in his family. It is the fountainhead of his knowledge and experience. If we do not have that base, I do not know what we can test knowledge by. It teaches you to think.
Sense of place defines things for me and fills me with a sense of history. I cannot imagine writing without the base of place, any more than I can imagine writing without the other things a writer needs to make his story valid both to himself and to the reader. In the South, we have an inherited identification with place. It still matters. Life changes, as it always will and should. But I think the heritage of place is too important to let slide away.
There is a sense of continuity in a community where you know the grandparents and the parents and the children in a family. You can understand the people better when you know them in the context of their families. That has probably changed some now. We move around a lot more than we used to, and that continuity has been broken in lots of places. But the sense of it remains in all of us. We have family memories even if we move around more. The sense of a person’s full life, what happens to him in the course of it, and how that influences his children’s lives, is part of place and part of time. The two things work together.
The knowledge that another person has all this behind him can help give a background to his opinions and his feelings. It is an easy way to begin to understand other people. You miss that in our urban life where you meet somebody cold and have no idea of his background. Everything has to start from scratch, and for that reason can remain more superficial unless you really work at it. With your best friends, you overcome everything. The ordinary acquaintanceship of life is so much easier in a place with continuity. I think not only Southerners but New Englanders and many other people feel the same way.
I have no explanation for the great number of writers who have grown out of Mississippi. All Mississippi writers are asked about this, and some people have come up with theories. But I do not know. I think one of the great mysteries of life is how, in some centuries, a section of the country will just produce everything—like New England at one time, the Middle West at some time, then the South. Who knows why these things happen? I do not know, but I am glad they do.
As for my own work, I think of it more as an internal map than a map of a geographical place. It is a map of minds and imagination. It has to be laid somewhere. What guides you is inside the characters, to show what they are doing. I understand the idea of fiction as a map of a place. Faulkner’s marvelous work really is a triumph of the first order in that respect. But I have no such abilities or ambition. I locate a story, and that is all.
The ability to use dialogue, or the first person, is just as essential as the knowledge of place in a story. Dialogue has special importance because you use it in fiction to do subtle things and very many things at once—like giving a notion of the speaker’s background, furthering the plot, giving a sense of the give-and-take between characters. Dialogue gives a character’s age, background, upbringing, everything, without the author’s having to explain it on the side. The character is doing it out of his own mouth. A character may be telling a lie, which he will show to the reader, but not to the person to whom he is talking, and perhaps not even realize himself. Sometimes he is deluded. All these things come out in dialogue. You get that, of course, by your ear, by listening to the rhythms and habits of everyday speech. I listen all the time. I love it. I do not do it because I have to, but because I like to.
I do not think you can transfer anything as it is spoken onto the page and have it come out at all convincingly. What comes out as a sound is not what the speaker thinks he said, or, really, what he did say. It has to be absolutely rewritten on the page from the way it happens. But if you did not know how it happened, you could not start. It is a matter of condensation and getting his whole character into speech. It is a shorthand. It is like action. It is a form of action in a story. People do not talk that way. You have got to make it seem that they talk that way. You are giving what seems to be reality, but it is really an artistic illusion. You have to know that, just the way you have to know other things in a story to make them seem believable. They are not duplicates of life, but a rendition of it—more an impression, I guess.
Color is different from dialogue. One comes through the eye, and the other through the ear. Color is emotionally affecting to me, and I use it when I write. I may not use it exactly as I see it. I use it as I think it ought to be in my story to convey a certain emotion—just as I would use a time of day or a season of the year. Color is part of that. It gives the sense of a real place and the time of it. Life does not happen in monochrome. It happens in color. So it belongs in the story.
“Why I Live at the P.O.” does not have any background. I once did see a little post office with an ironing board in the back through the window. This was in some little town—less than a town—some little hamlet in Mississippi. That made me think, “Suppose somebody just decided to move down there.” It was an exercise in using the spoken word to tell a story. And I made it up as I went along. It was an early story. It would have been improved by more thought and better construction.
It is interesting to me to use the spoken word to drive a story. While you do not use exact things people say in a situation, you can use an exact phrase someone has said and adapt it to your situation, where it is the perfect way to say it. You do that by a fund in your head, by having heard people talk and noted in your mind all your life the way people say things. It will come back to you at the right time. It is not taking it out of one box and putting it in another. It is a transformation, a magic act—
if it is good.
I want everything to be right. So much can be revealed in a detail that seems insignificant. It makes me feel better to think things are right. So much of the belief of a reader depends on not having things wrong. An editor a long time ago told me, “Don’t ever have the moon in the wrong part of the sky.” And that is important. I notice when I read other people’s works, often a man will have something blooming at the wrong time. He has never been out in the garden. He does not think it matters. He just names some flowers. Well, that destroys something for me when I read it, and I try not to make those mistakes. You cannot always know that you have made a mistake. I am a natural observer, and to me the detail tells everything. One detail can tell more than any descriptive passage in general. That is the way my eye sees. It goes back to place again. You have to have everything truthful. Having the world truthful—the setting—helps to make your story more easily believed.
I once got a letter from a stranger after I published a story called “The Wide Net.” He wrote and said, “Dear Madam, I enjoyed your stories, but blue jays do not sit on railroad tracks.” And sure enough, they do not. But you know, I did not think anything of it. I did not know anything about birds. Probably blue jay was the only name I knew at the time. But that is the kind of thing that you do not want to get wrong. That was somebody that that offended, and rightly. Birds have as many peculiar habits as people. So you had better watch out what you have birds doing, just as you had better watch out what you have people doing. That was a good lesson.
One of the phrases that I overheard and used in stories is, “He looked like he was going home.” I think I used it in Losing Battles. You know, “Which way? Did he look like he was going home?” They really knew. I have heard people say, “He looked like he was going down the road to turn around and come back.” It was knowing this person and how they drove.
Since I am not an outdoor person except by love of it, my knowledge has come the hard way, by observation and wish to know. To have slept on the ground covered with stars is growing up in intimacy with the earth. Both my parents came from farms in a different part of the world—Ohio and West Virginia. And they knew everything. A lot of what I know comes from my father, who could predict the weather. He had all these signs. “It is all right to play golf, because if the birds begin to sing, it means the rain will be over in a certain number of minutes.” I heard things like that all my life, and he knew that from a boyhood on the farm.
My father was not interested in flowers. He used to tell Mother, “I will plant the trees. You take care of the posies.” It used to upset him—being from Ohio—to see how farmers in Mississippi never planted their corners. They would let everything straggle out. They did not have everything neat and in rows. It was done so slapdash. He would say, “That is a sorry way to plant a field.” My mother was a great gardener, and really a horticulturist by inclination and study. She taught herself. I grew up in a house that liked things growing. This big oak tree out here in the yard, my mother planted it. She refused to cut it down, although we had seven giant pines standing around it. Now the pines are gone, and the oak tree is majestic. She said, “Never cut an oak tree.” And that is a fact.
I still take the Mississippi Market Bulletin. I used to order flowers through it from the ladies. I always wanted to write them letters when they sent the flowers. They would sign them, “Your shut-in flower friend. Please sit down and write me your news.” They would write me all kind of things from way off in Neshoba County. They would offer to sell you bulbs. I suppose they had somebody to dig them. They measured things as a “soda-box full” or a “gourd full.” You could buy “two thousand seeds, no two the same,” kind of like I said in “Why I Live at the P.O.” When you ordered daffodils, you did not know what kind they were. If they did say what kind, it was never right. One lady wrote and said, “I got your order for double blooming pink hyacinths, but I can’t go out and dig these things now.” You know, like it was my fault, and she sent my money back.
Southerners probably have some of the same background as those Irish and Scots and the other people who have long memories in this part of the world. It has been said by people who know more about it than me that one of the reasons Southerners have this to talk about is that they do not have much else to talk about. It is their source of entertainment, besides their source of knowledge. The family tales while away a long winter evening, and that is what they have to draw on. You feel that in Faulkner a lot, especially in the little hamlets where people sit on the store porch and talk in the evenings. All they have to talk about is each other, what they have seen during the day, and what happened to so and so. It also encourages our sense of exaggeration and the comic, because tales get taller as they go along. I think beneath all of that is a sense of caring about one another. It is a pleasure and an entertainment, but it is also something of deep significance to people. I think Southerners care about each other, about human beings, in a more accessible way than other people. We can reach our feelings more easily.
I look at everything through the light of characters who find answers to what they are looking for in their past. It is part of our makeup that we think about the past. It would be a mistake to dwell there and have no sense of the present and no expectation of the future. But you cannot understand the present or hope for the future without the background of the past. The narrative of someone’s life extends both into the past and the future. You have to have that sense of something propelling it, joining it, making sense of it.
I do not write as a woman. I just write. I am a woman and totally one. So totally that I cannot imagine writing outside of what I know and feel and understand. But I am not conscious of being a woman any more than I am conscious of sitting in this chair. It is just part of my equipment.
I do not believe I could write a novel from a man’s point of view. It is much more natural for me to write as a woman. I have always written from the point of view of a woman in a novel. But a short story is different. You are writing about a character, and the character takes the role that you assign him in the story. You do not have to go any further in the character than the short story calls for. So you can write from the point of almost anybody.
The hard part is putting yourself in the mind of another human being. It is less a question of whether you can do it as a man or woman. Once, I put myself in the role of a black jazz piano player with the same temerity or lack of temerity as I did in “Why I Live at the P.O.” I did it because it was a dramatic conception in a story I wrote.
I think we have a native love of the tale. I remember once Robert Penn Warren was at my house, and there were a lot of us sitting around talking. He laughed so hard, and he stayed so late. When he left, he said, “I had a perfectly wonderful time—not a serious word was spoken all evening.” I thought he had something there. We had told so many tales. He had Kentucky ones, and I had some from West Virginia and Mississippi. Charlotte Capers was there, and she had some Tennessee ones.
I think our love of writing grows out of the love of the tale and the love of talk which goes on in this part of the world. I think that love leads naturally to writing. Writing is a very solitary art. It comes out of a love for the story, out of the inside of the individual.
I do not believe that a work of art has any cause to be political. There are places for political outspokenness. But in my mind, it should be done editorially and in essays that are exactly what they seem. I think a work of art—a poem or a story— is properly something that reflects what life is exactly at that time. It should try to reveal life. Not to be a mirror image, but to be something that goes beneath the surface of the outside and tries to reveal life the way it really is, good and bad, which in itself is moral. I think a work of art must be moral. The artist must have a moral consciousness about his vision of life and what he tries to write. To write propaganda is a weakening thing to art.
I got lots of phone calls in the bad sixties when we were having all the troubles here. People—especially from Boston, somehow—saying, “What do you mean sitting down there and not writing stories about your racial injustice?” I think I have always written stories about that, but not as propaganda. I have written stories about human injustice. It was not anything new to me that people were being unjust to one another then, because I had written about that in all of my work, along with other things people have done. I was looking at it in the human—not the political—vision, and I was sticking to that. I did not want to be swerved into preaching disguised as a work of fiction. I did not think that was required of me, or necessary.
I was glad to say what I thought about anything straightforwardly, but not to write a story as an illustration of something per se. I still feel that way. All great works have been moral documents. It is nothing new. You know the part that seems so strange is that people would say, “Have you ever thought before about such things?” They did not mean it that way. But that is the way it sounded, coming in the dead of night.
I would not say I share a sense of community with other Southern writers. I am very fond of the ones I know, but I did not meet most of them until much later on. I had been writing for twenty-three years before I met Red Warren, who was one of my first publishers. He was editor of the Southern Review and had written me letters and accepted my work and encouraged me. But I did not meet him until he came to lecture across the street at Belhaven College, and I was delighted. I met Katherine Anne Porter earlier. She invited me down to Baton Rouge, but Red was away. I met her and Cleanth Brooks at that time.
You know, the South is a big place. As Reynolds Price points out, it is as big as France. And we do not live in each others’ parlors. I came along a little late for the Allen Tate–Cleanth Brooks–Robert Penn Warren group, the Fugitives. They had already formed and dispersed before I came along. They were a community. I love to see writers when they coincide with my friends, but not just as writers. You work by yourself. And I am grateful to a great number of them, and love many of them as friends.
I work alone in my room. That is the only way I can work. Writers do not live in groups, and that suits me. I like to work in peace and quiet. But here there are always distractions, and you have to cope with them. Like that mockingbird. It is not scared of anything. It is just like a chicken. When I come outside to move the hose, he just keeps walking around. I have two deadlines for articles. I have been working all day every day. In fact, I was so tired last night I could not sleep.
As for black Southern writers, I know Margaret Walker and Alice Walker. There are two Walkers here, and Margaret is the one I really know well. She is out at Jackson State, and I like her very much. They have all been here in my house. I know Ralph Ellison. I have known him over the years—since the forties in New York—and like him very much. He is a fine, delightful man and a good writer. It is very hard to do what he does. He is writing fiction, but it sounds like it has been recorded and transcribed, though he is doing much more than that. It takes art to make something read as though it were spoken art of a very high kind.
The experience that inspired “A Worn Path” was out on Old Canton Road. At that time, Old Canton Road was in the country. I was with a painter friend who was doing a landscape, and I came along for company. I was reading under a tree, and looking up, I saw a small, distant figure come out of the woods, move across the whole breadth of my vision, and disappear into the woods on the other side. I knew she was going somewhere. I knew she was bent on an errand, even at that distance. It was not casual. It was a purposeful, measured journey that she was making. What I felt was—of course, that was my imagination, since I never knew—was that you would not go on an errand like that, so purposefully, unless it were for someone else. Unless it were an emergency. I made her journey into a story by making it the one you would be most likely to go for—a child. So I wrote that.
Another time, on this same road and in similar circumstance, an old woman came down the road. I do not know whether she was the same person or not. She stopped and talked to us, and she used the words to me, “I was too old at the Surrender.” Maybe it was learning to read and write. I do not know. That was indelible in my mind—“too old at the Surrender.” I put that into my story because it belonged in it. It was a case of joining two things I had thought of, and making them into one. That is a simplified way to state it, but it is a good example because it is explicit. Folklore and fiction are different branches of the same tree, and there are many connecting lines between them.
As for film, I have not worked in it. I have been a subject of films. But I have not done anything of my own in film, although I would like to. I think film is a marvelous thing. I have been interested in it in the past, and once I tried to write a scenario. I did not think it was worth even showing anybody. I did not know enough.
I see a relationship between film and short stories in technique primarily. I am thinking about film, not in the documentary sense, but in a feature film with the use of flashbacks and memory, of a dream sequence. There are things you could not show on a stage that you can show in the fluid form of film. You can move back and forward, and back and forth in time. You can speed up life or slow it down, just the way you do in a short story. Film can elide. It can compound. And it can exaggerate. It can do all the things you do as a short-story writer. As a short-story writer, I feel that I must have absorbed things from film. I have been a constant moviegoer all my life. I must have absorbed some lessons that have come in handy. It is just like—in the way of folklore—these things come into your mind, and you learn from them without really knowing.
I have not seen any films recently that make me want to be an avid moviegoer—except The Return of the Pink Panther, which I think is marvelous. Do you remember the French film Breathless? It is a beautiful film. I saw it two or three times. I felt very strongly when watching that how film techniques are like a short-story writer’s skills. I think most films that are made from fiction do better to work from the short story rather than try to condense the great ramifications of a novel into a film. It is better to expand from a short story.
When we were young, we never missed a film. Part of my life in New York was spent running out to the Thalia and every little foreign cinema, seeing all those films. I like detective stories, but I do not think they make good films. Hitchcock is a trickster and a magician, and so are writers. His transitions are old hat now, but at the time he began, they were new—showing a person screaming, and all of a sudden that scream turns into a train whistle which is the next scene of a train going along. A short-story writer uses transitions like that in a less obvious way, more in a symbol or detail of observation which becomes a figure in the next section. You use something that will transport you from one scene to another, even if you do not know it, even if you do not realize it. That is like a film. Perhaps Hitchcock was using short-story techniques. I do not know who thought of it first. It has been there forever.
I think the lyric film teaches you more than the adventure film. The mood films show you how atmosphere is used. The French always do it better than anyone. They have so many people who were trained in a world of art—like Jean Renoir. How could he not have amassed his great knowledge of the making of a film from the painter’s household he grew up in?
I knew lots of painters growing up here. But Hubert Creekmore, up the street, was the only writer I knew. There were not many people writing around here. Hubert started before I did. He was a good friend and a very talented and wonderful person.
I knew a lot of people who were interested in writing, which was good. I never did show anybody my early work. I was too shy to show it to a living human being. When I asked Hubert to whom I could send my writing, he gave me some addresses, and that worked. Once they were in print, I did not mind showing them to someone.
I have been a lucky person all my life. I always have around me congenial, helpful, sensitive people. I was lucky in my agent and my publishers. Everything worked out beautifully, and I am grateful.