Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
On a rainy Sunday in March I drove to Reynolds Price’s house in the country outside Durham, North Carolina. The air after a morning thunderstorm was still heavy, an atmosphere that seemed to dilate the moment. My trip through those woods and swamps was something of a homecoming—Price and I were just back from separate travels in the deeper South. I’d been to Charleston, South Carolina, an old capital of Southern history and culture. Once a great Atlantic slave port, now a regional curiosity, the preserved city is exquisite and frigid, an assembly of monuments to denial. The dead in Charleston are muzzled by the living, and the ghosts of the brutal past, visible but obscure, had spooked me badly. I was glad to be on my way to see somebody who knew them well.
Price’s first novel, A Long and Happy Life, was published in 1962; since then he’s produced a whole shelf of books—fiction, poetry, translations, drama, essays and a memoir called A Whole New Life, the story of his survival of cancer, a tumor in his spine that nearly killed him. Eighteen years later, Price wears none of the invalid’s aspect. He sits on his wheelchair more like a monarch on a throne.
Price’s writing as I understand it has always been nourished, rather than cowed or oppressed, by the oldest narrative traditions, from the gospels on down. His main experiment is imaginative, rather than formal. And the force of his work is restorative, rather than iconoclastic. Modern discourses carve a person into body and mind—Price finds these two halves inadequate and returns the spirit to his characters, a sense of “the world’s unity as a vast kinship.” The notion of a formal art severed from the lives of its makers and audience looks pedantic, even grotesquely clinical, next to Price’s highest achievements, his stubborn commitment to “honest narrative.” His new book, Noble Norfleet, is a fictional confession rising from the fissure between skin pleasures and spiritual ecstasy, between madness and revelation.
Of course I knew, that Sunday, that no brief conversation could hold such a ponderous biography or the full weight of those mighty themes. Rather, Reynolds and I poured a drink and talked. Recorded here is simply a visit, which between us is something shared, not paid.
Caleb Smith Tell me about your trip.
Reynolds Price We drove over to Memphis, which strangely enough is almost exactly as far from here as New York City. We saw old friends there, then we took this road that runs from Nashville all the way to Natchez, Mississippi.
CS The Natchez Trace.
RP We drove almost the whole length of it—nearly 300 miles—on a day as cloudy as this one. Amazingly beautiful. I don’t think we saw ten cars on our way to Jackson. I wasn’t able to go to Eudora Welty’s funeral in August, so I wanted to get down there and do something in the way of rounding off my long friendship with her. We had dinner with some of Eudora’s friends and family and went over to her house, which is sitting there empty now, waiting for museumification. It seemed both very desolate and also very haunted by her presence. She had lived in that house every day from the time she was 15 years old; she died at 92. It was her central place of residence for all those years, and there’s a lot of her still in the house. Finally we drove on through Alabama up to Atlanta, where we spent the night, then through South Carolina and on home. The deep South is not the upper South. It’s deeply different—much older feeling (though it’s not)—and yet there are tremendous likenesses. The social life and the accents and the body language of my friends who are my age and come from Mississippi are almost identical to the ones I grew up with as a boy in eastern North Carolina. But it’s 800 miles away.
CS I’ve just come back from my first trip ever to Charleston, and it felt like even the things I was discovering about that place were somehow genealogical to me.
RP And what does it all come out of except slavery and the Confederacy? I finally have to think that’s what the South is still about. I was born in 1933, in the Depression; and at that point, the South was a very separate country. People rarely left unless they were miserable with their station in life or fleeing their mother or father.
CS You think people’s whole imaginations about the world were more regionally bound?
RP God, yes. My father, who was born in 1900—a wonderfully witty and perfectly viable man—saw no reason whatever to go outside the state of North Carolina. He made a trip to New York once on business, and he couldn’t wait to get home—those harried people were driving him insane. Then in the ‘50s, ’60s and ’70s virtually everybody with a college education got out of the South—everybody who was interested in the arts went straight to New York City. I stayed, for complicated reasons that had nothing to do with virtue. We were the most hated place on the face of the Earth in those days, because of the tragic responses to the civil rights movement. Some of the hatred was righteous judgment on the South, and some of it was just utter hypocrisy—as though the whole nation isn’t profoundly racist. And now, again, the South has slowly emerged and is looked upon as a very attractive part of the world—but also still very exotic and a little scary. When you get off the interstate at a diner in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and see the waiters and the staff, you realize that this ain’t Kansas, Toto.
CS I took a walk around a swamp in Charleston. You’re about a foot above the stillest green water you’ve ever seen in your life. Alligators are sunning themselves on these planks. The Spanish moss. It’s the tropical gothic that’s been so fantasized.
RP People think we made it up. (laughter)
The first time I ever went through one of those gardens was with some Duke colleagues of mine in the late 1950s, in a rowboat. You paid a young black man, probably 13 years old, to row you through the swamp. One of the people with us was British. He saw these very live alligators and this very dark water, and he said, “About how many people a year do you lose in here?” The young man said, “’Bout 11.” (laughter) I loved his precision—11 people vanish in that swamp in a year.
CS Not ten, or a dozen.
RP No, 11. (laughter) That was very Southern too.
CS I remember an essay you wrote for the Southern Review about what it takes for a piece of writing to qualify as Southern literature. That essay made a very similar point, bringing it all back to the history of slavery and white-on-black oppression. Even now, that’s not the sort of thing you find in many prefaces to Southern anthologies. You hear more about front-porch storytelling.
RP The other morning we were having our farewell breakfast at the Hilton Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi. I’ve gone to that hotel for a number of years, and I said to my friend, “Why is it that every single black person I meet in Mississippi is just so inexplicably kind to me? They have every reason in the world to cut my throat.” You have this unspeakable white oppression of blacks—but also, simultaneously, you have this completely inexplicable immense ongoing interrelationship. Where does this working intimacy continue to come from?
CS I want to ask you a little more about Eudora Welty. Last summer you wrote a brief obituary for her, in the New York Times. You described meeting her so long ago and the way she became a mentor to you. Is Eudora Welty one of the reasons you feel yourself fastened to the tradition of what’s called Southern writing?
RP She was certainly my one close contact with the first great generation. I actually saw William Faulkner once at an awards ceremony—where Eudora presented him with the gold medal in fiction from the American Academy–but he died a few months later. I met Katherine Anne Porter. I met, and was treated very kindly by, Robert Penn Warren. But Eudora was my enduring close friend. I met her when I was a senior at Duke. I was 22; she was about to turn 46 and was an easy person to be friendly with. We had great amounts of fun together and a great deal in common. Even though her father was from Ohio and her mother was from West Virginia, she herself was born in Mississippi and had the odor of that world about her—that upper-middle-class white world. Her family had a little money because her father was president of a small insurance company. My family was not quite genteel poverty; we were people who’d wound up being unmoneyed upper middle class. Never farm people, always living in either the small town where my grandfather Price was in the clerk of courts office or in Macon, this village of 137 people where I was born and where my mother’s father was stationmaster of the Seaboard Station. Warren County, North Carolina, was nearly 70 percent black when I was born. Lord knows, there was virtually nothing to admire in the way the structure of segregation worked in that part of the South; yet the quantity of murderous violence and the relentless white meanspiritedness that erupted in Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana did not erupt in my part of the upper South. That’s something to be grateful for–and I don’t know how to explain it, especially since my hometown is only about 40 miles from the site of Nat Turner’s rebellion. So Eudora and I had deep cultural links, and we talked a good deal about them, but always the great thing for me was being the young person who knew that this dear friend was also one of the world’s great masters of the short story.
CS These days, you yourself have become a mentor to many.
RP Well, I’ve taught at Duke for 44 years now; and I’ve taught a number of people who have gone on to become professional writers. I’ve been very skittish with my writing students. I basically just want them to write. What I try to do, as I hope you know, is really keep an ear out for that sort of keen, high, homing sound of somebody who has got what it takes. I’ve just tried to listen for that sound and then say to the possessor, “I hear it. Go on and do it if you need to.”
CS I’ve seen a story Anne Tyler wrote for you when she was 17 years old. Was your encounter with that story your first time hearing that sound?
RP That particular story was written in her sophomore year, 1958 or ‘59. The registrar’s office, by the luck of the draw, had put her in my freshman English class. It was the first semester I ever taught, just plain old bonehead freshman English; and Anne turned up. I was 25 and Anne was 16. The very first theme she wrote for me was so good that I told her, secretly, “You can ignore the assignments from now on and write whatever you want.” She wrote me this extraordinary series of open-eyed sad childhood memories about growing up in a proto-pacifist commune in the North Carolina mountains during the Second World War. Then the next year I taught a course in narrative writing, and Anne was in that. She produced the story you alluded to, called “The Saints in Caesar’s Household.” Suddenly, here’s this 17-year-old out there flying with her own very strong arms. I immediately sent the story to my agent, Diarmuid Russell who was also Eudora Welty’s agent, and the rest was history. Anne just never looked back.
CS Let’s talk about the new novel. Noble Norfleet, which is also the narrator’s name, fits into a tradition of long first-person narratives that you’ve written. The first one was Kate Vaiden in 1986, Blue Calhoun is another, Roxanna Slade —and one might insert your own memoir, A Whole New Life.
RP There’s also another first-person novel called The Tongues of Angels, but it’s not a person’s life story. It’s simply his account of a brief episode in his youth. That’s why it’s not named for the narrator.
CS Each of the eponymous novels attempts to be adequate to a person’s entire life. They’re driven as much by voice as they are by any unifying plot. That is, instead of being held together by structure, they’re really held together by character itself.
RP Absolutely true, and you know it yourself because you’ve been writing one. It sounds so corny to say it, because it’s something that non-writers always ask you—”Do the characters take over the story?” But the answer is yes. I spend a good deal of time, before I begin the actual writing of a first-person novel, thinking about who the character is. The name helps me a lot. In fact, the name is crucial. Also a sense of what the person does as a life’s work. Then I try to find a pregnant situation to open the book with. Then I just fire the starting pistol, and they take off.
CS You hear some writers talk about their writing, once they’ve achieved a certain momentum, being more like transcription than it is like genesis.
RP I don’t have an auditory sensation, and I don’t have a sense of literally transcribing, but I really do feel as though my fingers make the book. Truman Capote said a catty but dangerously accurate thing about some of the early work of Jack Kerouac. Capote said, “That’s not writing, that’s typewriting.” You’ve got to be mighty careful, whether you’re working at a typewriter or a Macintosh—which is what I’ve got—that you’re not just typewriting. One help is that I’ve always kept a notebook. It’s just me talking to myself about what I’m doing, where it’s going in the short run. In virtually every case of the first-person life accounts, I know from the beginning what the main character will be doing—in general—at the end of the book. I don’t think I’ve ever surprised myself about that. The great pleasure, and I think the only thing that keeps me from dying of boredom, is the whole business of how to make it evolve from the initial loaded situation. It’s an odyssey, literally–a long trip home. I try very hard. I don’t think my friends think of me as a jaded character; but I am, in fact, easily bored.
CS Especially as a reader.
RP Oh, God, absolutely. The number of books I shut, unread, is phenomenal compared to the number I actually finish.
CS Yet you seem to be easily fascinated by a diner in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
RP (laughter) That’s a whole other order of reality, I guess. I just try to keep myself from dying of boredom and try to be as keenly aware as I can of keeping the reader hungry for the next piece of the story. One of the huge problems a narrative writer has is that it takes you hours or days to write a five-page scene. It’s going to take the reader six minutes, at best, to read it. The rate at which you write is so different from the rate at which the reader reads, that you never know until the results are in whether you’ve kept people hungry or not.
CS It seemed to me, as I was reading Noble Norfleet, that you were looking for situations that would put a new kind of pressure on the character, and force him to respond in a different way, or even to discover something new about himself, as you were discovering this same quality along with him.
RP I don’t think I ever defined it that way to myself, but I hope that’s what happens.
CS Noble’s story begins with the loss of his virginity and with the discovery that meanwhile, his younger brother and sister have been murdered in their sleep. It strikes me that Noble is discovering himself as he goes along. Unlike Roxanna Slade, who’s so old and wise, or even Kate Vaiden, who is also more self-aware—Noble seems to be along for the ride of self-discovery.
RP I think that’s true. Noble rides the top of his life with a particular buoyancy that’s not necessarily available to the other life describers I’ve dealt with. Blue Calhoun has a much harder time with his life than Noble does. Blue does some terrible things and he knows it. Kate does a perfectly awful thing and knows it and lives with it and, at the very end of the novel, tries to begin repairing that error. The main thing, other than Noble’s name, that I started with, was the sense that Noble is a saint who doesn’t know he’s a saint. This is in my notes; I’m not imagining it. I don’t mean Noble’s a saint in the canonizable sense, but he does a lot of very good things. He dedicates his life to being a nurse. Over a three-year period, I spent about 42 nights at Duke University Hospital. I encountered some grotesque doctors in those years, but I never met a nurse who wasn’t an awfully good person. They aren’t getting paid much money. What are they doing there if they haven’t some sense of vocation? And Noble’s got it.
CS He’s learning even his own goodness as he goes along. He surprises himself by saying he wants a medical career, using the phrase, “a kind of destiny I discovered on the spot.” He doesn’t know where this idea has come from, and yet, once he’s said it, it begins to guide him.
RP In the first 100 pages of the novel, he has these things that can only be called visions. His mother is certifiably schizophrenic, paranoid schizophrenic, in a very scary way. None of us knows if he’s in the process of going crazy or what. He’s not ever in his life a consciously religious person—but all sorts of people are handing him his destiny, and he’s not the world’s smartest guy but he realizes it.
CS And he has a powerful moral imagination. He persistently thinks of himself as a sinner, although the only sins of his own he discovers are sins of passivity, the sin of allowing disasters to happen all around him.
RP I think, if the reader is fair-minded toward Noble, it turns out that the disasters he can blame himself for would have happened whether he’d been terribly alert or not. He’s this saint who very much loves to go to a massage parlor called All Girl Staff.
CS There are some really comical moments. I think Noble Norfleet is more playful and naughtier, in a lighthearted way, than any of your other novels.
RP Oh, I think it is. And I wanted it to be. When I finally submitted it, my editor, Susan Muldow, a marvelous person, said, “Reynolds, you didn’t tell me it was going to be so dirty!” (laughter) It’s not dirty but it’s very sexual. Noble tries to talk honestly about what he calls his sexual worship of women. He finally says, “There’s a certain part of the female anatomy that many times I’ve wished I could have just taken out and put in a box.” And he says, “If any women reading this think I’m insane, believe me, a very large proportion of the men I’ve ever known have said a similar thing at some point in their lives, if not always.” The presence of certain women makes him want to pay what he thinks is a tribute to them.
CS That kind of desire, which expresses itself as worship, is surely one of the brighter burning stars in the constellation that makes up his character. What you just said, about what Noble has in common with ordinary men, reminds me that your books don’t have the ambition of “creating a world.” These are characters who are very much understood to share the reader’s world.
RP I want the reader to have a great sense of intimacy with the characters. And not just the intimacy of overhearing somebody telling you the worst things he’s ever done or thought or desired. What I want to create is a very thorough interior world. Huckleberry Finn, David Copperfield, Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe—I loved to read about these people when I was a kid. It’s an absolute necessity of Southern life that you have the patience to listen to people tell their life stories; otherwise you’d die of loneliness. Noble has the conscious sense that his life is important, that his life has meaning. He’s also got the unconscious assumption that you want to sit still and listen to him telling the story of his life. But he’s deeply concerned that he not bore your ass off—so he doesn’t tell you what kind of razor blade he uses or what brand of gas he buys. And I must say that I have deeply lost patience with the kind of fiction that tells me all that.
CS Nor does Noble seem concerned to create a world so strange in all its details that we would have to give him more authority than we already do. We don’t have to beg for a key that will open up a palace, a created universe separate from our own. Instead, we’re allowed to sit beside him. What we’re after is his own mind.
RP I never thought it until this moment, but in each of those four novels the character takes the great risk of having you think that he or she’s a criminal, a psychopath, a fool, a number of other things. Is Kate Vaiden a criminal? Is Blue Calhoun a child molester? Is Noble psychotic? His family history makes that a real possibility.
CS Noble has his first vision the morning after the death of his brother and sister, when he looks into a dogwood tree and sees the cross-shaped blossoms become hands. A central hand, larger than the rest, is beckoning him onward. “Onward” is what many of these visions are telling him.
RP I know.
CS That’s how the book takes shape. “Onward” seems to be its slogan. But it’s not a picaresque, right? It’s not just a series of unrelated adventures—in this book, as in Kate Vaiden, the character alternately flees and returns home. The narrative alternately flees from and returns to the opening moment, the pregnant situation that holds all the various important themes together.
RP Noble goes from North Carolina to Maryland and back, and then to Vietnam and back. Basically, he’s a homebody.
CS Well, I have an idea about what sets these visions in motion. I’ll remind you of the first words I can ever remember you saying to me. You probably don’t remember, and I’ve never brought it up since, but we were talking about a story—
RP I know exactly what you’re going to say.
CS —written by a young Croatian woman in our class. And you didn’t know that I had really worked hard with her to turn the story into legible, idiomatic English. I had a history with the story and I had thought hard about it. I proudly brought my opinion into the room and said that I thought one of the metaphors was being asked to bear more weight than it could bear. You gave me a piercing stare—
RP I tried to burn your face off.
CS You said, “I think you’re too literary. I think you’ve had a privileged life and you don’t know what it means to suffer.”
RP That sounds about fair.
CS Those are the words. They’re etched into my mind. That experience, that particular way I got to know you, has conditioned all the reading I’ve done of your books. Also, many of your readers, of at least your recent books, are familiar with the story you tell in A Whole New Life. It’s not as if you’re still telling that same story, but that experience is finding its way into these later narratives. Grief is Noble’s main posture when we meet him, and it occurred to me that I was encountering someone whose very suffering gave him access to new knowledge and to mystical experience.
CS When I read about Noble, and really about the rest of these narrators, I think about the relationship between suffering and speech. Suffering forms their characters and teaches them how to talk.
RP Yes, suffering is also the thing they are trying to navigate. I’ve had four surgeries on my spinal cord, I have a lot of constant pain in my body, and one of the main things you try to do is think and talk your way around it. Your writing can become a means of escape, a navigational tool. But I think it’s true of any human being who lives past 50. Eventually most people get through their divorce or the death of their child or their husband’s alcoholic abuse or whatever. I hope that one of the major impressions you have of me is how much you and I have laughed together. I’m almost a certified chucklehead.
CS That playfulness is also a part of Noble’s character.
RP Very much.
CS The professor, Hutchins Mayfield, in your book The Promise of Rest, contends that the lyric beauty of Milton’s Lycidas is testament to the sincerity of the poet’s own pain: “Words as freshly minted and potentially thrusting as the words of Lycidas all but never come out of a human mind for any reason less than enormous feeling, a nearly stifling pressure to speak.”
RP And I happen to agree with Hutch. At least since the 18th century it’s been critically unfashionable to say something like that. But I do deeply believe it. See, my father died when I was 21. He smoked himself to death; he died of lung cancer at the age of 54 in a lot of pain. I sat there with him in the hospital for the last ten days of his life. I saw an awful lot of suffering early; and it has never left my mind, even when my work has been playful. I think if you were to have a drink with Noble and try to talk to him about God and suffering and whatever, he might well agree with a sentence I put in a little book called Letter to a Man in the Fire, a letter I wrote to a young man dying of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34. I said something like, “God is very interested in suffering.”
CS Lycidas is the story of a drowning, and I thought of it when I met, in the first part of Noble Norfleet, the mysterious part-time policeman, Dellum Stillman. His wife and son have drowned in the ocean.
RP Or so he says.
CS So he says. He may be a liar, but there is something compelling and even sincere about his story.
RP Oh, I think there is. You know, Dell was just a device, somebody to call the police in Noble’s town. I had no idea he was going to turn out to be this potentially sinister character, but he does have that story. God, doesn’t everybody have one of some sort?
CS I think the most elegant description of the interplay of suffering and joy is in James Baldwin’s “The Uses of the Blues.” The blues are the real experience of anguish. And yet blues music is this rare art that creates, through the process of articulating that anguish, the literal experience of joy. Baldwin says, “Now joy is a true state, it is a reality; it has nothing to do with what most people have in mind when they talk of happiness, which is not a real state and does not exist.”
RP That’s marvelous. It reminds me of a hugely important part of my life and of my work, which is that I was, to a large extent, reared by black people. And joy is almost, in this country at least, an invention of blacks. The abolitionists who came to the South before the Civil War were often chagrined to discover joy among these people whom they expected to find in an advanced state of melancholia. This is certainly not an attempt on my part to defend slavery but a simple fact. I was born 68 years after Appomattox, and now I’m 69. Though we had very little money, black people surrounded my childhood, in the home of my family. And their joy was inextinguishable. It wasn’t constant, but it was inextinguishable.
CS You described your writing as a way to channel pain. It’s that same alchemy of suffering into joy.
RP Oh, surely. What are you going to do to keep from going crazy? How are you going to consume time? How are you going to get through it?
CS Let me read you one last thing. This is from a talk Virginia Woolf gave in 1924, called “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” “Novelists,” she said, “differ from the rest of the world because they do not cease to be interested in character when they have learnt enough about it for practical purposes. They go a step further, they feel that there is something permanently interesting in character in itself….The study of character becomes to them an absorbing pursuit; to impart character an obsession.” These lines came to mind as I read and prepared for this conversation, not just because so much of your work is devoted to the rendering of durable characters, but also because of the connection Woolf is making between characterand permanence —that “there is something permanently interesting in character.” I wonder if your long fascination with character might be what binds you to narrative traditions older than yourself, and even older than Virginia Woolf. You mentioned Dickens, but it goes back further. The way you read Milton, for instance, with an eye for the character of the poet—you’re telling your own story about Milton’s life, about his relationship to his friend, Edward King, about the grief that transforms his power of speech. And when you think about the gospels, too, you’re not thinking in theosophical abstractions. The people in your versions of those stories are live men and women, really fleshed and passionate. And so is Noble Norfleet. A minister tells him that the bare human body is God’s altar on the earth, and Noble spends much of his life testing the limits of that very proposition.
RP Very true.
CS How much suffering can physical contact itself actually heal? How mystical can bodily experience be?
RP And how portable is that experience? Can it be brought back into daily life in any usable form? It’s been 40 years since I’ve read that Virginia Woolf essay, and I’d forgotten that particular passage. I would say, just sitting here listening to you read it, that it describes my interest in character more than her own. When I think of Virginia Woolf’s novels, some of which I admire terrifically, I don’t especially remember vivid characters—the mother in To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway maybe; but I don’t think of her as interested in character in the way I am. I’ve got a voracious need to watch the world around me, to watch the people in it. Going to that diner in Spartanburg, South Carolina, watching the people in there, was almost the most interesting part of my whole six-day journey through the deep South. It’s a peculiar kind of hunger. I don’t know where I get it, maybe from my mother. When I was still an only child, my mother would drive us downtown in this central North Carolina town we lived in, Asheboro. We would park on Main Street in her little Ford coupe, and we’d sit there. I’d say, “Mother, what are we doing?” She’d say, “Just watching people.” She had always thought of herself as an orphan, in a very unself-pitying way. Though she never had to leave her family home, she was reared by an elder sister who moved in when my mother’s parents died. My mother was a watchful person, who partly watched because she was just fascinated by vanity fair, by people going about their donkey business. But her watching was also slightly apprehensive. You’re vaccinating yourself by knowing as much about people as you can. You’re a kind of Dellum Stillman, an off-duty policeman–or, as Noble would say, a lawman. But you don’t want to tell people that you’re an off-duty policeman. That would stop them from reading your books—or from making you a friend.
—Caleb Smith is a James B. Duke Graduate Fellow in English at Duke University. His short stories have appeared in Berkeley Fiction Review and Red Rock Review among other magazines, and he recently finished his first novel, Monumental. Smith is an original member of the Southern Comfort Club of Durham, North Carolina.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.