A (cyber) conversation with Reynolds Price

Since the publication of his first novel — 1961’s A Long and Happy Life, which won the prestigious Faulkner Foundation Award and catapulted the young author to international literary fame — North Carolina’s highly prolific Reynolds Price has written with the urgency of a man running out of time.

But time, as it turns out, has been on his side. Stricken with spinal cancer a little more than15 years ago, Price managed not only to survive (he’s confined to a wheelchair, but otherwise healthy), but to produce another 15 works, to nearly unanimous critical acclaim. They include Kate Vaiden, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; the highly praised Roxanna Slade; and his latest nonfiction piece, Letter to A Man in The Fire: Does God Exist and Does He Care? — based on letters between Price and a young man (an avid Price reader) who was recently diagnosed with leukemia. Price’s long-awaited (and weighty — both in size and subject matter) Collected Poems hit bookstore shelves two years ago, as well.

Price has garnered the inevitable comparisons to that granddaddy of all Southern writers, William Faulkner, as well as to his longtime mentor Eudora Welty, who took the young writer under her wing when he was a student of hers at Duke.

Despite his success in literally every genre — from critical theory to playwriting to poetry to fiction to, even, Biblical translations — the most exquisitely wrought glimpses into the splendor of Price’s talent are found in the densely beautiful, deeply layered novels, most of them set in rural Eastern North Carolina, which chronicle one person’s (often, a woman’s) history through family, geography and the search for love. Notions of the struggle to choose between marriage and solitude have become a trademark of sorts for Price. And his shockingly apt portrayals of female characters have set Price singularly apart from most of the male writers of his generation.

A Rhodes scholar who attended Duke University and Oxford University’s Merton College, Price has also, for more than four decades, also found time to teach English at his North Carolina alma mater.

What follows are excerpts from a recent on-line interview with one of North Carolina’s favorite sons:

MX: In this highly transient society, the fact that you’ve lived in the same place (even the same house, as I understand it, for more than 30 years), pretty much your entire life is almost downright exotic. How has your deeply rooted sense of place informed your writing, other than the obvious geographical influences?

RP: The central subject of the novel tends to be the effect of time on human lives. Thus, stable residence in a single place would seem to be the best angle from which to contemplate such an effect. The fact remains, though, that I’ve lived in the same house since 1965 because — after a highly mobile youth — I longed to stay in a single place.

MX: And speaking of “place,” where do you stand on the whole Southern writer issue? Your name, it seems, is almost always preceded by those two words, as was Faulkner’s, as was Flannery O’Connor’s, as was Carson McCullers’, as is your mentor Eudora Welty’s, etc., etc. Do you feel comfortable with that qualifier? In other words, do you feel your writing is, by its very nature, “Southern” (whatever that means), or would you rather simply be called a “writer”? After all, authors from New York City or Philadelphia aren’t called “Northeastern writers.”

RP: I used to complain about being called a Southern writer — it seemed demeaning — but in recent years I’ve given up the objection. Most Americans now seem to use the description as a shortcut for praise.

MX: Regarding Eudora Welty, what do you think is the single biggest influence she’s had on your writing?

RP: At the start, she gave me a reassuring sense that my world of middle-class eastern North Carolinians — people much like some of her own early characters — were worthy subjects for good fiction.

MX: I know (or have read, anyway) that the character Kate Vaiden was loosely based on your mother’s life. Do any of your other characters have specific real-life counterparts?

RP: Kate is based on my mother in only a very distant, atmospheric kind of way. Where Kate is a great leaver and deserter, my mother was phenomenally loyal; but she did share in Kate’s “outlaw” personality. They both saw themselves as not quite normal members of respectable society, and thank God they were right. Very few of my other characters bear close resemblances to living (or recently dead) persons; I’d be a fool, though, to tell you which ones do.

MX: Your ability to write women characters — Kate Vaiden, Roxanna Slade, Rosacoke Mustian, the list goes on — is uncanny. To what do you attribute this somewhat rare talent in a male writer?

RP: I don’t think it’s such a rare talent. The three best novels I can think of about women are Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Boys after all are almost exclusively reared by women (so are girls); thus, boys have ample luxury in childhood to observe the thoughts and feelings of women — the opposite gender. If they don’t learn a huge amount then, it’s nobody’s fault but their own. In any case, neither gender is hugely different from the other. We pretend that we’re mysterious, just to enhance the romantic properties of life; but we’re immensely predictable to any careful watcher.

MX: Similarly, marriage is a topic you’ve written about over and over again with an amazing complexity and clarity, even though I understand you’ve never been married. I certainly don’t think you need to experience something to write fictionally about it on some level, but the level on which you do it is pretty amazing. It kind of throws that whole “write what you know” adage out the window. Can you explain how you’re able to so fully realize these characters deeply enmeshed in marriage?

RP: I wouldn’t attempt to explain any such capacity, though I’m grateful for your noticing it. Writers, above all, are those human beings who’ve observed life so closely — from the cradle upward –that they prove capable in later life of extrapolating from their early observations and “inventing” situations which they’ve never necessarily experienced. Thus, Shakespeare didn’t have to breast-feed infants in order to write Lady Macbeth’s horrid lines on the subject.

MX: Is there a character you’ve created who’s sort of stayed with you longer than others? One that you consider your favorite?

RP: My own favorite is Blue Calhoun in the novel of that name. He stays with me much more persistently than any other, maybe because he’s the most nearly like me in his great faults.

MX: I recently read an interview you did in 1972 wherein you said you “hated” writing, noting, “Don’t you hate to do anything you do well?” Do you still “hate” writing, or has that changed in the ensuing decades?

RP: I didn’t mean “hate” literally in 1972 — more nearly something like “reluctance” — and I certainly wouldn’t say as much now. In the first 20 years of my career, writing seemed more difficult than I wanted it to be; for the past 15 years, it’s seemed far easier — in general, a steady delight.

MX: You’ve taught at Duke for many, many years. What need or desire does teaching satisfy for you? Are you getting burned out on it, or does it still give you pleasure?

RP: I continue to teach at Duke, after 41 years, because I love the annual contact with live young minds, however maddening they often are. As a childless man, it’s been my means — other than the books — of passing on knowledge and hope to succeeding generations.

MX: How do you think receiving so much media and academic attention and critical acclaim for your very first novel, A Long and Happy Life, affected your subsequent work, or your approach to that work?

RP: Honestly, I’ve never considered that question. The success certainly pleased me, the money came in very handy, and I recall feeling a certain degree of new confidence in my abilities. Beyond that, I felt only a heightened desire for more of the same.

MX: You’re one of the few writers who’s been able to successfully write in pretty much every genre. You currently have a book of poetry and several works of nonfiction (including one exploring whether or not God exists, no less) — in addition to all your fictional works — out there on bookstore shelves right now. And I understand you’re working on a children’s book at the moment, too. How do you explain your ability to move so easily between genres, and why do you think it’s difficult for most writers to do that?

RP: Beyond saying that certain persons have the abilities they have — and work to strengthen and expand — I really wouldn’t want to venture. I do, however, most certainly believe in the concept of “gifts” or “talents.” Some people are given more than others — by God, by their parents’ genes, by their upbringing, whatever. I’d be lying, of course, if I denied that I take considerable pleasure in having succeeded, apparently, in more than one genre of literature.

MX: You told an interviewer some years back that you love to read People magazine and watch soap operas (particularly, you said, The Young and the Restless). What are some of your other “guilty” pleasures? And, actually, if I might say so, the trashy magazine/soap-opera stuff shouldn’t really be that shocking — you’re an American, after all — except for the fact that we so often place “serious” writers on such a snobbishly intellectual pedestal. Right?

RP: I have a great many trashy tastes — from food to movies to music — and I feel no shame whatever in declaring them. To be truly asinine, I could say that they “keep me in touch with the people”; but it would be far more truthful to say that I pursue them because they give me pleasure — not to the elimination, however, of what I’m sure are higher pleasures. Despite all the inroads of postmodernism, for instance, I remain entirely certain that Beethoven was a more or less infinitely better composer than Elvis.

MX: Finally, since you’re such a North Carolinian through and through, what do you think makes this such a special place? What makes it such rich fodder for a writer? And being a dyed-in-the-wool Piedmont person, as well, how are Piedmont North Carolinians different from mountain North Carolinians, do you think?

RP: North Carolina has always benefited from being “a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit.” And I take considerable glee in noting how superior our writers have been to the writers from our neighboring states. Our superiority, as a home for artists, must derive from at least two sources — our great geographical and ethnic variety and our superb school systems. No other ex-Confederate state can begin to compete with the quality of our schools, our colleges and universities. They could always stand improvement, of course — and more money from our parsimonious legislature — but in the past 50 years, we’ve been brilliantly lucky. Being a lifelong Piedmont, Tidewater boy, I’m hesitant to talk about Carolina mountaineers. After some 50 years of knowing and admiring a clutch of mountaineers, however, I’ll have to say that yes, they’re a very different kettle of fish indeed. I approach them very carefully always.

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