“Memoir Offers Inside Look into Faulkner’s Inner Circle”
By Jana Hoops (Clarion-Ledger, Sept. 27, 2020)
Please tell readers briefly about how you and Dean met, when you married, your similar careers, how life with two sets of children worked out.
We met in graduate school at the University of Mississippi in 1970. Dean bore a stunning resemblance to her uncle. She was soft-spoken yet with an air of total assurance. We began dating in 1971. A year later we took the leap. It was the second marriage for each of us. Dean had three children – Diane, 12, Paige, 10, and Jon, 6. My children, Lawrence, 7, and Catherine, 3, visited us on holidays. Family time revolved around meals, school, homework, the children’s activities, and three loads of laundry per day. Every week we attended a peewee basketball game, school play, or church supper. Our literary partnership began when I edited a photo-biography, William Faulkner: The Cofield Collection (Yoknapatawpha Press, 1978). Two years later we backed into the publishing business with the publication of Dean’s The Ghosts of Rowan Oak: William Faulkner’s Ghost Stories for Children. Dean and I were hooked on books and each other.
Dean was a young teenager (I believe) when she realized (on a trip to New York City) just how famous her uncle was, although she was hardly aware of that fact at home with him in Oxford. Describe that incident.
Dean grew up off and on at Faulkner’s home in Oxford, “Rowan Oak,” and as a young child knew him simply as “Pappy,” her beloved uncle and guardian. Her first awareness of his reputation and reach was at age 13 when she attended the Oxford premiere of the 1949 film adaptation of Intruder in the Dust. “All I knew” she later wrote “was that for the first time Pappy’s light was shining on me and I was dazzled.” In 1956 Faulkner accompanied her to New York to see her off to Europe. They were walking down Fifth Avenue when passersby stopped and parted on the sidewalk staring in amazement. Dean thought they were admiring her black sheath dress and high heels. “Within one block reality set in,” she observed. “They were staring at my distinguished escort Pappy, who continued smiling and chatting either oblivious or accustomed to the attention. Not since the premiere of Intruder in the Dust had I realized who he was—a world renowned author.”
Describe how having such a well-known family member inspired and left its impressions on Dean, even as an adult.
One night when we were getting to know each other I asked Dean what it was like to grow up at Rowan Oak. She was reluctant to share her memories as if they were too dear to part with. As she grew up Faulkner was protective of her, suggested novels he wanted her to read, advised her which college courses to take. I didn’t get many chances to see his influence on her until we attended a Memorial Day party in the East Hamptons. Dean sat next to Lauren Bacall and talked about appearing in Mississippi ETV’s “William Faulkner: A Life on Paper,” an award-winning PBS documentary. I stood nearby, marveling at my wife as she chatted with Bacall. Here was Pappy’s niece in action, unintimidated by a legendary movie star, at home in the heady atmosphere. This was one of those times when Pappy’s shadow lay easy on the skin.
Could you include a few brief personal “sketches” of some of the more interesting “characters” among the Faulkner family that you include in the book?
Genius can be a forbidding heritage. After William Faulkner received the Nobel Prize his kith and kin were caught in his shadow. Dean once observed that she and her relatives built walls shielding themselves not just from outsiders but from each other. The cousins and step-cousins included Dean, William’s daughter, Jill, his step-children, Victoria (“Cho Cho”) and Malcolm, and his nephews Jimmy and Chooky. In 1971 Cho Cho and her daughter Vicki moved to Oxford and stayed at Rowan Oak while house-hunting. One night we were having drinks in Faulkner’s library when Dean began quoting bawdy limericks. This, I realized, was a favorite parlor game when Faulkner was alive. Vicki and Cho Cho joined in as if they were subconsciously competing for Pappy’s approval, exulting in his imagined chuckles. Something told me this was the only time I would experience the Rowan Oak they had known when Faulkner was alive. With joyful limericks Pappy’s girls all but lured him into the firelight. Here were three powerful personalities shaped and scarred by Faulkner’s fire. I was honored to be present and didn’t want the night to end.
William Faulkner died a decade before you met Dean, but how did he—or his “presence”—affect your life, and why did you decide to write this memoir now?
Dean died July 27, 2011. To deal with my grief I wrote In Faulkner’s Shadow. Whereas Dean’s memoir Every Day by the Sun (Crown Publishing, 2011) ended in 1962 with William Faulkner’s death in 1962, mine began in 1970 when Dean and I met. I never knew Mr. Faulkner but was a pall bearer at the funerals of his wife Estelle, his brother Jack, and his stepson Malcolm. After William Faulkner’s death the town of Oxford treated the Faulkner family like royalty. Dean, who wanted to be regarded as an individual and nothing more, was expected to uphold her family’s literary legacy. I spent 3 decades trying to convince her that she was valued for herself, not for being Faulkner’s niece. Jimmy Buffett’s mother, Peets, who was one of Dean’s closest friends, helped her accept her role. Peets told her, “You can’t escape who you are, so sit back and enjoy the ride!” At 73 Dean was diagnosed with COPD, a progressive disease with no cure. Using the two years of life remaining, she wrote (and I typed) Every Day by the Sun. In the process Dean discovered an essential truth about herself. Though she had been many things to many people, she was universally loved not as an accessory to her uncle’s achievements but for who she was and what she gave to friends and family.