Lawrence Wells of Oxford: An Interview
by Charles Chappell
The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring, 1995
CC: Let’s start by talking about your balancing of all your different
literary interests. You write novels, you run a publishing company, you
write for magazines, and you compose screenplays and telescripts. How do
you apportion your time? How do you juggle all of this?
LW: When we started the Yoknapatawpha Press full time in 1979, I had
already been doing some fiction writing – with not anything published to
speak of – and I was publishing other people’s books before my own
fiction was published. So I was an editor – and thinking as an editor –
before I got Rommel and the Rebel going. I’d already started Let the
Band Play Dixie and several other novels, and I’d written a novel
about my courting, pursuing, and marrying Dean when we were in graduate
school here, which a lot of people really liked, and I still haven’t
done anything with it. Dial Press was one day away from publishing it in
1975. One day! The editor, Bill Decker, bought it – and the next day he
called and said, “Hold everything. The accounting staff nixed it. We
have too many projects. We’re over-committed and we can’t bring it out.”
I’m glad they didn’t publish it because now I’m going to do a lot more
Editing and writing non-fiction, writing for magazines, helped me so
much stylistically that it’s a good thing that I started off in
publishing. I can’t complain about publishing taking my time away from
fiction because it really helped shape my writing skills. But then after
Rommel and the Rebel and Let the Band Play Dixie, trying to do so many
different things began to be a problem. Every successful fiction writer
I know doesn’t do anything but write fiction. They may teach creative
writing, as Barry Hannah does, for example, but it’s all related to what
they do. I try to write about half a day, every day, usually in the
mornings. And then do Press work in the afternoon. If I’ve got a novel
going, sticking with it, staying with it, it’s actually a relief to do
some work at the Press. At the level that Yoknapatawpha Press is, which
is sort of a non-competitive level, it’s not very demanding and it’s
CC: Please tell me more about Yoknapatawpha Press, which is named after
the county invented by Dean’s uncle. I know you publish the Faulkner
Newsletter, co-sponsor the Faulkner parody contest, and produce many
books. Do you two run it by yourselves?
LW: The Press was started in 1975 by Howard Duvall, who ran and still
runs “Duvall’s” on the square. Howard started it because he had decided
to get out of the clothing business and go into one which is utterly
unrelated to any other. Anyway, when Howard started a small press and
named it Yoknapatawpha Press, Dean and I were surprised and a little bit
horrified. It seemed that he was intruding on sacred ground. But you get
used to it, and I’m glad he named it “Yoknapatawpha” instead of
something like the “Chickasaw Press.” Howard reprinted several of John
Faulkner’s books in ’75. He asked me in ’76 to edit William Faulkner: The
Cofield Collection, a photo-biography, and that sort of backed me
into it because shortly thereafter Howard had a financial reversal, had
to buy his store back (the fellow he sold it to went broke), and he
asked me to buy into the Press. At that time, Dean and I pooled our
money and bought a half-interest in the Press. And then three years
later, after we brought out the Cofield album, we decided we would try to
do it full time. Howard sold his half to us. I had to make a decision in
the early ’80s whether I wanted to try to run the Press as a full-time
totally committed operation. The question was whether to keep
Yoknapatawpha Press quixotically small and uncomplicated or run it as
an actual business, computerize inventory, hire sales reps, build up the
title list, and go after it full bore. If I did that, I could kiss fiction writing
good-bye. There are not very many full-time publishers who
have the time and energy to write. Yoknapatawpha Press has published
some thirty books since Dean and I began running it,
averaging two books a year. The press has not taken
as much of my time as it could have. I only go to the office in the afternoon.
CC: How do you and Dean divide the labors?
LW: Dean runs the Press. She relishes and thrives on the
daily grind of writing invoices, taking orders, checking mail, doing
correspondence, the nitty-gritty of returns and paper work and
credits –(i.e, acknowledging returns from bookstores and wholesalers).
I enjoy the process of designing books and dust jackets, taking bids
from printers, writing jacket copy. When the Japanese edition of
Rommel and the Rebel came out, I was delighted with the cover
design. They bound the book in two volumes, the first showing Rommel
against the skyline of New York, with half his face showing, and the other
“half” of Rommel in the African desert.
CC: The structure of the novel – you have Rommel in America in the first
part and then you place him in Africa, gaining his fame, in the second
half of the novel. At first he appears in civilian clothing, and in fact
uses a pseudonym; all the time he’s in America, he is Erwin Rilke. Let’s
talk further about Rommel and the Rebel. Is it true that you got the
idea from a newspaper clipping and from some research you had done into
World War II?
LW: On Christmas day, 1983, I was home alone feeling sorry for
myself.Dean had taken the children skiing in Vermont and I was
keeping the home fires burning, and here I am in Oxford,
just me and the dogs. Cup of coffee. Silence. I open the paper and
read an article about the Civil War Roundtable in Jackson, where
Jack Maxey, a retired lieutenant colonel, gave a lecture comparing
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s tactics to those of Nathan Bedford
Forrest. Maxey also believed Rommel was one of five German
officers whom Maxey, as a second lieutenant just out of Mississippi
State ROTC met in Jackson before World War II. I was intrigued.
I called Maxey and arranged to interview him in Jackson. We met
at Shoney’s Restaurant. You hear plates and dishes clanking in the
background, waitresses yelling at each other. Maxey told me some
wonderful stories. He served in the Army reserves during the ’30s. He
had an ROTC instructor at State who was a Nathan Bedford
Forrest fanatic. Basically, Maxey’s instruction in modern military
tactics at State consisted of stories about the Civil War and Nathan
Bedford Forrest! I immediately appropriated that instructor as one of
my characters. The novel began to take shape out of real life. And
then as I began to research Rommel and Forrest, it was uncanny the
way they thought alike and used the same tactics. It makes you wonder.
After the novel came out, a judge from Pascagoula, Mississippi, phoned
me and said he was in Rommel’s home in 1955 during a fact-finding
mission, or some kind of political junket, with some state
senators in Germany, and being an admirer of Rommel he asked
the State Department to contact his widow.
The judge said that Frau Rommel told him her husband had been in this
country and “had done his banking” at Winchester, Virginia, which is in
the Shenandoah Valley, and that he studied the valley campaign of
Stonewall Jackson. What primarily interested Rommel was how an inferior
force harries and delays and counterattacks a superior force (because a
smaller force can defeat a larger force), and how to use terrain to defeat an
enemy. After Rommel and the Rebel came out in paperback, I sent a copy
to Rommel’s son, Manfred, who was the mayor of Stuttgart. He thanked me
for writing about his father. “Henceforth,” he wrote, “you and I are allies
across the Atlantic.” Then he added, “But I must tell you that my father
was never in America.”
CC: So the mystery remains. It’s still possible that Rommel did come here.
LW: It may still be possible, when you consider that Manfred wasn’t born
in the summer of 1922, and may never have been told about his
father’s trip. Recently a story surfaced that Rommel was in Clifton,
Tennessee, about ninety miles southeast of Nashville.
I went to Clifton and interviewed some people in what later became
an AP story in June 199. Residents of Clifton claimed Rommel was there
in 1922. The reason I was able to date it that precisely was that an
eighty-one-year-old woman said when she was eleven years old she
saw a German in jodhpurs riding a motorcycle. According to other
residents, Rommel made a big stir in town, visited the Pulitzer Prize
winning author T.S. Stribling, and sat on his front porch, and discussed
the river crossing that Nathan Bedford Forrest had made there in 1862
during the West Tennessee campaign. Clifton overlooks the Tennessee
River. A car-ferry is still in operation at the same crossing.
CC: He would have been just a young officer, soon after World War I, at
LW: A captain, I believe. Then I found out that Rommel, according to
some other old-timers, had visited Trenton, Humboldt, and Parker’s
Crossroads, all Tennessee towns in Forrest’s line of march during his
campaign. A striking coincidence is that they all say that he was on a
motorcycle. A restauranteur in Baldwyn, Mississippi, near Brice’s
Crossroads, told me that Rommel rode in on a motorcycle, came to his
cafe, talked more knowledgably about the battle of Brice’s Crossroads
than people who had lived there all their lives. It would appear that
he had decided to trace Forrest’s line of march on a motorcycle – in those
days, in that area of north Mississippi, most of the roads were unpaved,
old dirt roads, and Rommel loved motorcycles – and he was following
Forrest’s campaigns near Corinth, to see where Forrest fought at
Shiloh. I imagined Rommel traveling to Shiloh, and then slightly
east, to Clifton, and then from Clifton into West Tennessee.
I recently wrote a script for Mississippi ETV, and the director, Bob
Pickett, told me that his father had once encountered a German riding a
motorcycle. Pickett’s father liked motorcycles. He was driving a pickup
truck at the time, and he stopped and conversed with a German military
officer, on leave, apparently, who had just been to Vicksburg to see the
battlefield – on a motorcycle, in the ’20s. I said to Bob, “A little old
lady in Clifton told me it was an Indian motorcycle.” He said, “My
dad remembered the same thing, that this German was riding an Indian
CC: Brand name?
LW: Yes. I suppose you didn’t see an “Indian” motorcycle in Mississippi every
CC: So Rommel could well have made that trip and then possibly made the
1937 one. It sounds as if there’s more evidence for the 1922 trip than
for the later one.
LW: I never did get Jack Maxey to tell me the exact date. He
thought it was in the ’30s. Well, surely, he would have known
when it was. I didn’t pin him down because I wanted to set
the novel just before World War II in order to allow Rommel to meet
Faulkner. Of course he could have met Faulkner in 1922, when Mr. Bill
was running the Ole Miss post office.
CC: But he wouldn’t have been the person he was in 1937.
LW: No. No. And I would have lost all that.
CC: When did you decide to bring Faulkner into Rommel and the Rebel?
That’s a signal achievement in the novel. As far as I know, yours is the
only novel in which William Faulkner appears by name as an important
LW: Well, I suppose you could say it took a lot of nerve to impose on
William Faulkner’s privacy. He’s long gone and couldn’t defend
himself, but I thought, since I was an in-law, maybe he would forgive
me. I asked Dean’s permission. “Do you think it would be OK
to put Pappy in the book?” She assumed proxy and gave me the family
seal of approval, and I dived in. I decided that if Rommel were in
North Mississippi and he went to Brice’s Crossroads, roaming the
battlefield, it would be a shame if he didn’t meet Faulkner. He’d
be so close to Oxford – only sixty miles away! At first that was my only
thought, simply to bring them together. And then I began to see the
possibilities. Faulkner was a writer who wanted to be a pilot
in the Canadian RAF. He tried really hard to get into World War
I and World War II. Rommel was a soldier who wanted to be a writer. In
fact, he was very proud of the fact that his book of tactics, Infanterie
Greift An, sold 400,000 copies. 400,000! And here was Faulkner whose The
Sound and the Fury sold 3,000 copies in fifteen years, and had
difficulty making a living from his writing, while Rommel was
rolling in money. I read that he deferred his earnings on the book
for the duration of the war so that he could delay paying taxes.
CC: And then never saw the income. His heirs did, I suppose. I would
LW: I would imagine so. Of course Rommel’s book is taught in every
military school, Kriegschule, or war college, not only in Germany but
all over the world.
CC: In your novel Rommel and Faulkner exchange books. Faulkner is
very friendly to Rommel, but he also is determined that Rommel would not
harm America in any way. They hold a debate concerning Germany’s growing
military presence while they’re playing tennis. Did Rowan Oak,
Faulkner’s home, have a tennis court at that time?
LW: Yes, it did. Jimmy Faulkner, Dean’s cousin, told me that there was a
small tennis court behind the stable. Pappy was very proud of the
two lights on poles with lights. It was unheard of to have a
tennis court in Oxford that was lighted, a grass court at your home.
That was just part of his aristocratic-planter scheme of life.
He apparently had a great sense of fun and play. He was always
CC: And they play there at night and debate Hitler while they’re doing it.
LW: Everything becomes cat-and-mouse between them. Faulkner had been
indoctrinated during his RAF training with the propaganda of hating and
fighting the Hun – the vicious Hun who had no redeeming traits
whatsoever. So that’s why I let Faulkner’s character say
“I hate the Huns, but I like Rommel.”
CC: I interrupted your enumeration of the parallels between Faulkner and
LW: The parallels are that Faulkner was a writer who wanted to be a
soldier and Rommel was a soldier who wanted to be a writer and each
wishes to be respected by the other. But Faulkner wants Rommel
to admit certain things about the Germans which Rommel is not prepared
to admit. He wants him to concede the totalitarian state, that Germany
deported writers who were considered security risks and that the
Germans are beginning toprepare for war. Faulkner himself makes a
joke of war. He talks about the fact that his great grandfather, W.C.
Falkner of Ripley, Mississippi, understood the true purpose of war,
which was to make money. Falkner ran the blockade around Memphis and smuggled goods into the black market. He made a fortune and later started
the first railroad in North Mississippi, after having been voted out of
his Confederate army command. I had a lot of fun with that – nothing
but pure fun – and it wrote itself in just over a week.
CC: By being here in Oxford, being a part of the Faulkner family, which
in a way you are because you married into it, you could come to know the
man so that when you began to write about him, he really came alive for
you the way some of his characters came alive for him. Faulkner said
that sometimes as he wrote he heard voices. Is it going too far to ask
you if you were hearing him and seeing him as you were writing?
LW: Oh, yeah, I was.
CC: It was really a pleasure to be able to do that, then.
LW: Dean’s mother said when she read that book, she could hear him,
she could hear his voice. I even had the tonal quality, she felt, of his
CC: May I move on to the second novel? I suppose Let the Band Play Dixie
grew out of your researches for books that you’ve done, such as the
history of Ole Miss football.
LW: Yes, and Football Powers of the South. Let me explain a little
bit about that book. I followed the precept that a regional press should
publish local books. I am a football fan, but I got into those books
because many small presses publish sports albums featuring
teams in the area. So we did that. We were moderately
successful. We sold out Legend in Crimson, for example, after Bear Bryant
died. It’s ironic that a book about University of Alabama football
wouldn’t have sold if the Bear hadn’t died.
CC: You might remember what one cynical Hollywood press agent said when Elvis Presley died: “Good career move.” And you know the sales of
everything to do with Elvis have doubled and quadrupled. But let me get
back to your second novel, which centers on football as played in 1896
but also features military men as characters.
LW: Let the Band Play Dixie is a different kind of war novel, if you will,
because it is about football as a metaphor for war and about
the old passions of the Civil War which ran so close to the surface in
1896. You don’t see too much written about that era in America when the
North and the South were trying to forgive and forget. It’s often
been said that football has nurtured the cause of civil rights.
Especially in the Deep South, it’s been a great boon to integration. And
I was dealing with college football as a meeting ground between former
Enemies in a devastating civil war in which the teams, North and
South, in effect fight the last battle – a football game – where
Pickett made his charge at Gettysburg.
CC: The game gets moved from Philadelphia to Gettysburg because of all
the politics involved.
LW: And the South has got to win this one. I mean it is foreordained
that if there is to be peace in the country you’ve got to give
Southerners something. Dan McGugin was a great coach at Vanderbilt back
in the ’20s – in fact, his Vanderbilt team beat the Minnesota Gophers
16-0 in 1924. I mention this in the Introduction to Football Powers of the
South. McGugin’s pep talk went something like, “Do it for Dixie. Do it
for your mommas and daddies and your granddaddies. Remember the South.
The South is gonna rise again and we’re gonna whup these Yankees.” And
they went out and beat the Gophers in Minneapolis, Vanderbilt did. And
that was the first major turning point. About the same time, Georgia
beat Yale in New Haven. In those days the North, as in the Civil War,
had a preponderance of talent and power and resources to draw on. More
high school teams were playing football in the North. Historically,
football was a means of the South’s relieving some leftover
aggression and retrieving its lost regional pride and also
demonstrating, once again, the collective manhood of the South, which
hung in, in the Civil War, because it had gutsy, crazy young men
who would fight barefoot running on rocks.
CC: So this is also why you have the group of Confederate veterans,
Hudson Stroud and his group, and then you have Ernie Liebowitz and the
other Northerners – they symbolically reenact their battle through the
poker game. And that makes a wonderful subplot – all the high-stakes
poker, complete with dealing off the bottom of the deck.
LW: It was great fun to write about poker strategy. I also enjoyed comparing
football to war. Old General Longstreet comes up with a football play –
“Hooker’s end run,” which he actually wanted to do at the Battle of
Gettysburg. But one of the players says, “General, where’s the ball?” He
forgot about the ball.
CC: Longstreet tries to coach by using battle tactics. And Amos Alonzo
Stagg and John Heisman – characters from real life – use many military
tactics in their coaching.
LW: Stagg, the wily Stagg – Bud Wilkinson of the University of Oklahoma
once said of him, “You can’t think of anything new in football – Stagg
has already done it.” What Stagg does, he’s so smart – he was a
Shakespeare nut, by the way – Stagg suspects that the only reason they
would bring Longstreet in to be an honorary coach was to let him make up
some plays. And as soon as he finds out the game has been moved to
Gettysburg, he’s sure of it. That they’re going to use the tactics the
Confederates should have used to drive Meade’s army back to Washington.
And so he begins to map out his football tactics based on an actual
battle plan. But Longstreet – back to the poker game – remembers when he
bluffed Custer at Appomattox and he knows that they can bluff them again.
CC: You create some wonderful comic characters in the book, such as
Crazy Kate Kuykendall and Isaac Juan Lopez. To me, the novel is
essentially a comedy, but it’s all handled very deftly and it all falls
LW: It’s a comedy, but it has its serious side. The black team
represents the South, in the end, because the South did fight for
slavery and even used slaves in battle during the Civil War. But also,
the black athlete is exploited by the system because of his super
physique, and white people pay to see these superstars play because they
do it better and faster. And so I was doing a little play on the
exploitation of the black athlete.
CC: They all want Tree Jackson. He’s the Big Daddy Lipscomb of his day.
LW: And Brother Jones – Brother Robert E. Lee Jones, the black player
from Kentucky – gets his scholarship to Harvard.
CC: You told me once there was a possibility that Let the Band Play
Dixie might develop into a drama, possibly a screenplay.
LW: I’ve written screenplays for both those books, Rommel and the Rebel
and Let the Band Play Dixie. I have different titles, though, and I wish
I had entitled Let the Band Play Dixie “Uncivil War” – that’s what I
call the screenplay. I like that – “Uncivil War.” It fits the book
better. You know what I wanted to call it but my editor wouldn’t let me?
The working title was “War Most Civil.” And “Uncivil War” is much
better. I didn’t think of it. If I had, my editor would have used it.
CC: I can see where both novels offer cinematic possibilities. But I
really think Let the Band Play Dixie especially would make an excellent
film with its adversarial situation. You bring in, of course, the war,
as you pointed out. You have the poker games as a subplot, and conflicts
between black and white and urban and rural. There’s just so much there.
I really hope that project develops.
LW: You can’t put all of that in there; I had a real problem cutting it
down for the screenplay. There are so many subplots that you just can’t
bring them all in.
CC: Let’s go on to projects you’re currently working on. You’re doing
some Shakespeare work now?
LW: I worked on a Shakespeare “legend” several years ago and put it
aside, even though I had written a full novel. I submitted it to
Doubleday, and they were not interested. So it sort of fell back. But
I’ve done a script, a mini-series, 240 pages for a four-part, four-hour
mini-series. I revived it last summer when Dean and I were going to
England to do a magazine story about the effects of the Shakespeare
authorship debate: What would happen to Stratford if the Earl of Oxford
were proven to be Shakespeare, if one of his manuscripts were found?
What would happen to tourism? Would it become a ghost town with
playbills blowing in the empty streets? Conversely, what would happen to
the Earl of Oxford’s home, his estate at Castle Hedingham, in the County
of Essex? Castle Hedingham is a village of about 2,000 people. Would
they be happy if suddenly tourists descended only to find there are only
two restaurants in town, and three policemen, and the bus service comes
twice a day, and there’s no place to park? How would they handle a
hundred thousand tourists in a season? Stratford, I found out, gets
something like two and a half million tourists a year in a town of
30,000. And they’re equipped to take care of that. They’ve got sixty
hotels and/or bed and breakfast places. Sixty million dollars, U.S.
dollars equivalent, is spent there every year. Well, that’s an
incredible tourist bonanza. Anyway, going over there, I decided to take
along a copy of my script and give it to Mrs. Olga Ironside-Wood, an
Oxford scholar who had given me a wonderful scene for my novel. Very
quickly, the working title is “Shakespeare’s Child.” It explores the theory
that Shakespeare had an affair with Queen Elizabeth and a child was born
in great secrecy, shrouded in absolute secrecy. This is the subject of
the TV mini-series and the novel. And that child grew up to be the Earl
of Southhampton, to whom Shakespeare in fact dedicated “Venus and
Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” and who was the Fair Youth of
CC: These works, if they are filmed or printed, could cause massive
upheavals in English departments worldwide.
LW: I’d become the Salman Rushdie of the Shakespeare industry. But
things are starting to happen with “Shakespeare’s Child.” It’s being
looked at by the BBC, and Sir John Gielgud read it and agreed to
be the narrator if the film was produced. I wrote the
host part with him in mind, because he believes the theory
that Oxford was Shakespeare.
CC: We’ve talked about World War II and Southern writers; we’ve
discussed football and now Shakespeare. These subjects reflect some of
your eclectic interests. And you also have a manuscript about early
LW: I’m on firmer ground here because the Milly Walker story is
About a real trial. My uncle, Val McGee, who was a district judge in Dale
County, Alabama, had a hobby of researching slave law, or the law as
it applied to slavery. And he found a summary of this case – three pages
in the Alabama law record. Milly Walker was a slave in Tuscaloosa in the
1820s and ’30s. She was living quietly as a slave, having allowed a man
to whom she was indentured to sell her into slavery – not back into
slavery, she had never been a slave, she was born free, but her 99-year
indentureship was hell on earth – she was tricked into signing papers.
To escape her situation in Tennessee, she allowed herself to be sold to
Richard Jones, a plantation owner in Tuscaloosa County. Jones
threatened to take one of Milly’s children and “loan” that child to his
son-in-law. The child in actuality would become the property of the
son-in-law and Milly would never see her again. That’s when she
realized she had to fight, not just for herself, but for her children.
CC: You’ve allowed me to read the manuscript, and what really impressed
me about it is the fact that there could actually be some body of law
that had any sensitivity toward slaves as human beings in the
nineteenth-century South, in Alabama. This happens one hundred years
before To Kill a Mockingbird. Your novel is a legal thriller; and it
turns on the whole question of property rights. I don’t want to give
away any surprises about the plot, but I certainly hope the manuscript
sees publication. It’s historical fiction – really more so than the
other two. Earlier you mentioned a sequence among your novels.
LW: Well, Rommel and the Rebel was what I would have liked to have
happened. Let the Band Play Dixie was what never was, but was a hell of
a lot of fun. Shakespeare’s Child is about what conceivably could have
been and is based on historical research that better scholars than I
have done. Because again, I didn’t really make up Shakespeare’s Child. I
tried to stay as close as I could to actual events – I did a lot of
research on that – about two years. But Milly Walker is based on a
true story. My first title was “Black Warrior” – the galley proofs
you read – because it takes place on the banks of the Black Warrior
River and “Tuscaloosa” literally means “black warrior.”
CC: In the last decade Oxford seems to have boomed as a writers’ colony
and as a supportive environment for people interested in the arts. Do
you have dealings with all of these writers? Of course, John Grisham is
the best known . . .
LW: Right, and Barry Hannah and Larry Brown. Richard Ford lived here
for a while. Got too crowded for writers so he moved out. So did Willie
Morris. Willie said Oxford’s getting too much like a hothouse. It was
Willie who started this modern upsurge. Faulkner worked almost in a
vacuum. People in the community didn’t understand what he was doing. To
play along with that myth he’d say, “I’m a farmer and I write on the
side.” Well, Willie came to town, and he had been an editor at Harper’s,
a major magazine; that made the difference. Willie thought as an editor;
he would encourage other writers, support them – nothing better than
sitting around the kitchen table and talking about literature. We would
read our stuff out loud – Willie would read his; Dean would read hers; I
would read mine. We had readings of anybody and everybody.
CC: But you were already here when Willie came to town.
LW: We had been here for about ten years. Willie came in 1980. Dean and
I came in 1970 as graduate students in the English Department. We met in Dr. Louis Dollarhide’s Chaucer class. But Willie was a force, he was a real catalyst for the discussion of writing, the encouragement of writers. When I started Rommel and the Rebel, Willie was writing The Courting of Marcus Dupree. He’d read one of his chapters one night, the next night I
might read a little bit. He left me a note in the mailbox one night – Willie was wide awake remembering what I had just read to him and Dean,
the scene in which Speigner and Rommel get on a motorcycle at Brice’s
Crossroads and, in effect, ride back into history. The motorcycle is a
magic machine; they have a magic ride back in time. I got up in the
morning, started to go out and get my newspaper at 7:00 a.m., and here’s
a note in the door. Willie’d come over there before dawn and left a note
in my door – and I’ve still got that note. He said, “Boss” (he nicknamed
me Boss because I was his editor and publisher), “I think you’ve really got something there. Let’s have a best seller in the Yoknapatawpha family.”
CC: That’s wonderful. Early inspiration.
LW: Willie was a great encouragement to me. He gave me incredible
support. When you’re working on your first novel, you need someone
in the business to say, “You’re on the right track.” Willie gave me a great
leg up. I was already into it; I wasn’t going to stop. But it makes a big
difference to have somebody respect your work.
CC: So he created the environment that would support Larry Brown and
LW: No doubt about it. Willie added to the literary reputation that
Oxford already had. And Barry Hannah reads tons of manuscripts all the
time. Of course, he teaches writing so manuscripts are part and parcel. I
get manuscripts either through Yoknapatawpha Press or people I’ve
helped. Willie has done the same. A perfect example is Donna Tartt,
who was his student at Ole Miss and also was in Barry’s writing class.
Willie and Barryencouraged her to seek the best writing teachers
and environment she could. She wound up at Bennington, and The Secret
History is the result. Willie brought Donna to meet Dean and me. We recognized her genius. As a freshman she already had all the tools.
CC: So she came out of Oxford also?
LW: I think you can say that Donna Tartt is a product partly of Oxford.
When Willie came to teach at Ole Miss, something happened that was
remarkable. In 1980 he gave a lecture series on eight or ten American
novels. And for Willie to teach fiction, to share his insights, was an amazing
thing. His appreciation, his instincts and astute observations – well,
students literally ran to his class; he had people crowding into that
lecture hall. It would hold about 150 and he had 200 in the class. The
aisles were filled. I’ve never seen that kind of rabid enthusiasm for
literature. It was like an Ole Miss football game. The only thing that
previously drove Ole Miss Rebels crazy before was football. And here’s
Willie creating that same kind of excitement. Never happened before or
since. Then, Willie after a while got tired of grading papers. Grading
papers. It was so funny. I taught college English for fourteen years,
and I watched Willie begin to revolt against grading papers, and it was
so funny to see that happen. And finally he got a great deal – the
journalism department letting him be “a writer in residence.” He didn’t
have to teach anymore. He was just simply here. He did go occasionally
and lecture to people’s classes as a guest speaker. And his presence on
campus was such an encouragement to young writers; they could seek him
out at the bars and taverns and restaurants and talk to him, and he was
very open to them; he took them home at night and sat and talked and
encouraged young writers.
CC: Did Larry Brown study with him? Did John Grisham?
LW: Well, Brown didn’t. He was Ellen Douglas’s and Barry’s
student. Willie helped Grisham. John approached Willie and asked him to
recommend an agent, as I understand it. Grisham had written A Time to
Kill and his career was about to take off. Willie suggested an agent, and
later when Willie and Grisham were introducing Bill Clinton at a
rally in Jackson during the campaign last fall, Willie gets up to
introduce Grisham and says, “You know, I got Grisham his agent. By the
way, John, I forgot to tell you, I get a 35% finder’s fee. You know I
always wanted to buy Belzoni, Mississippi.” I know that Grisham
gives Willie credit for having encouraged him.
CC: Oxford must be the most thriving writers’ colony
LW: At least in the Deep South it is, and it’s fitting that it happens
here in Oxford. I think we all feel honored to be a part of it. It’s
just nothing but doing what comes naturally.
CC: I like the fact that everyone seems to be developing in his or her
own way. None of you seems to be intimidated by the ghost of Faulkner as
much as you are complemented by it and inspired by it. You even grow so
bold as to use Faulkner in your first novel. I’m sure many writers have
been intimidated by Faulkner, but you’re right here in his presence and
it seems more inspirational than it does intimidating.
LW: Well, it is. But then, Faulkner himself was not discouraged by
Shakespeare or Dostoevski or Tolstoy or James Joyce. Here’s James
Joyce’s stream of consciousness, and Faulkner gives it a Southern tone,
Southern setting, if you will, and makes it his own. Mr. Bill, as I call him – Dean calls him “Pappy” – is our guiding star. If we tried to
write like Faulkner, it would be too deep a shadow. Everybody does
his own thing. There are a lot of stories that I would like to write,
but nearly all of them have an element of comedy. William Faulkner
had a tragic vision that is Homeric. It is the anvil tone of time. You
are born with that. It’s a wonderful thing for a writer to have, but it’s also a burden because he or she sees too much, knows too much, hurts too much. And that power that Faulkner had, that transcendence, came out of shared pain. Faulkner was vein for vein immersed in the human tragedy and with
that sensibility and his one-of-a-kind talent he was able to achieve what he did. He said he didn’t know where it came from or how it could have happened. Well, it came from inside him. He is the standard bearer, Remember Flannery O’Connor’s great line? Somebody asked her, “What’s it like to write in the shadow of Faulkner?” She said, “Nobody wants his
mule and wagon to be caught on the tracks when the Dixie Limited