“I really did spend my entire childhood watching television,” says Alexandra Styron, a claim that stands in stark contrast to her endlessly expansive vocabulary and carefully crafted storytelling.
But that may be a gift Ms. Styron, daughter of famed literary lion William Styron, came by honestly. “In college, I started playing catchup with reading and with language. But I do think it’s genetic — either you’re verbal and you absorb language and use it well, or you don’t. I got it but I had to work that muscle from the age of 16 on.”
Ms. Styron is, most recently, the author of the memoir Reading My Father, which tells the personal and private story of a man best known for the fictions he created.
In this work, Ms. Styron seeks to explore a question that is central to her father’s career as an artist who struggled with mental illness. “At the crux of my book is the thesis, was it that he couldn’t write and that drove him mad, or was he clinically depressed and so he couldn’t write?”
To answer that question involved a more introspective glance than Ms. Styron had originally anticipated. “It wasn’t my intention to write a book about myself and my relationship with my father. I didn’t set out to write a book where the focus was on myself. During the process, I felt that my father’s story was Shakespearean and made for an extraordinary and important story in 20th century American culture, mental illness, and the broad sweep of an artist’s life.”
As Ms. Styron sought to tell the story of her father’s life, however, it required that she examine her own relationship with her father, both in childhood and as an adult, a writer who sought to make her own mark in the literary world.
“I had an individual relationship with my father at a very different time in his life than my siblings,” she said in a recent interview on Island. The family’s longtime summer home in Vineyard Haven is the setting for many stories in the memoir. “When they were young, he was really struggling to make his mark. When I was growing up, he was at the top of his game and his life, and his place in the world was very different. And he was probably easier to live with when I was a kid.
“And we had a unique relationship: I was a wiseass and I had a sharp tongue, and he did too, and he encouraged that in me,” she said.
Having seen her father rant and rage and struggle with the creative process, Ms. Styron first thought that writing was not for her: “I never in a million years thought I would be a writer — I thought it was such a miserable, lonely job, which it turns out to be, but the rewards weren’t clear then. When I realized that I had a facility, and liked it, then I began to consider it as something I could do.”
As a writer herself, Ms. Styron had the capability to write a memoir of her father that explained him and his decline, both to his fans and to his critics. That involved another unanticipated endeavor: a close reading of her father’s works.
“I had to do a close reading of his work to understand, which I hadn’t planned to do,” she said. “I wasn’t planning to write about his work, but that it would be more of a memoir, my memories of him, his childhood, youth, early career as a writer, and his decline,
“So much of his novels are so autobiographical, and if I hadn’t gone back to read them, the story would have been thin. He was his work, and you can’t explain a great artist’s life without their work,” he said.
Explaining his work, however, involved explaining his decline, which was a side of him that hadn’t been fully explored. In his own book, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, Mr. Styron detailed his own struggle. However, he was perhaps unable to see the havoc his mental state wreaked on those around him, and its responsibility for the shattering of his literary abilities.
“The conclusion I reached was that, in his latter years, he wasn’t able to get his arms around another great novel. It was the most important thing to him, and that he couldn’t heave another story out of his soul drove him to the edge,” Ms. Styron said.
But in the end, her father’s work is not defined by his decline. “I don’t think that is how his reading public defines him, and I don’t either: I think that fact that he couldn’t write filled my father with despair, and it was so troubling to him in his last years that he was not more productive.”
The book also seeks to elevate a generation of writers who changed the world and left an indelible mark in both its literary and political culture.
“There are a lot of amazing writers writing extraordinary novels in my generation, but I think the culture has changed. I don’t think writers are valued. It used to be the rule that writers were important cultural figures who influenced politics and were needed in a global way. The novel doesn’t carry that kind of weight anymore; novelists aren’t rock stars. It’s such a weird world we live in when people are rewarded for doing nothing.”
But William Styron was not rewarded for nothing, and, in joining him in the ambition to tell difficult and powerful tragedies, neither shall be his daughter.