The youngest daughter of Sophie’s Choice author William Styron talks with wOw editor Hilary Black about the sunlight — and shadow — cast by a literary legend
In Reading My Father, you’ve created a searing portrait of William Styron, a great writer who famously struggled for much of his life with crippling depression. In exploring his life, you also tell the intimate story of your family, filled with equal parts glamor and pain. What made you decide to plumb these depths?
I really felt that this was an important story to tell. It is a memoir, because it is a first person account, but the book is also very much a biography. My father had a remarkable life, a stunning rise and a terrible fall. A lot had been written about his many triumphs, and his first major bout with depression. But no one had told the story of his last years. How his muse fled him, and what that did to his psyche and soul. It is a story about family, mental illness, and the vagaries of creating great art. Bill Styron was a difficult man to live with but, honestly, a riveting subject to write about.
In the book, you talk about your parents’ marriage: a great romance that was also beset by infidelity, heavy drinking, and private cruelties. Did you struggle at all with how much to reveal? How did your mother feel about your sharing her story?
I struggled with those decisions all through the writing of the book. There was a time I feared I wouldn’t be able to write it at all, and then a time when I deluded myself that I could write a sanitized version that would still work. But of course I finally realized that I had to be honest or forget it. If I was going to excavate my father’s character I simply couldn’t do it without “lifting the veil,” so to speak. I think that my mother suffered some understandable anxiety before she had seen the manuscript, and even some after she’d read the book. But I’m pretty sure she feels now that I have done something good, something that actually contributes to my father’s legacy, and she is very proud of me. As an artist herself, married for half a decade to an artist, she wouldn’t have expected half measures of me.
You write evocatively of growing up as the daughter of an American icon. How did this experience shape your identity?
I grew up in a small town in Connecticut. In many ways our life was, if not average, then mundane. My father needed order and quiet to write and so we lived far from the sort of fast-paced world a lot of my parents’ friends lived in. But when they entertained, or we were out in the larger world, I was quickly reminded of my father’s outsized stature. I’m glad I had a kind of country childhood. It made me feel pretty normal. Once I was an adult, I began to realize how much being “William Styron’s daughter” affected how people responded to me. And then I had some work to do figuring out who I was apart from him.
You first aspired to be an actress before turning to writing at the age of 26. Was it hard to come around to the same career as your father?
I was living in Los Angeles when I started to write. It was a tentative business for me at first. I did it more or less in secret, not wanting anyone to think that I imagined I could just “become a writer” because my father was one, or because it was easy. I knew damn well how hard it was, and I knew I was a long way from being any good at it. But I also knew I had something to say, a creative force that was not being tapped as an actor. And after several years of quiet effort, I began to believe I could make a little go of it. But you know, my father was such a towering talent, it actually kind of freed me up. I wasn’t going to start writing about slavery and the holocaust. No one was going to compare me to him, so I felt like I could carve my own place, do my own thing.
Was writing this book a cathartic experience? Since writing it, how has your image of your father changed?
Yes, taking on this kind of project is inevitably cathartic. I dredged up a lot of old memories and sorted through them. But more than some kind of “healing,” I feel clear about him in ways I daresay he didn’t even feel about himself. In his last years, during his most frightful depression, he was wracked by guilt for so many reasons. For being a bad husband, a bad father, a bad son, an unprolific writer. He didn’t really forgive himself, but I forgive him. The anger I once felt has been replaced by empathy and understanding. He suffered a lot, and I feel sad for him. But mostly I feel grateful – regardless of the cost – that he was my father.
Alexandra Styron is the author of the new memoir Reading My Father and the novel All the Finest Girls. A graduate of Barnard College and the MFA program at Columbia University, she has contributed to several anthologies as well as The New Yorker, The New York Times, Real Simple, among other publications. She lives with her husband and two children in Brooklyn, New York.