A Conversation With; Willie Morris
A. A conversation with William Morris talking today with a native Mississippi and Willie Morris former editor in chief of Harper's Magazine and author of the highly acclaimed autobiographical works north toward home. And yes it is more of a burden of Loral a freelance journalist. Mr. David Halberstam writing in Time magazine said if you are a three level my in the first level of the one you visualize some terribly brilliant worldly young editor. The second level the one you confront. Good Ole Miss is a boy and the one that many people don't see. A very complicated enormously sophisticated strong man Which man are you going to beta. I think I'll be the good old with seven boys. Working very closely with
David Halberstam for several years on Harper's I think certainly he's one of the finest journalists in the country. And we know each other quite well. And I do find that being a writer is an intensely private existence. And I think you know many people do present certain faces to the world in a way running a magazine in New York City was. A political. Position. And I think that writers ought to preserve a good part of their private selves for their own work. That isn't political. Well because you're dealing with with with various establishment literary journalistic establishment from literary agents to the writers themselves and you know a great deal of tact is needed in a job like this which is highly pressurized. So I suppose during those Harper's days one could draw in all three levels to survive in New York City. Well LA you use your your name Willie.
Rather than I mean you're owed and your nickname rather than William weeks. Why did you keep Willie instead of the more sophisticated the more dignified name for a young editor in the middle I grew up in as a city and the name Willy stuck. I was sometimes called Willy winks and didn't like that too much. And I always wanted to be a center fielder a high jumper and I actually feel quite comfortable using the name Willie. It's what I've been called since I was a small boy. Well after reading your first book almost three years ago north toward home I wrote you a fan letter. And never mailed it. But as I recall the first I've got it somewhere I'll have to look it up but the first line said Mr. Maurice after reading your book I feel as though I've known you all my life. So feeling that way about you. So I write for me to call you Willy. Please do good. Well I think the really the
name that you've been using in New York City and your southern accent which you have lost is so many other. Southerners who go now if they immediately drop their second name in the draft their southern accent. You haven't. Has this been an advantage to you. Well I never viewed it as an IT manager disadvantage and I think people lose their Southern accents when they when they're really trying to lose the sorrels. And I think you know an accent in in one's cultural capital really is in many ways a sign of why so many of one's emotions lie. And of course a lot of southerners have lost their accent the north because they really have wanted to turn their backs on the region from which they came. This is something I've never wanted to do. I think certainly for a writer it's just for the most selfish and self-serving of reasons it is highly important that one retain his roots. And seven is have particular I'm sure you believe it you've said I think you're probably more Southern than people from other
regions of America I think it's no accident that the South has produced so many truly fine writers. Beginning with with Faulkner at the apex and so many others because we do come from a reasonably settled place it certainly has its flaws and its flaws. But but for a writer to come from a to derive from a subtle sense of community from the storytelling past is is so important. Well who are your favorite riders I thought. Well no I've got to I've often felt that the two great strains in American riding in this century have been the southerners and the Jews. And I found a certain electricity between these two groups of riders a great deal of mutual respect. And also I think as riders the Southerners in the US writers do share a very strong sense of community that I'm talking about. But the fact no would have to win in voting would have to be my
favorite writer in this country. And not only because he's a Mississippi and because he touches so many of those well-springs I feel strongly about. But you don't consider him in any way every right to do oh lord no he's a he. Ford created his own mythical kingdom. You know Napa tof a county but in the process of doing this and this is the rich characterization of all of his great tales of woe and anguish he was writing not so much about one particular county is about the human right. And you know quite often it's easy to confuse regionalism with with with with Brad. Human concerns and faultless certainly transcended the original I think more so than any writer of our time. Do do you know this just occurred to me. I've never really looked it up but what reaction did you get to his his writings while he was alive. In Mississippi he was still living here. Did you do you know anything about the reaction.
Well yes some of the reactions that he had in Mississippi when he when he was first starting there were so notable exceptions to this but up through a good part of his writing career Faulkner was certainly not appreciated in Mississippi he was considered to be something of a wild man. I remember growing up and as you said he would pay people tell me the farmer would get a neck and climb trees. But this this paralleled his reputation nationally because he was he was riding BART was riding some his really great books in the late 20s and early 30s. And he was being knocked down time and again by the Eastern critics for being just another Southern writer of the Gothic blood and thunder screw. And actually. As late as when fought and won the Nobel Prize his books were completely out of print. We're in the late 40s his books were completely out of print. Well how about the reaction to your first book now thought how what were some of the reactions you got from. How from people in Mississippi. Well by and large I think the reaction was was quite favorable. There were a lot of exceptions or a number of
people in the in my hometown as a city who thought I'd betrayed the time and. I remember I got a letter from somebody saying out to smirch the memory of my father. But I think the the town by and large has been quite sympathetic to it. And you find that over a period of time there's a lot of mellowing. And in the three years since north toward home came out. I think a number of people who were hostile to to my treatment of Mississippi had forced it. And you as a city now say that I did really write this book is an act of love. And I do agree with Faulkner's dictum that one loves a place not just because of but despite. And I was in as a city just just recently on a book signing party and it was a marvelous outpouring of people. What about your new book. Yes it is the one that's just come out. Has there been any been any. Reaction thus far from Mississippi. Well are there there been some favorable reviews from Mississippi it's still a little too early to tell.
Well of course you've got marvelous reviews nationally Newsweek and Time. Yes. It's intellectual establishment appears to love the. Really love you. Every time you pick out time in Newsweek it's talking about will you. Is there any really is there any reason for that. Well you know. I think that people talking about Time and Newsweek specifically in life and some of the others. I really do think the editors of these publications had a sincere admiration. For what we were doing in Harper's magazine I'm sure this is true and I think they felt that we were genuinely trying to catch the mood of the nation going through a crucial period and ever since our group at Harper's been running things and the so-called literary establishment was missing. It fluctuates a lot it's not what it was 10 years ago. I think it's been very friendly to our group there. HARPER Well of course you've been so popular with the one exception which must have been Mr. John buyer the
publisher of Hopper's. And has your popularity lessened with the literary establishment since you resigned as the youngest editor of the nation's oldest magazine. Well this is something about a literary establishment it is quite complicated because the early several in New York City and in the country at large it's. It's hard to generalize about it but I think certainly the people that I admire the most the writers the journalists the critics the editors and so forth have been severely disturbed by. Our resignations at Harper's and feel that that the cause of American letters and of. American journalism in its broadest sense has been somewhat damaged. I'm sure this is a consensus. Well now. Could you explain it in layman's terms our circulation that that that's been. Put out in some of the articles about the resignations Could you explain it.
To oversimplify. Well yes the circulation of our prayers was with our famous Norman Mailer issue in March. Reach the highest and it's a hundred twenty one year history which was up close to around 400000. And the owners of the magazine I think completely misjudged the highly complex situation I think in general that magazines in America are extremely tough days. The economics of the business are pretty deplorable these days. But our whole position was that we are reorienting our readership we're getting a somewhat younger more concerned readership and that we simply didn't have the time to do what we had set out to do to maintain and increase the circulation of this oldest and most distinguished magazine in the country. Well there was some talk about there being an actual. Division a way overstepping into your editorial
boundaries by trying to tell you what to publish. I never had any trouble that can well I got. It was as if I didn't want what you were putting in the mag it was it was of a more general nature. I don't think they like this. A lot of the material for instance I happen to think it was great but. I think it was a more general kind of a true sadness. What do you think is the future of the American magazine that after this has been allowed to happen or has happened do you think I think it's questionable I don't know. Over the next 15 or 20 years I would be hard put to predict how many of these magazines that we are familiar with will still be around because the American literary journalistic scene is littered with the skeletons of dead magazines. And the economics of the situation there was such that I wouldn't want to make a prediction but there are five years from now they're not going to be as many as there are now. Do you think that Hopper's is going to follow your editorial policies with a new. Editor. I have no idea. Do you have any idea who it might be.
I know they've offered to 10 or 12 people turned in now you know. But George Plimpton Yeah. Why do you reckon I'd like you to come along in the wake of our case. Firstly I think probably it would be tough shoes to fill. What about your own future. Flying Well I'm going to write I guess write my stories move out of New York City and and really do what I wanted to do all my life which is to devote all my time to writing what I've done up to now I've had to really squeeze in you know take leaves of absences and and work on weekends and that's awfully hard for a sustained piece of work. That's probably what you ought to be doing anyway. I mean we can look at it that way. Do you really don't think you'll go back into the editorial Fielding. Not unless I get offered the editorship league as a City Herald. It seems unlikely but otherwise I don't think it will.
Well you know the work that you plan to do the work that you do already. Do you consider yourself a novelist journalist. Oh well I don't even like to think really modern those categories I just consider myself a writer and a teller of stories. And up till now I guess most of my work has been a combination of autobiographical. Techniques and and some journalism. I have been a great believer in the autobiographical form using the first person in real situations but also employing some of the approaches of the creative writer of the novelist. Can the two be reconciled creative writing and journalism. They out there are always big arguments. Well I think they can be reconciled. I think this phrase the new journalism is a kind of New York catch word. But sure I think you know some of the really fun stuff of Norman Mailer for instance some of the star and stuff. Capacity a number of other people have
have used a kind of reportorial base for nonfiction that's quite effective. But I'm a great believer in fiction and in the novelistic form and I think that the novel is alive and flourishing in this country now. Well of course even novels very much out of biographical if you read between the lines are translite. I mean do you feel that it's true I think a lot of them are. I think I think it's usually quite natural for young writers to in their early novels to be very autobiographical sometimes it has its hazards you know has this always been done or is this something this this really reportorial approach to this is that well I think it's it's something of our generation. If you're talking about the really fine novelists and the writers who engage in it. In the broader sense of journalistic work. I think it's quite race and I think it's an expression of the tensions of our times in some ways it's a
personal thing a lot of good novelists I know rather enjoy doing nonfiction work like this occasionally to get into print early to involve them things themselves in real advance. And it's I think it is an expression of our age. But it seems to me that it would take on. An intense personal almost bribery to do this type of work because in reading over Yaz For instance I didn't have time to read it all I read the first part in Harper's when it came out. But. It is so intensely personal and your own feelings are right there for millions of people to read. I think this is is a kind of bet you could ride it in the novelistic approach the third person and then hide behind some imaginary character. Like a lot of novelists do. Yeah I guess it does take a little courage I never really thought of it in that way. On the other hand
I think that. To produce a truly or to try to produce a truly great work of the imagination in some ways takes more personal bravery. Then for instance this kind of approach in my book as it is I think you you are drawing upon the deepest side of one's self. And that is is an extremely difficult task and writing is a is a stern discipline and I think imaginative fiction is probably the hardest thing in the world to handle. Yeah I have it Carson. I would think this is just a thing that it would be extremely difficult you know just tailor everything just the way you've done it in me to the inflection form I think that's probably true I think. For people this is me and this is the way af they are and this is what I think and you're telling millions of people this and you tell them Well you know I think that there's some
virtue to this because you know this book as issue is ostensibly about the massive integration of Mile High School when you as a city. But I really consciously tried to approach this from my own very deep personal involvement in Mississippi and in the changes that that Mississippi and other areas of the South have witnessed in my lifetime. So that in a measure this book is. Is as much about myself as it is about racial integration in the Deep South where you have been able to write this why if you resided in you as you say for instance write about the people you wrote about and I want to hear about your SEO problems live a few miles out of town. It's there are peculiar pressures that that exert themselves on writers who live in the places they write about. This does take an enormous amount of courage and Faulkner whether Did someone like Carson McCullers not Carson
McCullers Flannery O'Connor did I know a lot of writers just for instance from the south who could not. Live in the south and write about it. You have to get away from it. And this is something I really understand. It's not a self-righteous judgment on the south at all it's it's just that there's some grain of sand in their perceptions that encourages them to be removed from it before they can really view it in a creative way. Well of course part of seven is upbringing you might say is you know like. Your family business your family business and you you know if you're. A pretty private culture as my family has you know perhaps. It was I think memory is enough anyway for me for man as a natural writer when he's he's got memories that will exist forever. But I know a lot of people like my friend Hodding Carter in Greenville running a truly fine paper up there. Who being both an editor and writer does have to weather
peculiar pressures and I really admire someone like this I admire people who who stayed on in the place where they were born and raised in Hodding Carter young Harding once said to me he said you're obsessed with the South and he laughed I'm not in a state. But. It's very interesting. Maybe so. Do you consider riding. On exhibitionistic there much as well as I think the leaders are getting patients and value to you. Yes and I think that's one quality that that makes him survive. You have to be when you're dealing with you're telling a high level allies particularly someone you're the starseeds this in your own imagination. And I was on a panel discussion with William Styron at Duke University recently and and a lot of students were there and I asked him about how he wrote a lot in darkness and confessions and that Turner and he gave this brilliant disquisition on the privacy riders and he said the older I
get the more engaged in this forum the more I believe that for a man to be a truly serious creative writer yesterday about half crazy. Well I can't agree with that. Everybody that writes couldn't bit it influences that time to my age. Well yeah but I mean I have crazy in the very best sense I mean so it's a highly responsible kind of insanity. But it's an insanity of the imagination. That's not a bad i don't want to dwell too much. But that's why I love Ryder so much I think they really have to exist with you know certain pressures and madness is that it makes it worse makes me respect him so much. Well of course a writer has to be a storyteller a good storyteller I understand you are one. How about telling us a story. What about been the guy that was in your view. Yeah this is not been this is a story about. You know black sharecropper from the Citadel to. Him again. He died went to heaven. This was back in the early 1960s I suppose. And
he was from around Greenville Mississippi and he went to heaven and he was immediately escorted into the presence of the Lord and the Lord embraced him said Ben McGee. Welcome to Heaven. We've been watching you very closely down there in the Mississippi Delta and you've done the cause of brotherhood and Christianity so much good we're going to send you back. And then when he said Well Lord I really appreciate those sentiments but I'm not going back. You haven't been down there you don't know what it's like. And the Lord said well if necessary I'm going to put that in the form of an order. And then when he said Well Lord if you send me back to the Mississippi Delta would you go with me. And the Lord said I'll go as far as Memphis. That there are exciting things happening in the Mississippi Delta and yes it's in you know a lot of money Yankee friends just simply do not understand the the the the range of what's taking place in the Deep South on racial matters and indeed broader things people up there seem to have an impression of Mississippi as it existed during the Emit Till trials and all
the rest back the matter is that I really do think a social revolution is taking place here and it's a revolution of a kind that so many of my northern intellectual friends you know care about know would understand. I wondered if they really cared and I don't think you know you're going to pick up a newspaper in the in the middle 1950s or magazine without reading about how terrible Mississippi was and they are. Here's a society that really is I think in general following its best instincts both races are and there's been setbacks there will be but I think I see I see the light coming and the rest of the nation really doesn't care a light machine we really had a lot of the Vietnam War said something to kill us women women's lib you can't have your own fashion about these fashions come and go at their base I think you know. Legitimate demands for instance of women's lib are quite understandable and I'm in sympathy with them as indeed of the whole ecology issue. But their fashionable friend is the radical chic
kind of thing in this that they come and go and I really think there are only a few things in life that my voting that people have to keep their sights on the center of things I think one thing that matters is to this nation to the whole democratic ethic is this idea of some kind of racial harmony and I think if this is going to happen in this country. This is DAY TO DAY racial harmony is going to come out of places like Mississippi first. I'm convinced of it. Why Mississippi. Just because of a shared sense of community that the races I have a sense of the land sharing all the anguish and suffering in the past. I think there are more similarities between Southern whites and blacks and there are differences. And I really think this is beginning to emerge to the surface and it's going to take a little while but there's no honesty about Rice and the safty find and there is and there's more honesty about race in the south because there's more complexity of that. And I think there's more of an awareness of the complexity of it in the south and this can be one of the saving graces if you had it to do over.
Aside from tagging your book your first book told how far it's obvious advantage of a good title that's taken from the last sentence and so forth. Would you still know us toward home after three years. What I mean is have you really fam enough to be your home or head but I really can't be that easy to leave I really intended for that title to be to convey a sense of irony. To convey my own complex feelings about being a Southerner. And those are warring and impulses of one sense ability to be both a Southerner an American. And I wanted that to convey a feeling of irony on my part that so much of me resides in the south. I physically live in the north. I've enjoyed certain aspects of living in the north but I'm really not quite sure that's what I meant. I wouldn't change the title now. Well. With the bible let's look at the range anyway you know and I think writers have to reflect in their own work the changes and you're not actually living in the north you
really don't want to live back in this. Well I you know I probably will some day but right now I might come back someday someday but right now I feel. Comfortable in my own work living up there and making periodic trips Stanier the success that you had in the north. In the literary world. I was it didn't come easy did it come hard with hard work and do you feel that you were lucky. Well I guess there's luck involved in everything but we work very hard and and I think that the whole Harper's experience has been great for all of us. Our stand Larry King and Marshall Friday and I'm my lawyer for that matter everybody who was involved in this. I think it was a lot of hard work and energy that went into it for those young beginning rider but I don't know it sounds like I'm talking in the past a lot of those put out a truly great magazine will go on to better than Co.
COLMES You're. The people who are just beginning our young college students people who would really like to know. Do you have any advice you want to make a success such as you have. In the letter way way out whether in Mississippi our you know well we don't have a bit of it. I don't know. Well my first advice would be not to six and say ask because I think success is a highly ephemeral thing anyway and a very fashionable thing but if you're asking about would be young writers. I would say it's it's it's it's a hard calling very hard calling in and to work hard at it to rate is much fine letter to her as possible and stick with it. If you're asking about a journalistic career that's somewhat different but again I think a lot of hard core experience on a good paper in a medium sized city is is indispensable.
- A Conversation With
- Willie Morris
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- APA: A Conversation With; Willie Morris. Boston, MA: Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_60-46d258xq