Eudora Welty, renowned as a creator of fictional dialogue, describes a childhood trait that helped her develop that skill:
When I was young, maybe 4 or 5 years old, my family would go driving on a Sunday afternoon. My mother told me I used to get up in the backseat and sit between her and one of her friends. I would get myself all fixed and then say, “OK, start talking.”
On such occasions Welty says, “My ears would just open like morning glories.” Reading Conversations with Eudora Welty, one imagines her interviewers feeling the same blossomy sensations as they tell her, in effect, “OK, start talking,” and Welty complies.
As she does so, one senses her strong love of the literary art and her feeling of responsibility toward others who share that love. These interviews reinforce many of the same messages about the creation and understanding of literature that are contained in Welty’s more formal, highly polished essays such as “Writing and Analyzing Fiction” and the famous “Place in Fiction.” The former essay, for example, contrasts two approaches to understanding fiction:I would rather submit a story to the test of its outside world, to show what it was doing and how it went about it, than to the method of critical analysis which would pick the story up by its heels (as if it had swallowed a button) to examine the writing process as analysis in reverse, as though a story—or any system of feeling—could be more accessible to understanding for being hung upside down.
In different words and from the broader human perspective afforded by the interview situation, Conversations with Eudora Welty provides fresh evidence of her distrust of abstract critical theory, her preference for the test of ordinary experience.
In these conversations, it becomes clear as well whom Welty most wishes to reach, for she responds most amply and thoughtfully to questions of profound interest to aspiring writers and to her own devoted readers: which authors she admires, how she learned her craft, how she writes and revises, when she does her best work, how the writer’s imagination acts on experience. Unlike authors who testify that for them the act of composition is pain and drudgery, Welty makes it plain that she enjoys writing her works as much as her public enjoys reading them. It is this community of pleasure that moves her to respond so generously to questions pertinent to her art.
The word “pertinent” is pivotal, however, and Welty reserves the right to determine what fits that description. Throughout the forty years covered by these interviews, she consistently keeps her eye on what will and will not help students develop their own understanding of literary art. She scrupulously avoids giving the impression, as some critics might like her to do, that the creative artist must be more than human or, conversely, that the creative process can be entirely explained by events in the artist’s life.
Although she provides interviewers with many details of her personal history (recounted also in her modestly titled memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, 1984, reviewed elsewhere in this volume), she clearly regards some aspects of a writer’s private life as irrelevant to the study of literary creativity. In a 1978 interview, she tells two of her former creative-writing students from Millsaps College in her hometown, Jackson, Mississippi:I’ve always been tenacious in my feeling that we don’t need to know a writer’s life in order to understand his work. It’s good to know something about a writer’s background, but only what pertains. I’m willing to tell you anything I can if I think it has that sort of value.
Perhaps surprisingly, despite her unmistakable zest for good conversation (especially about literature), Welty has reservations about the worth of interviews as a source of artistic or critical edification. She reveals her doubts to the two former students: “You asked me what I thought the value [of interviews] was, and I’m just not sure.”
It is remarkable how often Welty answers her interviewers with “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure” and “I can only speak for myself.” This show of humility is disarming in an author who has received, among other honors, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Institute of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for the Novel, and the National Medal for Literature for lifetime achievement. Surely, however, there is not only humility but also strategy in such admissions of uncertainty: They help her dispose of irrelevant questions and questions to which there are no real answers.
Although the editor of these...
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