“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted. You should live several lives while reading it.” – William Styron
Born on this date in 1925, Styron thought for a time he wanted to be a book editor and after his 1947 graduation from Duke University he went to work for the prestigious McGraw-Hill Publishing House in New York City. It quickly became apparent to him, however, that being an editor was not what he wanted – what he wanted and finally did, was to write.
After provoking his employers into firing him, he set about writing his first novel in earnest, and three years later published the novel, Lie Down in Darkness, the story of a dysfunctional Virginia family (who some thought reflected on his own growing up years in Virginia). The novel received overwhelming critical acclaim, earning him the prestigious Rome Prize and starting him on his lifelong career path.
But before he could cash in on the prize, he did a stint in the Marine Corps during the Korean War and wrote the short novel The Long March, which was not published until 1958. Finally able to capitalize on the monetary part of the Rome Prize, he moved to Europe in 1953 and ultimately became one of the founders of a new magazine Paris Review, still a celebrated literary journal more than 60 years later.
Perhaps Styron’s best-known and most awarded book is Sophie’s Choice, which also won an Academy Award for actress Meryl Streep after it was adapted for film. The nationwide best seller won the National Book Award and cemented Styron’s reputation as one of the great creative novelists of the 20th century. Overall, Styron wrote 15 books, including many best sellers after battling and overcoming severe depression. He always said that writing was a catharsis and helped with his recovery, even though it was a battle “to get started” each day.
"I get a fine warm feeling when I'm doing well,” he said, “but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let's face it, writing is hell.” But, I think he meant it in a good way as any serious writer knows.
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