An Exclusive Interview With First-Time Novelist Alexandra Styron
Author of All the Finest Girls (LITTLE BROWN)
By Doris Booth
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Alexandra Styron's first novel, ALL THE FINEST GIRLS, was released this past summer by Little Brown and Company.
In this exclusive Authorlink interview with the New York-based author we gain insights into her thoughts, attitudes, and her writing life.
Alexandra's first novel is an elegantly written and unforgettable story about a daughter's loveand where that love lodges when her parents are less than lovable.
"She [Judith Taylor] provided that one great moment of encouragement that changed the direction
of my life."
AUTHORLINK: When did you begin your writing career, and what prompted you to do so? Is there a special story behind your decision to become an author?
STYRON: I didnt begin writing with any serious purpose until I was in my mid-twenties. Id decided on a career as an actress, of all things, when I was about twelve, and stuck doggedly with it long beyond the point of true enthusiasm. Or success, for that matter. I was living in Los Angleles, feeling as if Id lost my way in the world, when I began to write short stories. Within a couple of years, Id returned to New York and enrolled in the MFA program in creative writing at my alma mater, Columbia University.
AUTHORLINK: Who was the greatest influence on your decision to write, and in what ways did they encourage you?
STYRON: While I was still in California, I enrolled in a workshop taught by a woman named Judith Taylor. She was recommended to me by the writer Carol Muske Dukes. I credit Judith fully with making me a writer. Not only because of her fine teaching but because she provided that one great moment of encouragement that changed the direction of my life. After a year or so studying with her, I had become a very enthusiastic student and found that writing took up more and more of my days. But still I considered myself an actress, unhappy though I was. One day, during the workshop break, Judith took me aside and said, You know, you can be a writer if you want. Go home and go back to school.
I remember thinking, I can?
It was one of the greatest pleasures of my book tour for All the Finest Girls to go out to L.A. and have Judith sitting in the front row of my reading at Book Soup.
AUTHORLINK: How important has your agent been in guiding your career?
STYRON: Like most first novelists, I didnt have an agent until after Id finished my book. I knew a couple, one in particular, who were said to be quite good. When I approached the woman who is now my agent, I honestly didnt think shed have any interest in me. But since I knew her socially, I thought she might be willing to give me some advice. I told her Id finished my novel. When she asked to see my manuscript I panicked! She actually had to call me a couple of times, God bless her. Once it was in her hands, I felt completely taken care of. Shes tough as nails, a great champion of my book, but also a very good guide for a newcomer. You really need that — someone who can explain the business, allay your fears, and pat you on the back, too, when you deserve it
AUTHORLINK: Who are your favorite authors? What you like about them?
STYRON: Im pretty old-fashioned in my tastes, which I think is reflected in my style of writing. I love Graham Greene for his subtle but deep exploration of the human heart. Flaubert, Nabokov, Fitzgerald are heroes. Of contemporary writers, I admire Paul Auster and the recent big novels from Phillip Roth. American Pastoral and The Human Stain were both so vast in scope, and devastating in their commentary. I like novels that focus on big themes but do so through recognizable story and character. Im not much interested in light work unless its terribly funny, like Nicholson Baker or Ian Frazier.
"Have faith in yourself,
and polish your writing until it really shines
an editor or agent
to get excited about it."
AUTHORLINK: Do you have any advice or insights for newcomers trying to break into publishing?
STYRON: I dont know much about how the business works. I only know that with All the Finest Girls, I wrote and re-wrote and re-wrote some more ( three and a half years!) until I thought I could no longer work without an editor. Often writers are so eager for encouragement, for validation, that I think they rush work out into the world that ought not to be seen yet. And even the writer herself, in her heart of hearts, knows that the manuscript is not ready. Have faith in yourself, and polish your writing until it really shines before expecting an editor or agent to get excited about it.
AUTHORLINK: Do you perceive New York publishing to be a closed society or an open one?
STYRON: Thats a tricky question for me. Its no secret that I am the daughter of an enormously accomplished novelist. And though I did not rely on anyone I knew through family, at any time, to get ahead as a writer, it would be naïve to suggest that my last name didnt heighten interest in me. Not even, necessarily, because I might have genetic talent. But because selling books is so hard and name recognition can give the publisher a hook. That being said, I think if youve written something really good, it will not go unnoticed. You might have to fight like hell to get there, but cream always rises to the top.
AUTHORLINK: What are publishers looking for today?
STYRON: Well, Im not a publisher so Im no expert. But I think things have changed since September 11 th. For better and worse. I suspect well see fewer novels about women and their dating tribulations. And there wont be as many hip ironic heartless young mens stories. Hopefully, more work will emerge by writers who have something substantial to say.
However, I know to that houses are contracting their lists in this uncertain economic time. And thats going to make it a tougher go for all of us.
". . . literature is meant to disturb, provoke,
give voice to that
which is unsaid."
AUTHORLINK: Why do you think so many writers get rejected, and so few become published? What elements of good writing would you guess are missing from an aspiring writer's work?
STYRON: To follow up on what I mentioned above, I think theres a real dearth of young writers willing to explore big subjects. The writers of my fathers generation, and those before, just seemed to understand that literature is meant to disturb, provoke, give voice to that which is unsaid. Perhaps since this recent American tragedy, now that we as a generation have been knocked off of our complacent and privileged pedestal, well start trying to grapple with subjects larger than each of us. I dont mean we all have to write a war novel. But I believe there is an audience out there for art on a grand canvas.
AUTHORLINK: How did you learn your craft? Through reading? Conferences? A university? Mentoring? A combination of these, or other means?
STYRON: I took several workshops before getting my MFA, but my two years at Columbia were certainly the most concentrated and intense instruction I received. If you are motivated, I thin a good graduate program can be enormously edifying.
AUTHORLINK: If you could choose any career in the world today, knowing what you know now, what would it be?
STYRON: Sometimes I wish I were doing something that more directly benefitted others. Like public advocacy or international relief. Something not as inward looking and solitary. But here I sit and so I must be following the right path for me.
AUTHORLINK: What's the funniest thing that ever happened to you on the way to getting published?
STYRON: God. The experience is so anxiety-provoking that I cant think of much which was funny about it. When the first reviews come, its hard not to feel like youre going to die with worry. In the end, I was lucky and got almost entirely favorable reviews. But one of the first, from a trade journal, was so unbelievably awful that I actually enjoyed it and laughed my head off at it. If they arent going to like it, better that they should loathe your book than treat you with indifference, I guess.