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Conversations with William Maxwell

Conversations with William Maxwell

Edited by Barbara Burkhardt
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Conversations with William Maxwell
    Book Description:

    Conversations with William Maxwell collects thirty-eight interviews, public speeches, and remarks that span five decades of the esteemed novelist and New Yorker editor's career. The interviews collectively address the entirety of Maxwell's literary work--with in-depth discussion of his short stories, essays, and novels including They Came Like Swallows, The Folded Leaf, and the American Book award-winning So Long, See You Tomorrow--as well as his forty-year tenure as a fiction editor working with such luminaries as John Updike, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Vladimir Nabokov, and J.D. Salinger. Maxwell's words spoken before a crowd, some previously unpublished, pay moving tribute to literary friends and mentors, and offer reflections on the artistic life, the process of writing, and his Midwestern heritage. All retain the reserved poignancy of his fiction. The volume publishes for the first time the full transcript of Maxwell's extensive interviews with his biographer and, in an introduction, correspondence with writers including Updike and Saul Bellow, which enlivens the stories behind his interviews and appearances.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-255-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xxvi)

    In William Maxwell’s later years, he often agreed to interviews with an unusual request: he preferred to answer questions on his typewriter. “All the thoughts are in the typewriter,” he explained to Edward Hirsch. “The typewriter is my friend,” he confided to John Blades of theChicago Tribune,and, “I think better on the typewriter than I do just talking,” he told me. Maxwell’s old Smith Coronamatic seemed an extension of his creative mind. With his hands on the keyboard—hands that Blades likened to “tree roots photographed in fast motion”—he was at home in his writer’s world, crafting...

  4. Chronology
    (pp. xxvii-2)
  5. Handwritten Notes for “The Writer as Illusionist”
    (pp. 3-6)
    William Maxwell

    So far as I can see, there is no legitimate sleight-of-hand involved in pursuing the arts of music and painting. There is in writing—in all writing, but particularly in narrative writing. The person who wrote, “It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front—a lady with a dog . . .” was, quite simply, practicing magic. Disbelieve in either the lady or the dog if you can. Or for that matter, the sea-front. The music lover in the concert hall may be carried out of himself by what he hears, but it isn’t part of...

  6. An Image of an Image: Maxwell Topic: Autobiographical Novelist
    (pp. 7-8)
    Bob Adams

    William Maxwell, novelist and fiction editor of theNew Yorker, painted a wry but warm portrait of the autobiographical novelist here Tuesday night.

    A former teacher of English at the University of Illinois, Maxwell spoke to an audience of over a hundred persons in the U. of I. Law Building auditorium as part of the University’s spring Festival of Contemporary Arts.

    Throughout his half-hour talk, Maxwell coupled candor with dry wit to present a sympathetic but penetrating mosaic of a central figure in today’s literature: the novelist who writes about himself.

    “The autobiographical novelist was born an egoist,” he began....

  7. Remarks Delivered at American Academy of Arts and Letters
    (pp. 9-9)
    William Maxwell

    There are two things that an artist commonly needs to be assured about—that his work is good, and that it is wanted. No amount of self-confidence can do the trick. The reassurance must come from the outside. But a commercial success is no guarantee that his work is good, and a grant from a foundation is not evidence that it is in any general way wanted. The Academy-Institute awards this year are in the amount of $81,500. They are unique in that they are given to artists by artists, to composers by composers, to writers by writers. It is...

  8. Tribute to Vladimir Nabokov, Recipient of the Award of Merit, American Academy of Arts and Letters
    (pp. 10-11)
    William Maxwell

    The Award of Merit consists of a medal and one thousand dollars, given in rotation for Painting, Sculpture, the Novel, Poetry, and Drama. It cannot be conferred on a member of the Institute. It has been given to these five novelists only—to the author ofAppointment in Samarra,to the author ofPoint Counter Point, to the author ofThe Sun Also Rises, to the author ofDeath in Venice, and to the author ofSister Carrie. It is being given this year to Vladimir Nabokov, born in St. Petersburg in 1899.

    Mr. Nabokov is the phoenix we had...

  9. Introduction of Eudora Welty for Her Reading of “The Demonstrators” at the American Academy of Arts and Letters
    (pp. 12-12)
    William Maxwell

    Being one of us, Eudora Welty doesn’t need to be introduced to the people in this room. I have never ceased to be astonished by her work, but there was one moment when the astonishment went far deeper than ever before, and I have never forgotten it. It was in a story that was based on but not exactly about the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi. The murderer was not a pleasant man, and no person of Liberal sympathies could fail to be horrified by all he stood for. Nevertheless, in the final paragraph, Miss Welty ended up inside...

  10. Remarks Delivered at American Academy of Arts and Letters
    (pp. 13-14)
    William Maxwell

    I have an ineradicable memory of standing on this platform ten years ago, for the first time. When I left my seat I was expecting merely to be handed an envelope with a check in it, for which I was, in fact, most grateful. But I also got something I was not expecting. For as the envelope was put into my hand, I saw that Malcolm Cowley was looking not at me but directly into my eyes, in full recognition of who I was and all that had brought me here. And I was startled and so moved that for...

  11. Remarks Delivered at the American Academy of Arts and Letters
    (pp. 15-16)
    William Maxwell

    Every work of art, in its making, requires privacy of a kind that most resembles the self-absorption of the mad. And the artist is tormented by frivolous questions that cannot be answered—such asWill I ever hear it performed?AndWill my gallery disown me?AndWhat will Edmund Wilson think of it?He needs praise more than most people do, more than is strictly reasonable, childishly. And because of his seclusion gets it only intermittently, when some kind person bothers to tell him that he was talked about. But always at the back of his mind is an...

  12. Tribute to Zona Gale at the American Academy of Arts and Letters
    (pp. 17-20)
    William Maxwell

    I have a theory that behind every artist there is another artist; that there is a perpetual passing on of talent. I was sixteen years old when I first met Zona Gale, in the early summer of 1925. Her name is remembered by older people, but I don’t know if anybody reads her. She was sufficiently famous then. Her playMiss Lula Betthad won the Pulitzer Prize, and if you picked up a magazine there was a very good chance you’d find a story of hers in it.

    I had a job working on a farm ten miles outside...

  13. Remarks on Receiving Honorary Doctorate, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    (pp. 21-21)
    William Maxwell

    W. H. Auden once remarked that nobody ever wrote a novel without giving himself away. What the novelist gives away, among other secrets, is his attachment to a particular place. Though I have lived in New York City for nearly forty years, when I sit down at the typewriter and begin to write, it is nearly always about Illinois.

    I have no choice, really. Other places do not have the same hold on my imagination.

    I am very moved by the high honor the University has bestowed on me—how could I not be, when what it amounts to, in...

  14. CA Interviews the Author
    (pp. 22-25)
    Jean W. Ross

    William Maxwell was interviewed by phone at his home in New York City on April 13, 1979.

    CA: How did you become a part of theNew Yorkerstaff in 1936?

    MAXWELL: I had one book published, and my publisher gave me three letters—one to theNew Republic, one toTime, and one to theNew Yorker. I was unsuited for theNew Republicbecause I was politically uninformed. I don’t know if I was unsuited toTimeas well; I got to theNew Yorkerbefore I got toTime, and they hired me, and that was that....

  15. PW Interviews William Maxwell
    (pp. 26-29)
    Robert Dahlin

    “As I get older,” says the novelist, “I stick more and more to what happened. It’s not shallow. You can count on it having some meaning.”

    Properly attired in jacket and tie, William Maxwell guides the way through a sprawling apartment on New York’s Upper East Side where the seventy-one-year-old writer lives with his wife of thirty-four years. He reaches a small undistinguished room at the back, his office.

    “Do you prefer sitting at a desk, or would you rather that chair?” he asks pointing to a wooden-armed easy chair. Knowing that Knopf’s imminent publication ofSo Long, See You...

  16. Remarks on Receiving the William Dean Howells Medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters
    (pp. 30-31)
    William Maxwell

    Miss Welty has just slipped me an empty box. The catch was broken and she thought it would probably fall on the floor—the medal, that is—and it’s been in my pocket since ten minutes after three. When Miss Welty got the Howells Medal, a stranger came up to her afterwards and asked to see it and Miss Welty obliged and the stranger promptly dropped the medal on the floor, and it cost $50.00 to have the damage repaired. There is no empty box I could prize as highly as this one, because of what it stands for and...

  17. Novelist Preserves Youth
    (pp. 32-34)
    Gordon McKerral

    “W. H. Auden once remarked that nobody ever wrote a novel without giving himself away. What the novelist gives away, among other secrets, is his attachment to a particular place,” notes William K. Maxwell.

    “Though I have lived in New York City for nearly forty years, when I sit down at a typewriter and begin to write, it is nearly always about Illinois.”

    Maxwell spoke those words at a reception for honorary degree recipients at the University of Illinois in 1973.

    In 1980—after an eighteen-year hiatus—Maxwell’s sixth novel,So Long, See You Tomorrow, was published by Alfred A....

  18. William Maxwell: The Art of Fiction
    (pp. 35-58)
    George Plimpton and John Seabrook

    William Maxwell was interviewed in his East Side New York apartment. He wore a tie and blazer for the occasion. A tall, spare man, he sat on the edge of a low sofa, his knees nearly touching his chin. Twice he rose and went to the walnut bookcase, once for Virginia Woolf’sBetween the Acts, and then for Eliot’sFour Quartets, which he studied patiently for the lines he needed. At the end of the living room, two large windows looked out on the street, eight floors below, where one could see the morning traffic, but not hear it. The...

  19. GLR Interview: William Maxwell
    (pp. 59-75)
    Gerald C. Nemanic

    William Maxwell was born in 1908 at Lincoln, a small town in central Illinois. His mother died in the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918; four years thereafter Maxwell’s father, who had since remarried, moved his family to the North Side of Chicago.

    Maxwell attended Senn High School, and during one summer worked on a farm [Bonnie Oaks] near Portage, Wisconsin, which became a second home. There he made the acquaintance of the novelist and playwright Zona Gale. After high school, Maxwell obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois, then an M.A. in English at Harvard in 1931.


  20. Tribute to Robert Fitzgerald (1910–1985) at American Academy of Arts and Letters
    (pp. 76-80)
    William Maxwell

    Robert Fitzgerald said, “Poetry is at least an elegance and at most a revelation.”

    When I made his acquaintance he was a sophomore at Harvard and I was a graduate student. We were both from the Middle West—from two small towns that were separated by only thirty minutes of corn and wheat field. The fact that we found ourselves in a, so to speak, alien land, among people whose vowel sounds were really diphthongs and whose assumptions were often ludicrous, strengthened the connection. His room was on the top floor of Hollis Hall, on the same landing as the...

  21. The Quiet Man
    (pp. 81-88)
    Geoffrey Stokes

    It is summer, 1912, in “Draperville,” a small Illinois town quite like the one William Maxwell lived in as a boy. Mississippi cousin Randolph Potter, a young man we have reason to dislike, is visiting his northern relatives, the Kings, and has been bitten by their usually friendly dog. Convalescing more than is strictly necessary, he has come downstairs to the kitchen for a talk with the Kings’ cook, Rachel:

    “‘The trouble with you,’ Rachel said to him one day, ‘is you want everything. And you don’t want to do no work for it.’

    “‘That’s right,” Randolph said, nodding. ‘There’s...

  22. Interviews with William Maxwell
    (pp. 89-135)
    Barbara Burkhardt and William Maxwell

    The following three interviews, previously unpublished, were conducted in Maxwell’s apartment in New York City and in his home in Yorktown Heights, New York. As described in the introduction, Maxwell typed the answers to my questions. The three interviews are grouped together here with the dates and locations noted.

    Burkhardt: Mr. Maxwell, what compels you to write?

    Maxwell: I have a melancholy feeling that all human experience goes down the drain, or to put it more politely, ends in oblivion, except when somebody records some part of his own experience—which can of course be the life that goes on...

  23. Imagining the Middle West: An Interview with William Maxwell
    (pp. 136-150)
    Bill Aull, Sandra Batzli, Barbara Burkhardt, James McGowan, Bruce Morgan and William Maxwell

    William Maxwell was born in Lincoln, Illinois, in 1908. His family moved to Chicago when he was fourteen, and he attended the University of Illinois from 1926 to 1930. After a year of graduate work at Harvard and two years teaching freshman composition back in Urbana, he turned to writing. His published work includes the novelsBright Center of Heaven(1934),They Came Like Swallows(1937),The Folded Leaf(1945),Time Will Darken It(1948),The Chateau(1961), andSo Long, See You Tomorrow(1980); the short story collectionsThe Old Man at the Railroad Crossing(1966),Over by the...

  24. Past Perfect
    (pp. 151-156)
    John Blades

    NEW YORK—Unlike Ernest Hemingway and many other native Illinois writers who left their hometowns with scarcely a backward glance, William Maxwell has never stopped looking back.

    Born in Lincoln in 1908, Maxwell settled in New York in the middle 1930s, becoming a revered fiction editor at theNew Yorkermagazine, a literary minister to J. D. Salinger, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, and three famous Johns: O’Hara, Cheever, and Updike.

    All the while he was at theNew Yorker, editing the words of those and other writers, Maxwell was slowly crafting his own distinctive body of fiction, most of which...

  25. Radio Interview with William Maxwell on KMOX Radio, St. Louis, Missouri
    (pp. 157-160)

    KMOX: He has received the Brandeis Creative Arts Medal, the American Book Award, and the Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Mr. Maxwell grew up in Lincoln, Illinois, just up the pike here, just up Highway 55. Those of you listening in the Springfield area will know Lincoln very well. And Lincoln, Illinois, is the setting for the stories in Mr. Maxwell’s new work,Billie Dyer and Other Stories. It is a privilege to welcome William Maxwell to KMOX in St. Louis. Mr. Maxwell, good morning.

    Maxwell: Good morning.

    KMOX: You’ve done pretty well for a...

  26. An Interview with William Maxwell
    (pp. 161-171)
    David Stanton and William Maxwell

    At age eighty-five, William Maxwell’s appearance is at once endearing and a bit disconcerting. He is thin and slightly frail, and on his head grow solitary white hairs. Yet he is also energetic—enthusiastic, at times even agile in a boyish way. Dressed in a pale green suit with a yellow knit tie, he answers the door of his Upper East Side apartment with a slightly uneven but reassuring smile.

    Maxwell has lived in this Manhattan apartment for over twenty-five years—a period that accounts for less than half of his career as a publishing fiction writer. (He and his...

  27. A Modest, Scrupulous, Happy Man
    (pp. 172-177)
    Harvey Ginsberg

    This week, sixty-one years after the publication of William Maxwell’s first novel,Bright Center of Heaven, Knopf is publishingAll the Days and Nights, a collection of his short stories. It is to be hoped that its appearance will at last bring to this remarkably modest man the popular recognition that has so far escaped him during one of the most distinguished careers in contemporary American letters.

    His own work comprises six novels, three previous collections of short fiction, a family history, one book for children (with a second on the way) and a collection of essays and reviews. In...

  28. Tribute to Francis Steegmuller at the American Academy of Arts and Letters
    (pp. 178-180)
    William Maxwell

    I met Francis Steegmuller when theNew Yorkerbought a story of his and gave it to me to edit. Since it needed editing the way a cat needs two tails, my connection with him remained slight. To explain what changed this I have to go all the way around Robin Hood’s barn. When Francis graduated from Columbia he went straight to Paris. There, in the studio of the cubist painter Jacques Villon, he met Beatrice Stein, an American girl who was Villon’s pupil. She had red hair and the warm heart that often accompanies it. She got polio when...

  29. A Conversation with Author William Maxwell
    (pp. 181-184)
    Linda Wertheimer and William Maxwell

    LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host: Here is the beginning of a fable read by its author, who is eighty-six years old, himself a storyteller.

    WILLIAM MAXWELL, Author: [reading from his book] “Once upon a time there was an old man who made his living telling stories. In the middle of the afternoon, he took his position on the steps of the monument to an aging intellect, in a somewhat out-of-the-way corner of the marketplace, and people who were not in a hurry would stop and sometimes those who were in a hurry would hear a phrase that caught their attention, such as...

  30. Remarks on Receiving the Gold Medal for Fiction, American Academy of Arts and Letters
    (pp. 185-185)
    William Maxwell

    When I was a small boy, among my worries was the house I was born in. It wasn’t as nice as the house we were by that time living in and it didn’t look very substantial to me, and I was afraid it would no longer be there when the time came for them to put up the plaque.

    Over the years my expectations moderated. And I came to realize that where I belonged, and where I wanted to be, was not in the White House but among the storytellers.

    I rejoice in this honor, which I did not expect,...

  31. An Interview with William Maxwell
    (pp. 186-209)
    Kay Bonetti and William Maxwell

    William Maxwell is the author of six novels and five collections of short fiction, most recentlyAll the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories, published in 1994. His 1980 novel,So Long, See You Tomorrow, won the American Book Award. He is also the author of a family history,Ancestors.

    Maxwell was born in Lincoln, Illinois, where he lived until the age of fourteen, when his family moved to Chicago. After graduating from the University of Illinois and a brief stint in graduate school, Maxwell went to New York to seek his fortune as a writer. He was hired by...

  32. Edward Hirsch and William Maxwell
    (pp. 210-223)
    Edward Hirsch

    The thought of William Maxwell’s eighty-eighth birthday filled me with giddy anticipation and joy—I wouldn’t have missed the small lunch party in Westchester for anything. I was also eager to conduct an interview, which Bill insisted on calling a “conversation,” focusing on the subject of old age. And so I took a flight to the East Coast, spent a night in a hotel in Gramercy Park slowly rereadingSo Long, See You Tomorrowfor the seventh or eighth time (the lure of New York City could scarcely compare to the magnetism of this dreamy and austere American masterpiece), and...

  33. Maxwell’s Silver Typewriter
    (pp. 224-228)

    “I wouldn’t like to live in a world where nobody ever told stories.” With this modest introduction, William Maxwell begins to talk about his art. With all six of his novels and a compendium of short stories recently reissued to astonishing acclaim in celebration of his ninetieth birthday, a more grandiloquent observation might be expected of this distinguished veteran of American letters and legendary editor from the golden age of theNew Yorker. But the very idea of grandiloquence evaporates in the tranquility of Mr. Maxwell’s presence.

    From a small and comfortably cluttered study at the back of his New...

  34. Index
    (pp. 229-241)