What We’re Reading: Alexandra Styron’s Reading My Father

In 2006, when I was an assistant publicist at Random House, I was assigned to publicize the reprinting of Darkness Visible, William Styron’s extraordinarily moving memoir on his depression. I knew many close friends who suffered from the disease and felt Styron’s candid honesty was refreshing and at times, even emotionally overwhelming to read. We were approaching the publication release date when I opened up The New York Times one winter morning and discovered that William Styron had passed away.

I was completely shook up over the news. I ran up the stairs from the seventeenth floor to the eighteenth floor, where I knocked tentatively on the office door of William’s editor, Bob Loomis. Bob had already heard the announcement earlier that week and was patient with my endless questions about the author and their rapport. That book will always hold special meaning for me, not just for its content, but for this terrible and ironic collision of events.

On that note, I was beyond eager to get my hands on Alexandra Styron’s recently published memoir Reading My Father. Alexandra’s candid book reveals what it was like growing up with the man whose volatile moods and writing schedules ruled the household. The pages are not only chock full of amazing anecdotes (the time she and her father and Teddy Kennedy went to a nightclub together, the dinner parties with the likes of Bill Clinton and Gabriel Garcia Marquez), but they also shine light on William’s unpublished work.

What makes this memoir particularly fascinating is the amount of research, so that this is not just an account by a daughter, but also a careful exploration of his life as a writer (as well as her own life as a writer). Poring through Duke’s Rare Manuscripts and Special Collections, Alexandra discovered several unfinished–and severely unorganized–manuscripts, written by Styron Sr. later in his life. Throughout extensive interviews with the writers and editors that were good friends of her father (Bob Loomis, Peter Matthiesen), Alexandra comes to learn why those manuscripts were never put into print.

Not only does Alexandra recount memories of such episodes as Christmas with her father (a loathed holiday on his end) and the last years of his life when he suffered from that crippling depression, she also discusses how she came to be a writer herself. Poignant and eloquently written, this memoir is for the reader out there who not only loves William Styron’s work and wants to know more about him, but also for the reader intrigued by the fascinating life of a daughter of an extremely prolific, and unpredictable, man.

–Megan Fishmann, Publicist

Alexandra Styron will be reading and signing copies of her memoir on Wednesday, April 20th, 7:00pm at The Regulator Bookshop, located in Durham, NC (720 Ninth St.).

Tom Campbell, owner of The Regulator Bookshop, shared the following anecdote from the book:

Louis Rubin was teaching in an MFA program (in the early 60s) at Johns Hopkins and invited Styron to speak. After the talk, Rubin goes out of his way to introduce Styron to one of his students, an attractive young woman named Rose Burgunder. They chatted. A few months later, Styron has won a prize that gives him a fellowship in Rome. Burgunder is touring Europe. Rubin writes Burgunder and says she should look Styron up. She does.

Their first meeting in Rome, in the bar of a fancy hotel, Styron shows up with another Southerner he has made friends with, a 28 year old named Truman Capote. Capote is wearing a sailor’s outfit and has a myna bird on his shoulder. He’s trained the bird to talk a good bit. The bird especially excels at squawking “F**k you.”

A few months later, Styron and Burgunder get married in Rome.


One Comment On This Post:

April 28, 2011
10:37 am
Gerald Cooper says...

As I’ve stated in my book, “On Scholarship– From An Empty Room at Princeton,” I heard William Faulkner at UVa in 1956-57 state that William Styron was one of the most promising young writers in America—”from right here in Virginia.”
I’ve published in 2010 “On Scholarship – From An Empty Room at Princeton,” and I’m considering a follow up with an in-depth book about Christchurch School, Styron’s preparatory school alma mater. The school gets a couple of chapters in my memoir, because I went there (1949-53), taught there four years and served on the board awhile.
I came close to visiting with Bill Styron on Martha’s Vineyard around 1996, but I was there over Labor Day, and he was leaving before I got there. He wrote me a card, which I treasure, answering a question I asked about the location of a weekend tryst from “Lie Down In Darkness” that took place in Lancaster County, on Towles’ Point. I had the wrong house, but he set me straight.
Bill Styron’s descriptions of Tidewater Virginia are as accurate as his roots are deep in this loamy soil. It’s nice to have those roots refreshed by his daughter, Alexandra Styron, in her book, “Reading My Father.”

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