Look in the Well: A Conversation
James Still and Jim Wayne
Used with permission.
JM: During the month
of August 1983 at Yaddo I had the opportunity to converse with James Still
on a daily basis, so what I'm doing here this evening is a continuation of
that conversation. I recently came across an interesting statement by Saul
Bellow, Jim. He said that "a writer is a reader who has been moved to
emulation." How did you begin writing?
JS: I wish I remembered
and could tell you. I don't think I began exactly. I never had any
thought of being a writer. I didn't know what it meant, to tell the
truth. I do recall writing a little poem once, which, honestly, is not
too bad. I was fourteen. I pitched a little tent -- you know you have to
have romantic associations with the poem -- I pitched a little tent in the
yard, and I went into that tent and wrote this little verse. I still know
the poem now -- I won't say it, I assure you. But I'm still astonished
when I see this little verse. I do intend to publish it some day to show
how far you can come from something of that sort.
that Bellow statement suggests that there's some kind of connection
between reading and writing. What sort of things did you read?
JS: We had no books in our home. Well, there was the Bible, of
course, which no body was reading. I tried to read it once, but I got
stopped in the "begats." My father was a veterinarian, that is, a horse
doctor, a man with no formal training at all. We had one volume called The Anatomy of the Horse, which wasn't very entertaining. And we
had another one which was called The Palaces of Sin, or The Devil in
Society and which had to do with a man inheriting a million dollars
and going to Washington, DC, where he observed the wicked life that was
being led by the congressmen and senators. It seemed that these people
played cards and they also drank gin. Now I didn't know what gin was. I
knew all about liquor, but I thought gin must be pretty bad. Then there
was one more book. It was called The Cyclopedia of Universal
Knowledge. It was a very large book. I remember that one of the backs
was torn off. But it had a great many things in it, including how to play
all kinds of games, even the game of hoyle. There were about twenty poems
-- great poems by Keats, Shelley, and so on. I memorized those. And I
knew I was surely the only person in my area who knew twenty words of
Arabic when I was eight years old. I also knew maybe twenty-five words
from various languages, how to say hello, goodmorning, and so on. I
learned from that book how to prune fruit trees, how to write business
letters. And there was a little bit on physics and on the chemistry of
JM: Did you get any urgings or guidance from your
parents as to what you ought to be?
JS: None. Well, my father
wanted me to be a lawyer. I'm sure he didn't, though he never said it,
because he dragged me around to every lawyer in the country and anywhere
else. I was always being introduced to lawyers and judges. And when the
governor came to town, he pushed me through the crowd to shake hands with
him. But I never thought of being a lawyer. That was nothing I wanted to
do. My father never urged me toward anything. In fact, I don't recall my
parents' ever asking me if my homework was done. I don't think we did
homework in those days. I carried my books home every night and then
carried them back to school, but I don't think I ever opened them. I
don't recall that I did. Anyway, they were sort of dull. However, in
time I came across other books -- Tom Swift books and Tom Slade books. I
didn't care for them really. We subscribed to the Country
Gentleman, and Zane Grey had serialized novels in it. But I didn't
like them. I don't know how I learned so early, but anyway I didn't care
for them at all. But one day we moved at last to a little town called
Shawmut, and in one corner of a building there was a small library. There
was an elderly lady who took care of the library, but she would never let
you touch the books; she would go bring you one. And one day she kept
bringing books and I didn't want to read them -- I didn't like them -- so
she told me to go look for myself. So I went back, and I found a book
called Father Goriot by Balzac -- I'd never heard of him. It had
no pictures in it and had very small print and looked very unpromising,
but I took it home. And that night I read this book. I don't know that I
read all night, but I read a long time. That was my first approach to
literature. And I never turned back. After then I read adult books when
I could get them. I think the only other book I read about that time was
Treasure Island, which was a children's book and an adult book as
well. I looked at it again not long ago, and I think it is still a
classic, a very fine book.
Now this town you mentioned,
Shawmut, where you encountered the library and the works of Balzac, was in
JS: Yes it was.
JM: From there you came up to
Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee.
JS: Well, not from
there. We moved again.
JM: But from the state of Alabama you
came to LMU?
JS: I did. I graduated from high school there in
Fairfax, Alabama, and then I went up to Lincoln Memorial. The way I
happened to get there was we had a substitute teacher, or rather, one of
the teachers left school and they hired a man through a teachers' agency.
All my teachers were women -- well, I recall one who wasn't -- all the way
through school until this man. And one day he said his father was dean of
a school in Tennessee and he left some catalogues on his desk if anybody
wanted one. So I saw in reading it that they had work programs. And when
I graduated, I went there. I didn't have any money, but I went. They
didn't know what to do with me, but they kept me. I was very small -- you
wouldn't believe it. So they signed me up in the Academy; they couldn't
imagine I was college age.
JM: Now, we're sitting here at a
literary event. There's a writer here to be interviewed. What kind of
literary events or literary influences did you encounter at Lincoln
JM:Well, you had access to a
library there, I'm sure.
JS: Oh, yes, that was the main thing
about that school, and it's the main thing about any school as far as I'm
concerned. If you've got a good library, that's about all you need. Oh,
it's good to have a few teachers to lead you and to direct you to the
library where the information is. I think a teacher should just crack
the door open. That's all you can hope to do. That's all I ever hoped to
do when I tried to teach. I did work in the rock quarry in the afternoons
and then in the evening as a janitor in the library. I was always too
tired to study. I didn't have time to study. I don't suppose I did very
much. But I did have that library. As soon as it closed at nine o'clock,
I locked the door, swept the floors, emptied the wastebaskets quickly.
And then I had this marvelous library all to myself. Some nights I never
left. I slept in the magazine room. Anyway, I was like a child in a
candy store: I didn't know where to start eating. It was frustrating.
JM: That was not your only college campus experience. What about
the situation as you found it at Vanderbilt or later at Illinois?
JS: I think I should mention, before I go on, Harry Harrison
Kroll, who was there at LMU as a teacher. I did have a couple of classes
under him. I sat in his classes anyway. One was called the teaching of
composition. We just wrote compositions: that's all we did, one a day.
And I had a Shakespeare class. We would read the parts in class. I usually
would sit back with my book and another book inside of it. Anyway, I
tried to make up for that later.
JM: There were some
connections, of course, between Harry Harrison Kroll and some of those
teachers at Vanderbilt. Did you encounter any different kind of literary
scene at Vanderbilt when you were there?
JS: Oh, yes, it was
quite different. Well, I don't want to give the wrong idea about Lincoln
Memorial. I'm sure it's greatly improved since my day: they had no where
else to go. I think it's a standard school nowadays, like any other. And
I appreciated the chance to be there. I went with nothing and came away
with a little bit more than that. But anyway, I went to Vanderbilt to
graduate school. I don't know why they let me in, because I didn't know
anything except what I'd read. I had read madly for four years. As I
look back, they were pretty good books. Even there, I wanted to write. I
thought, then, I wanted to write things, and I did. There used to be
Sunday School magazines -- many of them that they gave out in church for
children on Sundays. Many denominations. And so I wrote and, as we say,
sold -- for a dollar, two dollars, three dollars -- little articles on
various subjects. I don't know what they were about, but I do remember
that I did it.
JM: So you were already at that time behaving very
much like a writer. How do you work, now?
JS:I could say now
that I don't. I will do anything to keep out of writing. I want to with
all my heart, really, but it's very difficult to go to that desk, except
when I get to working on something, say, a long piece. Some nights I can
hardly wait for day so I can go back to work. But once it's finished,
that's it. I'm through with it.
JM: You just wait until you're
JS: Well, until some idea comes along and I want
to do it. I want to write to get rid of it, partly. You know, some idea
bothers me. I've written many stories because they bothered me. I kept
thinking about a little dialogue, the characters came to life in my head
and they begin to talk a little bit and finally I'm putting it down.
Somebody said to me once, you make it sound so easy. Well, it wasn't I
don't think. But I didn't have any large ambitions. I just wanted to
write one poem, and then, of course, in a little while I had to write
another one, and pretty soon another one. It's sort of a disease, I
think: once you get it, there's no cure. The same way with stories. I'll
have to say I've known a good many unhappy writers. I read about them and
hear about their great unhappiness. I think they had unrealistic goals,
maybe. And I don't think I was ever unrealistic about it. In fact, for
the most part, this has been the happy part of my life. I enjoy doing it.
Even if nobody else reads it, that's OK. I like for everything to be
published, and I intend for it to be published. That doesn't mean that
the first magazine I send a story to is going to take it. But I don't
worry about that. Maybe they're not buying turnips today. So I send it
to the next best place. And I didn't know any better than to send them to
the Atlantic Monthly. The Atlantic, I believe, published my
first story. Is that right?
JM: Yes, and then some twelve or
thirteen pieces beyond that.
JS: But they kept changing until
whatever it is today. I don't know. I subscribe to it, but I just look at
JM:Well, after Lincoln Memorial University,
Vanderbilt, and the University of Illinois, you went over into Knott
County in east Kentucky and joined the Hindman Settlement School staff.
Can you describe that situation -- the way it was at that time?
JS: The situation was that after I got out of school with three
little degrees I still didn't have a job, even pumping gas -- no kind of
job. I even went to a foundry in Rome, Georgia. I hitchhiked around, all
over, but I never found anything. Then I ran across a man you may know
of, Don West, who had been a classmate of mine at Vanderbilt, and at
Lincoln Memorial too, and he wanted me to work in Knott County for the
summer. This was for a Vacation Bible School for the Congregational
Church. Well, I was having nothing to do with that. He wanted me to
organize Boy Scouts and the baseball teams. I worked with his
brother-in-law there all summer. We had the Boy Scouts and we played
baseball and camped all summer long. It was very pleasant. And they
asked me then to stay and work with him, which I did. They had no money
to pay us, but they did feed us and house us and furnished soap. So I
worked six years, three years with no salary. I would have been very
happy to have had one, I assure you. At that time, I liked the place.
But when I was going to have to leave -- you run out of socks,
eventually, and razor blades -- they found somebody who would send $15 a
month to keep me there, so I stayed on. Times got better and they paid a
little, and at the end of six years I figured up one day I had worked six
years for an average of six cents a day. I felt so rich, I retired. I
went nine miles away back in the country -- backwoods in those days, and
some say backwoods now. By this time I was publishing a few stories and
poems. And my publisher at Viking asked me to take a year off and they
would put me on a salary. But I was kind of proud: I wouldn't accept
their salary. But I did go back to this big log house, where I still
live, and I raised a garden and finished writing the novel River of
Earth there. Then I had the luck to have The Saturday Evening
Post take a story. That wasn't such great luck except in terms of
money: they paid very well indeed -- actually, fabulous prices for those
days. So after then I just wrote one story a year for them. That was
JM: You could sustain yourself on one story a year?
JS: Not only that, I could go to Florida for February.
JM: Robert Penn Warren said that he quit writing stories because
they robbed him of poems. Have you ever been in doubt about the way an
idea ought to go, which way it should be developed, either as a story or
JS: Well, they're two different things, so different. I think
that when I'm writing prose I don't write poems. I do recall once
writing a story and while I was working on it this idea for a verse, I
call it, came in my mind. It kept bothering me, so finally I quit and
wrote it. It wasn't a very good one. But I remember The Saturday
Evening Post published both the poem and the story.
JM: I wanted to get a response from you about the way you saw it,
because I developed this notion in a critical piece on your work that
there are many, many connections between the themes in the prose fiction
and in the poems: similar images, similar thematic developments. I
quoted from Katherine Anne Porter, who had commented on your River of
Earth and on Hounds on the Mountain. She said something like
this: the novel is an extension of the experience that gave rise to the
poems. She saw a connection there, too. So I've got a lot riding on
this thesis, and that's why I was asking about that.
JS: The same person was writing both of them. I think they all
come from the same place. The poems are just a little shorter. I've
written two this past year. I think I don't have another one in me.
Last winter I was driving one night in the fog, and a fox flared up in
front of me, and I ran over it and killed it. I felt pretty bad about
that, and I kept thinking about it. In fact, I wrote a letter to you on
some other subject and mentioned this, but when I mentioned it I had to
write the poem, which I did the next day.
JM: People are interested in the lives of writers maybe more
than they ought to be, because after all it's the work that matters,
it's what gets written that matters. And yet there's this persistent
interest in the way it gets written. You think about all those Paris
Review volumes, interviews with writers called Writers at
Work, and so forth. I think this is probably a legitimate
interest, after all. One of the things that interests me particularly
in your work is that it is so beautifully focused on this one
particular part of world, really eastern Kentucky, and one particular
phase of its history and its culture, and yet I know you have a
longstanding interest in Central America. Is there any connection
between these two things or are they just two things you happen to be
JS: I've had a longstanding interest in a number of things. I
used to go off on jags reading in a certain area. For example, I was a
Civil War buff for many years. I read every book on it I could get hold
of. And then one day I got through, and I didn't read another one and
may never read another one. Well, I might. I was interested in Tibet
once. I'm interested in mountain climbing. I have quite a library on
mountain climbing in the Himalayas. But I've always been interested in
primitive peoples. Now I'm not saying that the people where I live are
primitives, but they're more so than they are in Lexington or
Louisville. I would read anything about, say, the aborigines in
Australia. Once I got interested in the South Sea islands, and I read
everything I could possibly find. I just had to go there, but I
couldn't. And I haven't got there yet. But that doesn't mean I'm not
going. Oh, yes, Central America. Well, I don't know how to start it,
really. In the winter of 1971, I decided to go to Yucatan. I was hired
to teach a little winter semester, and they paid me a $1,000, and I
decided I would spend it on a trip to Yucatan, which I did, and I was
hooked when I went down. So since then, I've been there five times, and
to Guatemala five times and to Honduras a couple times and very briefly
in El Salvador and southern Mexico -- to Chiapas and Tabasco.
I'm interested in Mayan civilization. That's the main thing. And I
believe the thing that holds me is the great mystery of the
disappearance of the Mayan people -- the virtual disappearance within
fifty to one hundred fifty years. There seems to be no logical
explanation for it. And the usual ones don't apply, apparently -- the
ones you would think of right off -- disease, earthquakes, and so on.
After all, these people lived in several different conditions. A great
many scholars are working on this and I have been reading after them.
I don't do any digging, I assure you, in that 140 degree temperature. I
just want to go down and see again. And then when I learn more I want
to go and look again. I didn't go the past winter, but winter before
last I was in Belize, that is, British Honduras, and Guatemala again.
I may go this year.
JM: I believe you got in a little trouble down there one year,
JS: Yes, a little more than that, I think.
JM: I'm referring to 1977.
Yes, I was in El Salvador on the streets
when there was an
uprising. It was the beginning, at least for me -- I didn't know
anything about it -- it was the beginning of the civil war which has
been going on ever since. I flew down to Mexico City. Of course, they
never tell you these things before you get there. Somebody should have
warned me. And I flew into El Salvador. When I hired a taxi to take
me to the hotel, he took me only part way, because the barbed-wire was
across the street. I had to walk the rest of the way. But I didn't
see anybody. I didn't know there had been a curfew for a week.
Anyway, I went to the hotel. I usually stay in a good hotel when I go
to a country I haven't been in before, so I'll be OK. Than maybe I'll
move the next day. But there were no guests in the hotel, as far as I
could see. And in the dining room that night, which was a beautiful
place, a marvelous place, there were only two people. That afternoon
I walked around. I went to a church, which was filled with people,
and I am fairly certain I heard a sermon by the cabinet official who
was later assassinated during Mass. That was the church, I'm almost
certain. I walked around and soldiers came out and looked at me. They
say I was Americano, and you know, Americanos don't have much sense
from their point of view. As my hotel had no tourist office, I was
told that there was one in another hotel nearby. When I got there,
there was a sign saying that we should call a certain number, which I
did. A lady answered, and I told her where I wanted to go. I wanted
to go to Santa Ana to see the Mayan ruins there, and she said that she
had a trip the next day and maybe she could talk the others into
going. But she said, "It will be a very long day." Talk about
The next day the curfew was over, the streets were crowded, and I
though I would walk up to the tourist office again. I remember there
were so many people on the main avenue there that I walked in the
gutter. But then the stores did not open; the great metal covers were
all fastened down. It's a very beautiful city, incidentally, and very
modern -- this part of it anyway. This was the main avenue going up
to the government buildings. At a little distance I saw a group of
marching people. I thought they had swords, but they actually had
iron bars, as it turned out. I watched them. They marched up to a
bus. Everybody jumped off. They threw a bottle of gasoline in and
started burning it. Then they started turning over cars and pulling
people out. There were no police, no soldiers anywhere that I could
see. And I wondered about that.
Then all of a sudden people began to run every which way, like turkeys
in a thunderstorm. There was the sound of just running feet. I
didn't know, of course, what had happened. What had happened was that
the army had blocked us in with tanks. There was no escape. Pretty
soon they began to fire into the crowds. There were over 200 killed
that day, according to the report in Newsweek. I was right
there among them, trying to stay out of groups. I got up against the
wall. Two little groups came to me and begged me to join them. You
know, it would have been real nice to have an American assassinated
that day for publicity. I kept saying, "No Espa~nol." I knew what
they were saying, but I didn't go.
When the first rush came I was out in the street and I was swept off
my feet, but I never did touch the sidewalk. I was just pushed and I
managed to get to my feet again. I had a straw hat on, and it went
sailing somewhere. You won't believe this, but somebody brought
that hat back and pulled it down way over my ears. Sometime that
morning a little boy rushed up to me -- maybe he was ten -- and he
spoke in English and he said in anguish, "What do you think of my
Well, I kept trying to stay out of groups. It looked like they
were firing wherever a little group came together. And riot guns
sound like firecrackers: they don't sound dangerous. To me they
didn't. I saw a big cathedral, and I decided to go toward it, but
when I got there the iron gates were chained. So I started going
toward what I thought were government buildings, and they were. I
got in front of the census bureau -- about the size of this room,
very small. I was across the street from it. A big gentleman was
standing there. He didn't look like a native; he was too tall. He
didn't speak to me. I decided that this was his post. As we stood
there, here came a truck with soldiers firing bursts once in a
while, left and right. And there was nowhere to go. But the man
turned to me -- he had a big key -- and he opened a door and said, "come into the American house." That
was the name of this little pensi'on, this little boarding house, which had eleven
remember. He went in and told me to sit down, and I did, and he
Eventually the boarders, who were in their rooms, came out. I
stayed there all day, and the firing went on all day. It went on
until 3:30 the next morning. They shared their food. They had had
no deliveries of food for a week. I think we had fried bananas and
plantains or something. We had very little to eat. Anyway, the
next day the water came on, lights came on. It was all over. I
went back to my hotel and asked them if they could get a taxi to
take me to the airport. They did. I felt so good when I got out
of the main street.
But when I got to the airport, of course the army was there. A
plane was going to Costa Rica within 30 minutes. I was booked on
it -- I had an open ticket already. But when I started to board
the plane, they wouldn't let me get on. They took me back into the
station and detained me for five hours. They asked for a picture.
Well, I had one on the passport, but I had no other picture. I
once wanted to go to the restroom, and there was a soldier there
with a big gun with a bayonet on the end of it. He wouldn't let me
in. Somebody finally let me in, and he noticed and went right up
behind me and stood there.
JM:When that sort of thing happens, do you ever keep notes
or keep a journal? Did you ever think of making a piece of writing
out of anything like that?
JS: No, but I wrote a letter the next day to Mr. Perrin at
Berea, which you might read someday. No, I never did.
JM: Well, have you kept anything like a journal, or have you
made notes either on these travels or on just day-to-day living in
JS: Yes, I have day-books. I've kept them for 35 years about
every facet of life in this area where I live, Knott County mainly,
but all around -- Pike County and Harlan County -- and I think it's
a valuable record because it can never be done again. After all
these little writings of mine have faded away, which may not be too
long, these day-books will probably be a valuable collection for
folklorists, sociologists, and so on.
JM: I think I'm beginning to see the connection, then, between
your interest in that passing way of life there and the passing way of
life that you've been studying down in Central America. Is that the
connection, do you think?
JS: It's partly, yes, I think so. I don't know that I study.
I just let it happen. I just read for fun, and if the information
sticks in my head, that's fine.
JM: I mentioned a moment ago Saul Bellow. I mentioned Robert
Penn Warren. I mentioned Katherine Anne Porter. Who are some of the
writers that you have known, maybe some of these among them?
JS: I really haven't known any of them, to tell the truth. I
did know Robert Frost somewhat over the many years. I used to see him
occasionally at one place or another. And as you said, Katherine Anne
Porter and Elizabeth Bishop and Eleanor Clark. When I say I know
these people, I mean I've met them and talked with them.
JM: Well, you must have had some impression of them.
JS: Well, yes, those I met at Yaddo I did, because I was with
them a great deal, especially in the winter of 1951 when we were
frozen in. This was our company for many hours a day.
JM: There's a biography, published recently, of Katherine Anne
Porter, and a lot of people have been going back over that long life.
She was born I believe in 1890 and lived to be 90 some years old. Was
she there in '51?
JS: She was always there when I was. Let's see, she was there
in '40, '41, and '51. I knew her best through that winter, as I told
you. We'd sit at breakfast for hours. After all, the snow was very
deep and it never melted. We just had some more snow. We lived
within a very small perimeter there. So we used to talk. And that's
pretty good company -- Elizabeth Maddox Roberts, Elizabeth Bishop, and
Eleanor Clark. I remember for a long time it was just we four. And
Yaddo being what it is, we had four people and four cooks, so we ate
most of the time. And played ping-pong. Katherine Anne was a very
JM: I got to thinking recently again about how much you have
dealt in both your fiction and poetry with horses. And now I learn
that there was this early book in your home, Anatomy of the
Horse. Your father was a veterinarian, who went out and treated
horses. You have some special affinity for horses, obviously.
JS: I like them alright. I never owned one. I might be able
to buy one but I can't feed him. A horse eats more than you do.
JM: You've even written a poem about "Man O' War," that great
JS: Well, an epitaph.
JM: I heard you read that on National Public Radio, which is,
by the way, another phase of your writing that you've taken on the
last few years. For the benefit of people who haven't been listening
to NPR, tell what it is you do there.
JS: Well, I do three-minute spots. I do a whole bunch of them
at one time. I don't read them, though the last bunch I did write out
a little bit and then looked at them. But up until now I haven't
read them. I go over to the Appalshop film studios and do a dozen at
a time. They're sent up to Washington and occasionally they put one
on. I hardly ever hear them. If I'm at home, they call me, and I
might listen. But I usually pick them up on the car radio when I'm on
the road somewhere.
JM: Well, you usually work a poem into those comments, don't
JS: I do sometimes, yes.
JM: I remember you did the one about the bad-man, "Are You Up
There, Bad Jack?" recently.I'll bet there's someone in
who is interested in writing. Do you have any advice for anyone
seriously interested in taking up the craft or the art or the
JS: Not long ago I read somewhere about an actress. I'd never
heard of her, but she was quite famous. She was ninety-two. And they
asked her, "Do you have some advice for an actor or an actress who's
already here in New York trying to get ahead?" She said, "Yes. Go home."
JM: That's not very encouraging.
JS: Well, I think if you need to do it -- I suppose I did -- you
do it. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't had this need to do it. I've
never written a story with just the idea of publishing it, except once,
and it was very bad. It's been called my best by a few people. That's
inevitable. However, I don't know what to advise them. I certainly
would get a good all around education -- I think I would do that -- and
if you can't help it, well all right. Good luck to you.
JM: We talked about the schools you went to and the composition
classes you attended. This was pretty much expository writing, wasn't
it? But what about courses devoted exclusively to imaginative writing --
novels, short stories, poems, and plays? Are they helpful, do you think?
Would you advise people to take them?
JS: I think writing, as everybody knows, is a pretty lonely
profession, if you can call it a profession. A vocation, or whatever it
is. The chances of making a living at it are very slim. When you get
into commercial writing, that's another field. I'm not talking about
that. I don't know anything about that; it's another world altogether.
I think you've got to be willing to live the life of a writer. That is,
it's got to be one of your priorities and maybe your main one. You've
got to make a living somehow. In my case, I taught school. I'm not sure
that's the best place to be. However, it's about the only shelter writers
have had in the last quarter of a century, I suppose -- a place where you
can be certain of making a living and be near your own subject. I think
it's a different matter for every person who wants to go into it. People
speak about ambition. I never thought for a moment that I'd write as
many stories or poems as I have or that anybody would pay any attention
to them. I'll tell you how I learned, if anybody can ever say. When I
was at Lincoln Memorial, people used to send to the library old magazines
and other things they didn't want. Among the magazines that would come
to the library was The Atlantic Monthly. I began to read it, and
I liked it and I decided I wanted to write something for it. I just
wanted to write one piece for the magazine. I was supposed to save one
copy and then burn the others in the furnace. But I would save one for
the library and one for myself. That summer I sent home maybe as many as
fifty copies of The Atlantic. I wasn't in school that summer. I
went home -- it was during the Depression and there was no work -- and
read and studied those magazines,. I read everything in them. I think
that's where I learned, if I did. The Atlantic was a magazine of
some prestige in those days -- less so now.
JM: Well, you've done some teaching in colleges and universities
and taken part in writers' workshops, and people have submitted to you
poems and stories. What quality in a poem or a story would suggest to you
that there may be some promise?
JS: I never taught creative writing. However, I have read
manuscripts and I'll be perfectly frank. Only once have I read a
manuscript that I knew was the real thing. I never had any doubt about
it. In fact, this person, who was a senior in the University of
Kentucky, came up to Morehead, and he submitted three short stories. I
read them and had him in for an interview. But what I said to him was, "I'm not going to talk about these stories. This is professional work.
And I want to advise you, for one thing, to stay away from writers'
conferences because you have nothing to learn from them. You're already
a professional. Frankly, I don't like any of these stories. They don't
interest me, but it's professional writing, and I think all three can be
published." So what we talked about instead of the manuscripts was how he
could go about being a writer, living the life of a writer. Several
years ago at the University of Kentucky he was present at a little
seminar I was giving there, and he came up to me and said he wanted to
thank me for what I did for him. This man by now has published many
books; he's famous all over the country. But I began to feel very proud
that I had recognized his talent. Now, I didn't discover him; he
discovered himself. Well, I said " I didn't do anything for you. I just
told you that you have already arrived, in a sense." He said, "No, that
wasn't it." He said, "What you did for me was that you were the first
person who ever showed any confidence in my work and that was the thing
that meant something to me." I believe those were the words.
JM: Would you care to say who you're talking about?
JS: Wendell Berry.
JM: Well, this business of managing life. Is that what you were
doing all that time even though it looked as though you might not be
getting on in the conventional sense -- working six years for an average
of six cents a day? You were getting on as a writer, weren't you?
JS: Not in Kentucky. And not anywhere in the South. Although I
was publishing all over, really -- in Esquire, The Saturday Evening
Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The Yale Review, The Nation, The New
Republic, and The Sewanee Review -- still I do not recall
anybody in that area ever telling me they had read a book of mine. Not
once. So apparently I can work without very much encouragement. I wasn't
doing it for anybody anyway --- just for myself.
JM: Well, you know all that has changed now.
JS: Oh, yes, there are a few school teachers.
JM: It took people a while to find out about you. They're
reading you now.
JS: I recall that a professor at the University of Kentucky
thought that students in the high schools and colleges in the state did
not know about its poets, and should know. So he brought together a
collection of eighty-seven Kentucky poets. At that time I was publishing
in all these magazines, but I was not one of them. I didn't make it.
JM: What should I have asked you that I didn't?
JS: It seems to me you've covered a lot of ground. I don't
know. I've heard people talk about the craft of writing, in the Paris
Review volumes, but you'll notice that they're never talking about
the art. They always talk about the craft. And I'm a little
superstitious about it. When I was a child, we never dared look in the
well. It was said if you were going to die that year you would see
yourself in your casket. So we would draw our water without looking.
I'm a little fearful of looking into, shall we say, the wellsprings of
creativity. I don't know what I would find there. I'm not sure why I
do these things. I'm not sure. I don't know. I just do it.
Thanks to Sandy Hudock for sharing this essay, which can also be found on her website for James Still.