Admittedly, I came to Reynolds Price’s work late in his wonderful writing career, having picked up a volume of three long stories (or novellas) The Foreseeable Future and a short novel, The Tongues of Angels by the Duke mentor in the early 90s. I was so favorably impressed that in addition to back tracking through his work I began search out—to great satisfaction— other contemporary Southern writers— Alan Gurganis, Elizabeth Cox, Brad Watson, Larry Brown, Dorothy Allison, Percival Everett and so on.
I had the privilege of conversing (actually twice or thrice) with the courtly Price who was confined to a wheelchair after surviving a malignant brain tumor and accompanying medical treatments. He was on tour for his most recently published novel at the time, Blue Calhoun:
Robert Birnbaum Is this your best book?
Reynold Price: Well, people are always telling me that this or that is my best book, I don’t have any strong sense that one or the other is best. I like this book a lot, I liked it while I was writing it. I loved Blue’s voice, he was just a good voice to hang around. I enjoyed Kate Vaiden’s voice tremendously. Kate Vaiden was, I think, very important to me because I was embroiled in writing Kate eight years ago when I found out I had cancer and I had to go through all this radiation and this nightmare stuff, and it was somehow really helpful, once I got over the initial depression of it all and got back to work, it was very helpful to sort of undergo a sex change daily. Sort of go in another room and suddenly you’re this woman, this fifty year old woman who’s been an outlaw all her life, kind of a runaway, and you’re inhabiting her. And Blue in a lot of ways is extremely different from me and in other ways he’s very like me, so I’ve, I’m a lifelong mimic. My father was the great village mimic, and everyone was always after him to imitate so and so, and I suppose I wanted to be able to get the kind of effect and the kind of applause that my father got so frequently around me in my childhood.
Robert Birnbaum: Let me ask this in another way, because I don’t understand it either when someone says “Is this your best book?” Does…you have a long career, does the talk about your work, do the critiques of your work, the conversations you have with other writers, the colloquia that you do, what does that do to your writing, how does it affect your writing?
Reynolds Price: I’m not aware that it directly affects it at all. From the very beginning of my career I’ve always tried not to read reviews which I know in advance are going to be bad reviews. And your friends always take very good care that you know that bad reviews have appeared; they always say things like, “Whatever you do, don’t look at the New Yorker,” and of course its like saying, “Do not think of the word hippopotamus in the next thirty seconds,” so you’re dying to go out and look at the New Yorker. But I really do try…you know, a bad review just messes up your morning, so why the hell read it? So I just have pretty well learned not to do that unless I stumble into one, or unless they lure you in by pretending to be respectful in the beginning, you know: “Reynolds Price, distinguished American novelist of a hundred years experience,” and then you suddenly realize he’s about to throw this machete at me in the last paragraph. I’ll tell you what I have done in very recent years that’s been a very new departure for me and that I’ve loved doing, and that is I’ve been teaching writing amongst the other things that I teach at Duke University on a one semester per year basis, and a few years ago I began to realize I was pretty bored with doing that after thirty-four years of it, thirty-odd years, and I decided to make myself a working member of the class. It’s a senior graduate class, so the people in there are from, like twenty-one to late twenties, early thirties, and I simply, I’m the kind of writing teacher who gives assignments, I mean in the beginning I will literally tell them what to write about, or at least give them the subject, like “write a thousand words on the two worst hours of your life, or the two happiest hours of your life.” So I do all of that, and then I write all of the stories that go with it, which, incidentally means that I’ve virtually got a big new book of short stories finished. But I’ve put the stories out, everybody xeroxes each others stories and we all have copies and we all write elaborate notations on each others, and I’ve got an awful lot from doing that. That’s the most intense kind of interaction with intelligent readers that I’ve ever had. I’ve never had an editor and never wanted an editor who was the old Maxwell Perkins type of “Let me write this novel with you.” I would murder anybody. I’m the most anally retentive writer I can think of in terms of “It’s mine and you can’t touch it,” but it’s been wonderful to work with the students on things.
Reynolds Price’s first published novel (1962) was entitled A Long and Happy Life—one hopes that it was a suitable title for this wonderful writer’s life story.
Rest in peace, Reynolds.