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Authors Got Their Start With Tales of Typhoons and Scrambled Eggs

October 31, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Author William Styron got his start as a 12-year-old writing a short story for his school newspaper about a ship in a typhoon, with a captain who ″mused darkly″ and a mate who gave a ″despondent shriek.″

Doris Grumbach’s first literary effort was titled ″A Man and His Dog.″ It was good enough to win a high school contest and help her finagle admission to college despite failing grades. She didn’t write her first novel until 37 years later.

″Eggs″ was the first piece written by novelist William Kennedy, then a college freshman. His short story about a man who ordered scrambled eggs in a diner was praised by Kennedy’s mother and his banjo teacher but panned by his father, who read it over breakfast and snapped, ″What the hell is this?″

Kennedy still has the rejection slip from Collier’s magazine. ″It taught me that you don’t trust your parents with literature,″ he said.

They were among 21 prominent American novelists, poets and essayists who took turns Monday night on the Elizabethan stage of the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger describing how they got started in the writing business.

Their readings, which focused on the theme of Eudora Welty’s book ″One Writer’s Beginnings,″ were the highlight of a 10th anniversary celebration of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, an annual prize honoring the best published works of fiction by contemporary American writers.

The award is named for the late novelist William Faulkner, who used his Nobel Prize funds to support talented young writers, and is financed by gifts, grants and an annual series of readings at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Many of the writers thanked their parents for introducing them at an early age to what Richard Bausch called ″the power of words,″ with family traditions of storytelling and book reading.

Gloria Naylor, winner of the American Book Award for first fiction for ″The Women of Brewster Place,″ said she inherited her ″passionate love of books″ from her mother, a poor Mississippi black who joined mail-order book clubs because she was barred from the local library.

Joyce Carol Oates, an award-winning novelist, playwright and essayist, said she grew up poor in Lockport, N.Y., and lived in a ″world of imagination,″ fired by her visits to the town library and hours of listening to stories read by her parents and grandparents.

″Writers begin as privileged listeners,″ she said.

After his clumsy boyhood attempt at writing an adventure story in the style of Joseph Conrad, Styron said he abandoned his literary interests in favor of moviegoing until he turned 18 and discovered Thomas Wolfe’s novels.

For five years, Styron indulged the ″intoxicating and dizzying″ pleasure of reading hundreds of books, and then began his first novel, ″Lie Down in Darkness.″ He later won a Pulitzer Prize for ″The Confessions of Nat Turner″ and the American Book Award for ″Sophie’s Choice.″

Susan Sontag described herself as ″a voluntary misfit″ as a child. ″At home in bed with a book was not only the safest place to be but the freest,″ she said.

Both Larry McMurtry and Miss Welty said they developed their love of words and keen imaginations during long periods of illness as children.

As a sickly youngster in West Texas, McMurtry said he ″lived in radioland″ listening to popular radio serials of the 1940s. When wartime bulletins pre-empted his favorite radio shows too often, he finally dipped into a box of books left by a cousin who had joined the Army, and ″the literary life began for me.″

Miss Welty said she was taken out of school at age 6 or 7 and put to bed with a heart condition for several months. She remembers that ″an opulence of story books covered my bed - they were my counterpane.″

She fell in love first with the alphabet, then ″the wizardry of the initials and letters and words″ of her fairy tales, then heard ″the voice of the story″ as she learned to read and later to write.

″I was a writer who came from a sheltered life, but a sheltered life can be a daring life, and the daring begins within,″ she said.

Other writers who joined more than 200 guests at the celebration, which included a candlelight dinner in the library’s Great Hall, were Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Hortense Calisher, Pat Conroy, Annie Dillard, Brendan Gill, Stephen Goodwin, Reynolds Price, Maurice Sendak, Mary Lee Settle, Susan Richards Shreve and Robert Stone.

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