Q: You lived in Europe from late January 1953 through late July 1955, at which time the Spanish Civil War had not been over for very long. Could you sense any lingering effects from the war?
A: Yes, there were many noticeable lingering effects of the Spanish Civil War. A number of the Spaniards I came to know had fought on Franco's side, and many had lost family members. The bad economic condition of the country during my time there derived directly from that war and from Franco's support of the Germans during World War II, which caused victorious Allies to regard him as something of a pariah until America needed airbases in Spain during the Cold War.
Another prominent effect of the war was the near-absence, through death or exile, of the old Latin humanist element of the Peninsula, not only of those who had fought for the Republic but those who had sympathized with it, and many more or less unpolitical types whom the franquistas simply had not trusted.
Q: What impressions from these years stand out most in your mind?
A: Aside from the Civil War and its lingering effects, there was great richness in the various regions of the country in people's outlooks, accents, music, and ways of life. In some cases these things had come down almost from medieval times, and if they sometimes embodied social harshness and injustice, they held much beauty and grace and strength also, and the people of the regions knew it.
I also recall my strong affinity for bullfights while I was there, though I have not seen any since that time.
Q: You are an intensely private person, even to the extent that you burned the diaries on which this book is based after you had mined them for excerpts, yet you chose to publish a deeply personal memoir of your formation as a man and as a writer. Why?
A: Over a considerable period of time I came to see that the old journal contained material that I could use to explain to myself the rather zigzag path in my earlier life. And ultimately, when the idea of deriving a memoir of apprenticeship from it took hold of me, I pared it down to the entries that would support such a memoir and discarded all the trivia and side-excursions that were not relevant for that purpose. Other writers' preserved trivia have always embarrassed me for them, and I wanted to leave no such items in my wake.
Q: I've noticed that despite your frequent references to the importance of friends in your life then and now, you often mention the relief of being alone, calling yourself a "lone wolf." Have you resolved that dilemma of your youth, "the matter of loneliness vs. the ennui of being too much with someone"?
A: I am less of a loner these days than I was back then, and have been contentedly married for about 45 years. Even during the years the memoir deals with, I was more often involved with people than the word "loner" would indicate. Yes, friends were important to me, and I have had and still have some good ones. But I think the degree of aloneness that I did maintain in that period was very helpful in that it caused me to think my own thoughts and live my own life and, in the long run, to write my own writing.
Q: You describe another young American, Pryor, as "just back from combat in Korea and wandering around Europe alone in an effort to construct his civilian self." Was this motivation a part of your own decision to live abroad?
A: Though I personally didn't last long as such, having been a combatant in the big war was a main force in the lives of my generation of veterans, just as Korea and Vietnam were for their participants and as Iraq will most likely be for those who are there now. All wars have been like that. At the time of meeting Pryor, I had managed to distance myself a bit more than he had from the experience, but it was still a part of my consciousness. Hell, it still is, way in the back of my mind.
Q: Why do you think you caught the "writing bug"? Why were you so "desperately aspirant" to become a writer?
A: I'm not sure any writer really knows how and why he or she came to be one, though many seem to be able to come up with a pat rationale. I grew up in a literate family, and as a kid, one of my heroes was an old surgeon who lived a couple of doors away from us and could furnish, usually humorously and on the spur of the moment, a full quotation from Shakespeare or the King James Bible or the Elizabethan or Romantic poets that was relevant to something that had happened or something that had been said. Thus I was early enamored of eloquent language, an affliction that stayed with me in college and turned into an ambition to write in graduate school at Columbia after the war, when my first stories were published.
Q: It seems that even as a very young man, you always had a strong idea of apprenticing yourself to the writer's trade. How did you go about doing this? Would you suggest the same method to young aspiring writers today?
A: As advice to young writers, I can only quote what I used to tell the students in a college writing class I taught in the late 1950s and early '60s, when near the end of a semester many of them would come to my office alone and ask what I thought their chances of success as a writer might be. Some could be told politely to forget it, but to most others with some promise I would say, "If you have to write, you will, though God only knows how well it will come out and be received. If you don't have to, you're probably lucky."
Q: Seeing Ernest Hemingway once at a cafe in Pamplona and again at Harry's Bar in Venice, you decided against introducing yourself both times. You made the same decision when given the opportunity to meet William Faulkner. Why?
A: I had not yet proved myself as a writer, and until I managed that I didn't feel I had a right to impose myself on established authors, however much I might admire their work.
I had in my mind a vague sort of catalog of established living writers, classified according to whether I would want to know them personally or not, and Hemingway, much as I admired his best work, was among the nots. I was always sure I would like Faulkner, even during one of his drinking spells, but I decided against using my note of introduction from his editor for the above reason.
Q: Even as a graduate student at Columbia you knew that you didn't want to stay long in New York. Why? Did you always intend to move back to Texas or did you consider remaining in Europe permanently?
A: New York was simply too large and impersonal for my tastes, and too far removed from the rural and natural scenes that have always mattered to me. I am grateful for having experienced the good things involved in living there theater, operas, symphonies, museums, bright people but I never felt the city was "mine" in a fundamental way.
Additionally, my kind of writing has never made me notably prosperous, nor have I expected it to do so. I remember thinking in the 1950s that you could live decently in New York on twenty thousand dollars a year, but I didn't have nearly that much income (today's equivalent would be about sixty thousand a year) at the time.
During most of the time covered in Myself and Strangers, I had no intention of returning to Texas. It was my background, but I was unwilling to live with its limitations. Ultimately I found it possible to live with the limitations without sharing them intimately, and I settled down in Texas for the rest of my life.
I did seriously consider staying in Spain. Madrid, unlike New York, was not an overwhelming city, but a pleasant, active place with lots of good people and things to see and do, and some of the places you could reach from there, like the Cantabrian coast, the Pyrenees, inland Andalusia, and the Gredos mountains, were unspoiled at the time and nearly devoid of tourists. The Balearics were building up to a tourist overload that has since become disastrous, but I liked them too, for the sea and the sailing.
However, my decision against remaining in Europe was linked to the writing and to the realization of the fact that if I stayed, my work would never be more than that of an alien observer. So I headed home, and home turned out to be Texas.
Q: How would you compare this new book and Goodbye to a River?
A: Myself and Strangers is quite different from anything I've published before, so it can't very easily be compared to Goodbye to a River. They are both non-fiction, of course, but Goodbye and Hard Scrabble and most of my other work have had an essentially physical basis a canoe trip, the building of a country place, etc. whereas Strangers concerns itself more with the thoughts and feelings and ups and downs of an individual, my younger self, as he tries to make sense of his life and his work. It is a much more personal book.