AN INTERVIEW WITH ROMULUS LINNEY
Mary Flinn: This is Mary Flinn. I'm in Sewanee, Tennessee, talking to Romulus Linney, to whom we are most grateful for having "Fugue" in Blackbird.
You've turned your hand to novels, plays, and stories; and all, to me, seem to show a very finely tuned ear to voices of the characterssomething that would seem pretty necessary to a playwright. Is there a particular reason that plays always attracted you more than the other narratives, and do you think that the sound of voices is a particular kind of music that you enjoy making?
Romulus Linney: Yeah, no doubt, Mary. It was an evolution. I was an actor first, so that ear was very much developed. I went to the Yale drama school as an actor, and then I got drafted into the army, and something changed, and I came back and became a director. When I directed my thesis production for a degree, I had to admit I was trying to make the play look like I wrote it. So I came into New York, but I was scared of writing plays. I never thought I could do anything like that, so I wrote fiction; and, after a terrible startI was an awful writerI did get better. And I was lucky enough to get into a workshop run by Hiram Hayden [of Atheneum, "the last of the Maxwell Perkins editors"], and he published the novel that I was working on.
MF: Which one was that?
RL: Heathen Valley. So then I wrote another novel and then a play. Then, later, I wrote a third novel, but I've cannibalized all the novels into plays.
MF: Heathen Valley is one of my favorites of your plays, as a matter of fact.
RL: Yes, the play that I made out of the novel, I think, in many ways, is superior to the novel. The evolution was obvious: Heathen Valley was fairly densely written, with a lot of description of something that happened in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1840's. The second novel [Slowly by Thy Hand Unfurled] was a woman's diary, which was really like a long aria, actuallyan almost illiterate woman keeping a diary, teaching herself to write while she has all sorts of troubles at home, to put it mildly. Then a third book was really a book of short stories all connected.
MF: Jesus Tales [Jesus Tales: A Novel]?
RL: Yeah, all very much connected. So it was pretty much a normal progression, I think. Once the first play got done at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in the first season of the Mark Taper Forumit was very successful therethen I was on my way.
MF: I can hear the voices of the different characters so clearly . . .
RL: Well, every playwrightyou do that; you have an ear for voice, or you don't. But, when you write dialogue, you're trying to make it spontaneous and interesting and this, that, and the other; but you also must move the story forward, move the play, the situations forward. So it's not just ear. There's a lot of demand put on you because you can't indulge yourself; you've got to cut everything that does not move [the play]. So that was all good. And lately, in the last few years . . . I was never able to write short stories, I don't know why, but I've been trying to do that. I write one-act plays quite well, but I'm now trying to do stories.
MF: You've done adaptations, like A Lesson Before Dying and Unchanging Love, as well as the plays that have come like Heathen Valley. With A Lesson Before Dying and Unchanging Love, one of them is pretty faithful to the novelA Lesson Before Dying; and then Unchanging Love takes pretty strong liberties with where Chekhov set his storyyou put it in Appalachia. How do you decide what you're going to do with that?
RL: I have a way of looking at that. I think that, when you do an adaptation for the theater, it's either a marriage or a love affair. If it's a marriage, you're faithful. There's a contract, and you make certain agreements between yourself and the work, and you realize that you're going to stay very strictly within limits, and you're going to do all of this. And so tremendous is my esteem and affection of many years for Ernest Gaines, there was no question but that I would be a very faithful adapterwhich I did do. With the Chekhov story, "In the Ravine" or "In the Ditch" or whatever you want to call it, according to the translation, is a very famous, longish story of Chekhov's, one of his best. And here, because it didn't have any dramatic shape to it, to put on the stage . . . but what it did have was that the Russian far country, wherever Chekhov was writing about, was very much like Appalachia around the turn of the centurythe people and the towns and all of that, very much the same. So that I thought was good. And the central story I kept quite well; it's very faithful to the central story. But then, what I added to give it a kind of a lift, to make it theatrical, was the idea that there's a family of folksingers involved in this, so they sing folk songs throughout. Otherwise, it's not that far off, but it is a love affair. In other words, I did say, "I love this story, I think the world of it. Nobody respects Chekhov more than I," but I really do believe that, if Chekhov was looking at me, he would say, "If you want to do this, do it in your own terms."
MF: There's a central truth to what you're doing in the story there that is equal to the truth that you paid to Ernest Gaines.
RL: In a way, but it's more like, you're in love in marriage, and you're in love in a love affair. But in a love affair, a lot of crazy things happen. So, I think I take advantage of that.
MF: Thinking of Unchanging Love and the fact that you do set that in the Appalachian Mountains, and I know your family is from around Boone [North Carolina]I think there's a Linney Mountain down there . . .
RL: There used to be a Tater Hill that was owned by my great-grandfather, whole top of a mountain, which has all sorts of stories connected to it. He would live there in the summertime in his later years. Yeah, my father's familyactually my great-uncle's familyowned the house there, but my father was always welcome, and his father was always welcome. And during the Depression, my father went back to Boone, and I lived for four years of my early life in Boone. So the voices . . . I think that, in my plays, the Appalachian plays, the pitch of the voices is a little sharper. The other plays are okay, at their best, but the pitch of the voices is a little sharper because I heard that when I was a child.
MF: And there does seem to me to be a tremendous affection in, say, the end of Heathen Valley, for that landscape and that place.
RL: You never forget that as a child. To me the mountains are always mysterious and beautiful and full of a lot of very deep feeling. My father died when I was thirteen, and I've missed him all my life. He loved the mountains; he just waited for the summer, when he could leave his practice and, for two weeks or three weeks, go up into the mountains and fish and hunt. I never became much of a hunter or fisherman, but I tried a little bit. But I remember him, and it's through his love of the mountains really that I . . .
MF: So, in a way, when you're writing about the Appalachian Mountains, that's a way of writing for your father?
RL: I wish he was alive to read it.
MF: Lee Smith's father said he always liked to have a mountain to lay his eyes on.
RL: Oh sure. Well, people who live in the mountains, you know, they get sick when they leave there. When you get up there . . . I don't know now, because Boone is like Woodstock now, but in the 'thirties, I know people would get sick when they had to go off the mountain. They didn't want to. The water was never right, this was never right, that was never right, they weren't ever happy until they got back.
MF: Now, being down here at Sewanee, being up on this mountain always reminds me of being in my mountains up in Wytheville [Virginia]. Does it remind youand you've traveled; you've gone out from here and gone back to Boone or that area?
RL: Oh yeah, sure, I'm very familiar with all this. In fact, I went back one Sunday, early on when I was teaching here; I went back to Madison, Tennessee, where we lived after Boone, and I found the house that we lived in, which is in many ways connected to the sadness of my father's death. Whoever lives there takes wonderful care of the house. It's in great shape, in a lovely little neighborhood; and I drove around it three or four times, took pictures of it, and thought, "Well, that's very nice. That's really good. Great. Fine. This is terrific." And then I found myself parking in a McDonald's parking lot and sobbing for fifteen minutes.
MF: You and Charles Wright are two interesting writers to me, who've gone far afield from either Kingsport [Tennessee] or Boone, and yet the Appalachian Mountains still turn up in your work with some regularity.
RL: Well, the great thing about the Appalachian Mountains is that they are about the oldest things on the earth. It's Precambrian sandstone, I think, and there's a sense of enormous age, and as permanent as anything is, and that's really quite wonderful. That's why the Scottish, when they saw the mountains, said, "This is home," because it's very much like the mountains of Scotland.
MF: And they brought their songs and their stories with them.
RL: They sure did. They sure did.
MF: But also, time seems to me somewhat permeable in many of your plays. They remind me of dream time in terms of the structure, of living in several moments simultaneously. Are you attracted to time in particular as a way to tell your stories?
RL: I don't think about it. The play that I'm working on now is a play about the poet Delmore Schwartz. He has a wonderful poem called, "Calmly We Walk Through This April Day," and the last lines are, "Time is the school in which we learn, / Time is the fire in which we burn." Famous poem. I really like that, and I think that somehow has a lot, I think it's very important that . . . A wonderful photographer, Jill Krementz, wrote a wonderful book [How It Feels When a Parent Dies], in which she took pictures of children whose parents had died when they were at an early age and just took down some of their feelingsit's a marvelous book. I think that, when that happens to you at a very early age, you have a very deep, rock-bottom sense of loss and permanence and how one affects the other. And I think that's pretty much throughout the work; and, if that's what you mean by time or a feeling of time, I think that would certainly be true.
MF: Shades of other playwrights seem to kind of hover behind some of your plays. I'm thinking April Snow has some of the wit of Noel Coward, and Childe Byron, to me, has a little feel of Strindberg in it from time to time. But who were your favorites . . . the playwrights that you read from the past, and who are some young people who are writing good plays now that you might recommend?
RL: Well, doing the [last] first, I think the most interesting playwright in New York right now is Donald Margulies, whose play, Dinner with Friends, won the Pulitzer Prize. Of course, Edward Albee is having a great resurgence of his powers, which are marvelous. There are many, many, many fine, fine people, but I'm very partial to Donald because, at Sundance back in the 'eighties, I heard a reading of a play of his, which, unfortunately, according to theatrical chance, was not successful; but I thinkand he agreedit's just absolutely marvelous, a wonderful play. It's called What's Wrong with This Picture? And I have been a great fanwe're friendsand I've been a great fan of his ever since. So I put him as the guy who's going to dowho's already donewonderful things and is going to continue. He's in mid-career, and he's going to do all sorts of wonderful things.
As far as influences, well, Faulkner, of course. You can't be Southern, I don't think, and not be tremendously indebted to him. He just did so much for me. I had little sense of myself and my background. I went to Oberlin College; I wanted to get as far away from the South as I could. I went to Oberlin College, and a lot of things about the South I didn't like. But that was it, you know, and he showed me what my youth and childhood had really been. I only read Faulkner at the end of my senior year. I just picked up a used book and read "The Bear," with astonishment, so then I read everything. And that was one of my problems, because, when I'd stopped being an actor and a director and tried to write, I was writing this fantastically logorrhean, Faulknerian, diarrhea kind of prose.
Another writer whom I really liked very much was a Swedish writer I found named Pär Lagerkvist. And Lagerkvist had a steely, controlled kind of prose, and that helped me a lot. I liked what he wrote, and I liked the way he wrote it. It was something quite different, and it really sort of helped me control things a little more.
MF: It fascinates me what you have to do in a play to keep things moving, because the dialogue does have to serve so many purposes.
RL: One of the big things you have difficulty with when you teach playwriting is to make young students understand that. You can't do thatplays aren't arguments, they are not essays. No matter how eloquent or witty or all that stuff, an audience wants an event. It doesn't have to be linear; it doesn't have to be sequential. It can be any kind of an event, but they want something to happen up there, and they want whatever's happening to have something to do with them. And you'd better learn that as a playwright, because, if you don't, you're in trouble.
MF: Something that has interested me in your work too is that you've taken historical situations like Frederick the Great [The Sorrows of Frederick] or "2" about Goering and explored things that way. The Goering play, where did that come from?
RL: I'm not quite sure, but it came mainly from my reading the transcript of the Nuremberg Trials. Goering was on the stand for eight days, and the transcript is novel-length. When I read itI'd read [William] Shirer [The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and other books on Nazism] and this, that, and the other, and I was, of course, quite aware of the war; I was a boy, but I quite knew what was happening. But Goering's testimony was astonishing as I read it, because there it was, unvarnished. That's what happened; that's what was said. It was not changed; it was real. And he behaved very well, up until the end. Finally they caught him. He was doing all sorts of stuff, of course. But he was witty; he was brave; he would not hide behind Hitler as Speer did, and so on. I thought, "Is this the horrible Hermann Goering?" And, of course, it was; and that was what interested me, that kind of ambivalence in this man who was so terribly destructive. Because it's very possible that, had Hitler not enlisted Goering in the early days of his little beer-hall party, it would never have come to prominence, because he was a war hero and all that. So I tried to write a play in which you cannot help but sympathize a little bit with this man fighting for his life and doing it well. Then, of course, at the same time, you have a thing where I've had him center-stage and put a film on top of him, against the white walls of the back of the set, which is of the horrors of the Holocaust. That really screws an audience up, which is what I wanted to do. At the premiere at the Actors Theater in Louisville, when the play was over, maybe two-thirds of the audience was on its feet, clapping and cheering; and another third was sitting there in stony fury, furious at the play for doing that, because Goering's supposed to be this . . .
I think that there wasI haven't located it yetit takes years; later you look back. I know about Frederick and Byron, where they came from. And usually, something tremendously deep in your subconscious or in your past life intersects with something that happens today or yesterday, and they set each other off. The real creative fuel, to sound pretentious, comes from this deep, subconscious, forgotten thing that really does get to you; and then the thing that has happened today gives you the form or the this or the that or the other. It's very interesting. I love to do historical work, but I can't do anything unless this mysterious process . . . it's got to somehow reach me in some way that I only realize much later. Frederick is about a father and a son, basically. Byron is about a father and a daughter. But A Woman without a Name, which is the play from the novel, Slowly by Thy Hand Unfurled, which I think is probably the best writing I'll ever do, is about one aspect of my mother. I found a little diary, started reading it; and the next thing I knew, I was tearing this novel out. It came out sort of hot from the oven; and, only years later, I said, "Oh my god!" These great, huge, bong-bonging, carillon clichés that come clanging downyou say, "My god!" But you'd better have something like that working when you're writing, because otherwise you're writing intellectuallyideas, stuff like that, none of which is interesting.
MF: The relationship between Byron and Ada in Childe Byron is deeply affecting.
RL: My wonderful daughter [Laura Linney], who has a marvelous career as an actress, whom I admire both as an artist and as a womanher mother and I were divorced. There was about a year when I could not see her because she was down in Georgia, but then she moved back to New York. But I wrote the playI started to write the play, it was a historical play about Byron; and then I discovered these marvelous lines in Childe Harold where Byron writes to the daughter he cannot see, who's in England, and he's in Europe, in exile. And so the play, on the surface, is a play about Byron but underneath it's very subtextually about myself and my wonderful daughter. In her final year at Brown University, she acted in all of the plays; and, at the end of the year, they did the play; and she played the part. That was some experience! When people say, "Are you going to do a play with your daughter, is your daughter going to do a play of yours?" I say, "We've already done that."