Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

William Hoffman's Fictional Journey: An Interview

Academic journal article Southern Quarterly

William Hoffman's Fictional Journey: An Interview

Article excerpt

WILLIAM HOFFMAN, considered by many critics to be Virginia's finest living writer, was born in Charleston, West Virginia on 16 May 1925. He spent his early years in West Virginia, before attending Kentucky Military Institute. He graduated in 1943 and joined the army, serving as a Medical Corpsman in the 91st Evacuation Hospital. The bloody fighting he witnessed during the Normandy Invasion and subsequent allied drive toward Germany informed much of his early fiction. After the war Hoffman received his BA from Hampden-Sydney College (1949). He then enrolled in law school at Washington and Lee, only to discover his passion for writing and leave, spending a year at the Writers' Workshop, University of Iowa (1950-51). He worked briefly for a newspaper in Washington, DC and a bank in New York before returning to Hampden-Sydney in 1952 as an instructor. Hoffman taught on and off at Hampden-Sydney for fifteen years, meeting his wife, Alice Sue Hoffman, there in the late 1950s. He is the father of two daughters and for almost forty years has lived at Wynyard, a historical house and farm in Charlotte Court House, Virginia. During a writing career spanning more than half a century (his first story was published in 1950 and his most recent novel, Wild Thorn, will be released in December 2002), Hoffman consistently has written at a high stylistic level, producing twelve novels, four collections of short stories, and a play. This interview took place at Wynyard on 3 August 2001.

CC: Who were your literary influences early on, when you were first publishing short stories, before the first two novels came out? Hemingway was an obvious stylistic and thematic source; who else?

WH: I went through a progression that drew me into writing and the first writer that really lit my fire was Thomas Wolfe. For a while I couldn't seem to read anyone else and I read everything he wrote. He really got me going. It took me a long time to get into William Faulkner. I would say I next read Hemingway, largely because I was over in Italy [during World War II] and I bought a very cheap copy of one of his short story collections. Then I began to read his novels. This was a golden age of writing for a reader. Of course, I also got into Fitzgerald very deeply. Later on, I admired Robert Penn Warren a lot, especially All the King's Men. I read these people while I was branching out and trying to find my own way of writing, my own voice. I don't keep up with current writers as much as I should. I do like Cormac McCarthy, for example, and there are certain books I like by some of the people I know. I like George Garrett's books and some by Fred Chappell, but I think by the time I got to those people I was pretty much set in the way I write. And I think what those early writers taught me was not so much a sense of style, I had to find my own style, but what I hoped would be a sense of integrity in what I was doing. And I was always conscious of this very fine writing that sort of set a benchmark on what I was trying to create myself.

CC: Has the kind of writing you admire changed over the years?

WH: Yes, it has somewhat. It changed, of course, when I got into William Faulkner by reading a story of his called "A Rose for Emily." That made me see what he was really doing and the depth of his writing, all the various levels and what not. In fact, I was so taken with that story that when I taught at Hampden-Sydney I had my freshmen read it and we took up three classes on it. In fact, there are people today I taught in the 1950s who see me and say, "A Rose for Emily" [laughter]. I still like Thomas Wolfe, but he reads a lot differently now than when I was a young man.

CC: Days in the Yellow Leaf (1958) was the first novel you wrote but The Trumpet Unblown (1955) was published three years before it. How did that come about?

WH: It came about this way as far as I can tell. I had an agent up there [New York City] who was just starting out and she sent Days in the Yellow Leaf around to two or three places and the last place she sent it to was Doubleday and there was an editor there who turned the book down but wrote me avery encouraging letter. …

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