Josephine Humphreys, 1985 PEN/Hemingway Winner for Dreams of Sleep
Q: Were you raised in Charleston, South Carolina… the setting of Dreams of Sleep?
A: Yes— born and raised. And I still live here. In fact, the Dreams of Sleep neighborhood is very similar to those where I have lived, and the city is, in spirit, the real Charleston as I knew it. Only traces of that old city of mine still exist. I’ve lived here now for 73 years, minus a few for college and graduate school.
Q: Dreams of Sleep is about the complicated marriage of Alice and Will. Were they modeled after anyone you knew?
A: Not at all. I don’t like using real people as models for fictional characters, and if characters start to resemble people I know, I lose interest in them. But I do think the idea of a crumbling marriage has always been deeply set in my head, based on what I knew of my grandparents’ divorce. Alice and Will, however, are not even remotely similar to my grandparents, and don’t really resemble any particular people I know. An interviewer once asked my husband if he recognized himself in Dreams of Sleep. He said, “No. But I did recognize my undershirt.” And he was right about the undershirt.
Q: Would you consider yourself a southern writer?
A: I am a Southerner, and I write. So, yes. But of course more is implied. I stand with Mary Hood, who once said, “Yes, I’m a Southern writer, and I don’t consider it an affliction.” The South is a place of contradiction and mystery, and that’s why it’s a good place for writers. It’s also a place where storytelling is the primary mode of communication. We think in stories. We’re comfortable with stories.
Q: Do you currently live on Sullivan’s Island and Johns Island. What is that like?
A: It sounds strange, I grant you. But actually, Johns Island isn’t perceptibly island-like. To get there from the city limits, you just have to cross one river. We have a three-room house there, with a vineyard, a vegetable garden, and a fishing creek. My husband grows grapes and makes wine. On Sullivan’s Island we’re living where six generations of my family have spent summers. My grandfather’s house was built from the wreckage of a boat found on the beach; my mother and father, all by themselves, built their one-room house nearby in 1957. My first cousin lives behind us, another first cousin lives behind that, more cousins are down the road, and my sister is five blocks away.
Both of our islands are vulnerable to hurricanes and rising sea level, and will someday, no doubt, be inundated. A sense of impermanence is good for a writer.
Q: Who at Duke University and Yale (where you secured your MA) inspired you to become a writer?
A: I chose Duke after reading an article in Seventeen Magazine about Duke’s writer-in-residence, Reynolds Price. I’d read his just-published first novel, A Long and Happy Life, and from the opening sentence (a whole page long), I was hooked. Equally powerful was the photo featured in the magazine article. Reynolds looked like Elvis. I wanted to be where he was. Luckily I was accepted at Duke, and even more luckily I got into Reynolds Price’s freshman writing class. Every minute of it, in fact every instant, was inspiring. But it was Reynolds’s own teacher, the gruff and melancholy William Blackburn, still teaching Elizabethan poetry, who convinced me that I might actually succeed as a fiction writer. I adored him.
Q: What was it like having your book Rich in Love made into a movie? Did you work with Albert Finney and Jill Clayburgh?
A: Richard Zanuck, the producer, said he never allowed novelists on the set because they always caused trouble. But he’d heard that I wasn’t a troublemaker, so he invited me to hang around and watch. I was only an observer, which is what I wanted to be. I was there from 7 AM to midnight every day for more than two months, and when it was over Zanuck told me I probably knew more about the process than anyone else there. Albert Finney was so much fun to be around. He practiced his Charleston accent even off set, and it was perfect. Jill Clayburgh was smart and totally delightful. Bruce Beresford, the director, was a genius.
Q: What is your favorite Ernest Hemingway book or story?
A: To be honest, I still love “Hills like White Elephants” because it was the first Hemingway work I ever read. I was fifteen. It blew me away. I had been a big reader for years, but I’d never come across anything like it. I was shocked that fiction could be made this way. I probably read it twenty times, until I almost knew it by heart.
Q: Do you remember where you were when you won the PEN/Hemingway Award?
A: I don’t! At my age, there are many things-- many important events, moments, and even people-- that have quietly slipped out of my head. Ironically and pathetically, I do remember what I wore to the award ceremony.
Q: Are you working on any new projects at the moment?
A: I’m working on a novel.
And I’m working on something else, something about Haiti, but I don’t really know what it is. Some years ago I got interested in colonial St. Domingue because I had ancestors there, and I wanted to know more about them. But that narrow personal interest soon gave way to an interest in how the Haitian slave society resembled but also differed from slavery in the American South. Over time I’ve found that my strongest motive for writing is curiosity. I write in order to discover, and maybe to understand. Sometimes that entails research, sometimes it’s just a matter of thinking and wondering.
Q: What is the best way for your readers to stay in touch with you?
A: Facebook works.