Sometime get Peter Taylor talking about how his grandfather ran against his own brother for governor of Tennessee and how they went around the state together debating and how they slept in the same bed in country hotels. People called it the War of the Roses because the rivals had each been given a rose by their mother, one red and one white. He isn't quite sure who got which, but it doesn't seem terribly important now, since it happened in 1886.
"My grandfather won," Taylor said. "He was the Democrat. Now, their father had been a landowner before the Civil War, a lawyer, went to Princeton, was considered quite scholarly . . . a minister . . . in Congress . . . commissioner of Indian affairs. He was for handling the Indians peacefully. So my family says. I never saw him."
Taylor is 68, and hardly likely to have seen his great-grandfather, but somehow it seems right that he feels compelled to mention this. A short-story writer who has been called the American Chekhov, in his daily work he habitually breathes life into generations of relatives he never saw.
"Both my grandfathers were named Robert Taylor, and my mother was named Taylor, too," he added by way of footnote. His hair is a little wild and not quite white, his large face seamed and intelligent, his voice softened by a tinge of Tennessee.
People in his stories tend to live in Memphis or Nashville or St. Louis, the towns where he grew up, and many of the fictional families -- he almost always writes about families -- seem to have two older sisters and a shadowy brother, as did his own. Once his father threatened to knock him down because he had published a story about someone who sounded just like his great-aunt.
His mother told him many of the stories that he transmutes, much as Faulkner's grandmother provided the raw material for Yoknapatawpha County. "She would tell us stories again and again, but the censorship broke down over the years, and she would reveal scandalous things that she had always buried. My grandfather was divorced -- a great scandal in those days -- and she had one version of it, but much later she revealed other things, about her stepmother coming back from Montgomery, Alabama, with a big blue spot on her arm . . . "
He remembers his Uncle Alf running for governor of Tennessee in 1922 as an old man, the first Republican since the Civil War, and his Aunt Bess, who had spoken out against him, getting on her knees before Taylor's mother to beg her forgiveness, and his mother saying, "Some things can't be forgiven."
"You have to draw from life," he said. "You can't make them up as incredible as they are. But on the other hand, you have to change people. I'll make use of a figure like my great-aunt, but I'll change it, combine it with other people. As you do this, your understanding of the people changes too. I think that writing fiction is a way of learning what you think."
You write a story, he says, to discover what it means. The same goes for the reader: You read a Taylor story, then you read it again and it is different. Characters emerge, casual remarks take on new dimensions, the very scenery that you have created in your mind shifts and shimmers.
Any region as steeped in its own past as the South is bound to turn out romantics, and we have seen one Byronic writer after another, from Thomas Wolfe to William Faulkner, mourn the dead days with their sonorous Mississippis of prose and Old Testament drama. Peter Taylor's achievement is that, while he remains a writer in the southern tradition, he has broken the bonds of the regional. It shows not only in his coolly Jamesian style but in his liberation from regional givens.
Just so, what he writes about more than anything is freedom -- the freedom that is the glory of love even as it binds.
In one 10-page jewel, "The Porte-Cochere," a tyrannical old father is visited by his five grown children on his 76th birthday. He is in his study, which he had built off the stair landing specifically so he could keep tabs on them. One son drops by on his way upstairs and the two of them exchange some home truths.
" 'My permission?' Old Ben said. 'Let us not forget one fact, Clifford. No child of mine has ever had to ask my permission to do anything whatsoever he took a mind to do. You have all been free as the air, to come and go in this house . . . You still are!' "
But in the end the old man locks himself in and starts "beating the upholstered chairs with the stick and calling the names of children under his breath."
Going far beyond Tolstoy's glib pronouncement about happy families being all alike, Taylor celebrates the intricate interlacing of laughter and pain, of private jokes and buried resentments, of self-discoveries and revealed hatreds that all families know. His calm, concise prose glitters with profoundly understood insights that sneak up on the reader as softly as his humor.
Sometimes they are mixed in together. There is "Cousin Lucy Grimes who turned Catholic and later went completely crazy," and the comment someone makes "in the presence of two doctors and a nurse, and so almost immediately it had become known all over town," and the cleaning woman who faces her mistress "with eyes directed toward her but focused for some object that would have been far behind her," and the glimpse of a woman who walks with "the small, practiced ladylike steps of a long-legged woman who would naturally move with great strides." A whole culture is contained in that phrase.
He started with poetry. It came naturally to a man whose best friends were Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom. ("I had to write poetry to get any attention from 'em.") Even his three novels, including the one he destroyed, began as verse. His great friend Lowell encouraged this slow process because it forces the writer to concentrate on the exact word.
"It helps me to compress," Taylor said. "It makes the language count for more. It may be my eccentricity, and it's easy to explain after the fact, but in poetry each word jumps out. If a sentence comes out just the length of a line, it gives it a strong feeling. It's interesting to see how much you can put into a piece."
The sentences, when he turns them into prose, don't read like poetry, they don't roll and swell and meander with the majestic abandon of a Faulkner, but they still have that concentration, those layers of meaning. "The Old Forest" ends like this:
"Though it clearly meant that we must live on a somewhat more modest scale and live among people of a sort she was not used to, and even meant leaving Memphis forever behind us, the firmness with which she supported my decision, and the look in her eyes whenever I spoke of feeling I must make the change, seemed to say to me that she would dedicate her pride of power to the power of freedom I sought."
He has always wanted to write, though he did take classes in painting at one time. "It worried my older brothers and sister," he said. "They would say, 'Ma, if you're not careful Peter will turn out to be a minister or a writer or something like that.' "
A story, Taylor says, should do more than just bring people to life in a realistic setting. There should be a deeper significance, a universal of some sort. "You try to make the reader feel the character isn't just that, but that there are lots of others like him. You have an old man remarrying, well, other old men in Memphis will remember how it was, with the possessive children and the money problems and all. You've got to be learning something about the form as you write. As soon as I feel I really know what the story is, it's done."
Sometimes he has only a character or situation when he starts. Sometimes his interest shifts midstory to another character, and he changes the point of view, though "when a character gets away from me and starts doing things on his own I throw that part away." (Some writers, notably his friend Frank O'Connor, are delighted when a story starts writing itself, but Taylor insists on control at all times -- if not quite as rigidly as Joyce. He and O'Connor agreed they were both wild about Chekhov's stories . . . but then discovered they liked different ones, O'Connor preferring the early spontaneity, Taylor the later works.)
"With 'The Porte-Cochere' I didn't know where I was going from the first paragraph. Once Lowell said why didn't I write something about the tougher side of life, and I thought, I'll show him, and I began with a sentence, 'He wanted no more of her drunken palaver,' and went on from there. 'She fell across the bed,' and so on. I realized, as I wrote, that I did know something about this, I had a friend whose father brought home women, and the sons witnessed such stuff. 'The Spinster's Tale' is based on my mother, her character and what she told me. She died when I was 12. The truth is, we used to call my mother an old maid. 'Prissy.' Her sister was worldly, knew the duchess of Windsor, lived in Washington, but Ma was very pure."
He writes in longhand, throwing away 100 pages for every 10 he keeps, then runs it through the typewriter. He and his wife, poet Eleanor Ross Taylor, work in different rooms of their Charlottesville house, she upstairs, he in the basement so they won't hear each other.
"She gets up before 6, but I sleep till 8:30. She loves having the whole house to herself, and when I start invading and come in to fix my breakfast she hurries out with her papers. We don't answer the telephone, and we don't speak if we pass in the hall. If we do, the morning is gone. I can't stand for her to be in the kitchen when I fix breakfast -- I'm so inefficient -- and when I'm finally sitting down to breakfast I ring a little bell and she comes back in."
They used to have house guests constantly, in the days when their son and daughter were growing up and he was teaching at the University of Virginia, but no more. There is a summer place at Monteagle, Tenn., and a house in Gainesville, Fla., and for years they had a place in Key West. They have always traveled, most often in Italy and France, renting villas for the summer. They have just renewed their passports.
Raised in St. Louis, where his father was a lawyer (as in the Tolliver family stories), Taylor remembers having the Christmas tree at home, then taking the night train to the Nashville estate, getting in before dawn on Christmas morning. After the crash of '29 they moved to Memphis. He went to college at Vanderbilt, Southwestern and Kenyon, where he met the southern poets who were to influence him, and a year after graduating he joined the army six months before Pearl Harbor.
"It was a wonderful life. I was never going to shoot anybody, and the whole company came from Memphis. I could earn money and write all I wanted. I went to England -- I was in rail transport -- and then Paris, and we shipped troops around and wrote ourselves tickets on the weekends. We just missed being sent up for the Battle of the Bulge." He made sergeant, having avoided officers school.
Recently the literary establishment has taken up Peter Taylor as a cause, bemoaning the fact that he isn't more widely read. "Quite simply, there is not a better writer of fiction now at work in the United States," one critic wrote. "That so few Americans are aware of this -- that Taylor goes unknown and unread while vastly inferior writers perch on magazine covers, win prizes and chat up the talk shows -- is a national embarrassment." But last year he won a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant, and besides, Taylor doesn't want to be a cult hero. He has turned down many a talk show invitation.
"If I wanted to make my fortune I'd have gone into the real estate business, but I don't really want to make money. I don't believe in writing just to keep the pot boiling. Most of my friends were poets, and they didn't find a conflict with teaching as much as some fiction writers. You should write because you must write, not to please some publisher. No, I don't consider myself unknown at all. A literary reputation is really all I want. I don't require this sort of acclaim."
Then he doesn't yearn secretly to be another Stephen King?
Peter Taylor hesitated, smiled and shook his head just slightly.
"I don't really know who Stephen King is," he said.