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DAVE DAVIES, Host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
Reynolds Price, the acclaimed writer known for his evocative novels and stories about rural North Carolina, died in Durham yesterday. He was 77.
The cause was complications from a heart attack. Price had been a paraplegic for more than 30 years due to spinal cancer, but he continued to write novels, essays, short stories, memoirs and translations from the Bible.
Price was recognized as a remarkable talent with the publication of his first novel, "A Long and Happy Life," in 1962. In his New York Times obituary, novelist Allan Gurganus called Price the best young writer this country has ever produced. He started out with a voice, a lyric gift and a sense of humor, Gurganus says, and an insight about how people lived and what they'll do to get along.
Except for his years as a Rhodes Scholar in England, Price spent his life in North Carolina, teaching at Duke University, writing and inspiring a new generation of Southern authors.
Terry spoke to Reynolds Price several times over the years. Today will listen to portions of two of those conversations. They first spoke in 1989 when Price had written, "Clear Pictures: First Loves First Guides," a memoir of his early life. In the introduction, he says, childhood memories opened up to him after he underwent hypnosis for pain relief.
GROSS: You were getting flooded with memories.
REYNOLDS PRICE: Sort of parallel occurrence and a parallel delight, was that as I worked more at home and away from the therapist, as far as working with a cassette recording of his voice and then with my own concentration, I just began to find that great rooms of memory were being opened to me, great files were being rolled out of my unconscious. And I actually began by getting back a lot of information about a boy's summer camp in the Smokey Mountains where I'd worked as a camp counselor when I was 20 years old; and in fact, sat down, fairly quickly, and wrote a novel based on some of my experiences that summer, the summer of 1953.
It was only after I'd done that, that the number of family members and memories of my own childhood that had begun also pouring in, really convinced me that perhaps it was time to start writing down some of those memories. And as I began writing them, not really planning to write a book, each memory that I got seemed to bring forward even more memories. It was like sort of pulling on what turned out to be a fairly endless string.
GROSS: Now friends had urged you, after your spinal cancer, to sit down and write a memoir and you resisted that for a long time. Why?
PRICE: Well, I think the main reason was simply that I knew what they were saying was you're dying, get it down in time. And since I was working very hard on not dying, on not obeying my doctors and those people who obviously felt that my time was extremely limited, I was concentrating very much on myself and my adversary, which was spinal cancer. And I wasn't about to cooperate to the extent of, sort of, making my last will and testament by laying out the story of my life.
GROSS: So when you decided to write the memoir did you just not see it in those terms?
PRICE: Well, I had long passed; I long outlived my prognosis and felt very strong and very full of energy, as I still do. And so I felt it was safe, then, to proceed since I didn't suspect that it was going to be my last act above ground.
GROSS: Well, let's talk little bit about the experience of the living your childhood. You make a very interesting observation, which is that even, you know, a normal childhood is filled with all kinds of terrors. And you have a paragraph about that, that I'd like for you to read.
PRICE: (Reading) None of the fears I met at 51, when my life was broken like a stick across some broad but unseen knee, and the fractured pieces were flung back into my numb hands to use as I could, no terror matched the childhood threats I've described. My guess is, a great many people will grant the same as the trials of age fly up in their road like actual demons whose harmless shadows we met and partly tamed in Halloween games. Any soul that endures a normal childhood, not to speak of the all but unthinkable innocents who last through torture at the hands of adults or disease or God, is made of strong stuff - a thing worth trusting thereafter in the dark.
GROSS: What were the worst terrors of your childhood when you looked back on them?
PRICE: Well, I think the worst terror of my early childhood, say, from age four and five on into perhaps eight or nine, was really the great fear that my father, who had been an alcoholic, but was in recovery from the time I was about three years old; my greatest fear was that he would return to drinking. I had never seen him in any state of inebriation and have certainly never seen him actually take a drink. But I learned accidentally, fairly early in my life, that indeed he had very serious problems. And being the very watchful child I was, and being the only child in the house until I was eight, I was pretty concerned to be a kind of little temperance officer on the premises.
GROSS: How would you do that?
PRICE: Oh, monitoring, very carefully, what I saw when friends of my parents came over and brought bottles; hanging out as long as they'd let me; and then when time came to put little Reynolds to bed, feeling fairly miserable that I could no longer be in there being quite certain that he wasn't drinking. Little did I know that he was very strong in his resolve and that apparently he felt no temptation to drink in the presence of these cheerful friends after football games, but I didn't know that. Children know very little about the possibility of change in human life. They assume that any condition is permanent and cannot be altered, it seems to me, is one of the desperate things about childhood.
GROSS: Yeah, you make that point in your memoir and I think it's a really interesting one. You say that you even wished that one of your trustworthy aunts would have tried to explain to you that time changes things and that you are not stuck in this condition - whatever the condition is at the moment - for the rest of your life.
But I have to say that that I think I had parents who tried to convince me of that and it didn't work.
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PRICE: I think you're right.
GROSS: I still feel stuck.
PRICE: I think I even say that perhaps it wouldn't have worked. But children simply don't have the experience of time. They don't have any sense of perspective, and understandably they feel absolutely trapped. What they are feeling at this moment is presumably what they are going to be feeling for the rest of their lives. I had enormously happy times in my childhood, and I suppose on balance if I look back I would have to say that I had a serene and lovely childhood. But that's not to cover the fact that there were very bad moments, indeed, and all of them I've at least tried to be honest about it in this memoir.
GROSS: Would you describe the vision that you had when you had your spinal tumor, and this was a cancerous tumor that went a good deal down the length of your spine, and...
GROSS: ...you, why don't you describe what your medical condition was then and what the vision was.
PRICE: Right. Well, in the summer of 1984, it was discovered - the very large tumor had produced almost no symptoms and then suddenly it began producing symptoms with great difficulty in walking and using my legs. And then it was discovered that I had beginning my hairline in the back - and I have a fairly normal man's here cut, so I don't have the locks of Sampson. But beginning at the sort of more or less end of my hairline and down for about 11 inches inside my vertebrae, in the spinal cord itself, there was this very malignant tumor which had been in there, no doubt, a great many years. In fact, several of my doctors thought I had probably been born with it, that it was probably congenital and that it just had developed very, very, very slowly.
At that point in American surgical history and amongst the neurosurgeons of Duke Hospital, it was impossible to remove. They got at about 10 percent of it and then had to surrender me to the tender mercies of radiation. I had five weeks of radiation. I was warned that if I went with the maximum dosage of radiation, which they hoped to give me, that I stood a very good chance of losing the use of my legs. And sure enough, within three weeks after the end of the radiation, I had become paraplegic and have remained so ever since.
However, a couple of days, I believe that's correct, certainly not a week but 20 days before the radiation was to begin, I was sitting up in bed waiting for a friend to come from another bedroom in the house and get me up and help me get dressed, and I just saw myself lying down by a very large lake, which I realized was what in the New Testament is called the Sea of Galilee. And I realized that I was dressed in sort of modern American men's clothes and all the men who were lying down around me were dressed in sort of Jesus suits.
DAVIES: that too. And he turned and walked away and that was the end of the vision.
GROSS: When the vision ended, did you test yourself to see am I healed?
PRICE: Well, clearly I was...
GROSS: And did you see that as something like lyrical and medical, or something more metaphoric?
PRICE: I didn't know what I thought it meant and I didn't know how seriously I could take it. And then, you know, the radiation began two or three days later and rather quickly I began to lose the use of my legs. I was already - my legs were in bad shape already after the surgery and I began, rapidly, to lose the use of those legs. And while as a paraplegic in a matter of - within three weeks after the end of the radiation. So why did I go through with the radiation, if I believed that Jesus had healed me in some sense, with this vision? I don't know. I had a fascinating letter from a woman in Mexico shortly after I published the book about that moment, that included that moment. And she said why did you go ahead with the radiation which may have left you cripple when you had in fact already been healed? And the answer is I don't know why I did. I did it because all my doctors were telling me to do it.
But meanwhile, at that time, one of my most respected physicians told my brother that I probably had 18 months to live, at best. I wouldn't let them give me a prognosis, because I knew if they said, you know, X number of weeks or months or years, I'd probably, you know, outrace the prognosis just to prove I could, and that was 22 years ago.
GROSS: So when you had this vision did you tell your doctors?
PRICE: No. I didn't tell my doctor. And I don't know whom I told first. Interestingly, again, shortly after I published the book about those cancer years and mentioned that vision, I got a wonderful letter from a very old Jesuit in India. And he had read the book and he said that he said that trusted that I knew I had had a great privilege. And he said you have seen our Lord. And perhaps you would tell me, he said, how he looks. And I could only answer in a way that might have sounded scoffing or comical. I said he look, father, he looks just like his pictures.
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PRICE: Because how would I have recognized him if he, you know, if he had been seven feet tall and wearing a Harris Tweed jacket and corduroy trousers or something? No, he looked; he looked like Jesus in Renaissance paintings of Jesus. He was standing out there. He had no shirt on, nor did I. We were in some sort of clothes that people would wear to wade out into a lake, and he was sort of putting these handfuls of water down my spine.
GROSS: How do explain that you have this vision of being healed when you still have like two more years of like really serious like pain and cancer crisis, and a whole lifetime following that - a whole remaining lifetime of being paraplegic.
GROSS: I mean, that wouldn't fit the classic definition of being healed.
PRICE: It wouldn't. No. And I found out that if I were happened to be in Lourdes, France that it would not be accepted as a miraculous healing.
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PRICE: You know, Flannery O'Connor went to Lourdes, which I've always thought was very moving but she was not healed there. She died shortly after going there, of lupus, though despite her extreme devout Catholicism. I don't explain it. I just know that it happened and I know that, what is it, I think there's an old hymn: God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. That's all I could say. And I don't and I don't go out on platforms presenting myself as a visionary, though I have indeed mentioned it in two or three books.
GROSS: Do you think that life would be too unbearable without faith?
PRICE: You know, I never thought of that, because I never came really close to losing it. I've realized that I was being almost tortured by what I thought was God, if not tortured. But I just went on waiting. I mean I once, when I was very, very in very bad shape with this cancer in the summer of '84, as paraplegia was really becoming inevitable for me, I remember lying in bed one night and just saying, you know, to the dark, how much more of this is there going to be? How much farther is this going to go? And I think if you'd been there with your tape recorder you wouldn't have heard it with your own ears, you wouldn't have heard it. But I distinctly heard something that sounded like someone else's voice - a man's voice - and it just said, more. And there was more. And I still think that somebody sent that was probably a communication of some sort. But that's it. I mean I'm not weird. I'm not religiously weird. And I'm about the most un-missionary soul you could possibly find, which is probably a contradiction of saying that I'm religious. But I don't feel that I have any right whatever, to go out into the world and try to change the morals and the ethics of anyone else, unless that person is trying to hurt me.
GROSS: You write in your book, I am one of the least puritanical souls presently alive on the planet.
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GROSS: And now will ask you to tell me something that will prove that.
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PRICE: Ooh. I'm a great believer in joy. And joy, I take to have as its absolute first condition, that it not seriously harm another living creature.
GROSS: And is that what makes you the least puritanical soul alive on the planet?
PRICE: Well, yeah, don't we think of Puritans as having been sort of joyless souls, wandering around Salem, Mass. or Plymouth, Mass. in their gray suits with large Bibles in their hands? I also grew up in the South, which despite the fact that it's so frequently thought of as the Bible Belt, has got an awful lot of joy loose in it, loose and tied down in the South. And my families, both my family, the Prices, my father's family and the Rodwells, my mother's family, were much given to laughter and tale-telling and playing lovely pranks on one another. So they were good to each other in generating fun and joy around them and I think, yeah.
GROSS: When you lost the use of your legs about 20 years ago...
GROSS: ...as a result of the spinal cancer and the procedures that you had to kill the cancer...
GROSS: ...did you have to find alternate ways of experiencing joy?
PRICE: I did. I'm going to say one thing and I'd like not to go beyond that, which is one thing I had to give up immediately was my sexual life, because paraplegia takes care of that rather rapidly. But, yeah, I had to invent all sorts of other forms. I mean I had to figure out how to, you know, move across a room. I had to learn how to work a wheelchair. I had to learn how to, you know, get in and out of the bathroom, in and out of the shower - just all those extremely practical things - and then up and down from there.
I've said in that book I wrote about my cancer, which is called "A Whole New Life," I said, you know, one of the most valuable things that someone could have done for me, once I got past the initial shock of the surgery and the radiation, would've been if someone whom I could have trust would've walked in my room and simply said Reynolds Price is dead. Who do you propose to be tomorrow? Because Reynolds Price was dead. The person I thought of as me in so many ways, obviously huge parts of me survived, thank God. But I had to reinvent I don't know what, more than 60 percent of the way Reynolds Price lived and did things.
GROSS: Can I ask, what are some of the things that give you the most joy now?
PRICE: Being with people I love is primary. But that's hardly new to Reynolds Price in any of his avatars. I don't think there is anything new. It's all the old things, music, theater, being with friends, teaching. I mean obviously, I wouldn't have taught for 48 years if I hadn't loved it. I could certainly have, you know, made donuts if it had come to that. But loved ones, friends and loved ones above all, and thank God I've got a good supply.
GROSS: Just one more thing. If I'm remembering correctly, in your book you said that you think maybe you were selected, chosen - I'm forgetting the word that you used - but kind of singled out for this affliction that you had.
PRICE: That may be the case. Because I've often asked myself if I could now, knowing what I know about the last 22 years, if I could be presented with this sort of magical retroactive pair of buttons which would say, bypass paraplegia or continue with, I feel, most of the time, I'd press the continue with button. Because as difficult as it's been and as painful as it's been, it's been tremendously interesting. Maybe that means I'm the largest masochist you'll ever talk to, but...
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PRICE: ...but I think I'd press the continue with button.
DAVIES: Writer, Reynolds Price, speaking with Terry Gross in 2006. Price died yesterday. He was 77.
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