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William Styron

Newsport News, Virginia, is known for its sandy beaches, friendly people, and historical past.  It's also known for author William Styron, who made his world debut there on June 11, 1925.  Styron's fiction, sprung from history and steeped in epic grandeur, emerges from some of the most important events in history.  Along the way, the author butts heads with the greatest moral questions of our time.

His skillful melding of historical facts and personal speculation has produced writing of great intensity.  He's best known for having penned several well-received novels, the most popular of which is Sophie's Choice, the poignant story of a Polish immigrant in post-war America, her flamboyant male boyfriend, and Stingo, an aspiring young writer, coincidentally from Virginia.  As Stingo gradually befriends Sophie, she reveals bit-by-bit the awful truth behind her life in a Nazi prison camp--a truth that she hasn't had the courage to reveal to her own lover.  The novel was made into a film, starring Kevin Kline, Peter MacNichol, and Merryl Streep in an Academy Award-winning performance.

Born to a shipyard engineer who suffered from depression and a mother who passed away when he was thirteen, Styron was a predictably troubled youth.  His rebellious nature landed him in a boysí preparatory school soon after his motherís death.  Moving from one school to another, he finally made his way to Duke University, from which he received a Bachelor of Arts degree.

The following year, Styron enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War II.  He attained the rank of first lieutenant.  Although he was anxious to join the allies in fighting the Axis powers, by the time he'd finished his basic training and sailed for Japan, the war had ended.

After his service, he relocated to Brooklyn, where he took a job as an office boy at the McGraw-Hill publishing house.  He was supposed to write book jacket copy, but he was so disgusted with most of the books he read that he filled all of his summaries with insults and foul language.  After throwing several paper airplanes and water balloons out of his office window, he was fired.  Convinced that he could produce better stories than the ones for which he'd been writing copy, he decided to try his own hand at becoming a novelist.

Although he had long wanted to be a writer, when he finally had the opportunity, he was afraid that he was too late.  "At twenty-two...," he said, "I found that the creative heat which at eighteen had nearly consumed me with its gorgeous, relentless flame had flickered out to a dim pilot light registering little more than a token glow in my breast."  His first idea was to write a novel about slavery.  It amazed him that his grandmother could remember that her family had owned slaves, and he marveled in the tale of the slave revolt led by Nat Turner.  When he told a creative writing teacher about his idea, the teacher advised him to wait until he had written a few novels before he tackled anything so ambitious.

When he learned that a girl he had once dated had recently committed suicide, he hopped a train to her funeral.  On the return trip, he shaped a story in his head about a girl's suicide and its effect on her family and community.  The story resulted in his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951), which received glowing reviews. 

Styron wrote two more novels before he went back to his idea for a book about slavery.  Finally, in 1967, he published The Confessions of Nat Turner.  It became a bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, although it was both praised as a brave look into a rarely represented life and condemned for what some critics saw as a stereotypical view of blacks. 

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