Thursday, December 11, 2014

Book Review: Conversations with William F. Buckley, Jr. edited by William F. Meehan III (2009)

Conversations with William F. Buckley Jr., 2009.

William F. Buckley looking like a rock star riding his moped in New York City in the 1960's.

William F. Buckley at his desk.
I’ve written about William F. Buckley before on this blog, as I recently reviewed his novel Saving the Queen and I wrote a very long piece about his fascinating book Overdrive, which chronicled a week in his fast-moving life. My political sympathies run to the opposite end of the spectrum from the late Mr. Buckley, but that does not preclude my enjoyment of his writings and his personal style. I’m also an admirer of his son Christopher, who has written many very funny satirical novels. 

Having thus established my Buckley bona fides, I turn to the subject at hand: the 2009 book Conversations with William F. Buckley, Jr. It’s from the long-running “Literary Conversations Series” published by the University Press of Mississippi, and these volumes have proven to be endlessly fascinating for fans of the authors profiled. The University Press of Mississippi has done readers an immeasurable service through this series by rounding up these interviews and collecting them in one volume. The volume on William F. Buckley is shorter than those on other writers, as it runs just 186 pages. 

The earliest interview in the book is from Playboy magazine in 1970, and it’s arguably the most interesting, as Buckley holds court on all manner of topics. The Playboy interview is also by far the longest included, as it runs for more than 40 pages. One of Buckley’s funniest quips from that interview is when he says that too many people are voting, and the interviewer asks him who he would exclude from voting. Buckley’s response is: “A while ago, George Gallup discovered that 25 percent or so of the American people had never heard of the United Nations. I think if we could find that 25 percent, they’d be reasonable candidates for temporary disenfranchisement.” (p.24) Buckley’s quote reminds me of Gore Vidal’s witty remark: “Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never vote for President. One hopes it is the same half.” 

Most of the later interviews in the book discuss Buckley’s novel writing, so there is some repetition as Buckley describes his working methods again and again. The interviews that delve into politics the most are the Playboy interview and an interesting 1978 interview with The American Civil Liberties Review. The focus on Buckley’s novels makes sense given the interests of William F. Meehan III, the editor of the book, as he wrote a dissertation on Buckley’s fiction.

Conversations with William F. Buckley sheds more light on the fascinating personality of one of the 20th century’s most prolific public intellectuals. Surprisingly enough, Buckley claimed that he didn’t enjoy writing, as he says in a 1978 interview, “I get pleasure out of having written. I like to paint. I don’t like writing, but there is a net satisfaction when it’s done.” (p.75) In another interview from 1978, Buckley shared the success of his famous productivity: “Deadlines. I have deadlines for everything. I find them liberating.” (p.69) Buckley expounded a little more in a 1983 interview: “I had three deadlines this weekend. And because they simply had to be done, they were done. And if you know that you’ve got to phone in six columns, they get phoned in. The people I pity are not the people who have deadlines, they’re the people who don’t have deadlines.” (p.84) That sounds easy enough, right? Just set some deadlines for yourself and you’ll soon be as productive as William F. Buckley. I think it helped that Buckley had a tremendous work ethic.

Throughout the book, Buckley comes across as smart, witty, funny, and someone who must have been a lot of fun to hang out with. I’d recommend Conversations with William F. Buckley to anyone with an interest in this fascinating, entertaining, sesquipedalian writer and thinker.

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