In this 1967 letter to Robert Penn Warren, published in the excellent Selected Letters from William Styron, the novelist explains his inspiration for The Confessions of Nat Turner.
To Robert Penn Warren June 20, 1967 Vineyard Haven, MA
In re your questions from Munich:
1. My blood is Scotch-Irish and Welsh on my mothers side, Yorkshire English on my father's side by way of the Danish conquest. The name was originally Danish-Styring. My mother was from western Pennsylvania, my father from Tidewater North Carolina. I had grandfathers and uncles on both the Union and Confederate Sides of the War between the States.
2. In regard to my connections with the Southern past, I got a big dose of it as a boy. My paternal grandmother was an old lady in her upper eighties in the late Thirties, but she had been born in the ante-bellum South, was born and raised in Beaufort County, N.C., a tobacco and cotton area on the Pamlico River. I never knew my grandfather (father's father) but he had served as a courier during the War in one of the N.C. regiments. Was at Chancellorsville. My grandmother used to tell me about the two little slave girls which she herself had owned as a little girl just before the War. She told me how much she loved them and how well she treated them. One of the slave girls was named, so help me, Drusilla. As a boy I spent much time with this old grandmother of mine. Mainly during the summers I spent much time amid the small-town life of the Tidewater Va. And N.C. region, having all sorts of cousins spread about there. I went to a rural high school about ten miles up the James River from Newport News at a time when there was still a rural atmosphere in the area. I never actually lived on a farm or anything like that (I was raised in a village) but there was still enough real country around for me to get a lot of it in my bones.
3. I wish I could be more informative about the germ of the style and method I used in NAT, but I'm a bit vague. The “Confessions” might have had something to do with it, but it seems that I recall one day thinking (with the vision of Nat in the jail cell in my mind) that the only possible way to tell the story was from Nat's viewpoint. I also noticed that few if any books by white men had ever been written from this black viewpoint, and--come to think of it--maybe this very fact caused me to try it, caused me to risk it.
4. “Fact-novel.” I would hazard the guess that for some unknown reason there is a spirit in the literary air which is tending toward an interest in what actually happened vs. purely imagined experience, and somehow NAT falls into this category. It is an actual happening about actual people to which, however, I have had to bring considerable imagination to bear. The subject of Nat Turner is furthermore a lucky one in that so very little is known about Nat outside of the details of the revolt. Conversely, as I think I've said in talking to you, I doubt that anyone could write a very interesting novel (as distinct from biography) about John Brown, simply because of the plethora of known facts about the man. Nat Turner is just dim and unknown enough in history to make him fascinating as a subject for fiction.
5. & 6. As I may have told you, you can learn all there is to know about Nat Turner during a day's leisurely reading. There is only the “Confessions” and Drewry's book of 1900--The Southampton Insurrection. I have, however, read a great amount about the period, and I doubt if there is an important book on the ante-bellum South, especially connected with slavery, that I have missed. I've also read many plantation records; and the unpublished U. Va. Ph.D. thesis (which I showed you) on Gen. John Hartwell Cocke, upon whom I modeled Nat's Marse Samuel, was especially valuable.*
The weather here on the Vineyard is sparkling. And we miss you all.
Love to all and come home soon.
* Boyd Martin Coyner, “General John Hartwell Cocke of Bremo: Agriculture and Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South,” unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Virginia, 1961.
From the Book, SELECTED LETTERS OF WILLIAM STYRON, edited by Rose Styron with R. Blakeslee Gilpin. Copyright © 2012 by Rose Styron. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House. All rights reserved.