Although novelist William Humphrey writes mostly about his birthplace, Clarksville, Texas, he has returned there only once in the last 32 years. "I write from imagination, not observation," he says. "That little town tucked up there in the northeast corner of the state where the South stops and the West begins—it has it all."
This winter Humphrey, 51, and his wife Dorothy, a painter, are even farther than usual from Clarksville. They have been living in an old country house in Souvigny-en-Sologne, a small French village. "It's only two hours southwest of Paris as the crow flies," he says. "And if you're not a crow, you're in trouble. There are no buses, and if the local taxi driver has anything else to do, he will not take you to the nearest railway station, eight miles away."
Such isolation rarely bothers Humphrey, who vigilantly protects his privacy; he enjoys the quiet life of Souvigny-en-Sologne, interrupted only by an occasional wild boar hunt on a neighboring estate. The greater part of each day he works on his memoirs, an excerpt from which begins on page 56.
Between the ages of 13 and 19, Humphrey studied painting in Dallas. He quit because he was "lousy at it," started writing and headed for New York in 1945, hoping to succeed as a dramatist. Considerably less than a smash on Broadway, he put an ad in the Saturday Review asking for employment at "anything legal that would get me out of New York City." To his surprise, he was offered a job as a goatherd in Brewster, N.Y. Fortunately there were only four goats in the herd, and along with milking, feeding and tethering, Humphrey had plenty of time to write short stories. They appeared in periodicals ranging from The Sewanee Review to Harper's Bazaar, and eventually were collected in a volume entitled The Last Husband. The stories led to a job teaching writing at Bard College. (Next fall Humphrey will be a visiting professor at Smith.)
Home from the Hill, an epic melodrama, was his first novel. It became a motion picture starring Robert Mitchum as Captain Wade Hunnicutt, the lusty landowner with two pastimes, hunting wild game and wild women. After this came The Ordways, a rowdy ballad that spans four Texas generations from the Civil War to the 1930s.
A friend's urging that Humphrey record a fishing trip in Wales resulted in The Spawning Run, a slender, evocative volume about the sex lives of salmon and elderly British fishermen. Though his novels usually take five or six years to write, this little classic was done in 11 days. "It just wrote itself," he says.
"I have no regular writing time or place, and I can write anywhere, including a dentist's waiting room, when things are going well," Humphrey says. He composes scenes and passages as they occur to him, without regard to chronology or sequence, then painstakingly rewrites—more than any writer he knows. The opening chapter of Home from the Hill went through 88 revisions.
Humphrey fly-fishes and hunts on the 165 acres that surround his 1790 colonial manor house in upstate New York. He plans to sell the place one day and purchase a fishing shack somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard. But while he enjoys fishing and teaching, he prefers writing above all. "When it is going strong," he says, "I sit before the typewriter and say, "What a clever fellow you are!' "