The Ponder Heart, The Ponder Heart, and The Ponder Heart!
Film of her Novel Premiered in February 2001
Under the creative genius of former Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, the U.S. Congress, in 1977, authorized the Center for the Book within the Library of Congress, and further, one in each state in the union. Mississippi's Center for the Book was designated May 1, 2000. Its first Board Chairman is former U.S. Representative David Bowen.
The Center's mission is to celebrate Mississippi's "Pulitzer-packed" literary heritage, while encouraging literacy. In immediate response to this lofty cause, the Center created its signature project, "All Mississippi Reading the Same Book," drawing on successes in sister states, Virginia and Washington. "Recognizing our people's devotion to her, we chose Eudora Welty and The Ponder Heart as our first honored writer and honored work," suggested Thurman Boykin, the Misissippi Center's Director. The imaginative undertaking was initiated during the Natchez Literary Celebration February 24, 2001, where The Ponder Heart as filmed for Mobil Masterpiece Theater was previewed, and concluded at the Eudora Welty Symposium (Missisippi University for Women, October, 2001).
During this month's long expereience, Welty scholars crisscrossed the state presiding over the creation of Eudora Welty Reading Circles in public libraries. Readers gathered to hear the speaker and to read from their favorite Welty works and discuss why certain passages are important to them. The Eudora Welty Library in the state's capital city hosted the first event in the sequential series.
Belhaven College hosted an outdoor reading and picnic. Friends and fans gathered for an informal brown bag lunch across from the author's home in Jackson and enjoyed readings from selected works of Welty's, .
Statewide, students at college, high school, and junior high levels were encouraged by their English teachers to read and review The Ponder Heart. Mississippi Educational Television (ETV); ALT Productions, producers of the film The Ponder Heart, and Harcourt, her publisher, pledged their cooperation. Films and documentaries relative to the writer's treasured works are to be shown on ETV.
On May 19, 2001 the Center for the Book orchestrated Mississippi's first annual statewide book festival in downtown Jackson. Its aim was to encourage reading and highlight each of Mississippi's stellar literary events. The Center approached Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to allow the children who attended to enjoy a part of Welty's own childhood, namely roller skating in the ground floor hall of the Missisippi State Capitol.
Eudora Welty Newsletter
The Ponder Heart
Historicizing The Ponder Heart
Several critics have noted that Welty's novel registers changes in Mississippi
culture, but most suggest that this change is for the worse. Michael Kreyling
writes that "the time in which Edna Earle narrates the story is the
heyday of the superhighway. . . The Peacocks themselves are the prolific
hordes of coming change, just as Edna Earle is the bathed, neat, and proper
survivor of the old regime" (115-116). To evaluate Edna Earle and
the changes she laments, readers should place the novel in time. The book's
most recent events occurred about 1952. Uncle Daniel's first marriage,
according to testimony given during his trial, lasted two months in 1944,
and his second marriage lasted almost six years. Welty has set the novel
in approximately the same moment in which she was writing it as a short
story in 1952 and has made Edna Earle about her own age (43 in 1952).
Her business, the Beulah Hotel, has far fewer customers than it once did,
which is why her grandfather did not object when Uncle Daniel gave the
hotel away to his niece. As Edna Earle explains, the town of Clay had
"gone down so . . . with the wrong element going spang through the
middle of town at ninety miles an hour on the new highway" (13).
Readers will understand the novel better if they are aware that living
conditions in Mississippi have changed more in Edna Earle's lifetime than
during any other previous period in history. To Edna Earle, these changes
constitute a decline. But the highway that Edna Earle sees as a nuisance
represents an enormous increase in mobility for the state's citizens.
Before the 1940's, Mississippi roads, according to historian Thomas D.
Clark, were almost entirely dirt and were poorly maintained by an archaic
system of drafting county residents to work on county roads for ten days
out of every year (A History of Mississippi 279). Before 1914 there were
no state roads (286), but in response to the opportunity for federal matching
funds, the state was maintaining over 2000 miles of roads by 1925 (295),
and over 4400 miles by 1949 (298). Better roads allowed farmers to lower
the cost of transporting their produce to buyers, residents to drive year-round
and more quickly to work, to school, and to other towns with different
stores and additional services.
For most Mississippians before the 1940s, poverty was the order of the
day. Before the 1920s the state was almost entirely agricultural, and
the farms had gotten smaller as the land had been passed down. There were
144,000 farms in Mississippi in 1890, but 312,000 in 1930, with the average
farm size going from 122 to 55 acres (History 201). Farmers suffered from
declining cotton prices in the 1920s when the prices fell from a wartime
high of thirty-six cents per pound to less than ten cents per pound in
1921, and as low as six cents per pound in 1931 (History 196-7). The state
government in Mississippi also had many problems, and was fifty million
dollars in debt in 1932 (History 97). In some years, the state gave out
IOU's to its schoolteachers because it had no money to pay their salaries
(History 98). In 1932 one out of every ten farms was foreclosed, and by
the mid-thirties "more than half of all Mississippi farmers were
tenants or sharecroppers" (Encyclopedia of Southern History 833).
Most of the state's residents had little means of earning more than a
Edna Earle Ponder, by contrast, comes from a family that has been wealthy
for several generations. Her grandmother's family owned the Beulah Hotel,
a significant piece of property and one of the few businesses in which
one's income did not depend on the success of that year's crops, since
the customers came from outside Clay. Her grandfather Ponder, on the other
hand, was land-rich and became cash-rich when the family sold its timber.
The story of this industry in Mississippi is instructive. With the completion
of four railroads in the state by the 1890s, it became possible to get
lots of timber out of the state and into the hands of buyers (History
213). From 1904 to 1915 Mississippi was third in the country in lumber
production (History 214).
Speculators were eager to buy timberland in the hopes that future lumber
prices would rise; in the hills of northern Mississippi, many farmers
sold their timber for much less than it was worth, regarding it as a hindrance
to farming (History 213-214). Later, as the price of timber rose and the
state of Mississippi found itself in need of funds, the state began increasing
property tax on forest lands. To avoid increasing taxes, owners would
raze their lands completely (220-221). Once the virgin forests were cut,
the owners began selling the land to would-be farmers, but very few of
the properties outside the Delta were fertile, since without the forest,
the thin layer of topsoil erdoed quickly (History 194). The story of the
lumber industry, therefore, is the story of extracting natural resources
from the state and rendering much of the state's land unprofitable for
But the conditions that made landowners like the Ponders rich changed
considerably during Edna Earle's adult life. Money began coming into the
state from the federal government in the 1930s, first to build highways.
Between 1932 and 1936 the state received almost 50 million dollars' worth
of federal relief (History 108). Electricity was brought to rural areas
by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the mid-30s, and the state's own
extension agents assisted farmers in learning improved agricultural methods;
cotton yields went from 140 pounds per acre in 1932 to 306 pounds per
acre in 1936 (History 119). Even greater prosperity came during the 1940s,
when the United States joined the Second World War and the federal government
made Mississippi the site of much military training and manufacturing.
Per capita income had been $126 in 1936 (History 98), and had risen to
$605 in 1946 (History 125). From 1940 to 1949, "the number of workers
in farms in the state decreased by eighty thousand" (History 204).
Thus we can be certain that in Welty's fictional town of Clay, as in most
of the state, sharecropping and tenant farming are decreasing, and many
area residents, though not at all wealthy, no longer depend on their annual
crop as their sole means of income. Owning land in Clay does not give
landowners virtual control over their vassal sharecroppers as was essentially
the case in the state a generation before. Nor can a local business, like
the Beulah Hotel, count on the custom of those who have no choice but
to use this service. Clay, the county seat, would have attracted visitors
both for legal matters and for access to stores, but by the time Edna
Earle took over the Beulah, the roads in Mississippi were so much better
that few people needed to stay overnight.
The rise in prosperity that Mississippi experienced shows itself in many
of the people and changes that Edna Earle criticizes. This sort of historical
information has not been the purview of literary critics who write about
The Ponder Heart, but one historian, Ted Ownby, cites Welty's book in
a 1999 study of Mississippian's changing abilities to shape their own
lives through the purchase, even the possibility of purchases, of material
goods. Bonnie Dee Peacock Ponder, the teen-aged Woolworth's clerk who
marries Uncle Daniel, provokes Edna Earle's scorn partly for her new spending
habits. She orders many products she discovers in the magazines and newspapers
she subscribes to. On a visit to the couple's home, Edna Earle discovers
these publications and identifies by the cut-out places the various products
that Bonnie Dee has ordered. "[T]here were holes in the stories all
the way through," Edna Earle recalls, impressed by Bonnie Dee's consumer
appetite (56). Although Bonnie Dee's consumption of goods seems conspicuous--buying
a washing machine and then getting the electricity to go with it, having
a telephone installed when, Edna Earle believes, there is no one who would
ever call her--we need not assume that she is to be ridiculed. Ownby has
noted that increased spending power and increased access to material goods
rose significantly throughout Mississippi in this era, with more department
stores opening and more Mississippians earning wages rather than growing
crops and shopping on credit at a rural store. Ownby writes that for Welty,
"no ultimate judgment awaits characters who buy new goods to define
and enjoy themselves. Even if they offer no ultimate solutions or redemptions,
goods allow significant forms of freedom" (Ownby 148).
Among all these changes, I believe the most important factor concerning
The Ponder Heart is that Edna Earle is the only competent member of her
family to remain in Clay--"the only one left alive or in calling
distance" (9). Prominent and affluent though the family may have
been, many Ponders seem to have decided that someplace else is better
than Clay. Edna Earle says of her father, "Papa for one left home
at an early age, nobody makes the mistake of asking about him"(13).
It is safe to conclude, I think, that the Ponders who have vanished did
not live the charmed life Uncle Daniel enjoys, happily roaming the countryside
distributing their inherited wealth and never wishing for anything different.
If Clay were like the rest of Mississippi in the early 1900's, it would
have been a rather bleak place to live; U.S. Census figures show that
between 1910 and1940, 443,897 residents had left the state (History 359).
Edna Earle regards Bonnie Dee as a kind of consumer glutton with poor
taste. Yet Welty's narrative suggests that electricity, a washing machine,
and a telephone are only unimportant to someone who already has a cadre
of servants to wash their clothes, carry fuel, and run to town to deliver
messages and summon doctors. For example, when they need to send for a
doctor to attempt to revive Bonnie Dee, Edna Earle tells us, "I never
thought of the telephone!"--instead, she called out to "the
boy on the hay wagon" to deliver her message (143). For people besides
the Ponders who can't order people around, the things Bonnie Dee acquires
are means of greater self-determination. Edna Earle sneers at Bonnie Dee
partly because her own methods are becoming less reliable. She complains
that the Peppers, their tenant farmers, "didn't come when I called
them--they never do" (114), and she is outraged that the Peacocks
are informed by a county attorney that they have the right to bring murder
charges against someone, even if that person is the richest man in Clay
County. The malefactor here, to Edna Earle, is "that county attorney
we wished on ourselves" who is "no friend of the Ponders"
It would be misleading to claim that narrating this social history is
Welty's main object in The Ponder Heart. However, Edna Earle's own preoccupation
with storytelling takes on a greater resonance if we understand better
her true story. Why does Edna Earle refer to all the people who have come
to the Beulah Hotel as people who have "pass[ed] through this book?"
(11). And what does she mean when she says how much her uncle enjoyed
retelling a story: "He made free with everybody's--he'd tell yours
and his and the Man in the Moon's. Not mine: he wouldn't dream I had one,
he loves me so--but everybody else's" (70). In another seemingly
inconsequential aside, Edna Earle mentions that she loves to study directions:
"That's something I find I like to do when I have a few minute to
myself--I don't know about you. How to put on furniture polish, transfer
patterns with a hot iron, take off corns, I don't care what it is. I don't
have to do it. Sometimes I'd rather sit still a minute and read a good
quiet set of directions through than any story you'd try to wish off on
me" (73). Why is the subject of storytelling itself so prevalent
in this book?
Welty has written elsewhere that "one secret is liable to be revealed
in the place of another that is harder to tell, and the substitute secret
when nakedly exposed is often the more appalling" (One Writer's Beginnings
17). I believe in this novel, the story that is "harder to tell"
is that Edna Earle, though she is a Ponder, is the servant class within
the Ponder family. She is the person her grandfather and uncle have counted
on to look after them, regardless of her own desires. She says of her
uncle just after he has given away all the money in the family bank account,
"[H]e never was afraid of losing me" (154). Her own life has
been conducted only in the margins of theirs--it was hers only when she
wasn't being summoned by these two patriarchs to play roles in their stories.
Like the working class of Mississippi, Edna Earle has existed to do her
uncle's and grandfather's bidding, as far as they are concerned. She remarks
obliquely, "I don't even try, myself, to make people happy the way
they should be: they're so stubborn. I just try to give them what they
think they want" (57).
It is an affront to Edna Earle's family for her to even have a story
of her own. This attitude is similar to Edna Earle's description of another
transgression of class boundaries: "a case where a man really murdered
his wife, with a sure-enough weapon, and her family put on her tombstone,
'Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay.' And his family--the
nicer people--had to go take it off with a cold chisel when her family
wasn't looking" (80). To Edna Earle, it is "the nicer people"
who have to bear the affront of having their relative's crime mentioned
on the lower-class victim's tombstone. In a similar logic, Edna Earle
believes that all of Clay should secretly return to her the money Uncle
Daniel has given away (after they have given him the pleasure of taking
it from him gratefully). In her view, they know Uncle Daniel isn't competent
to give it away and therefore they shouldn't keep it. We might ask, of
course, what gives this incompetent gentleman the right to order all of
Clay around. And if he's a fool who seems determined to squander his family's
inheritance, why is it Edna Earle's job to enable that behavior to continue?
Simple: because he's considered more important than she is. "Of course,
I'm intended to look after Uncle Daniel and everybody knows it" (26).
In this context, many of Edna Earle's class prejudices and her resentment
of social changes take on a greater poignancy. All around her, Clay is
doing what she is not allowed to do, unless she breaks the unspoken family
rules. Edna Earle may long to change the stories of her life, the way
Bonnie Dee temporarily changed or left "holes in the stories"
of her life by clipping out order forms and sending away for alternate
ways of living. But she is not "intended" to make such changes.
Edna Earle muses about starting a new business, thinking, "A chinchilla
farm may be the answer. But that's the future. Don't think about it, Edna
Earle, I say. So I just cut out a little ad about a booklet you can send
off for, and put it away in a drawer--I forget where" (44).
Welty, herself an avid storyteller whose family situation bore some important resemblances to Edna Earle's, said of this character, "I never hesitated about what she would say--I knew exactly" (Wheatley 132). Through Edna Earle's hilarious narrative, Welty presents a multi-layered meditation on social class, family loyalty, love, and storytelling. The more readers know about the changing Mississippi that surrounds Edna Earle, the more poignant her story becomes, and the more of Welty's artistry and her boundless sympathy we are able to savor.
Encyclopedia of Southern History. Eds. David C. Roller and Robert W. Twyman. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1979.
A History of Mississippi. Vol. II. Ed. Richard Aubrey McLemore. UP of Mississippi, 1973.
Kreyling, Michael. Eudora Welty's Achievement of Order. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1980.
Ownby, Ted. American Dreams in Mississippi, 1830-1998. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1999.
Thurman, Susan. "Viewing Guide for The Ponder Heart." <www.ncteamericancollection.org/ph_viewing_guide.htm>. Accessed 7/14/2001.
Welty, Eudora. The Ponder Heart. 1954. New York: Harcourt Brace,
Wheatley, Patricia. "Eudora Welty: A Writer's Beginnings." In More Conversations with Eudora Welty. Ed. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: U P of Mississippi, 1996. 120-145.
Earl Hamner, Eudora Welty, and Daniel Ponder
Eudora Welty Newsletter: As co-producer of the upcoming film The Ponder Heart, what were your responsibilities during the filming process?
Earl Hamner, Jr.: You know there are often tons of co-producers on a project of this size, and usually they are chosen because of their professional background or their interest or their ability to contribute. And I think that I was invited to take part because first of all I'm a Southerner, second because I am an enormous fan of Eudora Welty, and third because I was available. And it was a dream assignment for me. Primarily, I consulted with the writer Gail Gilchrist on the script because my specialty in the television business is script. And that was my main contribution although I was present throughout the production of the film.
EWN: How did you handle script changes that may have differed from the original novella?
EH: When you do an adaptation of a writer's work, particularly a writer as talented and as distinguished and as revered as Eudora Welty, you are very cautious. It's like the instructions given to aspiring doctors-first, do no harm. I have done a good many adaptations in the past, most notably Charlotte's Web-the E. B. White work, where again, there is a writer we rightfully have high regard for. So the first thing to do is to try to keep the integrity of the original writer's work. Sometimes you have to make changes that disappoint usually the author. I know once I adapted a book that had four seasons in it, and because we were shooting on location I had to condense it all into one season which was springtime because that was when we were filming. The authors were enraged with me, and I understood that. I did not want to incur Eudora Welty's rage. I doubt that she has that much rage. She seems like such a lovely person, but as a writer she is certainly entitled to her work being protected. But the book did offer a challenge in that it is a told story, and the narrator is all over the place. The structure that is required for a film is not the same structure that one would use or that Miss Welty used in telling her story. So first I think we had to organize the story in a kind of chronological order and then hang as much as possible of her original work onto that new framework.
EWN: So most of the script changes dealt with the chronology, the order in which they appeared? You did most of your changes there as opposed to the actual events in the text?
EH: Exactly. I don't think we invented any events. We may have modified the way in which Uncle Daniel meets Bonnie Dee. I don't recall exactly how he met her in the book, but we had him simply observe her the first day she arrives in town. But I think it works.
EWN: Meribeth Fell who works on the EWN has seen the film. She mentioned that Bonnie Dee is hugged to death in the film whereas in the book she is tickled to death. Can you elaborate on this?
EH: There was so much going on in that scene where she does die so we made the decision that she died of fright rather than being tickled to death. We have established early on that she is terrified of lightning, and to impose on that scene the additional threat of being tickled to death, visually didn't seem to us to work. That was a liberty that we took with Miss Welty's work, and I'm guilty.
EWN: That is going to happen. Welty acknowledges that any adaptation will change her work to some degree.
EH: I read that she was not especially fond of the liberties taken with the Chodorov and Fields version. I know she objected specifically to some of their using dialogue that she had written for one person, and they put it into the mouth of another person. And I can understand both points of view. I can understand the playwrights saying, "Gee, Eudora wrote this so let's use it and not waste anything." But then on the other hand she had the purity of character for whom she had written it for and rightfully felt taken advantage of.
EWN: It sounds as if you researched what Welty had to say about other adaptations. Did you read any reviews, critical analyses, or statements by Welty in order to prepare?
EH: I read sort of at random. I've been a Welty fan for many years as you know from that little piece I did introducing the film at Natchez. [see p. __, this issue of EWN]. I just read at random. I picked up some of her other work. I read a lovely piece by Willie Morris, I think it was in Vanity Fair [April 1999], about Welty. That was one that stuck in my mind so because instead of being this distant academic sort of person, she became, in Willie's words, quite a real woman. I remember one description of his taking her for a ride, and they came to a back country road. And she was tired or something, and he said, "Would you like to take this road?" And she said, "We would be fools if we didn't." I thought that was so lovely. It humanized her. It brought her to me as a person rather than a distant sort of figure.
EWN: Did finding out things like that effect the way that you approached the adaptation?
EH: Of course, I did not do the adaptation; I advised. But certainly, everything you know about a person is beneficial to trying to interpret or protect the new version of her work.
EWN: I noticed you mentioned in your talk at Natchez that you had seen the Broadway production and that you didn't catch all of it because you were looking to see if Eudora Welty was in the audience. But I was wondering, what was your impression of that adaptation?
EH: When I go to the theater, I don't go critically. If I am swallowed up by the production immediately, I know it's good. I've seen the Willy Loman play, Death of a Salesman [by Arthur Miller], probably ten times, and when I first saw it, I was totally absorbed and became a part of the action. I was not in the audience; I was there. That, I recalled, also happened with The Ponder Heart in 1956. I suppose if I saw it later or especially now that I am more acquainted with the book that I would be more critical of its fidelity to her work and to the professionalism of the actors and the director.
EWN: Are you familiar with the second stage adaptation of The Ponder Heart done by Frank Hains in 1970?
EH: Is that the one that was done in Jackson?
EWN: It was.
EH: I read about that, but I was never able to get a copy. And I wanted to because I read somewhere that Miss Welty approved and liked that version. I would have liked to have been better acquainted with that one for any guidance it might have provided us with.
EWN: Welty did like that one better.
EH: I wonder if that was because it was done by hometown people, even the acting was done by hometown folks. I expect that there had been less meddling with her original version in that one.
EWN: One thing that she liked about the Hains's version is that it kept Edna Earle as the main focus as opposed to Uncle Daniel. Basically, The Ponder Heart consists of only one voice, that of Edna Earle talking to the sole tenant of the Beulah Hotel about her experiences with Uncle Daniel. In many interviews, Welty expresses concerns with how the Chodorov and Fields adaptation changed the focus of the play from Edna Earle's storytelling to Uncle Daniel himself. The Hains version, on the other hand, kept Edna Earle as a focus in Welty's view. How did your production handle this?
EH: Well, let me say first of all that my initial approach to this project had been a little off-beat for Mobil Masterpiece Theatre or for ALT films. I suggested that we keep the Edna Earle character in a scene even in which she would not be logically present. She would have been-this is my notion-akin to the stage manager in Our Town. And she would comment, and she would tell, and she would illuminate what was going on which would have enabled us to have stuck exactly to the way Eudora told her story within reason and within the confines of film. Which I thought was sort of interesting. Except for the stage manager in Our Town, I haven't seen that technique used that much and haven't seen it used at all, to my knowledge, in film. And I thought it would be interesting to have her standing there as an observer but also even in scenes in which she was present to do asides to the audience. But I was told that this was not an acceptable format for this particular show. So then we went to a more usual approach to television drama which was the way it unfolded. However, as time went by in the production, we did realize that we were losing Edna Earle's voice, and when you see it, you will see that there are occasional comments, narration, and insertions of her voice to keep her presence there as storyteller. So I think it's half dozen of one and six of another. But we were well aware that the storyteller was Edna Earle, that it was told and should have been told through her voice. Her very opening narration in the present version is something like "My Uncle Daniel is just like your uncle if you got one." So she does start telling the story. She is the once-upon-a-time voice.
EWN: Speaking of that quote, "My Uncle Daniel is just like your uncle," I was wondering if growing up in Schuyler, Virginia, you felt any kinship between Welty's fictional town and its citizens and your hometown or other small towns of your experience?
EH: I feel kinship with everything Eudora Welty has ever written. And I don't know whether it's the similar background of small town or whether it's just that she writes with such a universal voice. I know in Losing Battles a family gets together, and I think they are celebrating the birthday of an elderly lady-she may be going on a hundred or something. But everybody talks at once. It reminded me so much of my own family which is a big sprawling clan of Southerners, and if you get together at a funeral, or a birth, or a birthday, everybody talks at once, and it's impossible to make any sense of what any single person is saying. It's a chorus of voices, and it's comforting, and it's exalting and wonderful. And you don't have to know what a person is saying. It's just all those voices blending together and telling. The Southern need to tell, to connect, to know. I know you, you know me, you are learning about me through my talk. I know to an outsider it sounds like babble, but to those to whom it belongs, it's communication and loving and exciting.
EWN: That seems to be particularly what's going in The Ponder Heart with the exception that it's just one voice we focus on. Edna Earle is really involved in that storytelling, its loving process, in the narrating of Uncle Daniel's story.
EH: And loving the reader. That's Eudora saying to the reader, "You are wonderful; you understand; we are communicating; we are in touch."
EWN: You have adapted your own novels into film and television. How was it transforming Eudora Welty's novella into a film? Were there particular challenges to producing The Ponder Heart?
EH: Sometimes language itself is a problem because you are writing for people who didn't live in Jackson, Mississippi. On The Waltons, I was writing for people who didn't live in Schuyler, Virginia. I was writing for people who were Baptist, and a lot of the actors had never even been to a church. You take a chance. It's a baby that you don't how it is going to be clothed when you send it out.
EWN: Were you involved with any of the casting for the film?
EWN: How did you go about trying to find actors and actresses to match the idiosyncratic characters of The Ponder Heart, particularly characters like Uncle Daniel and Edna Earle?
EH: Well, I think Peter MacNicol [Uncle Daniel] had been in everyone's mind from the very beginning.
EWN: You had other notable actors and actresses for the film including JoBeth Williams, Angela Bettis . . .
EH: In the casting, I think one thing that gives our version of The Ponder Heart a great verisimilitude was the casting of a good many of local people. We cast the grandpa [Boyce Holleman] locally. And he is just wonderful and very believable. Also the accents give local feeling. And that is a nice thing that happens when somebody's accent is so right that even if someone has a foreign accent, they can approach that local speech. If you got one person that says it right, others can approximate.
EWN: In the Madison County Journal, you were quoted as saying of the film's location in Mississippi, "I feel like this is sacred ground. . . It is sacred because this is where Eudora lives, and I feel any writer would feel that way." Could you expand on this?
EH: I remember being asked that question and that is what I meant. That is Eudora Welty country, and we were honored to be there. She has immortalized that area, and it would be sacrilege to film it anywhere else.
EWN: Am I correct that most of it was filmed in Canton, Mississippi?
EWN: Why was that particular location chosen?
EH: Canton is a marvelous little town built around the courthouse square, and it's been preserved. I think the people there were well aware they had a treasure, and they kept the square and the courthouse true to the period. You go back in time. I think it was in Civil War time when the town was built and maybe prior to that because in the surrounding area there are marvelous plantations and beautiful old homes. It was just exactly right for the filming.
EWN: Since you had your hand in the script, I was wondering if you had a tight rein on the actors' and actresses' interpretations or did the production allow them to experiment with their characters?
EH: I would have to defer to the director on how much she allowed them, whether that was their intepretation or if they had free rein to do what they liked. My impression of Martha [Coolidge] was that she spoke with each actor prior to shooting. She and the actor had worked out their common concept of the character. I remember when she came out of the meeting with Peter MacNicol, she said, "You know what his interpretation of Uncle Daniel is?" And I said, "I'd be curious to know." And she said, "He calls Uncle Daniel, God's fool." And I thought, "Gee that is a lovely approach of an actor to a character." I could see how an actor could work with that in formulating and projecting his concept of the character.
EWN: Marian Rees, the executive producer, was quoted by the Madison County Journal as saying, "When you're adapting a book to film . . . you add another collaborator to the mix: the book's author. Our challenge will be to remain true to those visions, so that people who are familiar with the novel or story will find the writer's strengths, and . . . spirit in the films." Do you agree with this statement?
EWN: And to what extent do you feel bound to the author's original vision and when do you feel it is okay to break from the boundaries of the original vision?
EH: If it does not work for television. If some element simply doesn't work. If it's not filmable. If it's foreign to the total presentation, then you can take some liberties. When I did Charlotte's Web, I took liberty with E. B. White's novel. I invented a character. And I lived in terror that Mr. White was going to come after me and kill me (laughter). I added just a little gosling who didn't know how to swim, but still I felt like I violated this writer's work.
EWN: Does this sense of violation come from being a writer yourself?
EH: Yes. I think so. I did not adapt my book Spencer's Mountain. The requirements of the sale to Warner Brothers was that the man who was going to direct it would also write the adaptation. So I simply sold the rights to Warner Brothers, but they did give me limited script approval. And when it came back there was a line-you know the father and mother were based on my own father and mother-that the father said to the mother at one point, "Well, like when we were young and sneaked off into the bushes." I went to Warner Brothers and said, "You'll kill my mother if she reads a line like that." I hope my mother and father really did sneak off into the bushes, but I don't want it in a film.
EWN: In an interview with country.com <www.country.com/music/green/ chat031599.html>, a fan asked you concerning The Waltons, "As the show evolved, do you feel that it remained true to and consistent with the original books on which it was based?" You replied, "In spirit, but not in fact." Would this reply work for the adaptation of The Ponder Heart as well?
EH: I think we stayed in fact and in spirit close to the original, to the written version. Somehow when a book gets up off the page and onto the screen there is a whole other defining version of it. Once you see it, you can't imagine it anymore. It exists as you have seen it. That used to be the lovely thing about radio. Everybody could hear a radio drama, and it was wonderful and different to each person's own imagination and own experience and life approach. But once you've seen it on television, it has that particular life. Like it has one life as a theater piece in 1956 and another life here. I wouldn't be surprised if it continues to have other adaptations. I mean, The Ponder Heart on Mars for God's sake.
EWN: Speaking of the 1956 version on Broadway, Chodorov and Fields worried that the courtroom scene where Uncle Daniel gives away his money would appear like a bribe to a New York audience. Did you feel that this was an issue for the film version as well?
EH: We considered that because it's not spelled out in the book. We did not want that for Uncle Daniel, and I don't think that Miss Welty intended it to look like a bribe, so we had Uncle Daniel go to the bank beforehand sort of convinced that he was going to be convicted even though he knew he was innocent, and we gave him a line saying, "I won't need this where I am going," and he throws huge piles of money into the air. And it's after that, that he is pronounced innocent. I think it is open to interpretation, and we chose that interpretation.
EWN: Welty once said of The Ponder Heart that it could be treated many different ways; however, she said, "A film is the way I would best imagine it." Did you find that The Ponder Heart made as smooth a transition to film as Welty imagined?
EH: Yeah. I think it is highly filmable. You can get a lot of nuance in film that is illuminating. I think it lends itself up very much to film. I think a lot of her books do. I know when Marian Rees was first looking for a project from that part of the country, Eudora, of course, came immediately to mind. I know I nominated several of Eudora's works as possible candidates for this particular film, this particular vacancy which was filled by The Ponder Heart. But she is highly filmable.
EWN: What was your first exposure and response to Welty's works?
EH: "The Petrified Man." I was a soldier in World War II when I first came across that story.
EWN: And what sort of impact did that story or her writing in general have on you?
EH: A favorable impression. A discovery of a wonderful writer. Someone that I knew I would want to read again and again. Someone whose work you look for. When you see the name in The New Yorker by so and so, you go to it.
EWN: Do you have a particular favorite?
EH: I love those short stories-"The Petrified Man," "Why I Live at the P.O.," and some of the other short stories. I think Losing Battles, as much as it reminded me of my own clan. She's best at short stories and novellas.
EWN: As a writer yourself, who are your influences?
EH: I keep a copy of William Faulkner's Nobel speech in 1952 beside my desk-I'm looking at it right now. And nobody could be further apart than me and William Faulkner, but yet what he says about writing and about writers and what we should keep in mind while writing, unites us.
You know, somebody was in my office the other day, and they said, "I'm teaching a writing class. Any suggestions?" And I took my copy of the Faulkner speech and copied it. And handed it to him and said, "This is all any writer needs to know. Give them each copies of this and tell them to go write."
EWN: Do you feel a particular connection to Southern writers?
EH: Yes, I do. And I suppose it is because we all write about family and clans. I sometimes think that may be one influence on Southern writing that people don't often point out is that we were losers, we lost what my Aunt used to call, "the Wah." And I think we are still recovering from our place in history. Maybe recovering isn't the right word; we are still dealing with it, still influenced by our past.
There is a new young Southern writer who I just discovered, Silas D. House. His book is called Clay's Quilt. He writes about West Virginia coal miners. So often those people get treated like hillbillies, and they talk like characters out of Barney Google. House finds nobility in seemingly ordinary people, a writer with a rich future.
EWN: I noticed in your Natchez speech that you received a note from Eudora Welty saying that she loved your works as well. What did that mean to you?
EH: Quite a lot. That was after I had sent my copy of Losing Battles to her with my friend, Mary Jackson, who had been in the play, The Ponder Heart as Edna Earle, and she was going down to see Eudora. So I said, "Why didn't you tell me you were a friend of hers." I met a writer recently. I was at a book festival in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and I met a writer named Ruth Williams. She had been at the festival to present her memoir, Younger Than That Now. And she was kind enough to give me a ride to the airport, and she is from Mississippi-and she casually mentioned that she had known Willie Morris and then that she also knew Eudora. I pursued relentlessly for stories which she very nicely gave me.
EWN: If you had the opportunity to meet Welty today, what would you like to say to her?
EH: I think I would be speechless. I would probably declare my ardent love and admiration. I would gush and embarrass both of us.
EWN: What would you like the audience of The Ponder Heart to take away from the movie?
EH: The need to read her book and all of her books. Which ironically is the whole point of the ALT film-it has a tie-in to the NCTE [<www.ncte.org>]. One of the pieces is on fairly soon, Song of the Lark.
EWN: Speaking of the showing of these, do you know when The Ponder Heart will air?
EH: Knowing you would ask this, I called the office just a moment ago before you called, and they said in the fall-no specific date.
EWN: Would you like to say anything else to conclude?
EH: Just as one writer working with another writer's work enriches the
one who is the lesser writer, I am a better writer for having worked with
Eudora Welty's work. It is something ineffable. But it enriches one's
own work. I read once that if you have trouble getting started writing
in the morning, it's a good idea to take the work of someone whom you
admire and type a few pages of that work, and it will infuse what you
do during the day. However, I tried that with one of William Styron's
novels. I typed a page. It did not infuse my work. It so intimidated me
that I couldn't work. (laughter)
1 In the novella, Bonnie Dee traipses into town, gets a job in the ten cent store, where, one day, Uncle Daniel wanders in with the intent of telling a story but instead proposes to Bonnie Dee who is working behind the counter.
2 See her account entitled "The Welty Foundation Premieres The Ponder Heart Film" in the Winter 2001 issue of EWN, 13-15.
3 For example, Welty said of the Chodorov and Fields version, "The second thing that confounded me was hearing lines from other characters out of my short stories brought into the dialogue of the play" (Joanna Maclay, "A Conversation with Eudora Welty," Conversations with Eudora Welty, ed. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw (Jackson, UP of Mississippi, 1984) 274).
4 Recent projects filmed in Canton include Willie Morris's My Dog Skip, John Grisham's A Time to Kill, and the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou?
5 Joanna Maclay, "A Conversation with Eudora Welty," Conversations with Eudora Welty, ed. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw (Jackson, UP of Mississippi, 1984) 274-5.
6 Charles Ruas, "Eudora Welty," More Conversations with
Eudora Welty, ed. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw (Jackson, UP of Mississippi,
Joe Krush Illustrates
Joe Krush began working on drawings for Eudora Welty's first illustrated
book, The Ponder Heart, during the summer of 1953. His reputation
with Harcourt Brace already well established, Krush believes he was selected
for this project due to his strong relationship with Harcourt's editor,
Margaret McElderry. Once a publisher becomes comfortable with an artist,
Krush told me in a phone conversation that the publisher tends to rely
heavily on that artist's work. By 1953, Joe Krush and his wife Beth, also
a well known artist and illustrator, had already illustrated many Harcourt
children's books including Geoffrey Trease's Trumpets in the West (1947)
and Fiord (1950), Louise Unter-meyer's Magic Circle (1952), and Mary Norton's
The Borrowers (1953) and Huon of the Horn (1951). Ten years after illustrating
The Ponder Heart, Harcourt once again chose Beth and Joe Krush to illustrate
Welty's work, this time creating caricatures for Welty's only children's
book, The Shoe Bird (1964). Although it seems that Welty had little
or no part in selecting Krush as illustrator for her work, she did actively
participate in the process of illustration for The Ponder Heart.
1 These photographs are located at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson, Mississippi.
2 MDAH. "Saturday in town" OTOP, "Courthouse town" Photographs.
3 MDAH. "Home," in OTOP, "Swing," as exhibited March 31-April 15, 1936 at the Photographic Galleries, 600 Madison Avenue, New York City, and sponsored by Lugene, Inc. Options.
Krush, Joe. Conversations with Meribeth Fell dated June 6, 2001 and June 21, 2001.
-. Letter to Meribeth Fell, dated June 18, 2001.
Marrs, Suzanne. The Welty Collection: A Guide to the Eudora Welty
-. Photographs. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989.
-. The Ponder Heart. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1954.
Before The Ponder Heart was first published in the New Yorker,
Eudora Welty carried the manuscript with her to William Maxwell, the magazine's
editor, a writer and friend whose editing she described as "enlightened,
instructive" (Ross 134). She read it aloud to him, an experience
she later recounted, "I realized what I should have know-it would
help me to read it aloud-to hear it. It should be in the vernacular. The
reading turned out to be a unique experience-marvelous" (Ross 134).
Indeed, some books are meant to be heard, and The Ponder Heart
is one of them. After all, the entire book consists of only one voice:
Edna Earle's monologue reproducing her experiences with her beloved Uncle
Daniel to a captive audience, a sole tenant of the Beulah Hotel and we,
the readers. Edna Earle is doing more than recounting the recent gossip
of the town-proudly, her own story-, she is performing it. In an interview,
Studs Terkel realized this and described Edna Earle's voice as theatrical.
Welty responded, "It's intended to be. . . . It's your entertainment
for life to have a scene. You know, if you couldn't have a scene, what
else would there be to do that day?" Surely, Edna Earle's story is
Throughout the comic novella, we hear Edna Earle's singular, conversational,
and performative voice. Thus, it is no surprise that The Ponder Heart
has inspired others to adapt her story for oral and visual media. The
Ponder Heart first became plays: one by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov
in 1956 and the other by Frank Hains in 1970. Next, in 1982, Alice Parker
discovered the novella's musicality and transformed it into an opera.
Jane Reid-Petty, who originated the role of Edna Earle for Frank Hains's
version, created a one-woman show entitled Edna Earle which, to my knowledge,
was first performed in 1987. For an adaptation of a different sort, Sally
Darling narrated an unabridged version of The Ponder Heart in 1994
for Recorded Books. (An interview with Darling, who has performed unabridged
recordings of Losing Battles in 1987 for Talking Books and Delta
Wedding in 1994 for Recorded Books also, appears on page ?? of this
EWN.) In 1968, excerpts from The Ponder Heart also found
their way into A Season of Dreams, a performance consisting of excerpts
from fourteen of Welty's works. Mississippi ETV broadcast A Season of
Dreams two years later. Currently, ALT Films and WGBH of Boston are producing
a film version of The Ponder Heart slated to be televised as part
of the Mobil Masterpiece Theatre American Collection series sometime in
2001. The National Council of Teachers of English is a partner in this
film project and has developed numerous teaching materials for The Ponder
Heart on its website.
Welty found reading The Ponder Heart to William Maxwell a marvelous experience. Similarly, Maxwell enjoyed being the audience. In an interview he recalled: "As she began to read, I began to weep because when I laugh I cry. . . . That was the single funniest day I ever spent" (Ross 137). As evidenced by the numerous adaptations of The Ponder Heart, many readers must have heard a similar power from Welty's novella. An annotated bibliography of these adaptations organized in chronological order follows.
This play premiered on Broadway
at the Music Box Theatre on February 16, 1956. It did have a short pre-Broadway
run during which time the play was fine-tuned. For example, the play consisted
initially of just two acts. However, the first act was split into two
acts creating a total of three. Despite enjoying a respectable one hundred-night
run on Broadway, the play disappointed Welty. She had two main issues
with this adaptation. First, she did not like hearing lines spoken originally
by characters from her short stories transplanted into the mouths of characters
from The Ponder Heart. Her chief complaint, however, was that Edna Earle
was not retained as the focal point and moving voice of the story. In
Welty's words, "Edna Earle was reduced to the background, sort of
whimpering on the porch as Uncle Daniel goes through his antics"
(Conversations 150). In fact, she corresponded with the adapters several
times insisting that "If you throw her [Edna Earle] out the window,
you've the need to provide the texture some other way" (qtd. in Valentine
55). Despite her feelings about the adaptation, she did appreciate the
"gentle and warm performance" (Conversations 56) of the cast.
She was particularly fond of David Wayne's performance. In fact, she framed
a picture of David Wayne (Say Darling and Adam's Rib, and The Mad Hatter
in the 1960's Batman series) from the May 5, 1956 issue of Life. (see
picture, page ?). For more of Welty's insights on this version, refer
to the indexes of Conversations with Eudora Welty and More Conversations
with Eudora Welty. For contemporaneous responses to the play, see Robert
Y Drake Jr.'s "The Reasons of the Heart" in the Winter 1957
issue of The Georgia Review or The Best Plays of 1955-1956, edited by
Louis Kronenberger and published by Dodd, Mead, and Company in 1961.
2 The short stories are "A Memory," "A Piece of News," "The Wide Net," "Asphodel," "At the Landing," "Lily Daw and the Three Ladies," "The Petrified Man," and "Why I Live at the P.O." The novels are Delta Wedding, Losing Battles, The Ponder Heart, and The Robber Bridegroom. The works of non-fiction are One Writer's Beginnings and "Some Notes on River Country" from The Eye of the Story.
3 The abridged excerpts occur on pages 343-6 from the Library of Congress edition.
4 The abridged excerpts occur on page 340 from the Library of Congress
Interview with Sally Darling (6-22-2000)
Part I: General Questions
E: How do you prepare yourself to perform a book?
SD: Well, the first thing, of course, is to read it so that you know while you're reading it you're not only listening-you know finding the story, but you're finding the author's voice, the author's intention; you're doing your homework at the same time; you're making a list of any words that you are uncertain as to pronunciation and its very funny: you can look at a word that's perfectly familiar and all suddenly it's as if it's in Martian. You write down anything you need to look up: place names, as I said words that don't immediately come to mind so that you have the proper pronunciation. And also you are noting the characters and beginning to get an idea of who the characters are and with that I begin to find so that the characters will be very distinct in mind and therefore to the listener. I find people in theatre, movie stars, people I've met, people I've known, my family, I find the person who best defines that character's attitude so that I have that firmly and then I write that down and I have that firmly in mind before I begin to record. Now all this prior work will change-a character will take on a life of his or her own and you will find that your initial image doesn't fit any longer but by that time the character is very clear and often moving in its own right.
E: So you try to use a real person as a starting point for your characters?
SD: That's it b/c for example if I have someone who is villainous, who's urbane, who is glittering I'll use Christopher Plummer. And of course, these are absolutely personal choices. But in DW, the father and the two uncles have very deep voices so I used Orson Welles and Burl Ives and then the other brother's voice actually wasn't as deep and I used my own uncle.
E: Are these descriptions of their voices in the book or is this how you perceive them?
SD: Well, you hear you read in the book-you get any clues you can in the book. That is why you read it through first. You don't want to give someone a fine rich deep voice and then find out on page 320 that he is a thin reedy tenor. (laughing) So this is the homework: you read the book once through to find out where it is going, what it is, what the author or authoress's voice is like-what her intention or his intention is. But you are doing your homework, you are beginning to do all the details, characterizations that you need. And that comes entirely out of what is in the book. And it is infuriating with a bad writer who will tell you one moment that the lilacs are a beautiful rich purple and then several pages later say "those lovely white lilacs" and will do the same things with people. (SD laughing) Then you just want to throttle someone.
E: Do you read any reviews, critical analyses, or statements by the authors?
SD: Never. It's the book itself. And when I read the book, I have my instinctive immediate reactions to it out of my own experience, out of my own taste and judgment. And that has to be pure. If I read anything else, that's going to shade, influence, color my reaction to the book itself. If an author is highly, highly praised I might approach it a little too respectfully. I need to trust my own instincts and that's what has gotten me as far as I have so I don't want to be influenced by anything else.
E: You mentioned two ways to approach a book: your own interpretation, your reaction to the book as well as trying to get at the author's intention. Do you find these to be in conflict at all?
SD: No. First and foremost is the author's intent. First and foremost and then I try to realize that intent through my own taste, my own judgment, my own abilities. But mainly the primary thing is to realize the author's intent. It's difficult with a bad writer because then what you're really trying to do is make a silk purse out of a sow's ear; you're trying to make it sound better than it is. And you do this with just-well I don't know quite how to put it-it's just reading as if it were a great work. And it comes out sounding a lot better than it actually is. (laughing) But that is hard work.
E: Did you happen to listen to Eudora Welty's own readings of OD or selected short stories?
SD: No. Again, I never listen to anything before I'll do it afterward. But I will never do it before b/c I don't want to be influenced, I don't want to have a pattern of speech or a pattern of inflexion that I will then unconsciously start imitating.
E: In addition to reading books, you have been an actress, director, and producer in the theater. How does your theater experience influence the way you approach performing books? How does theater differ from performing a book?
SD: Well, in the theatre as an actress, every actor picks up a play and instantly checks his part. So as an actor, it is very difficult to step outside of just my part and to try to keep in mind the play as a whole. That's the director's job. To keep overall where the play is going, how it should get there, with the assistance of the actors. You don't want to be a director who demands say it this way, etc. But the director's job is to keep his eye on the whole or her eye on the whole and try to realize again the playwright's intention. Now, in-the problem there is the director has in mind what you ought to see, the actors can be good, bad, or indifferent. You very rarely achieve exactly what that play could be. And, as far as what the author was writing, what the author was seeing. Because you're dealing with a lot of individual people and their own ideas, egos, etc. Unless you got an extraordinary ensemble. With recording, its one person: as an actress I want to realize every role in the book, every character in the book, and I have the joy of being the whole cast, playing things I could never play. Everything from a year old baby to a 99 year old grandfather. So as an actress it is a wonderful challenge and opportunity. It is very fulfilling. As a director, perhaps even more so b/c I know my cast: that's me. (SD laughing) I see what I feel the author has written. I am trying to realize it to the best of my ability. If I make it, I do it and it's me. If I don't make it, it's my own shortcomings. So, it's a wonderful-what can I say? That thing of relying strictly upon yourself-good, bad or indifferent, it's yours. And you try to the best you can everytime, but you're not let down by somebody else.
E: In that sense, you have to be the whole cast and the director.
SD: That's it. You are it. But you are also that objective observer whose saying "Wait a minute. Hold on." You're the narrator as well as the cast, and most of all you're the director making sure everybody's doing it. Everybody's aware of the nuances, of the subtleties, everybody's working together b/c it's you.
E: How many takes do you usually do to record a book and do you find yourself really becoming the listener as well?
SD: Well, as far as takes, I do my own work. I prepare each day's session-the material for each day's session-I have an idea after the first two sessions how many pages will be covered in the next session. So I prepare that carefully before I go in to record. This is where you do the fine tuning; this is where you really look for the nuances, where you are aware of the subplots, what's going on with the characters so that when I come in the studio and sit down I know where I am going, I know what I'm doing, I am familiar, very familiar with the material. I am also a quick study. I take pride in not making mistakes. And so I tend to get quite a lot done when I don't waste time.
E: After you read To Kill A Mockingbird for Recorded Books, you said, "I grew up in a place like that"-referring to the small town Southern setting of this book. You grew up in Hampton, Virginia then a town of just 7,000. Did you feel a similar affinity for Eudora Welty's small towns of Clay in The Ponder Heart and Fairchilds in Delta Wedding?
SD: I definitely did. I think when you grow up in a small town you're aware of small town dynamics, you're aware of personalities. It's a whole different feel. In the cities, you can have neighborhoods or areas that have a neighborhood feel. But there is something special about a small town. With all of its limitations, it still has-you get a depth-I think an in-depth look at human nature in a small town in a way you can't really in a big city b/c in a small town its like being in boarding school. You're there. You have to learn to get along. And you live with these people day after day after day.
E: You mentioned small town settings. Do you feel it is easily accessible to read any small town settings or is there a particular affinity for southern small towns?
SD: A particular affinity for southern of course having grown up just as Eudora Welty. With her extraordinary understanding of human nature, [she] can depict people anywhere b/c they are still human but she has that southern sensibility that is very special.
E: Do you get to choose your own titles?
SD: Nope. They are handed me. There is both at Talking Books at the Library of Congress and Recorded Books, in effect a casting director, the manager of the studios, and it is that persons job to align the book with who he or she feels will be the best narrator for that book.
E: Do you get to recommend any titles?
SD: Sure. You can say, "have you thought of" but it is rare that you actually get them. (SD laughing)
E: Are you usually satisfying with the pairing that you get with books.
SD: It depends. With RB, I've been kept to predominantly southern books. For the Talking Books, I did anything and everything and of course sometimes they were just awful and usually, unfortunately the worst-I am speaking of fiction-but unfortunately the less good-let's put it that way-the author is the longer the book is. So you get these 500 page things that you don't want to record two pages. But it's up to you to make it sound as good as you can make it. Do your best regardless of the material.
E: In a sense, a reading of a book is an interpretation of that work.
The listener's access is mediated by the reader's voice and the inflections
and nuances of that voice. Do you feel that you are interpreting a work
for the reader? If so, do you feel a particular responsibility in your
performance to the listener or the author?
E: Do you feel a greater responsibility to the author or the listener or is it a blend of the two.
SD: Well .Perhaps first and foremost to the author. Because then if I do that I've fulfilled that responsibility then the listener has complete access to the work.
Part II:Welty Questions
E: Did your preparation for performing Eudora Welty's The Ponder Heart, Delta Wedding, and Losing Battles differ from other readings? Were there unique challenges for her works?
SD: I think-that's hard to answer b/c you give the same care and attention basically to every work but for Eudora Welty it's that fact that you are immediately presented with a great writer. I mean she really is extraordinary. It is the same thing I felt with Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird-this is a one of kind, a beautifully realized work and you start and you know you are in the presence of fine writing, and it's an adventure. So, anything you pick up by a really fine writer, it's that heightened sense of responsibility. It's not just I have to [missing word] as well as I can, but let's see if we can take it up a notch. Meaning the artistry.
E: The Ponder Heart is told through first person point of view of Edna Earle. Welty once said of the first person point of view that "It's a way to let a character tell a reader what they're like without their knowledge." Since Welty never directly describes Edna Earle, how did you flesh out her character in order to perform her?
SD: Well it's the old expression: it speaks for itself. In this case, Edna Earle speaks for herself. You just-literally you get it through the character's voice and through the attitudes of others toward the character. But just from the first sentences that Edna Earle says, you know who she is-you get that attitude, that tone, and that's what you're looking for. Basically, every character you're looking for their attitudes at every moment. And then comes the tone. You know there are certain ways of speaking, certain phrases and sentences. You just hear the character speaking and then you deliver it accordingly.
E: Basically, our whole knowledge of Daniel Ponder and the town of Clay in The Ponder Heart comes through Edna Earle's very subjective personal voice. I wonder if you found Edna Earle to be a naïve or a manipulative storyteller? In other words, is she a reliable narrator?
SD: Oh, she's both naïve and manipulative b/c we all see through our own perspectives, through our own desires. For Edna Earle, of course like all of us, she thinks she seeing things, the town, and Uncle Daniel as they really are. But, of course, she is seeing from what she wants. Uncle Daniel is hers. Noboby knows Uncle Daniel like she knows Uncle Daniel. So, that is why I say naïve b/c we all think we are seeing reality, but what we are actually seeing is our perspective. And manipulative, b/c she does try to arrange things so that Uncle Daniel can be as she wants him to be.
E: In the sense that she is the only voice in the book, is The Ponder Heart more similar to theatre for you in the sense that you are basically playing one character throughout the whole book?
SD: You know I've never thought of that. I suppose it could be. Uh Huh. B/c it is the only time you are only playing one character even though other character's voices come in there but it's almost like Edna Earle imitating other characters. SO that is interesting. I had not thought of that.
E: Had did you approach the comedic aspects of The Ponder Heart?
SD: Well, there is where is so-and I use the word very carefully-brilliant. She never imposes comedy upon her people or her situation. It always comes out of the humanity. So, it's hilarious-The Ponder Heart-but Edna Earle doesn't think its hilarious. So, you play it straight.
E: She uses subtle humor.
SD: When she's up on that ferris wheel and sees Uncle Daniel down-in the fairground-on the platform with the dancers. She doesn't think that's hilarious. But her reaction and the fact that she's is stuck up on the ferris wheel and she's determined to get down and get on the ground and rescue Uncle Daniel from himself, that's what makes it very, very funny. But if I play it for humor, it's dead.
E: You have to play her character which is very concerned and that's where the humor comes from-beneath that concern.
SD: Absolutely, and being Edna Earle, she doesn't go "oh my dear, oh dear, I wish I could, oh dear," she's going, "[sounds of excitation] Uncle Daniel [sounds of excitation]" [laughing] She is absolutely serious, she would not see one shred of humor in that scene.
E: You mentioned earlier that oftentimes when you're preparing to play a character, you find people in real life to start with. Did you ever meet people like Uncle Daniel or Edna Earle growing up in Hampton, Virginia, or anywhere else?
SD: Oh, sure. I think there again I am back to a small town. There you get to really see people more intimately than in a city simply b/c you are living with them day after day. An example, a couple of examples probably. But, in Hampton one Halloween when we were children, we were out-you know, we never did anything bad on Halloween even though the football team at the high school: the biggest prank they ever did was picking up a minnie Minor/Mitre? And putting it up on someone's front porch. And then the next afternoon they came back and put it down in the street again [laughing]. But this one Halloween afterward an elderly lady who lived a block over called my father and said that we had broken her stone garden bench. Well, dad went over to look at it and we went with him protesting madly that we never ever been near the bench. But anyway, the bench had a couple of with cracks in it with moss growing in them. But, my father paid for the bench. And I was absolutely outraged-it's unfair. That's not so. That was moss growing. And he said that "You don't understand. This is an elderly lady. She lives alone. She has for a long time. She needs attention and she has to find her small satisfactions wherever she can. It was like Atticus is what it was. (laughing)
And then you get the fun things. Such as there was a time there was an obituary in the Richmond Virginia paper. A man who had always worn pretty scroungy overalls and old shoes, and drove an old car and all of that. And of course, when he died he was found to be worth a fortune. So of course people made all kinds of comments, but the one I treasure is the man who shook his head and said, "MM! All that money and the man never owned a decent hunting dog." (laughing)
E: You have stories you could write down too. They definitely sound like Welty sort of stories.
SD: They are. They really are. And then you get Watermans, the way they talk. She has such an ear for the way people talk, how they express themselves.
E: And that's really how she gets at character.
SD: She knows people. She has a deep understanding of humantiy [Pearl enter and says "Hello"]. She can get into the skin of every character she has. But then she knows how they express it. She knows the words they'd say and the phrases they'd use. The idioms. She is just extraordinary. And also in her work there is never one cardboard figure that comes in just to move plot along. They are always fully realized even if they are there for three sentences. And that is a joy as a narrator. Makes more work, but it's a joy.
E: Do you recall your first exposure to Welty?
SD: I think it was short stories. I can't remember, but I believe I first met her through whatever of her short stories, I don't know if it was-no I can't remember. I remember being awed, suddenly you know you're in the presence of something special.
E: Do you have a particular favorite of hers?
SD: No, I don't think so. I think that each work is unique in its richness and its presentation of characters that just sort of hang on in the back of your mind.
E: You mentioned that you had read Losing Battles for Talking Books. What was your impression of that work?
SD: Again, it's the rich canvas. She just pulls you right into the story. I can't remember it well. I tried to remember since yesterday and it seems to me it was somebody's birthday-granny somebody was having a birthday and the family was congregating. And then there are the stories they each tell and if I remember this correctly they also get news that a schoolteacher had died and that she had taught most of them. I just remember it being very poignant and very funny, typical Welty in that you get the comic and very serious hand-in-hand, almost in the same breath. And the wide canvas. She usually has a large number of characters and handles them all with such consummate ease.
E: Have you ever met Welty or corresponded with her?
SD: No, I never have.
E: Do you know if she has ever had the opportunity to listen to your recordings of her?
SD: I don't know. If she has, I can only hope I did justice in her eyes.
E: I am sure you did. And have you ever seen or acted in The Ponder Heart or any other Welty work adapted for the stage?
SD: No, I haven't.
E: The Ponder Heart is being filmed for the American Collection of Masterpiece Theatre. Would you have any advice for the directors or actors?
SD: Trust the material. Don't try to do things with it to make it relevant or to put your own individual stamp on it. Trust it. It's wonderful. Go with it. Just let it carry you along.
E: There has been two versioins [of The Ponder Heart} for the stage: one which did not have Edna Earle as the main voice and one which did. The one that trusts the material, which had Edna Earle as the main voice was the one that worked for Welty and others. Welty enjoyed that one the most.
SD: I would think so. You find it's like the business of taking Shakespeare and trying to turn it inside out b/c it can't be meaningful to today's audiences. Or a director has a really strange, wonderful vision that he wants to establish. You don't play around with-I mean, you can do slight changes-but you trust the material. This man was great, was extraordinary. And the characters, the situations, this is dealing with the human heart. And that is what Welty does. She deals with the human heart and with humanity in all its guises.
E: Finally, would you like to read or perform any other of Welty's works in the future? If so, do you have any preferences?
SD: Anything she has written I would want to do.
E: Are there any plans to your knowledge to do so?
SD: I have no idea.
E: What other books or authors would you like to perform in the future?
SD: Well, some of my favorites are absolutely out of bounds. I would love to do any and all of Jane Austen, but because I am not English it usually goes to a distinctly British voice. There are a lot of works written by men that I will not have the chance to do. Because again, they will want a male narrator. It is very, very interesting.
E: Would you have liked to do any Faulkner?
SD: I do like Faulkner. I don't like him as much as I do Welty b/c I think she is more-this is going to sound strange-I think she is more insightful.
E: More true to Southern small town setting?
SD: More true to the nuances of humanity. And I think sometimes a woman is more. Men, because of the upbringing in the last hundreds of years, are not as aware of women and what motivates them as women are of men and of each other. So I think a really fine woman writer has a broader vision and a deeper vision in many cases than most men.
E: Thank you for your time.