Q&A with Penelope Niven, author of Thornton Wilder: A Life

April 16, 2013

State Journal

Penelope Niven's biography "Thornton Wilder: A Life," has garnered acclaim as a thorough exploration of the writer. Here, she answers the State Journal's questions via email.

State Journal: What compelled you to write about Wilder?

Penelope Niven: I am fascinated with the lives of American artists -- writers, actors, painters, photographers, musicians. I've written about poet, biographer and folk musician Carl Sandburg; his brother-in-law, the photographer and painter Edward Steichen; the actor James Earl Jones; and now the novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder, who wrote, "Nothing is more interesting than the inquiry as to how creativity operates in anyone, in everyone. ..." In all my books I have wanted to understand where the creativity came from, how it was expressed, and how the artist and the work evolved. So when I was offered the opportunity to write about Wilder, I couldn't resist. I have always admired his fiction and drama, but I knew little else about him. I was given unprecedented access to thousands of pages of letters, journal entries and manuscripts, finished and unfinished, as well as other documents -- the surviving evidence of Wilder's life and work. It has been an endlessly compelling journey to explore the many worlds of Thornton Wilder and his remarkable family.

By the way, Sandburg, Steichen and Wilder each lived for a time in Wisconsin. When I began working on the Wilder book, I did not know whether there was any connection between his Niven family and mine. As I note in the book, it turns out that we share a grandfather several generations back.

SJ: How did he feel about his Wisconsin childhood?

PN: When he was in his 30s, Wilder wrote, "We bring from childhood the passionate expectation that life will be colorful, but life is seldom ever as exciting as it was when we were five and six and seven years old." During those years of his boyhood, Thornton and his family lived in Madison. He described himself as a "bookish, musing, sleep-walking kind of boy." Thanks to his mother, he fell in love with theater when she took him to Milwaukee to see his first play. Thanks to his father, editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, he was enamored of typewriters and printing presses and the excitement of putting words on paper. He enjoyed reading in the public library, and acting in Sunday school Christmas programs, and playing along the shore of Lake Mendota during idyllic summers at the family's cottage in Maple Bluff. Thornton grew up with an appreciation for his Midwestern roots.

SJ: What makes "Our Town" such an enduring piece of art?

PN: Its brilliant, deceptively simple convergence of attention to the smallest details of individual daily lives and to the universal elements in the human condition. Wilder said, "Since my play is about Everybody, everybody is in my play." People around the globe have recognized that for 75 years. The play transcends time and space and cultures. When I read it for the first time I was sure it was written about MY town. Wilder was speaking to ME, about people and events I knew. The play is, of course, beautifully imagined and crafted. As playwright Edward Albee expresses it, the play is "a superbly written, gloriously observed, tough and breathtaking statement of what it is to be alive.

SJ: "Our Town" is often produced by younger people like high school and college students; do you think the message of the play can really land with that audience?

PN: I think the play has many messages and several major themes, so that it speaks to people of different ages in different ways. Young people see a love story. Older people see their own mortality. I've heard from many people who affirm that they saw one "Our Town" when they were teenagers, and another when they were in their 20s and 30s, and still another when they were in their 60s, 70s or 80s. It's a play for all ages. As Wilder hoped, you can bring your personal imagination and memories and experience into the play, and make it your own. This is one reason he did not want to confine the audience with conventional scenery.

SJ: What one fact do you think readers should know about Wilder?

PN: As a man and as an artist, he was continually evolving -- constantly working hard to become a better person and a better artist. Fame and success can stunt the growth of many artists and other public figures. Not Thornton Wilder. He kept growing and evolving all his life. He never sat still long enough to rest on his laurels.

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