An excerpt from the upcoming book by Armando Nieto, Mary Conrad, and Matt Pallamary: The 25th Anniversary of the Santa Barbara Writers Conference would have been SBWC Chief of Staff Paul Lazarus’ 20th anniversary with the conference. Unfortunately, Paul suffered a heart attack after hip replacement surgery.

William Styron (Lie Down in Darkness, Set This House on Fire, Sophie’s Choice, and Confessions of Nat Turner), not seen since the Conference’s early days returned to receive the inaugural SBWC Lifetime of Literary Excellence Award. Charles Champlin introduced him for brief comments on “The Writing of My First Book.”

Styron shook his head and said, “For years people have been calling my first novel LAY Down in Darkness. It’s Lie Down in Darkness.” Regarding the editing demanded by his first book’s publisher, the story would have been tame by modern standards.

“There’s not a single four-letter word in it,” Styron announced to the Miramar audience.

“Thank God,” some said out loud.

The road to writing and publishing was about as straight forward for Styron as for any aspiring writer. His first book made the best-sellers list at number seven when he’d been called to service in the Marines for the Korean conflict. He was in good company, as that list also included Norman Mailer’s From Here to Eternity and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Time magazine spurned the three young writers as “doomed to obscurity.” Styron enjoyed telling that story to the SBWC students.

The story of how he came to write his first book was also interesting. He quit his job reading manuscripts for a New York publisher in 1947. “I burned to write a novel,” he said, “but what about?”

He was motivated when he learned that a 22 year-old woman from his home town that he had a crush on, but never pursued, had committed suicide. “He’d never so much as held her hand,” Barney Brantingham wrote in a Santa Barbara News-Press article at the time.

Styron worked long and hard on the novel in a state of shock in his Brooklyn Flatbush neighborhood rooming house, and eventually finished Lie Down in Darkness. It was during that period that he met a fellow boarder, a Polish woman who didn’t speak a lot of English and had a tattoo from a German death camp. He developed a crush on her too, although his timing was bad because besides the language barrier she already had a boyfriend. Years later she became the title figure in Sophie’s Choice.

At the time there wasn’t a lot written about the holocaust and he had been working on a novel that wasn’t quite coming together.

“I’d become preoccupied with the camps. One book had the story of a gypsy woman forced to make a choice between her two children, forced by the Nazis to become a murderer of her own child,” then it occurred to him to marry the story of the woman from his boarding house twenty-odd years prior. He put aside the incomplete novel and began anew. Four years later Sophie’s Choice was the result.

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1997 ended on a sad and somber note for the Santa Barbara Writers Conference family. Susan Miles Gulbransen wrote about the passing of Paul Lazarus in a December 1997 column with affection.

“Every once in a while, someone touches your life, makes a huge difference and leaves you a much better person. Paul Lazarus was that kind of someone. As an insider in the movie business, the retired studio executive could have been a pontificating guru or a larger-than-life celebrity. Instead, Paul always remained a gracious, humorous and supportive friend whether in the company of deal makers or aspiring writers.

“Few people knew the movie industry like Paul Lazarus. As the middle of the Lazarus generational sandwich, he grew up in the movies. His father began a film career in 1916 while the industry was still in its infancy and warned his son not to try the crazy business.”

Paul Lazarus, retired Hollywood studio executive and SBWC Chief of Staff did end up working in the film industry. He brought his wisdom and experience in the genre to the SBWC, and a generation of writers thank him. He was loved, admired, and he will be remembered.

Paul and Ellie Lazarus1997

Paul and Ellie Lazarus