For 20 years, he was the greatest writer you'd never heard of. Kristy Davis talks to Richard Yates' daughter Monica about the resurgence of his novel Revolutionary Road (not to mention that little ole flick starring Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet) and his big, generous heart.
Kurt Vonnegut called your father the "Great Gatsby of my generation," but the average American had no idea who he was. What's it like—17 years after his death—to see him on the New York Times bestseller list?
On the one hand, it's heartbreaking, but it almost seems as though it couldn't have been any other way. I hesitate to say he was ahead of his time, but on his best days, he was writing forward to the world. He knew that honesty would always interest some people in every generation: He thought people were going to come to bad ends. He thought he was going to come to a bad end. But I don't think he saw the public as stupid or as needing to have books sanitized for them. He thought if his books got out there, like they are right now—there's a pile of them in my supermarket, and there's a pile of them in every bookstore in every airport...they're everywhere—if that kind of spotlight had been turned on him, his feeling, even then, was that people would have gotten an awful lot out of them. That's happening now. All these people are hearing his voice, and that's a great thing, because he certainly thought that the ride to the bad end was worthy of attention.
Biographer Blake Bailey described him as "bemused, stoical, a little sad, perhaps, but willing to find the humor that was somewhere...", and he was the model for Elaine's misanthropic father in Seinfeld. But was there another side to him?
Even though he could be sarcastic and biting and cutting, he hated to hurt people's feelings. He was passionate. He was very funny, and he sang, and he was warm, and he was loving. Anything you'd read, he'd read. And when he read something, he never forgot it.
Did it make you uncomfortable to have familial dysfunction brought to light in Revolutionary Road, which detailed, to some extent, the unraveling of your family?
Well, it was only semi-autobiographical...my father finished the book after he had come back from Paris. And he knew just how much living abroad made you feel alive, and what use that was to a person. So he was picturing the story from the other side. It's almost like he wished April and Frank could have had what he and my mother actually had.
So I read the book when I was 17, and it really, really depressed me. When I read it again I was a junior in college, and I was just purely thrilled that he'd written such a thing, that my own father had accomplished that. It didn't matter a bit to me that it wasn't well known. I knew that it was indisputably good, and it made me kind of a cocky pain in the neck when I didn't have any reason to be. No one had any reason to think I knew anything, but I thought I did because my father was Richard Yates, and he'd written that book. Then again, when my husband decided to marry me, his brother read Revolutionary Road and told him, "Are you sure you want to get into this?"
Really? I guess you don't give the book to people you know...
I do, sparingly. If I think that they have something on the ball, and they are readers, I'll try it out on them. In fact an acquaintance asked me about it, and I kept saying, "Oh you won't like it, because I kept thinking she was some sort of romance reader, but she was just completely taken with it. She told me, "I feel like those people are alive. I feel like I know them." That was a perfect reaction.
My father could have asked for nothing more than that naturalism make the people fully alive, so that when you read the book, you never forget them. Literature lovers say that thing about the book being a secret handshake among people in the know. For me, it's been that way; I don't usually pass it around unless I'm fairly certain that the person will be surprised and happy to have found it.
Did it make you uncomfortable to watch Revolutionary Road?
The only thing that made me uncomfortable was a heart-in-my-mouth fear that people wouldn't like the film. I was delighted with it. They captured my parents' style and their tone—and their difficulties.
Does Kate Winslet's portrayal of April remind you of your mother?
There's this great scene in the movie where she's in the kitchen: The little girl is pestering her about all the stuff she wants to bring to Paris, and April says, "I've got better things to do than to keep saying the same thing over and over to someone who's too bored and silly to listen." And that was my mother's voice. This was her own kind of impatience: a nice, intelligent impatience. The character could have said something more cutting to the child. My mother was very competent the way April is: She kept a clean house, she did all the chores, and she made a nice meal when she had company over. But in her case, she wanted to work, and my father didn't want her to. When they got the divorce, she immediately got her teaching degree.
Kate does it very gracefully in the movie when she's interacting with the children; it seems very natural, and that did my heart good, because I think my mother was a good mother. And my father thought she was a good mother, despite her not wanting to have the children. Thank God for her, because if we'd been following Dad, we wouldn't have come out as whole as we are.
Were you excited when she won the Golden Globe?
I was. Afterwards, she hugged me as she came off the stage and said, "We did it for Dad, eh? We did it for Dad!"
Monica, Richard Yates' second-born daughter from his marriage to Sheila Bryant, worked at The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, before returning to school to become a nurse. She now lives in Michigan with her husband, a surgeon, and their four children.