Christopher Buckley doesn’t sound like himself.
On the page, the author of Thank You for Smoking and more than a dozen other books, Buckley — who delivers the South Carolina Book Festival keynote address this Friday — is confident, bold, witty and polished. Also, when writing personally, as he does in his latest collection, But Enough About You, he has the savoir-faire of someone who couldn’t take the world, or himself, too seriously if he tried.
He writes piquant travel essays (Machu Picchu, the Matterhorn, Easter Island, the Iditarod) and lampoons travel guides. He writes about serious history (Auschwitz, Vietnam) and also pens historic spoofs. The novelist in him can’t stop making stuff up. He relishes many enthusiasms (P.G. Wodehouse to Animal House) and mourns great friends (Catch-22 author Joseph Heller, iconoclastic ball-breaker Christopher Hitchens) who left too soon.
He’s not a dour fellow, however; there’s always a residual cheer to his writing, and probably for a good reason. Family and personal success have allowed him to live the good life and, like his late father, William F. Buckley Jr., he doesn’t want to miss a thing.
In person, however — or at least on the phone from Stamford, Connecticut — he’s rather startlingly soft-spoken, gentle and a bit at a loss for the topic of his forthcoming address.
It will likely be “something of a literary nature,” Buckley says, although “‘keynote address’ is probably too fancy a term for what I will probably end up doing. My aim is always to try to get the audience laughing, and sometimes I do. Sometimes, they just sit there and stare.”
Hopefully, he says, alcohol will be involved. It doesn’t hurt, anyway.
He hopes to discuss book titles — an important part of the publishing process, as every year 400,000 new books fight for a reader’s attention in the United States alone.
Who: Christopher Buckley
What: SC Book Festival keynote address
When: Friday, May 16 (5:30 p.m.)
Where: USC Law School Auditorium
How much: Free
He cites two great American novels whose titles were changed late in the game. F. Scott Fitzgerald had his heart set on Trimalchio in East Egg for his third novel, until editor Maxwell Perkins prevailed on him to call it The Great Gatsby — great advice, it might seem in perspective, but it didn’t help the book’s sales.
Buckley said that the late Columbia publisher (and Fitzgerald expert) Matthew Bruccoli insisted they should have stuck with the original title, “and that it would have sold more books. The Great Gatsby was not a commercial success.”
Joseph Heller’s most famous book had its own history in that regard. It was originally titled Catch-18, until the publisher learned that Leon Uris was about to publish Mila 18, sending Heller into a mad scramble for a new number.
Visiting South Carolina is a common experience for Buckley, as he spent a lot of time here growing up. His grandparents resided at their estate, Kamschatka, in Camden. His uncle, Reid Buckley, lived in Camden for more than 40 years, until passing away last month at 83.
“It was a wonderful place, of which I have wonderful memories,” he says, although he did try to avoid it in the summer months.
There’s another South Carolina connection as well: Buckley’s wife, Dr. Katherine “Katy” Close, is from Fort Mill. She went to the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, where she now serves on the faculty. USC President Harris Pastides, who will introduce Buckley on Friday, is a family friend.
“So I guess that makes me a little bit less Yankee,” he says.
Alas, his uncle Reid, who established the Buckley School of Public Speaking, is no longer a venerable Camden fixture. His death last month “leaves a great big hole in my life.”
“Reid was just full of fire and fun,” he says. “He could instill enthusiasm in a corpse. He had this sort of electricity about him.”
Family is never far from Buckley’s thoughts. With his parents gone, he moved into the home in Stamford where he grew up. He and his wife have “poured an ungodly amount of money” into modernizing the place, which apparently retains its pastoral charm in other ways.
As he speaks, the locals are putting on a show outside his window.
“I’m watching squirrels eat all the birdseed out of my bird-feeder,” he says. ”I’ve become a bit of a crotchety old suburban crank. I get up every 10 minutes and spray WD-40 on the birdfeeder stand — which affords some collateral amusement, because I watch the squirrels try to shimmy up the pole, and they get about a foot up and then slide down,” he says, a little giddy at the sight. “Such are my satisfactions at the age of 61.”
Inside, he’s surrounded by the past. He’s seated just two feet away from where his father died, and the elder Buckley’s legacy looms large.
Christopher Buckley has written 16 books, but his dad — who founded the conservative National Review magazine and famously knocked off columns studded with arcane words and astute literary quotes in well under an hour — wrote over 50.
“Here’s a figure for you: He wrote over 6,000 syndicated columns over the course of his life,” Buckley says of his father. “If all of those columns were collected in book form, they would amount to something like 14 books alone.”
His son, by contrast, finds himself going slower.
“When I was younger, I sort of had the confidence of immaturity, where you barrel on ahead not really knowing how inadequate it was. Whether it’s age or holding myself to a higher standard, I rewrite endlessly. My father was able to crank out a book in six weeks. I don’t do that.”
Another difference: William F. Buckley Jr. was a stalwart Catholic. His son, an agnostic, left the church. When Christopher was invited to speak at his old Catholic boarding school, his father was outraged. He said if he were a parent, he would walk out. The two didn’t speak for weeks.
“I will say to you that William F. Buckley is a pretty good debating opponent,” he says now with a laugh, “but when it came to that, I can’t claim to have had many victories. He was very serious about his religious faith.”
Over the past few years, he’s lost a lot of the people who were closest to him: His mom, dad, Hitchens and Reid. But there are still books to write, places to go, talks to give — and hey, check this out.
“There’s great excitement among the squirrels,” he says fondly. “They’re chasing a rather gaudily-colored red cardinal. Never a dull moment here in Stamford, let me tell you.”
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