Engineering School Students, tape 3

DATE: 8 May 1957

OCCASION: Engineering School Students

TAPE: T-126

LENGTH: 11:07

Play the full recording:

William Faulkner: I would say as a—as—as an idea, someone with the capacity to read English that appeared suddenly with no past, mature out of a vacuum, would get nothing from reading the books, that he would have to have something in his own experience of—of man and man's condition and man's behavior to have made the books comprehensible to him, so, of course, he reads into the—the books, things the writer didn't put in there, in the terms that—that his and the writer's experience could not possibly be identical. That there are things the writer might think is in that book, which the reader doesn't find for the same reason that—that no two experiences can be identical, but everyone reads according to—to his own—own lights, his own experience, his own observation, imagination, and experience.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Most of us here tonight, I think, are rather young men in—in the field of engineering. A lot of us hope to be getting out this year. I wonder if you have—this may be an offbeat question—I wonder if you have any advice to young men getting ready to go out in the light, you might say, [audience laughter] from the point of view of someone who's studied human beings and people as much as you have.

William Faulkner: There was a very wise man said to me once, "I never give anybody advice because they might take it." [audience laughter] And at first I didn't understand what he meant by that, but—but now I think I do. Actually nobody can bathe for you, you know. You've got to do that yourself, [audience laughter] and the experience, the—the advice you get, I think, is not by asking for it. You—you get that through some form of osmosis. You will get it from the books you read, from your experiences in college. Every man has got to stand on his own feet, and I think now that I wouldn't accept anyone's advice, that I would rather make my own mistakes than to accept advice which—which might save me because I know now that—that mistakes don't hurt you.

Unidentified participant: Well, that's good advice in itself, I think. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Well, thank you.

Unidentified participant: Sir—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: If you were to undertake a biography, what characteristics would you consider?

William Faulkner: I wouldn't undertake one for the reason I just stated before, that any writer worth his salt is convinced he can improve on anything that God ever made. [audience laughter] I would never write my own because I know, being a congenital liar, I never could tell the truth about [things]. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, if you were to write a book based around the University here, what sort of characters and situations [audience laughter] [would you put in it]?

William Faulkner: Now, that question in a way has been answered before. The writing I have done has always been from the character. Now, if the character that I thought of said, "I'm going to go to the University of Virginia," then I would have to write about the University of Virginia, but the character would have to command that I write about the University of Virginia. It's—it's not in—in my line of work to say, "Now, I'm going to write a story about any place," and then put people into it, that the people themselves say, "Come on here, Faulkner, we're going to write this one about the University of Virginia."

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I—someone who talked to you gave a list of virtues. I've heard you mention some of them tonight. Do you have that ready? [audience laughter] I think that courage and honesty were among your list of virtues.

William Faulkner: Well, let's use a—a little better word to me than virtues. They're the verities of the human heart. They are courage, honor, pride, compassion, pity. That they are—they are not virtues. One doesn't try to practice them, in my opinion, simply because they are good. One practices—tries to practice them simply because they are the edifice on which the whole history of man has been founded, and by means of which his—as a race, he has endured this long. That without—without those verities, he would have vanished, just like the mastodon and the other ephemeral phenomena of nature which have come and gone in the history of the world. Man has endured despite his frailty because he accepts and believes in those verities, that one must be honest not because it's—it's—it's virtuous, but because that's the only way to get along. That if people lied constantly to one another, you would never know where you were, you would never know what was going on. That if people didn't practice compassion, there would be nothing to [defend] the weak until they got enough strength to stand for themselves. If one didn't practice something of—of pride, one would have nothing to be proud about, to have said, "I—I did well. I—I did nothing that I was ashamed of. I can lie down with myself and sleep." That is, they are—they are the verities to be practiced not because they are a virtue but because that's the best way to live in peace with yourself and your fellows.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, what is a roan tooth?

William Faulkner: Oh, it was a—probably a dead tooth that had turned a bluish color, which to this little boy was the color of roan horse. That was the first color he thought of, that it was a dead tooth in this lady's mouth here that had a bluish cast or purplish cast to it.

John Longley, Jr.: Well, let's have one more question [for Mr. Faulkner] and then we'll close down for the night. Yes, [...] ask a question.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In some of your books, I have noticed the characters tend to be sort of blanks. You don't know what they are. A good example of this is Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! He's a blank until the end of the book. You don't know what motivates him. You see him motivated; you see him doing these things, but you don't see what motivates him. Do you start with knowing what the character is and describe his motivations, describe his actions, and then get around to describing what motivates the actions?

William Faulkner: No, it is—is the writer's fault. Before the writer begins to put that character down, he has got to understand him, and [if] he hasn't made perfectly plain and coherent the motivations necessary to make that character real to the reader, then the—the writer himself is at fault. He hasn't, probably, learned enough of his craft by that time. But to the writer, of course, that character is—is intact and whole and is breathing and is standing up, and if to the reader he doesn't stand up and is not real and actual, then that is the fault of the craftsman.

Unidentified participant: I didn't say—he's real and actual, and I realize this, but I don't see the reasons for his actions until the—until the very end of the book. I just didn't see why he did these things. I see that he did them, and I knew there was a reason for it, but I didn't know what it was.

William Faulkner: Well, you can meet an actual living creature or man, you can see him in the throes of some action, and it won't be until after the action is complete that you'll find out why he did that. You agree to that, that that's possible?

Unidentified participant: Yeah.

William Faulkner: Well, that's the case of Sutpen. [audience laughter] It's—simply was a matter of—of—of where you happened to be standing, where the reader happened to be standing, that he didn't—the observer happened to be standing, that he didn't see the motives in time. Now, that—that can be used as a—as a trick to be more effective. I don't remember if—if that was my intent then, but that is a—a valid trick which—which applies one of the simple primary rules of—of writing any paragraph, which is emphasis.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: I was wondering, you said that in your list of the five authors, you thought you had all failed, and I wondered just what it was you thought you had failed at and what you thought, if there is such a thing, as [success]?

William Faulkner: Oh, it—I mean by it this, that what saves any artist, any writer, is that he will never quite attain the image, the shape, the dream. It's always out of his reach. If he ever attained it, then he would be miserable for the rest of his life, but he never quite matches that, so he writes again and again and again, and that's—that's why the—the artist's life is such a happy one. He never does reach satiety. He never will. He will believe that next time, he will write the thing that will match that—that marvelous dream that he has, but—but he knows he won't. But he will still try. There's always some reason for him to wake up tomorrow morning. There's something to do. That's why he's the happiest man of all of them.

Unidentified participant: And do you think that each new book is better than the old one?

William Faulkner: Well, to me, there're no degrees. It's either good or it's—it's bad, [audience laughter] and it's got to be perfect, then I'll say it's good. But there are not degrees of it. The only consistent opinion I have is that it's another failure, neither good nor bad. [audience laughter] It just—it just [a failure]. [audience laughter] But never a shameful failure. It's—it's when the—the book was basely conceived and executed it failed. That's the shameful failure. That is something to writhe over, but just a—a decent, honest failure is all right because, as I just said, failure and mistakes never hurt you. Nothing to—to dread or fear or—or dodge is an opportunity in which you might make a mistake. [There's] nothing to be ashamed of in that, nothing to hurt you.

John Longley, Jr.: Well, ladies and gentleman, thank you for your interesting and intelligent questions. [audience laughter] Thank you, Mr. Faulkner. [applause]

[end of recording]