Local and UVA Communities, tape 2

DATE: 30 May 1957

OCCASION: Local Public and University Community

TAPE: T-136

LENGTH: 31:52

Play the full recording:

William Faulkner: [...] change the Negro's condition, that the Negro's condition was gradually being changed by the—by the white man. He was being given more and more of liberty, more and more of equality. That Supreme Court decision, in Mississippi anyway, has—has set things back, for the reason you say, that you cannot legislate against—against the mores and against a social condition. You can only state that the social condition is bad and must be changed, but you can't change it overnight by passing laws.

Unidentified participant: Well, I'd say that in Mississippi the May 17,1954, decision was not implemented, but it did move Mississippi to try and implement Plessy vs. Fergusson. [...] [the schools] separate but equal.

William Faulkner: Well, they had been moving in that direction for some time. They had not moved fast enough. And if there had been no Supreme Court decision, the white people in Mississippi would've been content with the infinitesimal progress they were making. The Supreme Court decision only warned them that—that they must move faster or something must be done, but it still has not changed the—the situation in Mississippi. It has speeded up a gradual evolution, but it hasn't changed overnight any situation there.

Unidentified participant: Well, my point is if it did accelerate even in Mississippi, then it is laws that make effects.

William Faulkner: Well, yes. It was a—a statement which had effect. That was a decision. That wasn't a law. It was simply a decision on—on the law which the Supreme Court made. It hadn't changed the law in Mississippi.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Going back to your symbolism, you said that the symbol when you're writing would mean one thing to one reader and perhaps another to another reader. When you write, are you ever conscious of writing for a certain group of readers? Do you ever write and then decide, "Well, this won't be [as] good, and I'll change it"?

William Faulkner: No, no. I think the writer writes for himself. In fact, I wrote for years before it occurred to me that strangers might read what I was writing, that the writer writes for himself. He's trying to make something perfect which wasn't here before. When he begins to—to temper what he writes to—to who will read it, then I think the writing itself suffers, but he has got to observe certain rules of—of coherence, but he is writing primarily to depict the world—man struggling in his condition as he himself saw it, that he has seen man in his condition struggle against it in his aspirations, his—his follies, his hopes, his tragedy, which to that writer was so moving that he himself has got to put that down on paper, to—to capture what to him was magic. It may be, though he is not writing for glory, it may be that he knows all the time that—that some day, after his allotted span, he will pass through the last wall of oblivion, and maybe what he's actually doing is simply writing on that wall, "Kilroy was here." [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: [What do you think of] exaggeration as a literary device?

William Faulkner: I think it's—it's valid, just like fantasy, just like comedy, just like tragedy, just like inversion. They are—are valid in the sense that—that the carpenter's tools are valid. Whatever the carpenter wants to use, which in his opinion will build the best chicken coop, is valid. He may decide to use his hammer backward or to saw with—with a kitchen knife, but anything that to him is the best tool he can use to make the chickenhouse as near perfect as he can make it is valid. I think that no one should—should write just to be funny or just to be fantastic. I—I'll take that back. He—he is perfectly at liberty to write just to be funny or just to be fantastic, but I think the one—the man that's doing that is like the man that writes primarily to be a stylist, that he hasn't got a whole lot to say, that what he has to say is not valid and urgent in the sense of depicting man in his struggle with himself, with his fellows, with his environment.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: [...]

William Faulkner: I think they're restatements. Actually, there're only three subjects to write about: love, money and death. People—writers write about men and women in the—the tragedy of the human condition, and the—the verities which man struggles with are—are eternal. They haven't changed much, and his problems are new only in that they are new and novel to that individual, just like to the young man and young woman, there never was love before like ours, like the one I feel now at 17 and 18 and 19. There never was grief or tragedy like that which I feel now. In—in that sense only is the material new. Actually, it's—it's very old, but it's—the very fact that it can be that old is—is an indication of man's immortality, I think, that he does endure. He has—has lasted so long that there's nothing new in his—his aspiration and hope, save to himself, that there's nothing new in his tragedy, save to himself, that he still can want to be better than he is. He can still believe that injustice shall not endure; it must be changed; it must be corrected. His progress is very slow, almost infinitesimal, but there is progress. Little children, for instance, don't have to work in sweatshops. Your grocer can't sell you poisoned food. Some progress. People are concerned enough to—to try to do away with war, to do away with poverty. That's some advancement. Man should've advanced much faster, I grant you. That's some advancement, and—and if it were not for that capacity to advance, that desire to advance, very likely he would've been effaced from the earth long before this, along with the dinosaur and the other big lizards.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: [...] something that you wouldn't expect. [...]

William Faulkner: Sometimes the characters in my books surprise me, yes. They don't surprise me in doing something that I never heard of or never imagined human beings doing before, but I hadn't expected them to do it at that moment. [audience laughter] That's—that's because, as I said, my chore as a writer is to run along behind these people and put down what they say and do, but if they do things which to me seem completely outside the realm of human behavior, then I know that's wrong and that's false and—and must be thrown away.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: [Sir, do you constantly add to these characters] [...]

William Faulkner: Well, I don't add. The—the stories I'm working on do, suddenly it turns up with—with some bloke I've never heard of before. [audience laughter] It doesn't mean—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, [could you] make the distinction between the description of a character, having run behind them [...] [and a news clip in the daily newspaper]?

William Faulkner: Well, there's—it seems to me this difference, the—the piece in the daily newspaper is a—a correlation, a gathering of facts after the fact. That is, no reporter can follow along behind the people who are approaching a crisis or a climax or a crime, say. The writer can do that. He can start when they get up that morning and follow the characters up to the moment when they pull the trigger or rob the bank or—or jump in the water and save the baby, but the reporter has got to go around and—and ask people what happened, what did you see. There's that difference. It's—you might say the same thing but—but one is approached from behind it, the other from in front of it.

Unidentified participant: [Is that enough to warrant an approach to the subject—I mean do we find in this] [...] [position of the observer—is that sufficient to give a title to a newspaper or to a novel]?

William Faulkner: Well, it's sufficient. Only the—the man that is writing the same circumstances for the novel is compelled to do a little more research, that is, the reporter can—can ask, inquire, seek out and get the simple facts, and since it's—it's printed in the—in the newspaper, the reader will accept that. In the book, the—the writer is not too sure that his readers will accept that, so he's got to take the fact, if that's where he starts, then he's got to go backward to—to follow these people up to the point, to explain why they—they perform that action. They are quite alike, the two crafts, but they must be approached, as I said, one from—from behind the fact, one from in front of the fact. We might say that if it's in the newspaper, you believe it; if it's in the book, you've got to prove it. [audience laughter] Since one is, on its face, fiction, and the other is supposed to be fact.

Unidentified participant: Sir, in your writings, do you have a particular character or situation or do you find that you like to have a specific character do a certain thing so that certain characteristics [...] ring true? Or do you have that situation come up a lot? I mean, in that you liked the sound of the bell, you like to hear it, you like to put it down on paper regardless of the characters?

William Faulkner: No, I don't.

Unidentified participant: [...] [Some authors] keep on doing that.

William Faulkner: No, no, it's that character that rings that bell, not me. [audience laughter] By that time, the character has taken charge of—of his own tale, and no matter what I want him to do, he may do it, and he may not do it, but he's going to decide what he does next. He's going to decide if he wants to ring that bell. I just report the fact that he rang that bell.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am. I believe you had a question.

Unidentified participant: I would like to know how you started writing?

William Faulkner: How did I start writing?

Unidentified participant: Yes, [...]

William Faulkner: Well, I'd always liked to scribble, probably, just like the—the would-be lawyer likes to argue maybe and the—the would-be doctor or biologist likes to cut up flies, [audience laughter] but I think I became a professional writer—I was living in New Orleans, and I met Sherwood Anderson, and I liked him at once. We would meet in the afternoon and walk around New Orleans, and he would talk, and I would listen. We would meet again in the evening, and we would go to a pleasant courtyard and sit over a bottle of whiskey, and he would talk, and I would listen until 12 and 1 and 2 o'clock. The next morning he'd be in seclusion working. We'd meet again in the afternoon, again in the evening, and the next morning he's in seclusion working, and I thought to myself, if that's all it took to be a writer, then [audience laughter] [...]. And so I—I started a book, and right away I found that writing was fun. And I hadn't seen Mr. Anderson in—in weeks. I met Ms. Anderson on the street one day. She said, "What the matter? Are you mad at us?" I said, "No, ma'am. I'm writing a book." She said, "Good God." [audience laughter] I saw her again, and she asked me how the book was getting on. I told her, "Just fine." She said, "Do you want Sherwood to read it?" I hadn't thought of anybody reading it. I said, "Well'm, if he wants to, it's all right with me." She said, "Well, he says he'll make a trade with you. If he don't have to read that book, he'll tell his publisher to take it." So I said, "Done," [audience laughter] And I finished the book, and he told his publisher, Mr. Liveright, to take it, and that's how I got printed. [audience laughter] But up to that time, I'd never thought of being a professional writer because it was still fun. That's the first time I'd ever really connected money with—with writing a book. But the—I think the—the pleasure in scribbling must have been there all the time. I imagine that as soon as I learned to spell, I must have been trying to write something, [...]. I don't remember what it could've been, but that's—that's a curse that we're probably born with [...].

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: When you are writing a book, Mr. Faulkner, are you ever conscious of trying to put up a philosophy of your own through [a reading of] your characters?

William Faulkner: No, sir, I'm not. I think that's—that's one thing that should be on the front page of every book: the author is not responsible for the opinion of these people inside. [audience laughter] That's—that's their notion. Of course, when they agree with me, I'm happy to—to put down what they say. When they don't agree with me, I still put it down, but their opinions are theirs. I think that if the writer is going to write simply to express his own opinions, then he is not primarily a fiction writer, he's a—a propagandist or a polemicist, that the writer is engaged primarily in writing about people engaged in the amazing, eternally interesting follies and tragedies and heroism which people are engaged. That the symbolism, the style, the philosophy, the ideas are only coincidental and probably to the writer not too important.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In some of the statements published about you in the news stories that you have made the distinction between yourself and the demon who makes you write. Who or what is that demon?

William Faulkner: Well, sir, I—I don't know myself. Probably he harasses me too much for me to have a good chance to turn and look at him. It could be, as I say, a desire to leave some mark on—on the world so that—that people after you will know that for a little while that Smith was here. He made this scratch. It—well, I don't think it's—it's—it's for glory. It's certainly not for profit, because there are many more—more profitable things than being a writer. It—it's—it's certainly not to—to change man's condition. If anything, I would say that's what it is, it's simply to leave a scratch on—on the earth that showed that you were here for a little while.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: When or how do you decide on the titles?

William Faulkner: Titles, I think the—well, in my case, the good titles are like gentle lightning strokes. I don't know where they come from. Suddenly there is just exactly the right title. The only time I ever hunt for—ever had to hunt for a title it was a bad one. It never did please me. The others I don't know where they came from. Suddenly the situation, the character, the book or something about it brings the title out of—out of the mysterious unknown or out of the background or experience. I don't know where it comes from.

Unidentified participant: Not always at the beginning [...]?

William Faulkner: Sometimes the title is the first thing, the title invents the story. Sometimes the title appears in the middle of the story. I've never had one that finished without a title, that I had to hunt around and invent one.

Frederick Gwynn: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In the title of Requiem for a Nun, does the Nun have to refer to [either] Temple Drake Stevens or to Nancy?

William Faulkner: The nun was Nancy.

Frederick Gwynn: [That] she was very separated from the world as a nun is?

William Faulkner: Well, it was in the—the—that tragic life of a prostitute which she had had to follow simply because she was compelled by her environment, her circumstance, to be it. Not for profit nor any pleasure. She was just doomed and damned by circumstances to that life. And despite that, she was capable of within her—her poor dim lights and reasons—of an act, which whether it was right or wrong, was a—was a complete, almost religious abnegation of the world for—for the sake of—of an—of an innocent child. That was—it was paradoxical, the use of the word "nun" for her, but I—but to me that—that added something to her tragedy.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, did your title The Sound and the Fury come from Shakespeare's Macbeth?

William Faulkner: Yes. Yes, there must have been a dozen books titled from that speech. I think that I had the best one. [audience laughter] But I can think of six or seven books all from that same speech.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Do you feel any compulsion to be understood? Does it make any difference to you that a great many of [us are] confused by what you are driving at?

William Faulkner: Well, it's not a compulsion. It's a regret that I'm not, but there's the demon. It's—the writer has got to write so fast because he knows that, anyway, he'll never live long enough to write all he wants to, and he wishes that he could be more coherent and could write simpler and plainer, but there's that—that need to get the whole history of man's heart onto the head of that pin during his threescore and ten years, and he hasn't got time to go back and rewrite it, which he—he wishes he did have time. If he could call time out and rewrite the book and make it clear and simple, but he don't have time because that one was wrong, and he's got to write another one, to still try to put the history of man's hope and aspiration and passion and tragedy and folly and comedy on the head of a pin before he has to go through the last ultimate bottomless wall.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Do you feel that your characters are universal [...]? [I know that you are a regional writer] and I just wondered, or do you care? [...]

William Faulkner: I feel that the verities which these people suffer are universal verities. That is, that man, whether he's black or white or red or yellow, still suffers the same anguishes, he has the same aspirations, his follies are the same follies, his—his triumphs are the same triumphs. That is, his—his struggle is against his own heart, against—with the hearts of his fellows, and with his background. And, in that sense, there's no such thing as a regional writer. The writer simply uses the terms he is familiar with best because that saves him having to do research. That he write—might write the—the book about Chinese, but if he does that, he's got to do some research or somebody'll say, "Ah! You're wrong there. That ain't the way Chinese behave." But if he uses his own region, which he's familiar with, it saves him that trouble.

Unidentified participant: To what degree [...] the characters [...]?

William Faulkner: None. There was never a writer that—that wasn't convinced that he could create much better people than God can. [audience laughter] That's why no writer can ever write his own biography. He can't tell the truth that long. [audience laughter] Because a fiction writer is—is a congenital liar to begin with, you see. That's what makes him a fiction writer. That's what the word fiction means. And so he not only couldn't tell the truth, he's—he's convinced that he could create much better truth than circumstance can.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, do you ever have a character [that you are so enthused with] and had to [in a word] cut him out?

William Faulkner: Yes, in the sense that—yes, that you get too fond of a character, too amused at him or too interested, and—and he—he will say and do things which—for which there's—there's no place in the story you're telling, that you have to throw away, yes. That's just a matter of using the—having enough ruthlessness to use the blue pencil. That what he—he does is still true enough, still human enough, but there's simply no place for that in the—the pattern of the story which you're trying to tell, so you've got to cut it out. Yes, that happened once or twice.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, why are you so fond of the Compsons and the Snopses? [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Well, I feel sorry for the Compsons. That was—was blood which was good and brave once, but has—has thinned and faded all the way out. Of the Snopes, I'm terrified. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: [...]

William Faulkner: That was—was tour de force, of course. I took these people of—of the kind which I know, and simply subjected them to—to the two fiercest natural cataclysms, which are flood and fire. That was a certain amount of deliberate symbolism. But to me, the very fact that these people endured for a reason that on the face of it was foolish, that is, to carry their mother that far just to bury her, but it was noble in that they had promised her to do that, and so they were—they had dropped their own baseness, their own pettiness, to follow out this simple wish of the mother, which was—was noble, even though it was foolish, and that to me is another indication that man is immortal, that he will endure because even in his folly, he's capable of doing something not for his profit at all but simply because his conscience or something, call it God if you like, says do this, and so even in his folly, without believing that he is that brave and that compassionate, he does brave and noble things.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Have you been influenced by The Divine Comedy [in any way]?

William Faulkner: I have, like every writer, been influenced by every word I ever read from the telephone book up and down. [audience laughter] I think that—that that's true of anyone that writes, that he is completely amoral. He steals right and left without even knowing he's doing that. He stows that away and then if he ever needs it, he reaches in his mind, and he digs it up and uses it. Yes, sir, I've been influenced by that, by everything I've read. Not deliberately. You just can't help it. That's a part of the—of the experience which makes man—the man or the child want to be a writer.

Unidentified participant: You said you only liked to scribble, did you like [to parse sentences] [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: No, sir, I didn't. I had to—to learn something about that in order to—to follow my craft, but I never did like to go to school, and I stopped going to school as soon as I got big enough to—to play hooky and not be caught at it. That was about the sixth grade, but I had to learn the—to use the tools of my craft just as—as the woodchopper's got to learn to use an ax in order not to chop his own feet off.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, these characters that you follow along, do they come to a natural conclusion, or do you have to cut them off, or do they tell the story and that's the end of it, or what?

William Faulkner: No, no, they exist. They are—they are still in motion in my mind. I can laugh at things they're doing that I haven't got around to writing yet. No, that's where the—the rules of the craft come in, that someone, some editor, has got to give the whole thing unity, coherence, and emphasis, to start at a decent starting place and then stop it somewhere at a logical, reasonable place. But the characters themselves, they walk on out of that book still in motion, still talking, and still acting.

Unidentified participant: [Mr. Faulkner, because of your interrupted education, it makes me wonder if formal education [...]]

William Faulkner: I think that nobody can know too much, can learn too much. I think that one can be a writer without the formal education. I think the formal education will not do the writer any more harm than anybody else, [audience laughter] but I'm convinced that nobody can be taught anything, that you must learn it. And the value of formal education is that all the—the knowledge, the wisdom, the opinions on the wisdom, on the knowledge which makes wisdom, is there convenient for you to get. Otherwise, you've got to run from pillar to post to find what is right there offered to you. But nobody can teach anybody anything, I'm convinced of that. You've got to want to know it. You've got to want to learn it.

Frederick Gwynn: Sir, you mentioned love and money and death as the three subjects of fiction. Isn't there something else, above that, such as represented in your novel about Thomas Sutpen. He was motivated by something other than those three things, involved in something higher than they?

William Faulkner: I meant that love and money and death are the—the—the skeletons on which the story is laid. They have nothing to do with the—with the aspirations and the conflicts of the human heart involved. But—but the story has—has got to have some skeleton, and the skeletons are—are love or money or death. In Sutpen's case, there was—he—he needed the money in order to satisfy his—his aspiration. And it was his foreknowledge of death which compelled—impelled in him the—the haste to be completely ruthless, to do it while he still could. The—love was a—a part of—of his—his conflict, too. He wanted—wanted that son for—for vanity, of course. But you've—vanity is not really enough. You've got—got to love the thing that—that you can be vain because of, or proud because of. It had to be his son, not just—he could've adopted a child, you see, and—and carved out a plantation [...]

[end of recording]