Local and UVA Communities, tape 2
DATE: 5 June 1957
OCCASION: Local Public and University Community, 5 p.m., 202 Rouss Hall
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William Faulkner: [...] happen among people, and if anything can happen to—to improve man's condition and get rid of his bother and trouble, it will be for amateur to meet amateur, not for professional to meet professional, but for amateur to meet amateur, and if I do have the amateur quality that people in Charlottesville have—have—have felt and been in sympathy with, then—then my time here has been more than just happy, it's been worthwhile, too. I imagine that—that there could be circles, conditions in which the Writer-In-Residence would have to be a literary man, but—but I'm not a literary man, and—and I'm happy to know that—that in Charlottesville, at least, I've been forgiven for that. [audience laughter]
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: How much of yourself do you include in your characters? [audience laughter]
William Faulkner: Well, I consider that I'm in the public domain, just like you and Mr. Gwynn and anybody else that I meet, but I'm still convinced that I can make a much better job of Faulkner than God made of Faulkner, so I will—if I were writing my own biography very likely I couldn't possibly tell the truth about it. [audience laughter] Actually, the writer has got to write from experience, observation, imagination, and—and imagination and observation are bound to be colored just a little by experience, so actually any artist is simply recounting time after time his own biography or his own history or his own reaction to the human condition, which is—which is universal to all men. But his is a—what he thinks is a particular ache and anguish, which to him, anyway, is important enough to put into the music or the picture or into the poem. But he must write from what he knows, and all he knows is just a little of himself because he will die not knowing too much about himself, but he would certainly know very little about anything else.
William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.
Unidentified participant: Your demon sounds relentless. Is there any hope for anyone learning to write if they have a part-time demon? [audience laughter]
William Faulkner: Well, I think that—that there's a—a limitless supply of demons just like germs that hang around maybe just looking for lodgment in anyone that shows any aptitude for ink. That it's—that's—as I said, it's a vice, and it's a virulent sort of vice, too. If you ain't careful, it'll get you.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?
William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.
Unidentified participant: You've often talked about the [effort to convey] condition of man, do you think that this can be achieved in comedy?
William Faulkner: Oh, yes, certainly, because so much of man's condition is comedy. It's difficult to say just where comedy stops and tragedy begins. His condition is his eternal struggle with himself, with his fellows, and with his environment, and that takes the form of—of—of comic or tragic situations, and the comic situations show the tragedy of his—his constant, indomitable striving with his own heart, the heart of mankind, or the condition in which mankind has to function, so one is just as valid as the other, just as important, and who can say just where one stops and the other starts?
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, [isn't it] rather unusual for a man to write his first book [setting in full-blown and starting] that way rather than an outline, maybe a first chapter—a whole book for the first time. Is that what's usually done?
William Faulkner: Well, it's probably a little unusual for a—a reasonably prospering young bootlegger to meet a writer like Sherwood Anderson. [audience laughter] That don't happen to everybody, you know. [audience laughter]
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, how old were you then?
William Faulkner: Twenty-two, twenty-three. That was in the early '20s after the old war.
Unidentified participant: Did he advise you on your writing? Did he criticize you?
William Faulkner: No'm, he wouldn't even read it. That was the trade he made. He would never read it. [audience laughter]
Unidentified participant: Did he talk about writing to you at all, about your work?
William Faulkner: No'm, we talked about people. Rather, he talked, and I listened. He was telling me the fantastic stories, which later he would probably write, but I couldn't believe any of it, [audience laughter] because I knew he was a writer. He talked, and I listened, but it was not about books because neither one of us were literary people, because we were not really interested in literature and books. We were interested in people and the comic and tragic ephemera of man's condition, interested in laughing, maybe.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, do you feel that a writer might be hampered by a college education? Keep him from creating the characters [...]—
William Faulkner: No, sir, I do not. I think that a college education is not going to hamper anyone. I think that a lot of people are subject to it that don't deserve it and can do nothing with it, but it's not going to hamper anyone. I think that—that the college education will save the writer a great deal of—of—of trouble, which he would have to go to in simply learning about man, about the—the history, the record, the history of man, that is available to him in the university, which otherwise he has got to get out and dig for himself, and I'm sorry that I didn't have a—a college education myself. I think that if you have the demon you're going to—to write anyway. Nothing is going to stop you, and it may be you don't want things too easy. But I never heard of anyone that was hurt by a college education, and any writer that says, "I would have been a good writer except"—I put no stock in that because I believe that the "mute, inglorious Milton" is a complete myth.
Joseph Blotner: Mr. Faulkner, in spite of what happens to General Compson and Colonel Sutpen and Colonel Sartoris, there seems to be a heroic quality about them. Do you think that it is still possible for that kind of heroism in the time of which the story in The Town is set?
William Faulkner: Yes, I think that—that although man is not always matched with his finest hour, I'm convinced that—that the hour, the need finds the men it—it requires. That the men like—like Compson and Sutpen who—who had the—the desire to—to be heroic, they failed through—through lack of character or absence of things in their character which should not have been there, but at least they tried. But I'm convinced that the hour will find the men it needs. Though the tragedy is the man who didn't find his hour, didn't find his chance to—to be what he could have been and might have been. He's tragic.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?
William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.
Unidentified participant: What effect, if any, have the opinions of literary critics had on your writing?
William Faulkner: None. I don't read critics. I imagine that most writers don't. They're too busy. That is, the book the writer just finished ain't good enough. He knows that before he's finished it, and so he's forgot about that book. He's going to try one next that will be, and so since it—it didn't meet with his approval, he don't care what anybody else's opinion of it is. And, in my own case, I like to read, but I ain't going to read what anybody thinks about somebody else's ideas. I'd rather read about people.
Unidentified participant: Have you ever received any rejection slips, Mr. Faulkner? [audience laughter]
William Faulkner: Yes'm, for the first few years when I'd try to write short stories, I got plenty of rejection slips.
Unidentified participant: How did it affect you? Or did it?
William Faulkner: Well, I would—I would be frustrated and—and enraged in the time when I hoped I could get a little money for it, but if I didn't need money at that time, it didn't make much difference. I sent it somewhere else, or—or I was busy still writing another one. I'd probably—that's—
Unidentified participant: I've heard it's had a very depressive affect on many writers.
William Faulkner: It—it could on a young writer, yes. I think that—that the young writer maybe doesn't always know or doesn't always have time to decide exactly why he writes. Under the pressure of—of our—our culture, the only measure for his writing is whether people buy it, whether it's in the magazines or not, and he accepts that, and it gives him a lot of bother and trouble, until he gets along a little and realizes that's not at all why one writes, that the reason one writes is from the full knowledge of death that we all have. He knows that some day he will pass into oblivion. He has seen something so—so moving, so beautiful, so aching in the human condition that he wants to write about it, and what he is—is actually doing is to make a scratch on that wall. Before he passes through the last wall into nothingness, he will leave on that wall "Kilroy was here." Not for glory, not for money, just to say "I was here for a little while. I did this. I made something that wasn't here before." That's probably the reason he sticks at it, why he's not discouraged by a rejection slip.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, what became of those stories that were rejected in the first few years you were writing? Did you just abandon them?
William Faulkner: No, I kept them. I kept them, and after a while the folks that rejected them bought them. They bought them. [audience laughter]
Frederick Gwynn: Mr. Faulkner?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Frederick Gwynn: This demon that follows you, could it be described as one that insists on your writing a certain story, one story, or is it one that suggests lots of different stories, and you'll have to use your rational mind and select?
William Faulkner: No, it's the sort of demon that is like the mosquito that won't let you sleep. You want to say, "Oh, go away, let's—let's be quiet a while. What's the use in going to all this bother and trouble just to write books and stories?" But it won't let you sleep. It's not that it says, "You must tell this story." It's just that it won't let you alone. That it keeps on whispering to you, "If you wake up, this is a lot of fun. Come on. Wake up and try it now."
Unidentified participant: The demon doesn't really care which story you write, then—
William Faulkner: No'm, I think it's just against repose more than in favor of anything.
Unidentified participant: Do you see any faces as you describe characters? Do you see a physical person as you write?
William Faulkner: Yes, yes, I don't always hear a name, but I always see a—a physical face, a body, mannerisms, and quite often they name themselves, but not always.
Unidentified participant: So where did you get your names?
William Faulkner: The—the characters usually name themselves, or the situation names the characters. I've never had to hunt around and say, "Now, let's see, what shall I call Smith this time?" That he has said, "This is who I am, and this is what I'm going to be called."
Unidentified participant: Have you usually known people with these names?
William Faulkner: No, I try not to use a name I've ever heard because once you do it, two days later, you get a letter saying, "Dear Sir, I have just turned this matter over to my lawyer. [audience laughter] How much money [do you have]?"—[audience laughter] And so any writer is awful careful not to put down any name he ever heard or—or to describe any incident he ever actually saw.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I read that you admired Mr. Wolfe—Thomas Wolfe's work very much. Just what about it, what—what do you admire about his work?
William Faulkner: Now, that was an unfortunate remark I made. It was a group of students. They asked me what I thought about my contemporaries. I said, "It's too soon to say. We're not done writing." This was, oh, twenty—twenty, thirty years ago. They said, "Well, don't you have any opinion of them at all?" I said, "Opinion of who?" He named Wolfe, Caldwell, Hemingway, Dos Passos. And I said, "Well, I think we all failed, so I'll have to rate us on what I consider the splendor of our failure, and so this is the way I would rate us," and ever since that I've been trying to explain that or live it down. [audience laughter] But that's all it was. To tell the truth, I haven't read much of Wolfe. I've read one or two of his stories. I've opened his books and read pages or paragraphs, but that was—was an opinion on the—the tremendous effort that he had gone into to try to put all of—of the history of the human heart on the head of the pin. That is, to tell it all in each paragraph until he died, as though he had a—a premonition of his own early death. That was what I meant by—by the failure. That he failed the best because he had tried the hardest, he had—had taken the longest gambles, taken the longest shots. I rated Hemingway last not on the value of—of the product at all, but simply because of—of Hemingway having taught himself a pattern, a method which he could use, and he stuck to that without splashing around to try to experiment. It had nothing to do with the value of the work at all. It was simply on the degree of the—of the attempt to reach the unattainable dream, to—to accomplish more than any flesh and blood man could accomplish, could touch.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I understand that in writing The Sound and the Fury, you meant for the first part, Benjy's story, to be the book and then you went then on afterwards to add three more parts. What prompted you to do that? Did you feel the need to go on and explain [...]— ?
William Faulkner: It was to be a short story. It was those three children who had been forbidden to come into the house that afternoon, for what reason they didn't know. They only knew dimly that—that grandmama had been sick, and they didn't know that they'd been forbidden to come in the house because of the funeral, and they were curious enough to climb up to see why they couldn't go into the parlor that they had been forbidden to enter. I thought it would be a short story of ten pages maybe. It got longer and longer, and then I began to know more and more about the people in it, and I finished the first section, and that wasn't right. So I wrote another section. I let somebody else try it. That wasn't right. I let another brother try it. That still wasn't right. I tried it once myself, and that still wasn't right. It still is not—not good enough to suit me. It's still not the book that I'm convinced if I hadn't written it and could start again tomorrow, I would write it better. Probably wouldn't, but I'm convinced of that.
Unidentified participant: Sir?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: I'd like to ask you about two incidents in The Sound and the Fury, which I didn't—I didn't—I wasn't able to—to relate to the rest of the story, but I thought they were—the fact that you threw them in was interesting. And one was—well, I haven't read this for a while, and you—you say you haven't either. [audience laughter] One was about something to do with—with a broken leg, as I recall. And another was a description of an operation which took place in the woods, as I remember, with a razor blade. And I'd like for you to—to try to help me understand just how these fit in with the rest of the book and what they had to do with the story as you recall.
William Faulkner: I don't remember about the operation with the razor blade in the woods, though without doubt it—it referred to—to—to the castration of the idiot child. After he had tried to molest a little girl, they had to do something about him, so he was castrated, and if the operation in the woods had any application, and I can't remember now, it was probably something out of the older brother's garbled, half-mad history and background, which he had used as a—as a—as a transference. The—the brutality of it as a transference onto this shameful thing which—which his idiot brother had had to suffer. The—the broken bone—I don't remember—but I'm—I'm—I worked so hard at that book that I doubt if there's anything in it that—that didn't belong there. I would have to look at the book again to—
Frederick Gwynn: That's As I Lay Dying, [isn't it?] Cash's broken leg?
William Faulkner: Oh, well, yes, that was to—to show the—the—the ignorance of these people in trying to repair that—that broken bone with cement in order to make this completely foolish hegira with that decaying body, which they were doing, which was in its own way heroic because they had promised that woman that they would take her back to—to her people to bury her, and so they went through fire and flood and all possible natural catastrophes to—to do this thing, which didn't need to be done at all, but they had promised to do it, so they did.
Unidentified participant: Sir, did—when you wrote either The Sound and the Fury and—or As I Lay Dying, did you—were you conscious of—of making the characters, the brothers and sisters and their relationships, somewhat similar? I mean, would you think back, as you—as you recall—that it seems to me that there's a certain type of family relationship in each of the families, which—I wouldn't—I don't know which one of the books you wrote first—
William Faulkner: Well, yes, probably there is, due to the fact that in each one of them, there was a sister surrounded by a—a gang of brothers. The one, As I Lay Dying, was tour de force. I knew when I put down the first word what the last word of that would be. The other was anything but tour de force. I was completely submerged in the other one. I—I struggled and anguished with it for a year. This is—As I Lay Dying I wrote in about six weeks without changing any of it. If there is any relationship, it's probably simply because both of them happened to—to have a sister in a—a roaring gang of men folks.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you spoke about The Sound and the Fury as starting out to write a short story, and it kept growing. Well, now, do you think that it's easier to write a novel than a short story?
William Faulkner: Yes, sir, you can be more careless. You can put more trash in it and be excused for it than a short story—that's next to the poem. Almost every word has got to be almost exactly right. In the novel you can be careless, but in the short story you can't. I mean by that the good short stories like Chekhov wrote. That's why I rate that second—it's because it's—it demands a nearer absolute exactitude. You have less room to be slovenly and careless. There's less room in it for trash. In poetry, of course, there's no room at all for trash. It's got to be absolutely impeccable, absolutely perfect.
Unidentified participant: It's more like playwriting then?
William Faulkner: Yes'm, that's right.
Unidentified participant: [...]
William Faulkner: That's right. That's right. Of course, playwriting has one more demand, that you're—you're not going to keep your audience that long. With a book you can read that a while and put it down and then go back and read it, but if it's a play you can't. If you don't use up your ticket tonight, you've got to buy another ticket.
William Faulkner: Yes, sir.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, would you care—I—I think you've made us understand your feeling that a writer is never satisfied with his work, but would you care to suggest which one of your works, or one or two of your works that you consider—that are your own favorites?
William Faulkner: Well, that goes back to—to the old standard of failure. The one that's the dearest to me is the one that—that caused me the most anguish and trouble, just like the—the idiot child is—is the—the dearest to the—to the parent, and that's The Sound and the Fury. That's the one I worked at the hardest, made the most splendid and to me the most beautiful failure, so that's the one that I love. The others didn't cause that much trouble. That is, I—I—I found out sooner that I couldn't make them perfect and was willing to quit. With The Sound and the Fury, it took me a long time to realize I couldn't make it good enough to suit me before I'd give it up.
William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.
Unidentified participant: Do you [like to] read modern works and if so, how do you choose the ones that you like to read?
William Faulkner: I think most writers as they get old read less and less, and I know that I read now the books that I knew and loved when I was a young man. I haven't read a—a dozen contemporary books in the last dozen years, and they were books which someone gave me and said, "Read this, I think you will like it," or "There's something interesting in it," then I'll read it. But the reason I do is—is in the old books which I go back to as you go to call on an old friend and talk with him for a while.
Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, do you feel that your war experiences in World War I had any significant influence on the perspective of the South that you developed in Yoknapatawpha County?
William Faulkner: I don't know. As I said, the writer uses every experience that ever happened to him, and he is not interested in just how much one experience changes his own point of view, that he is too involved and too engaged with the people that he thinks he is writing about, that he hopes to make come alive and stand up in three dimensions and cast a shadow behind them, that he himself can't say because he don't really care how much any of his own private experience has changed him, that he's going to use it all, that he stores everything away willy-nilly, regardless, just as—as the magpie picks up everything that glitters, or as the professional carpenter don't ever throw away a plank no matter how crooked or short it is, that some day he will use it.
Unidentified participant: [Can I have one other] question in that general area? Do you see or have you seen in the South an analogy between the Civil War and the First World War as you knew it?
William Faulkner: No, I—I don't. I imagine that—that literary experts or maybe even war literary experts might find analogies. I myself don't recall any. All I remember about the—the only war I know about was that was the first war when if you were scared, you said so. Up to that time, nobody every admitted he was scared. [audience laughter] There may have—there was a lot of romantic foolishness talked about air fighting in that war which wasn't really there because you were still contending with a machine which would come to pieces or would burn up, that there was nothing of the—of the quality of matching your—your own skill against another human being with the same fine high hopes and desires that you had. You were involved with a confounded machine that would kill you.
Joseph Blotner: Mr. Faulkner, we're very grateful to you for being with us, and we thank you very much.
William Faulkner: Well, thank you all. [audience applause]
[end of recording]