William Faulkner Answers Student’s Questions
“No man ever put more of his heart and soul into the written word than did William Faulkner.”
— Eudora Welty
In 1947, at the University of Mississippi, William Faulkner — an extraordinarily inconsistent and difficult writer whose work is almost invariably frustrating, and yet a writer whom you cannot ever quite dismiss (the following Q-and-A shows why, I think, Faulkner being a man who thought and cared so deeply about literature) — was, during spring semester, asked to address the class once a week, which he agreed to do, provided the professor be barred from the class, which the professor was.
Here are some of the questions he was asked and the answers he gave:
Q: Which of your books do you consider best?
WILLIAM FAULKNER: As I Lay Dying was easier and more interesting. The Sound and The Fury still continues to move me. Go Down, Moses — I started it as a collection of short stories. After I reworked it, it became seven different facets of one field. It is simply a collection of short stories.
Q: In what form does the initial idea of a story come to you?
WF: It depends. The Sound and The Fury began with the impression of a little girl playing in a branch and getting her panties wet. This idea was attractive to me, and from it grew the novel.
Q: How do you go about choosing your words?
WF: In the heat of putting it down you might put down some extra words. If you rework it, and the words still ring true, leave them in.
Q: What reason did you have for arranging the chapters of The Wild Palms as you did?
WF: It was merely a mechanical device to bring out the story I was telling, which was one of two types of love. I did send both stories to the publisher separately, but they were rejected because they were too short. So I alternated the chapters of them.
Q: How much do you know about how a book will turn out before you start writing it?
WF: Very little. The character develops with the book, and the book with the writing of it.
Q: Why do you present the picture you do of our area?
WF: I have seen no other. I try to tell the truth of man. I use imagination when I have to and cruelty as a last resort. The area is incidental. That’s just all I know.
Q: Since you do represent this picture, don’t you think it gives a wrong impression?
WF: Yes, and I’m sorry. I feel I’m written out. I don’t think I’ll write much more. You only have so much steam and if you don’t use it up in writing it’ll get off by itself.
Q: Did you write Sanctuary at the boilers just to draw attention to yourself?
WF: The basic reason was that I needed money. Two or three books that had already been published were not selling and I was broke. I wrote Sanctuary to sell. After I sent it to the publisher, he informed me, “Good God, we can’t print this. We’d both be put in jail.” The blood and guts period hadn’t arrived yet. My other books began selling, so I got the galleys of Sanctuary back from the publisher for correction. I knew that I would either have to rework the whole thing or throw it away. I was obligated to the publisher financially and morally and upon continued insistence I agreed to have it published. I reworked the whole thing and had to pay for having the new galleys made. For these reasons, I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now.
Q: Should one re-write?
WF: No. If you are going to write, write something new.
Q: How do you find time to write?
WF: You can always find time to write. Anybody who says he can’t is living under false pretenses. To that extent depend on inspiration. Don’t wait. When you have an inspiration put it down. Don’t wait until later and when you have more time and then try to recapture the mood and add flourishes. You can never recapture the mood with the vividness of its first impression.
Q: How long does it take you to write a book?
WF: A hack writer can tell. As I Lay Dying took six weeks. The Sound and The Fury took three years.
Q: I understand you can keep two stories going at one time. If that is true, is it advisable?
WF: It’s all right to keep two stories going at the same time. But don’t write for deadlines. Write just as long as you have something to say.
Q: What is the best training for writing? Courses in writing? Or what?
WF: Read, read, read! Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You’ll absorb it. Write. If it is good you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.
Q: Is it good to copy a style?
WF: If you have something to say, use your own style: it will choose its own type of telling, its own style. What you have liked will show through in your style.
Q: Do you realize your standing in England?
WF: I know that I am better thought of abroad than here. I don’t read any reviews. The only people with time to read are women and rich people. More Europeans read than do Americans.
Q: Why do so many people prefer Sanctuary to As I Lay Dying?
WF: That’s another phase of our American nature. The former just has more commercial color.
Q: What is the best age for writing?
WF: For fiction the best age is from 35-45. Your fire is not all used up and you know more. Fiction is slower. For poetry the best age is from 17 to 26. Poetry writing is more like a skyrocket with all your fire condensed in one rocket.
Q: How about Shakespeare?
WF: There are exceptions.
Q: Why did you quit writing poetry?
WF: When I found poetry not suited to what I had to say, I changed my medium. At 21 I thought my poetry very good. At 22 I began to change my mind. At 23 I quit. I use a poetic quality in my writing. After all, prose is poetry.
Q: Mr. Faulkner, do you mind our repeating anything we have heard outside of class?
WF: No. It was true yesterday, is true today, and will be true tomorrow.
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