Virginia Colleges Conference, tape 2

DATE: 15 April 1957

OCCASION: Virginia Colleges Conference

TAPE: T-122b

LENGTH: 30:16

Play the full recording:

William Faulkner: [...] and the long sentence is an attempt to get his past and possibly his future into the instant in which he does something. But to me, what he does is—is not quite as important as who he is, the fact that he is a continuity, that he has come a long way, that he has endured and he is, I hope, we hope, better than—than his ancestors were, that he's more compassionate. He's more tolerant. We hope braver, more honest.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, a few weeks ago the Richmond papers quoted you as having organized [in ascending order of excellence] [...] [American] writers [...] [you admire]. Would you be willing to suggest what the criterion was, [...]?

William Faulkner: The criterion was failure. My feeling is that we all fail, that none of it is as good as we all wanted it to be. None of my stuff is as good as I wanted it to be. That's why I keep on writing another one, and so I rated these people only by what I called the splendor of the failure. The one that made the most magnificent failure I rated first, [audience laughter] not by the—the value that they did but by the splendor of the failure, the—the ambition, the aspiration to do more than—than maybe a human being can do, because you don't want to be better than—than your—your fellow writer. You want to be as good as anybody that ever did write. You want to be as good as [Dante] and Homer and Shakespeare and you can't, you fail, so you write another book. If you ever did that one time, then there'd be nothing left for you to do. You'd have to pick up—take up a new trade.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir. I'm sorry. Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Well, this is more or less a question of fact. In The Sound and the Fury, was Jason Compson, did you—was he a bastard?

William Faulkner: No, no, not a—not an actual one, only but—in behavior. [audience laughter]

Joseph Blotner: Do you find that it's easier to—to write this—this wonderful rolling rhetoric of yours than it is to—to write a—a completely objective scene?

William Faulkner: For me, it is. I'm too busy trying to make my people come to life and then I run behind them at full speed trying to keep up with them [audience laughter] and I put down the best I can. I don't have time to—to think about style. I—I believe that anyone who spends too much time on style hasn't got a great deal to say. That if you have a lot to say, you don't have time to think of style. You wish you could think of style and—and think of the material, too, but I don't believe that anyone can.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—oh, I'm sorry.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In connection with that, do you revise much?

William Faulkner: I revise a great deal. I'm lazy—I don't like the—the mechanics of—of getting the words onto the paper. I will put that off as long as possible, so a lot of the revision is done here. Until I can't put off writing anymore, then I begin to put it down, and if it's not right, then I rewrite and I rewrite and I rewrite until it's the best I can do. But I won't rewrite if I can help it. I like to get it all done so the first one is—will do, [because I'm lazy].

William Faulkner: Yes'm.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, what do you consider your own most splendid failure, [if you could tell us][...]?

William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury, because I worked at it the longest and the hardest.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In that connection, did you write it in the order in which it was published?

William Faulkner: Yes.

Unidentified participant: It was written in that order?

William Faulkner: Yes. I wrote the Benjy part first. That wasn't good enough, so I wrote the Quentin part. That still wasn't good enough. I let Jason try it. That still wasn't enough. I let Faulkner try it, and that still wasn't enough, [audience laughter] and so about twenty years afterwards I wrote an appendix still trying to make that book what—match the dream.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I once read an article in which the writer speaking of the end of The Sound and the Fury, said that the whole pattern of the book does not become apparent until the very end, in the incident in which Benjy begins to cry and blubber when they go left around the monument and must turn to the right. Now, while I think that simply confirms everything that has gone before, did you intend that as the moment of revelation?

William Faulkner: No, sir, I did not. I was still—as I've just said, I was still trying to tell that story. In the first section, I hadn't told it. I had to try again. I had to try three, four times.

Unidentified participant: I've always been afraid it was something I missed in the ending. I'm glad to have you confirm that. [Thank you.][audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: You say you write because you have a story to tell, and you try to tell it in the best way. How do you conceive these stories? Which comes first?

William Faulkner: It's the people. Suddenly people are doing something that is—is tragic or funny, or something brave, of—of sacrifice that seems to me moving enough to be worth telling, and then after that it's a matter of—of invention to—to tell the story.

Unidentified participant: Well, how do you get the basic idea? I mean—

William Faulkner: I don't know where it comes from.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, are you conscious of any way or theme, any attempt that you have more frequently [...], something that turned out to be a dead-end or a blind alley, and then did you put that in [terms] some other way?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir, that's a—a matter of—of so much—as much of that as possible is done up here. I have—have written three manuscripts that never did quite please me, and I burned them up. But it's—you try, and you try, and you try to do the best you can, to make something which—which to you was—was passionate and moving, so passionate and moving that it wouldn't let you alone. You had to write it. And then you—you do the best you can to make it as passionate and moving to anyone who reads it as it was to you, because it seems worthwhile, worth doing.

Unidentified participant: Why do you suppose that it didn't work out in those three books?

William Faulkner: It could be that I didn't know enough. It could be that the people were not good enough people. That they—they never did—they never—the books, the manuscripts, were never good enough for me to pass them, so I just put them in the fire and got rid of them.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: You once disinherited Sanctuary in the preface I think to the Modern Library edition by saying it was a book written strictly for money and that you hoped to make it as sensational as possible If this is so, sir, why did you write a sequel to it in Requiem for a Nun?

William Faulkner: Well, I wrote that book to make a little money. I sent it to the publisher, and he said, "Good, Lord, we all—we'll both be in jail if we print this," [audience laughter] so I forgot about it. I wrote two more books. They were printed. And then one day I got the galleys for Sanctuary, and I read them and it was so bad, so basely conceived, that I wrote the publisher to let's destroy it, and he said, "I have had the plates made. I have invested money in it." At that time, he didn't have a great deal of money either, and I said, "Well, it's—I can't pass it like this, so I'll rewrite it." And he said, "All right, but you rewrite it then and—and I'll pay half the new plates, and you pay half the new plates," so I said "All right." So I rewrote the book and made the best I could out of—out of the—the first base story, and that cost me—my share of the plates was two hundred and seventy dollars at a time when I didn't have two hundred and seventy dollars. I got a job [passing] coal at a power plant to earn my share. The book sold. The first money I was to have, sixty-five hundred dollars, and the publisher went broke, and I didn't get that, which served me exactly right. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, do you think that man is getting better and better every day in every way?

William Faulkner: I think that—[audience laughter] I think that man tries to be better than he thinks he will be. I think that that is his immortality, that he wants to be better, he wants to be braver, he wants to be more honest than he thinks he will be, and sometimes he's not, but then suddenly, to his own astonishment, he is.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: In reference to Sanctuary, when you were writing this, did you have in mind anything like the rape of the South? I mean, there's been a lot of talk about that. Did you have that in mind when you wrote —

William Faulkner: No—

Unidentified participant: Either time?

William Faulkner: No. I was simply writing a story which I thought somebody might pay some money for.

Unidentified participant: The first instance?

William Faulkner: Yes, and the second time I was trying to make the best I could out of something that was going to cost me two hundred and seventy dollars. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: When you wrote the Fable and moved over into a different background, what did you have in mind as a bigger success than you had had before in your Mississippi background?

William Faulkner: That was the only book I ever wrote from an idea, and the idea struck me, who might the soldier really be under the splendid cenotaph with the eternal fire burning over it. Suppose that had been Christ? Suppose he had come back and had been crucified for the second time. We might not have but one more chance. That came from an idea. That was the only book that was ever written from a simple idea. The others have come from my own people.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Young Gerald here was struck by what you said about good people and wants me to ask you what you mean by good people.

William Faulkner: I mean that—that people want to be better than they are. I believe that all people want to be better than they are, want to be more honest and more compassionate. I think that's the only reason the human race has—has lasted as long as it has, because it does want to be better than it is, that individual people want to be better than they are afraid they are, and they do try, and they fail, but then suddenly, when nobody expects it, they are better.

Unidentified participant: Then may I ask if all of these characters in The Sound and the Fury—that you would call them "good people"?

William Faulkner: I would call them tragic people. The—the good people, Dilsey, the Negro woman, she was a good human being. That she held that family together for not the hope of reward, but just because it was the decent and proper thing to do.

Unidentified participant: Jason was bad, wasn't he?

William Faulkner: Jason was bad, yes. Quentin was weak. Jason was—yes, was bad.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Do you think people are good because they want to be better or because [...]?

William Faulkner: Well, that can—it can be any number of personal reasons why the individual wants to be better, but I think that in—in general, man wants to be better than he is, that he doesn't want to be cruel, that he would like to get rid of—of grief if he just knew how to, if he was just wise enough. He would like to get rid of war, for instance, if he just knew how or just wise enough, to get rid of greed if he just knew how.

Unidentified participant: Do you think that [the amount] [...]?

William Faulkner: I'm sorry. I couldn't hear.

Unidentified participant: Do you think that the amount of [...] that each person has determines his [ability for goodness]?

William Faulkner: Determines his behavior, yes. Not his goodness, but his behavior. His goodness is—I like to believe, is a constant factor, but he can't always match it, but he wants to be better than he is, than he's afraid he might be, and he tries.

Unidentified participant: Sir, you indicated before that A Fable was a departure in that—insofar that it was the only book written from a—an absolute idea, with—with regular city limits to it. But I find—at least, I find, that the—the basic crucifixion image in A Fable occurs over and over again in your books. It occurs in Light in August. It happens in a kind of way even in—in Sanctuary. It happens in Requiem for a Nun, certainly, with—with Nancy. Isn't A Fable simply a more positive way of approaching the problem?

William Faulkner: As a result, it might be. Remember, the writer must write out of his background. He must write out of what he knows, and the Christian legend is a part of—of any Christian's background, especially the background of a—of a—of a country boy, a southern country boy. My life was passed, my childhood, in a—a very small Mississippi town, and that was a part of my background. I grew up with that. I assimilated that, took that in without even knowing it. It's just—just there. It has nothing to do with how much of it I might believe or disbelieve. It's just there.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: [When you have] time to [...] this story, did it become more—more real to you than the other things you do?

William Faulkner: Let me understand you. The story that I think of is more real than the actual writing—

Unidentified participant: When you're writing the story, does it—does this come a lot closer to being reality than the things you do like eating breakfast or walking [down the street]?

William Faulkner: At the moment, I'm completely demon-ridden to get that story written, that nothing else matters. It's not that the world is not there anymore. It's just that I'm too busy getting—getting my story done to pay much attention to the—to the actual world, but it's still there, and I go back to it.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Conrad Aiken once said that after he had written a story, the story then seemed perhaps more real than the things which had happened, and that as he thought back on it, he felt that the thing that he had written was what had happened in his life as it had, as opposed to the actual fact. Do you find that so or not?

William Faulkner: No, I don't. That's Mr. Aiken's own point of view. That's not mine too much. That my—my people are—are—are no more real than the actual world, but no less real. That is, they have their place in—in life too, to me.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Is it possible that you project onto your characters a greater sophistication than they have? As I know that type of person, it seems to me that they're not quite as sophisticated as—for example, the Christian myth as they understand it, doesn't seem to me to be quite [yours].

William Faulkner: The writer is not a reporter. He is using his imagination, his observation, his experience and, of course, his own warped ideas without—not deliberately, but he can't help it. It's a part of his—his background, a part of his workshop, and possibly they are more sophisticated than—as I write them, than they are as they live in—in the world. I—I'm still trying to tell a story. I use the material which seems to me to tell the story best, and it's not any deliberate intent to make these people more sophisticated than they are. It seems to me—seems that is the best way to tell the story I'm trying to tell.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Back to talking about this matter of the good people, you said that man wants to be better than he is and be more honest and be more compassionate. Does this—in these terms, do you also mean to love more here or [is this] just another [...]?

William Faulkner: Yes, yes, you could put it that way.

Unidentified participant: And man, in trying to be better than he is in this way, do you feel that he can pretty much do this on his own? In other words [...]

William Faulkner: Not always. Sometimes he needs help. Not always.

Unidentified participant: Can he rely on a power outside, beyond himself?

William Faulkner: Sometimes, yes, but the—the will to be better than he is—is—is in himself. He may not be able to do it without help from outside, or from a—a greater power than he, but the—the desire to be better than he is afraid he might be is inside him, inside his conscience, unless he is an idiot, of course.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you—the book of yours which troubles me most, is—puzzles me most, doesn't trouble me at all, is As I Lay Dying. Somebody once suggested to me that the—I think there's thirteen characters in it, constitute really the separate parts of just one man. Is this so?

William Faulkner: No, they were—I was—I was writing about people again. [audience laughter] I took these people, and that—that's a simple tour de force. I took this family and subjected them to the two greatest catastrophes which—which man can suffer—flood and fire. That's all. That was simple tour de force. That was written in six weeks without changing a word because I knew from the first where that was going.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in A Fable and in some other places, you used the term "prevail" as over against the word "endure." Could you spell out for [me] what sort of ultimate victory you envisioned for the use of that term "prevail"?

William Faulkner: I believe that in time man will—will get rid of war, just as he has got rid of—of other evils. Little children don't have to work any longer. A man can no longer have his hand chopped off for stealing a loaf of bread, that a—a lot has been done to—to get rid of poverty and hunger and misery. And in that way, man prevails. I—how far he can go before through some of his own fault he eradicates himself from the face of the earth, I don't know, but he tries to improve his condition and does.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, in reference to The Sound and the Fury, again, is the "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" applicable to Benjy as it's generally thought, or perhaps to Jason?

William Faulkner: The title, of course, came from the first section, which was Benjy. I thought that the story was told in Benjy's section, and the title came there. So it—in that sense it does apply to Benjy rather than to anybody else.

Unidentified participant: I see.

William Faulkner: Though the—the more I had to work on the book, the—the more elastic the title became until it covers the whole family.

Unidentified participant: The most "sound and the fury" seems to fall in Jason's section, [in my opinion].

William Faulkner: Yes.

Unidentified participant: Thank you.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: In The Town, there are references to episodes for about half a dozen of your early novels with [...] to comment on them. Do they appear there simply because they [mobbed in] belonging to your background or were you consciously trying to tie together and to give more coherence to The Town?

William Faulkner: The Town is the second of a trilogy. The first one was called The Hamlet. These references are to things in The Hamlet.

Unidentified participant: But there—there are references to other books than The Hamlet that I found, including—perhaps it's simply the fact that you used some of the same characters from—from the earlier books.

William Faulkner: That could be it, yes. I—I used the characters which are—my people to me are—are quite alive, and they move back and forth through these different books, and I myself no longer remember just where what character appeared. I remember that character, but I don't always remember what he did.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: I would like to ask if your people are derived principally from an area or region of Mississippi, and if you think that was a way of life there that has more to offer than, say, if a writer [...] perhaps to—the idea is that your surroundings [...] as well as your own education and your own [...].

William Faulkner: I don't think people are that different. I think there is not a great deal of difference between southerners and northerners, and Americans and Russians and Chinese. That I'm simply using the—the background, the color, the—the smells, the—the sounds that I am familiar with, but the people in my opinion are not that different. They could be anywhere. Of course they would wear different clothes, and their behavior might be a little awry from what it is in north Mississippi, but the behavior would be the same. They would have the same anguishes, the same hopes, and they—Russians or Chinese—would still want to be better than they are afraid they might be, and they would [both] try to be better.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, you talk about your—so many of the things you write about come from your background. A good part of my family is from [Clarksdale], Mississippi, and Mississippians are proud of you, but you've shocked a great many of us. [audience laughter] I wonder, do you think that stems from a reluctance on their part to see some of the people you write about in their midst?

William Faulkner: Well, I don't know. There are not too many Mississippians read very much, and they're probably [audience laughter] [...] [and they] spend as much time as I do just writing. I'm sorry that I—I—I shock my—people of my own country, but I'm simply trying to—to tell about people which I think are—are astounding and marvelous creatures, well worth writing about in the—the terms which seem to me the best to make the story vivid and memorable.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: What is the meaning of the title "A Rose for Emily"?

William Faulkner: Oh, it's simply the poor woman had had no life at all. Her father had kept her more or less locked up, and then she had a lover, and he was about to quit her. She had to murder him. It was just "A Rose for Emily," that's all. [audience laughter]

Unidentified participant: Does your criterion [apply, to say, the great writers of the past] [...]?

William Faulkner: No'm, the—the criterion for judging the—the writing of the past is the ones that I like to read, that I will read again and again and again. I—I don't know of any writer of the present who—whose work I will read again and again and again, as I will read Cervantes, for instance, or Dickens.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, don't you believe that in a few hundred years, say, that there will be books produced, that were produced in this century, that will be read over and over again as Dickens [is read today]?

William Faulkner: Now that I can't say, for the reason that the writer is really too busy with his own work to have much time to read what anybody else does, so I just don't know really what people are writing today. I do—do know that what I write ain't as good as I want it to be, [audience laughter] and so I'm going to keep on trying to write one that will suit me. I probably won't, but I intend to keep on trying.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: I've read and also I've heard the poet John [Neihardt] say that you have to make yourself sit there and write something every day, that that's the way to do it, [whether it's] [...] or not [...]. How much is inspiration and how much is perspiration?

William Faulkner: I—that system works with lots of people, but not with me. I never had any trouble writing the stuff. It's persuading myself to sit down and do it. [audience laughter] Some people, that sort of discipline works with, but—but with others, it—it don't. With me, it never would, that I put off writing as long as possible and then when I get started, I can write for ten or twelve hours day after day until I get [...] until I get—

Unidentified participant: Strictly as a matter of your choice of forms, do you ever find yourself beginning a short story that suddenly blossoms or has to blossom into a novel, or [vice versa]?

William Faulkner: [Yes, sir]

Unidentified participant: Or can you cite from the novels that—

William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury started as a short story. I thought it could be done in ten pages. Then I had written a hundred pages, and that wasn't enough. I wrote another hundred. That wasn't enough. Another hundred. That still wasn't enough.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Sir, a great many of the people that Tennessee Williams writes about are southerners. What is your opinion of these people [that he writes about]?

William Faulkner: Well, the—I couldn't have any opinion of the people that he writes about. I could have an opinion of the—of the complete job that's done. The best of—of Williams, to me, was a play called Camino Real. I think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was written about the wrong people. The story was the old man's story. I think that the anguishes of children ain't worth three acts. [audience laughter]

[end of recording]