At Mary Washington College, tape 2

DATE: 25 April 1957

OCCASION: At Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg

TAPE: T-122d

LENGTH: 18:59

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Unidentified participant: [...] it's kind of a story more or less overlapping with others and keeping on [...] [continuity it it's unfinished] [...]

William Faulkner: Well, it's—it's not finished in the sense that—that it's not—it don't suit me. It's not as good as—as I want it to be. None of my work is. That one I worked the hardest at, I—I love the best. And that one I'm more—more anxious to—to finish it in a way that'll suit me. I feel that if—if I hadn't written it and could—could go back and—and do it over, I would do it better. Of course I wouldn't. I would do it the same way, [audience laughter] but I would—if I had the chance, I would do it better. Maybe it would please me [then].

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, when you were in Japan and talked to the young Japanese writers, did you find that their problems were the same as the young American writers?

William Faulkner: I'm sure they were, but it was—I never did touch the Japanese. They all spoke English, but it was like two people running at top speed—top speed on opposite sides of a plate-glass window. You could see the mouth move, you could see the human features, the gestures, but there was no communication, and then suddenly the paths parted, and one went this way. That was all. There was no communication. I'm sure their problems were the same problems, but their culture is—is so different. It's a culture of—of the intellectual process. The result doesn't matter, it's the—it's for the wheels to click properly, which is completely alien to—to me, to any Occidental, but I—I never did touch the Japanese.

Unidentified participant: [...]

William Faulkner: But I'm quite sure that their problems were the same as mine, and that if we could've spoken to one another, we would have benefited both of us, but we simply couldn't—

Unidentified participant: The published book about it sounded as though you had touched them very much, [...] what they [asked] [...] you seemed to have [...] touched them.

William Faulkner: Well, I hope so, but I wasn't aware of it at the time. They would ask me the same questions over and over and then answer them themselves. [audience laughter] I remember I saw the—the chief archer of Japan. He had been knighted by the Emperor. It was a ritual. The target was, oh, as far from here to the bookcase, and he would get up, and go through certain motions to free his—his forearm from his kimono, and then he would pace forward so many paces and bow to where the Emperor would be. Then he would get up and go through some more ritual and fit the arrow to the string, and then he would pace towards the target and stop and turn and do a sort of a—a ballet almost and draw the arrow back and let it go, and sometimes it hit the target but that didn't matter. Nobody cared, you see. He had [...]. [audience laughter] It was no trouble to hit it. It was only about as far as the bookcase. [audience laughter] I realize that I had committed a—a fearful—it was more than a faux pas. It was lese majesty somehow. I—I had made a—a dreadful social error, and that is the Japanese—we simply could not communicate.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, what do you expect of the future of the American novel as it is today?

William Faulkner: I think that as long as man exists on the earth he will continue to produce art. I think that—that the—the young writer who keeps on writing, he learns more and more. He's got to—to waste a certain amount of his energy fending off from the pressure to make him conform to something, [to a group], but there's nothing wrong about—about writing in this country. It goes through dead times. It goes in cycles, and the young man today may not come to his—his best powers until maybe another fifteen, another twenty years. Then suddenly there'll be a—another renaissance of—of writing in this country.

Unidentified participant: What themes do you most expect to find [in these writers coming now]?

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

Unidentified participant: What themes do you think [you'd be] most apt to find in writers [coming now]?

William Faulkner: Oh, the only theme that is worth writing about, that anyone ever has written about, which is the human heart in conflict with itself, its fellows and its environment, its people. You write about people, not about social conditions. They're only coincidental to it. The social condition is a part of the environment, which—which one writes from. That's part of your background, and he writes from that just [as you do from the] observation [...], but if you write about a social condition or an injustice, you're a propagandist or a reporter. The novelist is writing about people, the human heart in conflict with the same hopes and fears and aspirations it's always had, no matter what color of the skin or what race, and the—the young writer, if—if he will resist the pressure to make him conform to a group or a mass, then he will—will learn that the only thing worth writing about is the individual human heart and its own [problems] [in conflict with itself], man that wants to be better than he thinks he might be, and suddenly he finds that he is better, that he has done something brave or a man that wants to be—be brave and failed. They are the problems to write about, not the social conditions, and those are the problems that [are eternal.] They don't change.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: What I want to ask you, do you get any reaction from readers of, say, your translated works, where the non-American reader is difficult or he distorts the meaning of American [words]?

William Faulkner: The only language I read with any ease is French, and the French translations I've read have been very fine, I thought. The others, of course, I—I don't know because I'm not familiar with the language and know too few—well, I'm not really a literary man to—to discuss books and things like that. I'm a country man, a farmer. I write as a hobby [because it's fun].

Moderator: Any other questions?

William Faulkner: Whether you think it's silly or not, ask it. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: [...] or when you [...] novelist, is the difference in what you [...] what [...]

William Faulkner: No. I haven't had time to think about it. I've been too busy writing books. [audience laughter] That—that goes back to how I just said I'm not a literary man, you see. I don't think of myself as having a—any position, any particular niche in the establishment of literature. I think of myself as having a particular niche in the establishment of—of farming, of—of raising grain to feed cattle and horses, but not as a—as a literary man, and I think that—that probably when the writer runs dry, and he has nothing more to say [or] know, then he begins to think of his position [audience laughter] as of literary import, but while he's—he's busy writing, I doubt if he has the time to have thought about it too much because he's still trying to write a book which pleases him. That's why he writes another one because the one he finished is not quite good enough to suit him, so he writes another one and tries it again.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, I have a very specific question, which I think will come under the category of silly. [audience laughter] Frequently, in your works the story is told by a narrator, and his personality has a strong influence [in your work], and [this just] seems to me frequently very similar to the use of the narrator that Conrad uses, particularly in Marlow. Had you, by any chance, read Conrad in your youth?

William Faulkner: Yes.

Unidentified participant: And did it conceivably have any influence on your use of such—

William Faulkner: As I said, everything the writer reads influences him, but he himself can't say just how much what did when. But I'm quite sure that Conrad did, though Conrad wasn't the first one to use that method. At—there's times when the story itself demands that that method be used, that my experience is that once I have thought about the characters until they come alive, they stand up and cast a shadow, then they take charge of the story. I run along at their heels at a dead run, trying to put down what they say and do. [audience laughter] They have taken charge, and they're the ones that demand which method shall be used.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, if you do read them, how seriously do you take your critics. That is, those people who write in the literary magazines, Hudson Review and so forth? Do you think it's particularly rewarding for students to read the critics of your work?

William Faulkner: I should think so. I don't read that [sort of thing]. [audience laughter] I'm—I'm too busy. But I—I should think it might be—be valuable for—for students to read that. I'm sure it would be valuable, but the writer, if—if he's as busy as I am and has got as much that he needs to say as I have and knows he never will live long enough to say it all, he ain't got time to—to read what anybody else says about his work because he already knows what it is. It ain't good enough. That's why he's writing another [one]. [audience laughter]

Moderator: A young lady up here.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, do you enjoy writing more about the people in your own locale of Oxford, Mississippi, than of other countries and nations?

William Faulkner: I write about the people in my own country because it's simpler. I don't have to do any research. I know them. [audience laughter] I'm writing about people, not about Mississippians. I simply use Mississippi because that's what I know best. I don't have to hunt around to—to keep from making mistakes that somebody would catch me out on, [audience laughter] but I—I—I write to—yes, I write because it's fun. Not for glory but because it's—it's fun to do.

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: How great do you feel the French influence is on the American novel today?

William Faulkner: Now, that question I can't answer because the reading I do is the books that I knew and loved when I was twenty-one years old. I haven't read a—a new book in fifteen, twenty years, [audience laughter] and I don't know literary or writing people, and I—I—I couldn't attempt to answer that question because I don't know enough about it. But I would say that there is a—a great deal of influence because the French writers, the young writers, have been the most—most prominent lately. Sartre and—and Camus. people like that, seem to be doing better work than—than the writers of any other country at the present, and I would say that they have had a great influence on the young American writers, [I think].

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner, would you mind telling us what some of the books are that you knew and loved when you were twenty-one?

William Faulkner: Don Quixote, most of Dickens, Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, Madame Bovary, the Old Testament. I have a one-volume Shakespeare which I carry around with me. Balzac, I read a little in that every year. Conrad, I read some of Conrad almost every year. That's—there're a few more that I don't recall now, but—but they are the—the ones I—I'm never too far from, and [I read] every year.

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Frederick Gwynn: You have a new novel coming out soon which is a continuation of The Hamlet. Have you had that—did you have that in mind a long time?

William Faulkner: Yes, I thought of the whole story at once like a bolt of lightning lights up a landscape, and you see everything, but it takes time to write it. And this story I've had in my mind for about thirty years, and the—the one which I will do next, it—it happened at that same moment thirty years ago and it was sort of a matter of getting at it.

Unidentified participant: Is this a unique situation or have other sequences occurred to you like Quentin Compson in both The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!?

William Faulkner: No. I used Quentin in Absalom, Absalom! as a protagonist. His story was in The Sound and the Fury. I just suddenly needed Quentin Compson. In the sense that he belonged to me, I just reached around and got him. [audience laughter].

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner?

William Faulkner: Yes, sir.

Unidentified participant: You're sometimes quoted as saying that Sanctuary was a pot-boiler. Will you repudiate that—that idea? I would like for you—I would like to repudiate it for you if you [don't]. [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Well, that book was—was basely conceived. I had—had written and had never made much money, and I—when I was—was footloose I could do things to make money. I could—could run a bootlegging boat, I was a commercial airplane pilot, things like that. Then I got married, and I couldn't do things like that anymore, [audience laughter] and so I thought I would make a little money writing a book. And I thought of the most horrific idea I could think of and wrote it and sent it to the publisher, and he wrote me back. He said, "Good Lord, if we print this, we'll both be in jail." [audience laughter] That was about 1920—about 1930, I think, when you couldn't say things in print like you can now. So I forgot it. I wrote two more books. They were published, and then one day I got the galleys for Sanctuary, and I read it, and—probably it was because I didn't need money so badly then, but anyway, I—I saw what a—a—a base thing it was in concept, what—what a—a shabby thing it was, and so I wrote the publisher and said, "Let's throw it away." He didn't have much money at that time. He said, "We can't do that because I've had plates made, and that costs something." And I said, "Well, I'll just have to rewrite it." And he said, "All right, you rewrite it, and I'll pay half of the new plates, and you pay half of the new plates." So I rewrote it, did the best I could with it. I got a job passing coal to earn the two hundred and seventy dollars to pay my half for the plates for printing the book and then the publisher went bankrupt. I didn't get any money at all. [audience laughter] So it—I did the best I could with—with the book. It was in a way, already in the public domain. I couldn't throw it away, and—and I rewrote it and did the best I could with it.

Unidentified participant: Mr. Faulkner—

William Faulkner: Yes, ma'am.

Unidentified participant: You liked the characters in it enough, though, to write Requiem of a Nun later.

William Faulkner: Well, there was nothing wrong with the characters in it. It was the—the story itself, the first draft of it. The second draft was the best I could do with it, and so I'm not ashamed of the second draft because it was the best I could do. It wasn't good enough, but it was the best I could do, and they did establish a problem that demanded the question, what happened? what could come of—of this marriage founded on that?

Moderator: Any other questions, silly or otherwise?
Well, we're very, very grateful to you, sir.

William Faulkner: Thank you, sir. Thank you, ladies. [applause]

[end of recording]