In Paris Review’s series on the Art of Fiction I have discovered an inmensely rich source of excellent opinions and data for anyone interested in literature and journalism.
The interview with William Faulkner, number 12, by Jean Stein, done in New York City early in 1956, gives us sufficient light on the enriching initiative, which includes, in each chapter, a short profile of the writer interviewed, before the Q/A.
William Faulkner was born in 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, where his father was then working as a conductor on the railroad built by the novelist’s great-grandfather, Colonel William Falkner (without the “u”), author of The White Rose of Memphis. Soon the family moved to Oxford, thirty-five miles away, where young Faulkner, although he was a voracious reader, failed to earn enough credits to be graduated from the local high school. In 1918 he enlisted as a student flyer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He spent a little more than a year as a special student at the state university, Ole Miss, and later worked as postmaster at the university station until he was fired for reading on the job.
Encouraged by Sherwood Anderson, he wrote Soldier’s Pay (1926). His first widely read book was Sanctuary (1931), a sensational novel which he says that he wrote for money after his previous books—including Mosquitoes (1927), Sartoris (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), and As I Lay Dying (1930)—had failed to earn enough royalties to support a family.
A steady succession of novels followed, most of them related to what has come to be called the Yoknapatawpha saga: Light in August (1932), Pylon (1935), Absalom, Absalom! (1936), The Unvanquished (1938), The Wild Palms (1939), The Hamlet (1940), and Go Down, Moses, and Other Stories (1941). Since World War II his principal works have been Intruder in the Dust (1948), A Fable (1954), and The Town (1957). His Collected Stories received the National Book Award in 1951, as did A Fable in 1955. In 1949 Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Interviewer (I): … you don’t like interviews
William Faulkner (WF): The reason… is that I seem to react violently to personal questions
I: How about yourself as a writer?
WF: If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us…
I: …isn’t perhaps the individuality of the writer important?
WF: Very important to himself….
I: And your contemporaries?
WF: All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible…
I: …any possible formula to follow in order to be a good novelist?
WF: Ninety-nine percent talent . . . ninety-nine percent discipline . . . ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done….
I: …the writer should be completely ruthless?
WF: The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.
I: …the best environment for a writer?
WF: Art is not concerned with environment either; it doesn’t care where it is. If you mean me, the best job that was ever offered to me was to become a landlord in a brothel. In my opinion it’s the perfect milieu for an artist to work in.
I: Does the writer need economic freedom?
WF: No. The writer doesn’t need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper…
I: Working for the movies hurt your own writing?
WF: Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer.
I: …a writer compromise in writing for the movies?
WF: Always, because a moving picture is by its nature a collaboration, and any collaboration is compromise…
I: Actors do you like to work with most?
WF: Humphrey Bogart is the one I’ve worked with best…………………