William Faulkner Is One Tough Interview

Willam Faulkner's grave, with accessories

Willam Faulkner’s grave, with accessories. Credit Bridgman Pottery, rights reserved.

I’ve been combing through various of the Paris Review “Writers At Work” interviews, which are spectacular. William Faulkner looks like a pretty tough assignment.

INTERVIEWER

Mr. Faulkner, you were saying a while ago that you don’t like interviews.

WILLIAM FAULKNER

The reason I don’t like interviews is that I seem to react violently to personal questions. If the questions are about the work, I try to answer them. When they are about me, I may answer or I may not, but even if I do, if the same question is asked tomorrow, the answer may be different.

Okay; the interviewer is duly warned: Possible violent reactions to personal questions. Onward, then:

INTERVIEWER

How about yourself as a writer?

FAULKNER

If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us. Proof of that is that there are about three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important, since there is nothing new to be said. Shakespeare, Balzac, Homer have all written about the same things, and if they had lived one thousand or two thousand years longer, the publishers wouldn’t have needed anyone since.

INTERVIEWER

But even if there seems nothing more to be said, isn’t perhaps the individuality of the writer important?

FAULKNER

Very important to himself. Everybody else should be too busy with the work to care about the individuality.

It gets worse:

INTERVIEWER
How much of your writing is based on personal experience?

FAULKNER

I can’t say. I never counted up. Because “how much” is not important. A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others. With me, a story usually begins with a single idea or memory or mental picture. The writing of the story is simply a matter of working up to that moment, to explain why it happened or what it caused to follow. A writer is trying to create believable people in credible moving situations in the most moving way he can. Obviously he must use as one of his tools the environment which he knows. I would say that music is the easiest means in which to express, since it came first in man’s experience and history. But since words are my talent, I must try to express clumsily in words what the pure music would have done better. That is, music would express better and simpler, but I prefer to use words, as I prefer to read rather than listen. I prefer silence to sound, and the image produced by words occurs in silence. That is, the thunder and the music of the prose take place in silence.

But as with his books, the thing is worth sticking with. Payoff like this is rare:

INTERVIEWER

Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?

FAULKNER

Read it four times.

Get it all at Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 12, William Faulkner. It’s a priceless series, and free on the iOS app.

Photo by Bridgman Pottery, via flickr, some rights reserved

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