Faulkner In ’56

by | Apr 27, 2011

The Paris Review is an amazing publication. And now that its interview archives are available for free on the web, it’s an astounding digital resource for writers and fans of literature.

Would you like to hear about the craft of writing from the likes of William Carlos Williams, Evelyn Waugh, John Steinbeck, E.B. White, Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, E. M. Forster, Frank O’Connor, William Styron, Dorothy Parker and so on? Of course you would and it’s all there for the reading, thanks to the work and generosity of the literary magazine’s writer’s, editors and publishers (past and present).

I just read a 1956 Paris Review interview with William Faulkner and learned a lot about the author in the process. His answers are matter of fact, and I imagine they’re a good reflection of his personality. Thankfully, his answers are also funny. For instance, let’s look at his answer regarding how he became a writer…

I was living in New Orleans, doing whatever kind of work was necessary to earn a little money now and then. I met Sherwood Anderson. We would walk about the city in the afternoon and talk to people. In the evenings we would meet again and sit over a bottle or two while he talked and I listened. In the forenoon I would never see him. He was secluded, working. The next day we would repeat. I decided that if that was the life of a writer, then becoming a writer was the thing for me. So I began to write my first book. At once I found that writing was fun. I even forgot that I hadn’t seen Mr. Anderson for three weeks until he walked in my door, the first time he ever came to see me, and said, “What’s wrong? Are you mad at me?” I told him I was writing a book. He said, “My God,” and walked out. When I finished the book—it was Soldier’s Pay—I met Mrs. Anderson on the street. She asked how the book was going, and I said I’d finished it. She said, “Sherwood says that he will make a trade with you. If he doesn’t have to read your manuscript he will tell his publisher to accept it.” I said, “Done,” and that’s how I became a writer.

Faulkner also had a certain ruthlessness and mono-focus about him. According to him that’s what a writer needs to get the job done.

The writer doesn’t need economic freedom. All he needs is a pencil and some paper. I’ve never known anything good in writing to come from having accepted any free gift of money. The good writer never applies to a foundation. He’s too busy writing something. If he isn’t first rate he fools himself by saying he hasn’t got time or economic freedom. Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes. People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are. Nothing can destroy the good writer. The only thing that can alter the good writer is death. Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich. Success is feminine and like a woman; if you cringe before her, she will override you. So the way to treat her is to show her the back of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.

I know it’s hard to skip over the misogyny in this last bit of commentary from the famous Southern writer. But there is power in what he said, if not in how he said it. Wanting fame or fortune isn’t going to deliver the manuscript. Manuscripts are written by tough people who refuse to quit or be distracted from the ultimate goal, which is the finished work, published or not.

[UPDATE] In a 1986 Paris Review interview with Jim Harrison, the interviewer says, “Faulkner once said that nothing could ruin a first-rate talent, to which Norman Mailer replied that Faulkner made more asinine remarks than any other major American novelist.” Harrison then says, “Except for Mailer. I think Faulkner was always defensive and he gave Chinese answers.”