Interviews

William Faulkner, The Art of Fiction No. 12

Interviewed by Jean Stein

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.

Recently, though shy and retiring, Faulkner has traveled widely, lecturing for the United States Information Service. This conversation took place in New York City, early in 1956.

 

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.

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.

INTERVIEWER

And your contemporaries?

FAULKNER

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. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide. I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.

INTERVIEWER

Is there any possible formula to follow in order to be a good novelist?

FAULKNER

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. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.

INTERVIEWER

Do you mean the writer should be completely ruthless?

FAULKNER

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.

INTERVIEWER

Then could the lack of security, happiness, honor, be an important factor in the artist’s creativity?

FAULKNER

No. They are important only to his peace and contentment, and art has no concern with peace and contentment.

INTERVIEWER

Then what would be the best environment for a writer?

FAULKNER

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. It gives him perfect economic freedom; he’s free of fear and hunger; he has a roof over his head and nothing whatever to do except keep a few simple accounts and to go once every month and pay off the local police. The place is quiet during the morning hours, which is the best time of the day to work. There’s enough social life in the evening, if he wishes to participate, to keep him from being bored; it gives him a certain standing in his society; he has nothing to do because the madam keeps the books; all the inmates of the house are females and would defer to him and call him “sir.” All the bootleggers in the neighborhood would call him “sir.” And he could call the police by their first names.

So the only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost. All the wrong environment will do is run his blood pressure up; he will spend more time being frustrated or outraged. My own experience has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.

INTERVIEWER

Bourbon, you mean?

FAULKNER

No, I ain’t that particular. Between Scotch and nothing, I’ll take Scotch.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned economic freedom. Does the writer need it?

FAULKNER

No. 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.

INTERVIEWER

Can working for the movies hurt your own writing?

FAULKNER

Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer. If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything can help it much. The problem does not apply if he is not first rate because he has already sold his soul for a swimming pool.

INTERVIEWER

Does a writer compromise in writing for the movies?

FAULKNER

Always, because a moving picture is by its nature a collaboration, and any collaboration is compromise because that is what the word means—to give and to take.

INTERVIEWER

Which actors do you like to work with most?

FAULKNER

Humphrey Bogart is the one I’ve worked with best. He and I worked together in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep.

INTERVIEWER

Would you like to make another movie?

FAULKNER

Yes, I would like to make one of George Orwell’s 1984. I have an idea for an ending which would prove the thesis I’m always hammering at: that man is indestructible because of his simple will to freedom.

INTERVIEWER

How do you get the best results in working for the movies?

FAULKNER

The moving-picture work of my own which seemed best to me was done by the actors and the writer throwing the script away and inventing the scene in actual rehearsal just before the camera turned on. If I didn’t take, or feel I was capable of taking, motion-picture work seriously, out of simple honesty to motion pictures and myself too, I would not have tried. But I know now that I will never be a good motion-picture writer; so that work will never have the urgency for me which my own medium has.

INTERVIEWER

Would you comment on that legendary Hollywood experience you were involved in?

FAULKNER

I had just completed a contract at MGM and was about to return home. The director I had worked with said, “If you would like another job here, just let me know and I will speak to the studio about a new contract.” I thanked him and came home. About six months later I wired my director friend that I would like another job. Shortly after that I received a letter from my Hollywood agent enclosing my first week’s paycheck. I was surprised because I had expected first to get an official notice or recall and a contract from the studio. I thought to myself, the contract is delayed and will arrive in the next mail. Instead, a week later I got another letter from the agent, enclosing my second week’s paycheck. That began in November 1932 and continued until May 1933. Then I received a telegram from the studio. It said: “William Faulkner, Oxford, Miss. Where are you? MGM Studio.”

I wrote out a telegram: “MGM Studio, Culver City, California. William Faulkner.”

The young lady operator said, “Where is the message, Mr. Faulkner?” I said, “That’s it.” She said, “The rule book says that I can’t send it without a message, you have to say something.” So we went through her samples and selected I forget which one—one of the canned anniversary-greeting messages. I sent that. Next was a long-distance telephone call from the studio directing me to get on the first airplane, go to New Orleans, and report to Director Browning. I could have got on a train in Oxford and been in New Orleans eight hours later. But I obeyed the studio and went to Memphis, where an airplane did occasionally go to New Orleans. Three days later, one did.

I arrived at Mr. Browning’s hotel about six p.m. and reported to him. A party was going on. He told me to get a good night’s sleep and be ready for an early start in the morning. I asked him about the story. He said, “Oh, yes. Go to room so-and-so. That’s the continuity writer. He’ll tell you what the story is.”

I went to the room as directed. The continuity writer was sitting in there alone. I told him who I was and asked him about the story. He said, “When you have written the dialogue I’ll let you see the story.” I went back to Browning’s room and told him what had happened. “Go back,” he said, “and tell that so-and-so—. Never mind, you get a good night’s sleep so we can get an early start in the morning.”

So the next morning in a very smart rented launch all of us except the continuity writer sailed down to Grand Isle, about a hundred miles away, where the picture was to be shot, reaching there just in time to eat lunch and have time to run the hundred miles back to New Orleans before dark.

That went on for three weeks. Now and then I would worry a little about the story, but Browning always said, “Stop worrying. Get a good night’s sleep so we can get an early start tomorrow morning.”

One evening on our return I had barely entered my room when the telephone rang. It was Browning. He told me to come to his room at once. I did so. He had a telegram. It said: “Faulkner is fired. MGM Studio.” “Don’t worry,” Browning said. “I’ll call that so-and-so up this minute and not only make him put you back on the payroll but send you a written apology.” There was a knock on the door. It was a page with another telegram. This one said: “Browning is fired. MGM Studio.” So I came back home. I presume Browning went somewhere too. I imagine that continuity writer is still sitting in a room somewhere with his weekly salary check clutched tightly in his hand. They never did finish the film. But they did build a shrimp village—a long platform on piles in the water with sheds built on it—something like a wharf. The studio could have bought dozens of them for forty or fifty dollars apiece. Instead, they built one of their own, a false one. That is, a platform with a single wall on it, so that when you opened the door and stepped through it, you stepped right off onto the ocean itself. As they built it, on the first day, the Cajun fisherman paddled up in his narrow, tricky pirogue made out of a hollow log. He would sit in it all day long in the broiling sun watching the strange white folks building this strange imitation platform. The next day he was back in the pirogue with his whole family, his wife nursing the baby, the other children, and the mother-in-law, all to sit all that day in the broiling sun to watch this foolish and incomprehensible activity. I was in New Orleans two or three years later and heard that the Cajun people were still coming in for miles to look at that imitation shrimp platform which a lot of white people had rushed in and built and then abandoned.

INTERVIEWER

You say that the writer must compromise in working for the motion pictures. How about his writing? Is he under any obligation to his reader?

FAULKNER

His obligation is to get the work done the best he can do it; whatever obligation he has left over after that he can spend any way he likes. I myself am too busy to care about the public. I have no time to wonder who is reading me. I don’t care about John Doe’s opinion on my or anyone else’s work. Mine is the standard which has to be met, which is when the work makes me feel the way I do when I read La Tentation de Saint Antoine, or the Old Testament. They make me feel good. So does watching a bird make me feel good. You know that if I were reincarnated, I’d want to come back a buzzard. Nothing hates him or envies him or wants him or needs him. He is never bothered or in danger, and he can eat anything.

INTERVIEWER

What technique do you use to arrive at your standard?

FAULKNER

Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him.

INTERVIEWER

Then would you deny the validity of technique?

FAULKNER

By no means. Sometimes technique charges in and takes command of the dream before the writer himself can get his hands on it. That is tour de force and the finished work is simply a matter of fitting bricks neatly together, since the writer knows probably every single word right to the end before he puts the first one down. This happened with As I Lay Dying. It was not easy. No honest work is. It was simple in that all the material was already at hand. It took me just about six weeks in the spare time from a twelve-hour-a-day job at manual labor. I simply imagined a group of people and subjected them to the simple universal natural catastrophes, which are flood and fire, with a simple natural motive to give direction to their progress. But then, when technique does not intervene, in another sense writing is easier too. Because with me there is always a point in the book where the characters themselves rise up and take charge and finish the job—say somewhere about page 275. Of course I don’t know what would happen if I finished the book on page 274. The quality an artist must have is objectivity in judging his work, plus the honesty and courage not to kid himself about it. Since none of my work has met my own standards, I must judge it on the basis of that one which caused me the most grief and anguish, as the mother loves the child who became the thief or murderer more than the one who became the priest.

INTERVIEWER

What work is that?

FAULKNER

The Sound and the Fury. I wrote it five separate times, trying to tell the story, to rid myself of the dream which would continue to anguish me until I did. It’s a tragedy of two lost women: Caddy and her daughter. Dilsey is one of my own favorite characters, because she is brave, courageous, generous, gentle, and honest. She’s much more brave and honest and generous than me.

INTERVIEWER

How did The Sound and the Fury begin?

FAULKNER

It began with a mental picture. I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book. And then I realized the symbolism of the soiled pants, and that image was replaced by the one of the fatherless and motherless girl climbing down the drainpipe to escape from the only home she had, where she had never been offered love or affection or understanding.

I had already begun to tell the story through the eyes of the idiot child, since I felt that it would be more effective as told by someone capable only of knowing what happened but not why. I saw that I had not told the story that time. I tried to tell it again, the same story through the eyes of another brother. That was still not it. I told it for the third time through the eyes of the third brother. That was still not it. I tried to gather the pieces together and fill in the gaps by making myself the spokesman. It was still not complete, not until fifteen years after the book was published, when I wrote as an appendix to another book the final effort to get the story told and off my mind, so that I myself could have some peace from it. It’s the book I feel tenderest toward. I couldn’t leave it alone, and I never could tell it right, though I tried hard and would like to try again, though I’d probably fail again.

INTERVIEWER

What emotion does Benjy arouse in you?

FAULKNER

The only emotion I can have for Benjy is grief and pity for all mankind. You can’t feel anything for Benjy because he doesn’t feel anything. The only thing I can feel about him personally is concern as to whether he is believable as I created him. He was a prologue, like the gravedigger in the Elizabethan dramas. He serves his purpose and is gone. Benjy is incapable of good and evil because he had no knowledge of good and evil.

INTERVIEWER

Could Benjy feel love?

FAULKNER

Benjy wasn’t rational enough even to be selfish. He was an animal. He recognized tenderness and love though he could not have named them, and it was the threat to tenderness and love that caused him to bellow when he felt the change in Caddy. He no longer had Caddy; being an idiot he was not even aware that Caddy was missing. He knew only that something was wrong, which left a vacuum in which he grieved. He tried to fill that vacuum. The only thing he had was one of Caddy’s discarded slippers. The slipper was his tenderness and love, which he could not have named, but he knew only that it was missing. He was dirty because he couldn’t coordinate and because dirt meant nothing to him. He could no more distinguish between dirt and cleanliness than between good and evil. The slipper gave him comfort even though he no longer remembered the person to whom it had once belonged, any more than he could remember why he grieved. If Caddy had reappeared he probably would not have known her.

INTERVIEWER

Does the narcissus given to Benjy have some significance?

FAULKNER

The narcissus was given to Benjy to distract his attention. It was simply a flower which happened to be handy that fifth of April. It was not deliberate.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any artistic advantages in casting the novel in the form of an allegory, as the Christian allegory you used in A Fable?

FAULKNER

Same advantage the carpenter finds in building square corners in order to build a square house. In A Fable, the Christian allegory was the right allegory to use in that particular story, like an oblong, square corner is the right corner with which to build an oblong, rectangular house.

INTERVIEWER

Does that mean an artist can use Christianity simply as just another tool, as a carpenter would borrow a hammer?

FAULKNER

The carpenter we are speaking of never lacks that hammer. No one is without Christianity, if we agree on what we mean by the word. It is every individual’s individual code of behavior, by means of which he makes himself a better human being than his nature wants to be, if he followed his nature only. Whatever its symbol—cross or crescent or whatever—that symbol is man’s reminder of his duty inside the human race. Its various allegories are the charts against which he measures himself and learns to know what he is. It cannot teach man to be good as the textbook teaches him mathematics. It shows him how to discover himself, evolve for himself a moral code and standard within his capacities and aspirations, by giving him a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice and the promise of hope. Writers have always drawn, and always will draw, upon the allegories of moral consciousness, for the reason that the allegories are matchless—the three men in Moby Dick, who represent the trinity of conscience: knowing nothing, knowing but not caring, knowing and caring. The same trinity is represented in A Fable by the young Jewish pilot officer, who said, “This is terrible. I refuse to accept it, even if I must refuse life to do so”; the old French Quartermaster General, who said, “This is terrible, but we can weep and bear it”; and the English battalion runner, who said, “This is terrible, I’m going to do something about it.”

INTERVIEWER

Are the two unrelated themes in The Wild Palms brought together in one book for any symbolic purpose? Is it, as certain critics intimate, a kind of aesthetic counterpoint, or is it merely haphazard?

FAULKNER

No, no. That was one story—the story of Charlotte Rittenmeyer and Harry Wilbourne, who sacrificed everything for love and then lost that. I did not know it would be two separate stories until after I had started the book. When I reached the end of what is now the first section of The Wild Palms, I realized suddenly that something was missing, it needed emphasis, something to lift it like counterpoint in music. So I wrote on the “Old Man” story until “The Wild Palms” story rose back to pitch. Then I stopped the “Old Man” story at what is now its first section and took up “The Wild Palms” story until it began again to sag. Then I raised it to pitch again with another section of its antithesis, which is the story of a man who got his love and spent the rest of the book fleeing from it, even to the extent of voluntarily going back to jail where he would be safe. They are only two stories by chance, perhaps necessity. The story is that of Charlotte and Wilbourne.

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.

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.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned experience, observation, and imagination as being important for the writer. Would you include inspiration?

FAULKNER

I don’t know anything about inspiration because I don’t know what inspiration is—I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it.

INTERVIEWER

As a writer you are said to be obsessed with violence.

FAULKNER

That’s like saying the carpenter is obsessed with his hammer. Violence is simply one of the carpenter’s tools. The writer can no more build with one tool than the carpenter can.

INTERVIEWER

Can you say how you started as a writer?

FAULKNER

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.

INTERVIEWER

What were the kinds of work you were doing to earn that “little money now and then”?

FAULKNER

Whatever came up. I could do a little of almost anything—run boats, paint houses, fly airplanes. I never needed much money because living was cheap in New Orleans then, and all I wanted was a place to sleep, a little food, tobacco, and whiskey. There were many things I could do for two or three days and earn enough money to live on for the rest of the month. By temperament I’m a vagabond and a tramp. I don’t want money badly enough to work for it. In my opinion it’s a shame that there is so much work in the world. One of the saddest things is that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day, day after day, is work. You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours—all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.

INTERVIEWER

You must feel indebted to Sherwood Anderson, but how do you regard him as a writer?

FAULKNER

He was the father of my generation of American writers and the tradition of American writing which our successors will carry on. He has never received his proper evaluation. Dreiser is his older brother and Mark Twain the father of them both.

INTERVIEWER

What about the European writers of that period?

FAULKNER

The two great men in my time were Mann and Joyce. You should approach Joyce’s Ulysses as the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.

INTERVIEWER

How did you get your background in the Bible?

FAULKNER

My Great-Grandfather Murry was a kind and gentle man, to us children anyway. That is, although he was a Scot, he was (to us) neither especially pious nor stern either: he was simply a man of inflexible principles. One of them was everybody, children on up through all adults present, had to have a verse from the Bible ready and glib at tongue-tip when we gathered at the table for breakfast each morning; if you didn’t have your scripture verse ready, you didn’t have any breakfast; you would be excused long enough to leave the room and swot one up (there was a maiden aunt, a kind of sergeant-major for this duty, who retired with the culprit and gave him a brisk breezing which carried him over the jump next time).

It had to be an authentic, correct verse. While we were little, it could be the same one, once you had it down good, morning after morning, until you got a little older and bigger, when one morning (by this time you would be pretty glib at it, galloping through without even listening to yourself since you were already five or ten minutes ahead, already among the ham and steak and fried chicken and grits and sweet potatoes and two or three kinds of hot bread) you would suddenly find his eyes on you—very blue, very kind and gentle, and even now not stern so much as inflexible—and next morning you had a new verse. In a way, that was when you discovered that your childhood was over; you had outgrown it and entered the world.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read your contemporaries?

FAULKNER

No, the books I read are the ones I knew and loved when I was a young man and to which I return as you do to old friends: the Old Testament, Dickens, Conrad, Cervantes, Don Quixote—I read that every year, as some do the Bible. Flaubert, Balzac—he created an intact world of his own, a bloodstream running through twenty books—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare. I read Melville occasionally and, of the poets, Marlowe, Campion, Jonson, Herrick, Donne, Keats, and Shelley. I still read Housman. I’ve read these books so often that I don’t always begin at page one and read on to the end. I just read one scene, or about one character, just as you’d meet and talk to a friend for a few minutes.

INTERVIEWER

And Freud?

FAULKNER

Everybody talked about Freud when I lived in New Orleans, but I have never read him. Neither did Shakespeare. I doubt if Melville did either, and I’m sure Moby Dick didn’t.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever read mystery stories?

FAULKNER

I read Simenon because he reminds me something of Chekhov.

INTERVIEWER

What about your favorite characters?

FAULKNER

My favorite characters are Sarah Gamp—a cruel, ruthless woman, a drunkard, opportunist, unreliable, most of her character was bad, but at least it was character; Mrs. Harris, Falstaff, Prince Hal, Don Quixote, and Sancho of course. Lady Macbeth I always admire. And Bottom, Ophelia, and Mercutio—both he and Mrs. Gamp coped with life, didn’t ask any favors, never whined. Huck Finn, of course, and Jim. Tom Sawyer I never liked much—an awful prig. And then I like Sut Lovingood, from a book written by George Harris about 1840 or 1850 in the Tennessee mountains. He had no illusions about himself, did the best he could; at certain times he was a coward and knew it and wasn’t ashamed; he never blamed his misfortunes on anyone and never cursed God for them.

INTERVIEWER

Would you comment on the future of the novel?

FAULKNER

I imagine as long as people will continue to read novels, people will continue to write them, or vice versa; unless of course the pictorial magazines and comic strips finally atrophy man’s capacity to read, and literature really is on its way back to the picture writing in the Neanderthal cave.

INTERVIEWER

And how about the function of the critics?

FAULKNER

The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews. The critic too is trying to say “Kilroy was here.” His function is not directed toward the artist himself. The artist is a cut above the critic, for the artist is writing something which will move the critic. The critic is writing something which will move everybody but the artist.

INTERVIEWER

So you never feel the need to discuss your work with anyone?

FAULKNER

No, I am too busy writing it. It has got to please me and if it does I don’t need to talk about it. If it doesn’t please me, talking about it won’t improve it, since the only thing to improve it is to work on it some more. I am not a literary man but only a writer. I don’t get any pleasure from talking shop.

INTERVIEWER

Critics claim that blood relationships are central in your novels.

FAULKNER

That is an opinion and, as I have said, I don’t read critics. I doubt that a man trying to write about people is any more interested in blood relationships than in the shape of their noses, unless they are necessary to help the story move. If the writer concentrates on what he does need to be interested in, which is the truth and the human heart, he won’t have much time left for anything else, such as ideas and facts like the shape of noses or blood relationships, since in my opinion ideas and facts have very little connection with truth.

INTERVIEWER

Critics also suggest that your characters never consciously choose between good and evil.

FAULKNER

Life is not interested in good and evil. Don Quixote was constantly choosing between good and evil, but then he was choosing in his dream state. He was mad. He entered reality only when he was so busy trying to cope with people that he had no time to distinguish between good and evil. Since people exist only in life, they must devote their time simply to being alive. Life is motion, and motion is concerned with what makes man move—which is ambition, power, pleasure. What time a man can devote to morality, he must take by force from the motion of which he is a part. He is compelled to make choices between good and evil sooner or later, because moral conscience demands that from him in order that he can live with himself tomorrow. His moral conscience is the curse he had to accept from the gods in order to gain from them the right to dream.

INTERVIEWER

Could you explain more what you mean by motion in relation to the artist?

FAULKNER

The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling “Kilroy was here” on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.

INTERVIEWER

It has been said by Malcolm Cowley that your characters carry a sense of submission to their fate.

FAULKNER

That is his opinion. I would say that some of them do and some of them don’t, like everybody else’s characters. I would say that Lena Grove in Light in August coped pretty well with hers. It didn’t really matter to her in her destiny whether her man was Lucas Burch or not. It was her destiny to have a husband and children and she knew it, and so she went out and attended to it without asking help from anyone. She was the captain of her soul. One of the calmest, sanest speeches I ever heard was when she said to Byron Bunch at the very instant of repulsing his final desperate and despairing attempt at rape, “Ain’t you ashamed? You might have woke the baby.” She was never for one moment confused, frightened, alarmed. She did not even know that she didn’t need pity. Her last speech for example: “Here I ain’t been traveling but a month, and I’m already in Tennessee. My, my, a body does get around.”

The Bundren family in As I Lay Dying pretty well coped with theirs. The father having lost his wife would naturally need another one, so he got one. At one blow he not only replaced the family cook, he acquired a gramophone to give them all pleasure while they were resting. The pregnant daughter failed this time to undo her condition, but she was not discouraged. She intended to try again, and even if they all failed right up to the last, it wasn’t anything but just another baby.

INTERVIEWER

And Mr. Cowley says you find it hard to create characters between the ages of twenty and forty who are sympathetic.

FAULKNER

People between twenty and forty are not sympathetic. The child has the capacity to do but it can’t know. It only knows when it is no longer able to do—after forty. Between twenty and forty the will of the child to do gets stronger, more dangerous, but it has not begun to learn to know yet. Since his capacity to do is forced into channels of evil through environment and pressures, man is strong before he is moral. The world’s anguish is caused by people between twenty and forty. The people around my home who have caused all the interracial tension— the Milams and the Bryants (in the Emmett Till murder) and the gangs of Negroes who grab a white woman and rape her in revenge, the Hitlers, Napoleons, Lenins—all these people are symbols of human suffering and anguish, all of them between twenty and forty.

INTERVIEWER

You gave a statement to the papers at the time of the Emmett Till killing. Have you anything to add to it here?

FAULKNER

No, only to repeat what I said before: that if we Americans are to survive it will have to be because we choose and elect and defend to be first of all Americans; to present to the world one homogeneous and unbroken front, whether of white Americans or black ones or purple or blue or green. Maybe the purpose of this sorry and tragic error committed in my native Mississippi by two white adults on an afflicted Negro child is to prove to us whether or not we deserve to survive. Because if we in America have reached that point in our desperate culture when we must murder children, no matter for what reason or what color, we don’t deserve to survive, and probably won’t.

INTERVIEWER

What happened to you between Soldier’s Pay and Sartoris—that is, what caused you to begin the Yoknapatawpha saga?

FAULKNER

With Soldier’s Pay I found out writing was fun. But I found out afterward not only that each book had to have a design but the whole output or sum of an artist’s work had to have a design. With Soldier’s Pay and Mosquitoes I wrote for the sake of writing because it was fun. Beginning with Sartoris I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it, and that by sublimating the actual into the apocryphal I would have complete liberty to use whatever talent I might have to its absolute top. It opened up a gold mine of other people, so I created a cosmos of my own. I can move these people around like God, not only in space but in time too. The fact that I have moved my characters around in time successfully, at least in my own estimation, proves to me my own theory that time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as was—only is. If was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow. I like to think of the world I created as being a kind of keystone in the universe; that, small as that keystone is, if it were ever taken away the universe itself would collapse. My last book will be the Doomsday Book, the Golden Book, of Yoknapatawpha County. Then I shall break the pencil and I’ll have to stop.