February 26, 2013

Writing is a vice, explains William Faulkner


William Faulkner taking a break.

The University of Virginia library’s archive is an absolute treasure trove of audio clips of 20th century authors reading and discussing both their own work and that of others. A stand-out in the holdings is their extensive collection of audio of William Faulkner, recorded during Faulkner’s two terms as UVA’s first Writer-in-Residence in 1957 and 1958.

Here’s a small highlight in which he describes how he became a writer (scroll down). Be patient with the website — it’s a little slow-moving, but well worth it just to hear Faulkner’s unexpectedly brisk speaking style and pronunciations, alone.

For the impatient, here’s a snip:

…I’d always liked to imagine stories and occasionally put something down, but I was still—had not taken it seriously until I was in New Orleans. I was working for a bootlegger. This was back in the—in the twenties, and I met Sherwood Anderson, and we liked each other right away. We would meet in the afternoon. We would walk around the French Quarter along the docks, and he would talk, and I would listen. We’d meet again in the evening. We’d go to a—a nice patio or courtyard, and we’d sit over a bottle of whiskey, and he would talk, and I would listen. In the morning, I wouldn’t see him. He’d be in seclusion working. And that would go on day after day, the afternoons to walk and laugh and talk, and the evenings to—to drink and laugh and talk, in the mornings, in seclusion working. And I thought that if that was all it took to be a writer, that was exactly the life for me. [audience laughter] So, I—I started a book, and right away I found that it was fun, that I liked it, and I got so interested in it, I forgot about Mr. Anderson. I hadn’t seen him for several weeks, and I met Mrs. Anderson on the street. She said, “What’s wrong? Are you mad at us? We haven’t seen you in a long time.” I said, “No, ma’am. I’m writing book.” She said, “Good God.” [audience laughter] I—I met her a week or two after, and she asked about the book. I said I was just about to finish it. She said, “Do you want Sherwood to read it?” I hadn’t thought of anybody reading it. I said, “Well’m, he can if wants to.” She said, “Well, Sherwood says he’ll make a swap with you. If he don’t have to read that book, he’ll tell his publisher to take it.” So I said, “Done,” [audience laughter] and he told his publisher to take the book, and that’s how I became—took up writing seriously. Up to that time, I’d done it—well, it never occurred to me that anybody might want to read it or hadn’t thought of it in public terms till then.

Unidentified participant: But if you hadn’t met Sherwood Anderson, it would have been inevitable, though.

William Faulkner: Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. I think the writer is driven by a demon that he can’t help himself anymore. That’s a vice, really. Nothing he can do about it. [audience laughter] And he just wastes time fighting it. Best thing is to go on and be a writer.

The editors of the Faulkner archive politely acknowledge that he was not always 100% accurate in his recollections.


Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.