William Faulkner on Writing, the Purpose of Art, Working in a Brothel, and the Meaning of Life
“The only environment the artist needs is whatever peace, whatever solitude, and whatever pleasure he can get at not too high a cost.”
By Maria Popova
When The Paris Review launched in 1953, it revolutionized the art of the interview. Over the decades that followed, the revered publication offered unprecedented glimpses of literary history’s greatest minds, which yielded such timeless gems as E. B. White on the responsibility of the writer and the daily routines of famous authors. But among the Paris Review’s most radical interviews was one with William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962), conducted exactly four decades after his days as a Jazz Age artist and nearly thirty years after he penned his little-known children’s book, published in the spring of 1956. Found in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series (public library) — the same indispensable volume that gave us Malcolm Cowley on the four stages of writing — and also available online in the Paris Review archive, the wide-ranging interview explores with curmudgeonly conviction everything from the secret of great writing to the purpose of art to the meaning of life.
Faulkner begins with a case against the artist’s individual ego, citing the controversy over Shakespeare’s authorship and arguing instead that art transcends the artist:
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.
When asked whether there’s any formula for being a good novelist — a timely question in our age of endless appetite for the odd habits and practical advice of famous authors, as if replicating those would somehow effect genius — Faulkner shoots back a crankily argued case for work ethic and creative doggedness, taking Zadie Smith’s contention that a writer should be resigned “to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied” to an extreme:
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.
When the interviewer inquires about the best environment for a writer — something to which E. B. White famously replied that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper” — Faulkner illustrates his point with a personal anecdote that outshines even his typical penchant for being a provocateur:
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.
When the interviewer follows up on the mention of economic freedom, asking whether it’s essential for the writer, Faulkner shoots back with his characteristic absolutism, adding to history’s most memorable definitions of art:
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.
Despite the questionable comment on gender, Faulkner adds a poignant meditation on the false deity of prestige and how chasing commercial success warps a writer’s gift:
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.
Faulkner furthers his point about integrity vs. success in addressing whether working in the movies can help or hurt a writer:
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.
When asked about the role of technique, Faulkner scoffs and offers some advice for aspiring authors, later echoed in Neil Gaiman’s fantastic commencement address on making mistakes, calling for a curious blend of humility and arrogance:
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.
Reflecting on whether writing should be based on personal experience, Faulkner offers his trifecta of literary essentials, reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s model of the four people every writer should be:
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.
He shares his secret to writing a great story:
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.
Most poignant of all, however, is Faulkner’s meditation on the meaning of life:
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. … 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.
Complement with the curious and controversial story of Faulkner’s only children’s book and treat yourself to the irresistible boxed set of the best Paris Review interviews, then revisit the collected wisdom of great writers.
Published September 25, 2013