William Faulkner Explains Why Writing is Best Left to Scoundrels … Preferably Living in Brothels (1956)

william faulkner PR 1956Ask writ­ers for writ­ing advice, and they’ll usu­al­ly offer up some very prac­ti­cal tips. A few exam­ples:

  • Give the read­er at least one char­ac­ter he or she can root for (Kurt Von­negut).
  • When writ­ing dia­logue, read things aloud. Only then will it have the sound of speech (John Stein­beck).
  • Avoid detailed descrip­tions of char­ac­ters (Elmore Leonard).
  • Don’t start off try­ing to write nov­els. The short sto­ry is your friend (Ray Brad­bury).
  • Write when you know you’re at your best (Toni Mor­ri­son).
  • And make sure you always take two sharp­ened Num­ber 2 pen­cils with you on air­planes (Mar­garet Atwood).

Like I said, it’s all pret­ty nuts-and-bolts advice. But if you’re look­ing for some­thing a lit­tle more col­or­ful and out­side-the-box, then look no fur­ther than William Faulkn­er’s 1956 inter­view with the Paris Review. When asked “Is there any pos­si­ble for­mu­la to fol­low in order to be a good nov­el­ist?,” Faulkn­er per­haps sur­prised his inter­view­er, Jean Stein, when he said:

An artist is a crea­ture dri­ven by demons… He is com­plete­ly amoral in that he will rob, bor­row, beg, or steal from any­body and every­body to get the work done.

Elab­o­rat­ing, Faulkn­er con­tin­ued:

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.…

If Stein hoped to get Faulkn­er back into more prac­ti­cal ter­ri­to­ry with her next ques­tion, she was dis­ap­point­ed. To the ques­tion, “Then what would be the best envi­ron­ment for a writer?,” Faulkn­er offered this:

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.… My own expe­ri­ence has been that the tools I need for my trade are paper, tobac­co, food, and a lit­tle whiskey.

If you want to trans­late this into prac­ti­cal advice, you get some­thing like this. What should a young nov­el­ist aspire to? Basi­cal­ly being a Machi­avel­lian-type in a cat house. Not a pret­ty idea, but that’s how one of Amer­i­ca’s pre-emi­nent writ­ers saw the lit­er­ary life. And if you strip things down to their rawest essen­tials, you might find some wis­dom there. Live for your art, and give your­self the eco­nom­ic free­dom to write. Noth­ing more. Noth­ing less.

You can read the com­plete 1956 inter­view here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William Faulkn­er Tells His Post Office Boss to Stick It (1924)

William Faulkn­er Audio Archive Goes Online

William Faulkn­er Reads from As I Lay Dying

Drink­ing with William Faulkn­er

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Comments (6)
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  • Michael says:

    “William Faulkn­er Explains Why Writ­ing is Best to Left Scoundrels … ”


    What about Right Scoundrels?

  • Adam Langton says:

    Odd­ly, I think this men­tal­i­ty is pre­cise­ly what the dull monot­o­ne of Cana­di­an lit­er­a­ture needs to revive itself.

  • Well, con­ven­tion­al dis­po­si­tion has nev­er real­ly work for an artist. Nei­ther for a writ­ing. Free­dom is the one item a writer can­not work with­out. Con­ven­tion is lim­it­ing.

  • Collin says:

    Hmmm, this gives me hope. I’m burn­ing $12/day in Guatemala and writ­ing a nov­el. My lifestyle is not unlike Faulkn­er’s — though I have the added lux­u­ry of being unem­ployed.

  • daniel mena says:

    An amaz­ing text. I can´t stop think­ing in take a drink with Faulkn­er.

  • Joseph Chamberlin says:

    Anoth­er thought about writ­ing:

    “Life holds its mir­a­cles, good erupt­ing from dark­ness chief among them.”

    from “The Dark­ness of an Irish Morn­ing”
    by John Patrick Shan­ley
    in The New York Times March 9, 2013

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