The Faulkner Thing
Did Mr. Bill Smoke Stogies?
By John Grisham
It was Dallas, or some other city. They all look the same at the end of a book tour, so it makes no difference where you are, really, you just keep telling yourself that this city, whatever it is, is one step closer to home. I was sitting on a small, creaky, makeshift throne in a corner of a quaint little bookshop. The throne was between the fishing and erotica shelves; my back was to the poetry. Before me was a table stacked with copies ofThe Firm, and beyond it a line of people waited patiently as I scribbled my name and made impossible small talk.
I heard a commotion at the front door, then saw her as she surveyed the place and headed for me. Behind her was a burly cameraman, and he followed her with great discipline as she elbowed past the others and approached me. She had plastic hair and an orange face, and I knew immediately she was another of those busy TV beat reporters scouring the streets looking for holdups and house fires. Evidently, it was a slow day for Dallas, so she dropped by the bookstore to gather a few gems from the guy who wrote The Firm.
On this day, I had already suffered through three interviews, all properly arranged through my publisher, and I was in no mood for another, especially one that materialized from nowhere. I scrawled my name, thanked the person, and tried to ignore the reporter. But there she was, suddenly standing near me with a microphone.
"Are you John Grisham?" she asked loudly, waving the mike.
I did not look up, but began inscribing the next book. I wrote very slow. She was the first interviewer to ask that question.
"Of course he is," said a man waiting in line. I too thought it was rather obvious who I was.
"Is it true you live in Oxford, Mississippi?" she asked, even louder. Why would I lie about something like this? My picture is on the dust jacket, and under it is a sentence that plainly states where I live.
"Yes," I said abruptly, without looking into the orange face.
This inspired her. She came closer and stabbed the mike to within inches of my head. The bouncer with the camera hit a switch, and suddenly there was bright light everywhere.
"How do you compare yourself with William Faulkner?" she asked.
A handful of morons have asked me this question, and nothing irritates me more. Those who ask it have read neither Faulkner nor Grisham, but are sharp enough to know Oxford is home for both of us.
"Faulkner's dead," I said, glancing in her general direction but being careful not to look at the camera.
I'm sure she knew he was dead, but she seemed a bit surprised. Undaunted, she pressed ahead. "It must be difficult to write in Oxford," she said.
It's difficult to write anywhere. I have found nothing in life more boring than staring at an empty sheet of paper and praying that something happens. But, truthfully, if you're going to write for a living, there's no better place than Oxford.
"Why?" I asked.
"Well, you know, the Faulkner thing."
There are at least a half a dozen published novelists in Oxford. I know them, some betters than others, and I see them occasionally at Square Books or Smitty's or at parties and we talk about books and editors and agents and deadlines and other writers, but I have yet to hear any of them discuss "the Faulkner thing."
He was a literary artist of immense proportions, a genius, a writer thoroughly dedicated to his craft, the greatest American novelist of this century. He won the Nobel. He was peerless, but, bless his heart, he's dead. Life goes on for the rest of us.
I decided not to be ugly. "Do you read Faulkner?" I asked with a smile as I signed another book.
She hesitated. "Some." I knew she was lying.
"What's your favorite Faulkner novel?" I asked. Hesitation. Everyone in line waited. Painful hesitation. I slowly signed another book as the mike stopped waving and everything was silent.
"Uh, let's see, I guess, The Reivers," she said in desperation.
They made a movie out of The Reivers and it starred Steve McQueen, who at the time was much more famous than William Faulkner. Nothing against the novel-it's a fun story-but it's not exactly his masterpiece. I figured she had seen the movie but had not read the book.
I was about to nail her and ask the titles of her second and third favorite Faulkner novels when she seized the moment and said, "I've been to Oxford, you know."
"What for?" I asked.
"I was a cheerleader, and we competed there."
Of course. I said, "It's a lovely town, isn't it?"
She slinked forward, the microphone now centimeters from my nose. "It's beautiful. I went to Rowan Oak, you know, Faulkner's place," she said. "I could almost feel his presence."
I almost asked what she had been drinking when she went to Rowan Oak and felt his presence, but again, I decided not to be ugly. She was just trying to do her job. The philistine with the mini-cam stepped on a woman's foot and the woman snapped at him, and for a second things were almost out of hand. He apologized without removing his face from the camera. The owner of the bookstore appeared at the end of the line to see what was happening.
The orange face was even closer. "Surely, it must be intimidating writing under the shadow of Faulkner."
This did it.
"I swear he's dead. I've seen his grave. Died thirty years ago when I was in the second grade."
I was clearly irritated, and this, of course, was exactly what she wanted. The camera moved closer.
"But what about the legend, the aura, the magic of Faulkner? I read somewhere that all Southern writers labor in the shadow of Faulkner."
I had read this somewhere too. ''I'm not a Southern writer, " I said slowly without looking at her. She thought about this for a second.
''Then what are you?" she asked, definitely puzzled.
''I'm a commercial writer who lives in the South. I try to write commercial fiction of a high quality-no attempt at literature here-just good books that people enjoy reading. The libraries are already filled with great literature. There's no room for me."
"That's interesting, " she said.
"Is that a question?" I asked.
She ignored this. "So you write for money?"
"Yes. At one time I was a lawyer, and I worked for money. When I served in the state legislature, I got paid for it. When I mowed grass as a kid I did so for money. You wouldn't be holding that microphone if you weren't getting paid for it. "
"What about writers who say they don't care if their books sell?"
"They're lying. " I handed a book back to its purchaser. The line was growing longer. The proprietor was now standing nearby.
"What about Faulkner? Did he write for money?"
I honestly don't know why Faulkner wrote. His best books were written when he couldn't give them away. He spent many agonizing years in Hollywood cranking out screenplays so his family could eat. He was not well off, financially speaking, until late in life.
The owner stepped forward. "Mr. Grisham, your plane leaves in an hour."
"Thank you," I said. It was a welcome lie. My flight was three hours away. I ignored the reporter.
But she was not to be ignored. "Do you think Faulkner wrote for money?"
"Why don't you ask Faulkner?" I snapped as I took another book and scribbled in earnest. The light went off. The microphone was withdrawn. She mumbled something that sounded like "thanks" as they made a noisy retreat and left the store.
Book tours attract nosy little reporters who are completely uninhibited and will ask for all sorts of details such as, Do you write for money? How much money will you make off this book? How much money did you make off your last book? How much did you pay for your house? What kind of car do you drive? Does your wife work? Where do you vacation? What'd you sell the film rights for?
Nothing is private. They'll ask anything. Faulkner didn't like them either, and I'll bet he was never quizzed about legends or shadows.