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William Faulkner is considered by many to be one of last century’s most important writers. He wrote series of novels set in a small southern town which include “As I Lay Dying”, “Light In August” and “Absalom, Absalom!“. The Mississippi born author was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, had legions of fans, but remained an intensely private man. He died at age 64 in 1962. In a new memoir the last of those who knew him well and offers an intimate portrait of the man she called “Pappy”. Please join me for a conversation with Dean Faulkner Wells, daughter of William Faulkner’s youngest brother, about growing up as a member of the Faulkner family of Oxford Mississippi.
From Every Day by the Sun. Copyright 2011 by Dean Faulkner Wells. Excerpted by kind permission of Crown Publishing, a division of Random House.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Dean Faulkner Wells' father died in a plane crash before she was born. Her uncle, William Faulkner, became the man she called Pappy. In a new memoir, she offers an intimate account of the Faulkner family and the remarkably tender side of her uncle, the Nobel Prize-winning writer, William Faulkner. Her book is titled, "Every Day By The Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi." Dean Faulkner Wells, niece of William Faulkner, joins me in the studio. I know many of you will want to ask your own questions, make your comments. Give us a call, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Good morning to you.
MS. DEAN FAULKNER WELLSGood morning.
REHMSo good to have you here. This photograph on the front, of you, how old were you at the time?
WELLSI was seven years old.
REHMSeven years old?
WELLSAnd a scruffy, little schoolgirl.
REHMAnd your father, tell us about your father?
WELLSMy father was on the right.
WELLSHe was 28.
REHMHe was 28?
WELLSWhen he died.
REHMAnd that was before you...
WELLSMy mother was five months pregnant with me.
REHMHow did he die?
WELLSHe was really a wonderful, funny, non-serious man. He was a beautiful hunter, a beautiful golfer, a beautiful baseball player and he wanted to be a writer (laugh), so there was a little bit of problem in the family.
REHMLittle bit of competition going on there.
WELLSYes. But then Pappy also wanted to be a hunter and a writer, not a writer, a hunter, a golfer, an athlete. He wanted to play football. In fact, he quit the eighth grade when he had his nose broken.
REHMOh, my gosh.
REHMAnd that was the end of it?
WELLSIt was the end of his academic and his athletic career.
REHMWow. Both his academic and his athletic career.
WELLSAnd he loved to call himself, I'm the oldest living eighth grader.
REHM(laugh) Tell me how your father died?
WELLSHe was a born zomer. I don't know if your readers are old enough to know that.
REHMI think we've seen movies of those who fly in those barnstorming efforts.
WELLSAnd they flew, they did loop-to-loops and figures eights and stalls and it was not a very lucrative business. He, I think, charged a dollar to take a passenger up for 15 or 20 minutes and one Sunday afternoon, he was getting ready for a show, a barnstorming show, and everything was perfect, the weather. He loved flying, I think, more than eating and possibly my mother. But he taxied down the runway and my mother had just gotten there unexpectedly and they waved good-bye and he had a red (word?) that William had given him.
REHMSo his brother had given him the plane that he was flying?
WELLSPlane that he was killed in and it got later and later and suddenly, the (word?) truck came rumbling up the field and said, It's down. It's down. The plane is down. And so my mother, her sister, brother-in-law and a parachutist started following the truck and indeed, there it was. And the (unintelligible) back and then off the, there were, unfortunately, three young men with him.
WELLSAnd they all died.
REHMOh, I'm so sorry.
REHMAnd you were born four months later?
REHMSo you've heard this story again and again from first your mother, your uncle, everyone around you?
WELLSYes. And you know what?
REHMYou need some water? Help yourself. We just -- There it is, good. Help yourself. I'm talking with Dean Faulkner Wells, she is the niece of the Nobel Prize-winning writer, William Faulkner. She's written a new memoir, it's titled, "Every Day By The Sun: A Memoir of the Faulkners of Mississippi." Do join us, 800-433-8850.
REHMYou took on an enormous responsibility writing this book, didn't you?
WELLSIt took more courage and discipline. Well, I hate to admit this, but 70 plus years and I would dearly love to lie and say I was so much younger and it would make the whole book a lie, so I have to say, yes. Today is my 75th birthday.
REHMOh, happy Birthday. Oh, I'm so happy...
REHM...to have you here on this day.
WELLSYes, yes. And it's gotten to be really funny and I love it, but the reviews that will come out call me the oldest surviving Faulkner, you know, and I keep thinking, if they keep calling me that, I'm going to be dead before the book sells out.
REHMNo, I think you'll be around for a good long time. But taking on this responsibility. What, you thought you could probably write it in a few months?
WELLSI thought I could write it in about six months.
WELLSTwo and a half years.
REHMTwo and a half years. How did you go about gathering what you needed for the book?
WELLSI relied on my memory and strangely enough, the ghosts, all the Faulkners believe in ghosts and they came back to me.
WELLSYes. And they said, now is the time, Dean, write it.
REHMDid they come to you in your dreams? Did they come to you in...
WELLSSubconsciously, yes, and then I would hear Pappy or Nanny, my grandmother, say, you forgot the part about, why don't you tell the part about. And so I slept with a pad and pencil by my bed and I would write at night and I am totally technology impaired. I don't use a computer or a typewriter. I write on legal pads with a pencil and I do have Pappy's discipline. I will not let myself mark out. I have to erase very mistake.
REHMOh, really, really, really.
WELLSSo I get it right.
REHMI want to go back a little bit because after your father died, you and your mother, after you were born, moved in with the man you came to call Pappy.
WELLSWell, in fact, we moved in before.
REHMYou had moved in before then?
REHMYou were already living there?
WELLSYes, Pappy came to Thaxton when my father was killed and took my mother, my pregnant mamma, to a friend's house in Thaxton to Pallitock, Mississippi. Bill liked that and took care of me and moved into the house with my grandmother and my pregnant mother and every night, he would draw her baths and then put her to bed and bring her a warm glass of milk. And they suffered agony together.
WELLSMy mother has said that she thinks that Dean's death was the worst thing that had happened to Pappy and this is after he had lost his first child, Alabama Faulkner, died when she was only 11 days old. But Pappy and Dean were so close. They loved each other so fiercely and it was a pretty story.
REHMSo to lose his brother became just the burden he carried for the rest of his life?
WELLSYes. I think I say it was a complex. It was guilt for the plane.
REHMDean Faulkner Wells. We'll take a short break and be right back.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Dean Faulkner Wells is with me, she is the niece of Nobel Prize-winning writer, William Faulkner. I have a note here in front of me and it is to me because it says, "Dean is said to have been taught public speaking by her Uncle William whose first rule was, don't do it. Second rule, if you cannot avoid public speaking, do it so softly the audience can't hear you. She is relying on her interviewer to help get her through this harrowing event." I hope you will not consider this harrowing.
WELLSIt is getting easier by the minute (unintelligible).
REHMI'm so glad. Now, I know you're going to read for us.
WELLSA little bit about the Faulkners, if it's all right.
WELLS"It has taken me 70 plus years to develop the discipline and courage to write this book. My relatives were private people, building walls, not only in themselves from outsiders, but from one another. This vaulted Faulkner crippling privacy, which has been interrupted as anything from crippling shyness to arrogance to paranoia, may have evolved as a safety hatch in light of our eccentric and sometimes outrageous behavior. Over the years, years my family can claim nearly every psychological aberration, narcissism, nymphomania, alcoholism, anorexia, agoraphobia, manic depression, paranoid schizophrenia. There have been thieves, adulterers, sociopaths, killers, racists, liars and folks suffering from panic attacks, that's me, and real bad tempers.
WELLSThe best of my knowledge, we have never had a barn burner or a preacher. The only place we could be found in relative harmony in St. Peter's Cemetery in Oxford, Mississippi. Yet there, we can't even agree on how to spell our name. It appears as, F-A-L-K-N-E-R on several headstones in the plot. The next plot, F-A-U-L-K-N-E-R. And in the main family plot, both Falkner and Faulkner buried next to one another, have one grave marker that reads, F-A-(U)-L-K-N-E-R. It is obvious that there have not been many of us to begin with. We've never been a close knit family. We were prone to bawling out, quick to anger and slow to forgive. Whereas most families come together at holidays or anniversaries, ours rarely has, at least not in my generation, with the exception of our immediate kin we've been derelict in keeping up family ties.
WELLSPappy tried. On New Year's Eve in the 1950s, he liked to host small gatherings of family and friends at his home in Roanoke, dressed to the nines. We met shortly before midnight in the library where magnums of champagne were chilling in wine coolers and crystal champagne glasses were arranged on silver trays. As the hour approached, Pappy moved (word?) the room and beckoned to the young men to turn out the overhead lights. When our glasses were filled, he would -- excuse me -- when our glasses were filled -- damn -- then he would welcome his guests. And one of the young men standing near the overhead turned out the light switch, then he would take his place in front of the fire. When the lights were out and he..."
REHM"And the room was still..."
WELLS"...when the lights were out and the room was still, with firelight dancing against the window panes, Pappy would lift his glass and give his traditional New Year's Eve toast, unchanged from year to year. 'Here's to the younger generation' he would say. 'May you learn from the mistakes of your elders.' I wish my readers could've been with me that New Year's Eve. This book is my way of taking them there."
REHMDean Faulkner Wells, she is the niece of Nobel Prize-winning writer, William Faulkner. Do join us, 800-433-8850. You had quite a childhood after your father died because your mother remarried.
REHMThe man she married was not kind to her.
WELLSHe was -- he was a fine, fine newspaper man, but a world class drunk, do it made things a little difficult at home.
REHMYou moved 12 times in 13 years.
WELLSYes. He was remarkably adept at getting fired (laugh). So I would go to school in the morning and come home in the afternoon and I knew we were moving when my bed was gone. I learned to sleep, as a, oh, eight, nine-year-old, in the bushes beside the house. I was afraid and guilty for leaving my mother.
REHMBecause she was being beaten.
REHMDid she ever go back to Pappy's home?
WELLSYes. She took me back every chance she got and Nanny, of course, would keep me, oh, for summers.
REHMNanny, your grandmother...
WELLSMy grandmother, yes.
REHMWhom you loved and adored.
WELLSI did, I did.
REHMShe taught you a lot.
WELLSShe taught me a lot of good things and a lot of bad things.
WELLSOh, another quote from Nanny. I came in from school one day full of myself, Nanny, Nanny, guess what I learned today? All men are created equal. And Nanny said, yes, lamb, her pet name for me, except Negroes, Catholics and Jews.
WELLSIt took me a while to get over it, but fortunately, I did. And Pappy was way ahead of his time in Mississippi. Mississippi in those days was an ugly, ugly, ugly state. We're better now, but we have a long way to go.
REHMHe stuck to his guns, didn't he?
REHMHe felt very strongly about what you had learned in school.
WELLSYes. In fact, when you're the niece of probably one of the most brilliant men in the world, you learn -- you learn whether you want to or not. I think one of my favorite stories about him is that when Albert Einstein was in Princeton Pappy was invited to come up and visit. And they were seated in the front parlor, I suppose, and they spoke, Mr. Einstein, Mr. Faulkner, silence. In about 10 minutes, Mrs. Einstein came in and said, will you have coffee or tea? Thank you. Coffee and tea were drunk and then Pappy said, I must go now and Mr. Einstein said, goodbye. And that was the end of the conversation (laugh).
REHMAnd that was it?
REHMNow, was that, in your mind, out of pure shyness on Pappy's part?
WELLSYes, I think so. I think we are, well, as I say in here, not a normal family (laugh). He was shy, he hated performing in public and yet, he would go to Hollywood, he would have dinner with Clark Gable, he would have supper with Lauren Bacall and he would have these wonderful glamorous pictures of him in his swimming suit, you know, by the swimming pool and all this. And yet at the same time, when he was in Oxford, there was a sign on the front gate, keep out, private property.
REHMDid you see him drinking as you saw your own stepfather drinking?
WELLSNo. I never saw William Faulkner drunk.
REHMYou never did.
WELLSNo. He drink socially, which was...
WELLSYes, in Mississippi, it certainly is, but he made a rule -- I lived with him for the last, oh, few months of his life and Pappy had a rule. Nobody drank on Monday. And when Pappy said nobody drank on Monday, nobody drank on Monday.
REHMWhat an interesting rule. Why do you suppose he imposed that?
WELLSYou know, I think it was discipline. I think he learned to show himself that he could do it.
REHMInteresting. You know, in the paragraphs that you read you talk about your family claiming every psychological aberration. You talk about narcissism, alcoholism, anorexia, agoraphobia, manic depression. You talk about sociopaths, killers, racists, liars, all these people part of your family.
WELLSYes. Fortunately, the killers went back into the 1830s. And in those days, it seemed to be very, very difficult to convict a killer, so every single one of them were acquitted.
REHMThey got off.
WELLSThey just didn't even go to jail.
REHMWhen did your uncle actually begin to first write?
WELLSOh, probably in the, I'm guessing, 1920s.
REHMHe would've been how old?
WELLSWell, he was born in 1897 and I think his great grandfather, the old colonel, had written several books...
WELLSAnd disowned a claim in those days.
REHMBut didn't your uncle also have a brief career at the post office?
WELLS(laugh) As a matter of fact, he did and he didn't like working in the post office.
REHMWhat was he doing there?
WELLSHis father got him a job. Pappy didn't like to work. You know, write, yes, that's not really work. But work work -- so I guess he was sort of a -- what do you call it -- a teller or seller of stamps? And he delivered the mail, put it in the boxes and he didn't -- if he read the postcards and thought they were not very interesting, in the trash.
REHMHe'd throw them away (laugh).
REHMHe'd throw them away.
WELLSAnd do you know what's so lovely and funny about it? It ended up that his daughter married the son-in-law of the postmaster (laugh) of Mississippi so it was...
REHMNow, you have a very, very different image of Pappy than his own daughter...
REHM...has. Why do you suppose that is?
WELLSI think by the accident of my birth, the Faulkners took me in like their own baby. And I think Jill saw Pappy drunk, she saw him angry and I think I say in here whenever I came to Oxford, everybody sobered up.
REHMEverybody sobered up.
REHMWhereas she saw her father...
REHM...in a totally different way.
WELLSYes. And I think another line, Jill was -- I went to grammar school, you know, Pappy was beginning to be known a little bit.
WELLSAnd she said -- I said, Jill, poor Jill, she had so much to live up to and so much to live down.
REHMDean Faulkner Wells. We'll be right back.
REHMDean Faulkner Wells is with me, she is the niece of Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner. It's taken her two years to write this book, a book of memories from the Faulkner's of Mississippi. The title is, "Every Day By the Sun." Where does that title come from, Dean?
WELLSWhen Dean took his pilot's license test...
REHMThis is your dad.
WELLSMy dad. He had to list everything a pilot should have with him at all times. Dean made a perfect score missing one item, a watch. So my -- one of my relatives said Dean didn't need a watch, he lived his day by the sun.
REHMWas there ever an investigation into why his plane crashed?
WELLSYes. And I try very, very hard to find out. The unfortunate -- well, yet I guess, records burned, so they could never say what happened or why, but several things have been written recently about how things went with him and how it could have happened. And I just -- I believe in my father so much. In fact, I think I'm probably lucky because to me, he was God and he could never, ever be anything less. But what we were saying? Where were we?
REHMAs to how the plane might have gone down.
WELLSIt -- every old timer, old barnstormer said Dean couldn't have made a mistake. It could not have been a pilot's error. He was, if anything, a mystical flyer. There was no plane he couldn't fly. So any different things could've happened. I hate it for the three young men who died.
REHMOf course. Of course.
WELLSAnd the book ends with my son, John, my husband, Larry, and I going to the cemetery where they're buried and we find two of the young men who are buried and we couldn't find the third one. And the last line of the book is, we'll try again.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Christopher who lives in the Mississippi Delta.
WELLSAll right (laugh).
REHMHe says, "Listening to your interview this morning with Dean Faulkner Wells, I'm reminded, my triple aunt, Elsa Meek...
REHM...of Oxford, Mississippi told stories of Billy Faulkner as a child sitting in the boughs of the town's live oak tree eccentrically talking to himself as a young boy. I remember visiting her and sitting on her wraparound porch in Oxford when I was a child." He ends by saying, "My fond thoughts to Miss Wells." Is that lovely?
WELLSYes, yes, it is. And I remember Miss Meek.
WELLSI do. I remember her name, yes.
WELLSYes, yes, yes.
REHMAll right. Let's open the phones to Linda. She's in St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Linda.
LINDAGood morning. It's just I'm so happy to get to talk to you, Dean -- Miss Dean. I didn't get to visit you last spring when I visited Oxford. My mother, Ruth Brubaker, played the organ for your wedding at Saint Peter's...
WELLSOh, yes, of course, yes.
LINDA...at Saint Peter's Episcopal Church.
LINDAAnd of course, Pappy gave you away. And my sister and I were so thrilled to get to go out to Roanoke at the reception. And William Faulkner opened the door, held the door open for us and Dad always said that he said, why, hello Patty and Linda. So it's just wonderful to talk to you. As kids -- as neighborhood kids, we heard that -- there was a rumor that Faulkner would shoot at people who came onto his property, but we decided to we were gonna go hiking along the edge of the property and we did. We hiked along there. Nothing happened. We were so excited. And we got all the way through over to the university. So we just have many memories. I remember seeing Faulkner walking down the street.
REHMDid he ever shoot at people?
WELLSIf he did, we didn't know it.
WELLSAnd surely he would never have shot at children.
REHMI'm sure. Linda, thanks for your call.
WELLSOh, thank you.
REHMLet's go to Tulsa, Okla. and to Nita. Good morning, you're on the air.
NITAGood morning, I'm Nita Jones and I was born in Oxford at Culley Hospital in 1929. And my uncle, Elsie Morgan, was the postmaster at the University of Mississippi.
REHMIsn't that wonderful to hear...
WELLSYes, it is.
REHM...from friends and neighbors.
NITAWell, my sister and I are so excited to hear about your new book and we're gonna be sure to acquire one for ourselves. And my -- another thing that I remember, my cousin, Maryanne, was a friend of Jill's.
NITAAnd she got to hear the ghost stories at Roanoke.
NITA(laugh) Just really fun to talk to you.
WELLSIt's lovely to talk to you. And just as a sales pitch, I wrote, "The Ghost Stories of William Faulkner," and it's a children's book. But I bet you would remember a lot of the stories because they were scary. Pappy loved to terrify us and we loved it (laugh). Nothing could be better than to be scared to death.
REHMThanks for calling, Nita. Here's a question from Lawrence in Rochester, N.Y. She'd like to -- he'd like to know what you thought of your uncle's fictional representation in the movie, "Barton Fink."
WELLSOh, I don't think he saw it.
REHMYou don't think...
REHM...you saw it or he saw it.
REHMAnd here's another from Smitty in Charlotte, N.C., who says, "I'd like to know if you have read any lesser known Faulkner works that are not widely known that you believe are important."
WELLSOh, I wish I could say yes, but no, I don't.
REHMThey're all out there.
REHMThey're all out there.
WELLSBut let's go back, can we, to, "Barton Fink?"
WELLSIs that going?
REHMThe, "Barton Fink," movie and that was all about a fictionalized account of Clifford Odets'...
WELLSYes, yes, yes. I think if Pappy had seen it, he would not have liked it at all, but...
REHMHe would not have liked it.
REHMAll right. Let's go now to Christian in Walton, N.H. Good morning to you.
CHRISTIANGood morning, Miss Wells. Some years ago I had the pleasure of riding with the Farmington hunt in Charlotte -- no, Charlottesville...
CHRISTIAN...with your cousin, Jill Summers, who's a master of the hunt at that time.
WELLSOh, wasn't she.
CHRISTIANAnd I went to the Hunt Ball. I have a picture with her. Anyway, my -- up until a few years ago, I lived in Memphis and rode with the Long Green Hounds, who your uncle was a member of and, of course, that was before I joined. Some years ago, I was at Roanoke in Oxford and saw his portrait there in the living room with his scarlet coat and his old horse trailer is still there...
WELLSOh, yes, it is.
CHRISTIAN...running -- rusting away. Well, it was a few years ago, but I hope that's restored someday.
WELLSI think probably one of the proudest things Pappy did was to get to ride the hounds in Virginia.
REHMHe loved doing that.
WELLSOh, he adored it.
REHMIsn't that interesting? I don't think of him in that vein.
WELLSOh, he was -- I don't know, sir. Was he a good horseman?
CHRISTIANThat, I don't know. I never saw him ride.
WELLSWell, from what I've heard, one day he would be very good and the next day not so very good.
REHMThanks for calling, Christian. You know, I was amazed to learn how many people your uncle actually supported and yet he never talked about money.
WELLSNo. And he never made us feel guilty.
REHMHe never made you feel guilty.
WELLSNo. And when we were -- Vicky, my cousin, Jill, cousin, all had grown up, Saturday was -- what am I trying to say?
REHMA special day somehow?
WELLSYes. And we each got a quarter...
WELLS...for the week.
WELLSAnd we could spend it anyway...
WELLS...we wanted to.
REHMI remember the same kind of feeling...
REHM...but, I mean, he had a whole lot of people under one roof.
WELLSHe had 17 of us...
WELLS...at one time.
REHMAnd he was paying for it all.
WELLSPaying for it all and even more than that, he paid emotionally. He paid financially. He made us feel comfortable.
REHMDean Baker Wells -- sorry, Dean Faulkner Wells and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Michael who's here in Washington, D.C. Good morning to you, Michael.
MICHAELGood morning. How are you?
MICHAELI was in Oxford in the early '70s. I was apprentice to Mr. Hall who was the blacksmith down there.
WELLSOh, yes, of course.
MICHAELAnd he used to say that when Bill Faulkner got fired from the post office, that what he said was, well, thank God I'm not at the beck and call of any SOB who's got three cents for a stamp.
WELLSIt's exactly what he said. And he meant it.
MICHAELHe and Mr. Hall were evidently good friends. And later on, the university had just gotten possession of Roanoke and like maybe a day or two after they had gotten the place, they gave me the keys and told me to go over and look at it and see what I would think about a documentary. So I opened the place up. It was absolutely empty and there were dust bunnies under the beds and there were extension cords upon extension cords. And the place was quiet, so I went and I sat down at his desk, sat in his chair, looked at his typewriter and just sat quietly for I don't know how long. Then I went into the kitchen and there was a bread box.
MICHAELAnd I opened up -- I opened up the bread box. I don't know why, but I opened up the bread box and there was a telegram in it. And I opened up the telegram and it was from the Nobel folks announcing that he had gotten the Nobel Prize for literature.
WELLSOh, what a beautiful story.
REHMIn the bread box.
MICHAELIn the bread box. I have no idea. And I thought, why in the world has this man put this telegram in the bread box?
WELLSBecause that's something Pappy would do.
MICHAELI guess it was.
WELLSIt was. But what I thought you were going to tell us is that in that same bread box, Pappy kept the Jack Daniels whiskey in the pantry where everybody could see the booze, four roses, an old charter, you name it, but nobody drank anything but Jack Daniels, except Pappy, yeah.
REHMAnd nobody drank on Monday.
REHMNow, I want to read to you an e-mail from Sally who calls herself a lover of Faulkner from Oklahoma. Sally says, "Faulkner's niece is so wonderful to hear. She has the sense of humor and of language that we love in Faulkner's writing. Thank you for having her."
WELLSOh, my dear, thank you for calling in, yes.
REHMNow, doesn't that make you feel good?
WELLSI feel wonderful, as a matter of a fact.
REHMWell, I know you were nervous about getting here and...
WELLSWell, I'm a Faulkner. That's it.
REHMYou're a Faulkner and thank heavens, you've written this beautiful book.
WELLSThank you. Thank you.
REHMI'm so glad you are here. Dean Faulkner Wells, her new memoir of the Faulkner's of Mississippi is titled, "Every Day by the Sun." Thank you for being here.
WELLSOh, thank you.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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