7 Facts About William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying on an overturned wheelbarrow.
William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying on an overturned wheelbarrow. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Released in 1930, author William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying appeared to be an impossibly ambitious undertaking; the novel has 15 different narrators over 59 chapters. It’s since become regarded as an American classic—and a bit of an endurance test for some readers. Here are some facts about the book and Faulkner’s very deliberate undertaking of writing a “classic.”

1. As I Lay Dying has much in common with The Sound and the Fury.

For six months, Faulkner put everything he had into writing The Sound and the Fury, a story that uses multiple narrators and a stream-of-consciousness style to chronicle the decline of the formerly aristocratic Compson family. It wasn’t an immediate success when it was released in 1929, but it’s since been recognized as one of the author’s essential works.

The next year, the author released As I Lay Dying, a similarly stylized book about the impoverished Bundren family’s struggles to bury their matriarch, Addie, in the town of Jefferson, Mississippi. Though critics continue to see the two works as inextricably linked, Faulkner himself was once quoted as saying he never thought of the novels “in the same breath.”

2. William Faulkner claimed he wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks.

It can sometimes be difficult to sort Faulkner’s own personal mythology from facts. The novelist, who was a high school and college dropout, claimed he wrote As I Lay Dying while working at a Mississippi power plant. (His earlier novels, while well-regarded, did not provide much in the way of royalties.) For around six weeks, he wrote from midnight until four in the morning while at the plant. The book was composed on a wheelbarrow that he turned into a table.

3. William Faulkner said that, with As I Lay Dying, he deliberately set out to write a classic.

Faulkner was one of the more blunt novelists of his era, having little time or regard for self-promotion or any examination of his process. In discussing As I Lay Dying, he was fond of saying that he was very conscious of the novel’s potential to be embraced as a sprawling American classic. "I set out deliberately to write a tour-de-force,” he said.” Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first word I knew what the last word would be and almost where the last period would fall.”

4. One chapter of As I Lay Dying is a single sentence.

Chapter 19 reads, “My mother is a fish.” The perspective is that of Vardaman Bundren, the son of the recently deceased Addie Bundren, whom he compares to a sea creature due to her coffin floating on a river.

5. William Faulkner used the same fictional setting in several of his books—including As I Lay Dying.

Faulkner set many of his novels, including As I Lay Dying, in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, a spell-check-threatening word that Faulkner claimed came from a Chickasaw term for water running through flat lands (though modern Faulkner scholars think it’s more likely “split land”). While visiting students at the University of Virginia, he instructed students on its proper pronunciation: YOK-na-pa-TAW-pha.

6. The power plant William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in was torn down.

The University of Mississippi power plant where Faulkner wrote the book stood as a monument to the late writer for several decades following his death in 1962. In 2015, the school announced it would be torn down to make room for a $135 million science building.

7. James Franco turned As I Lay Dying into a movie.

Alissa Whelan - © 2013 - RabbitBandini Productions

By the nature of its multiple perspectives and stream-of-consciousness narrative, As I Lay Dying was never seen as ideal movie material. Faulkner himself was a screenwriter (The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not), but may have thought the odds of the book ever seeing the screen were slim. In 2013, actor/director James Franco released an adaptation that utilized split-screens, voiceover, and other techniques to try and maintain the spirit of the splintered story. Franco later adapted The Sound and the Fury.

"I love Faulkner," Franco told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. "I have loved Faulkner since I was a teenager, and I have just been drawn to his characters and his worlds. I think his experimental style and his very unusual structuring in his novels is the thing that actually attracted me. I knew it would be very difficult but I also knew from adapting his other book [As I Lay Dying] that if I tried to take on that writing style and structure in the movie that it would push me to find filmmaking solutions that I wouldn't have otherwise."

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