Q&A: David Milch talks William Faulkner and his new HBO deal
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David Milch, the man behind ‘Deadwood’ and ‘NYPD Blue,’ has signed a deal with HBO and William Faulkner’s estate to produce TV series and original movies based on Faulkner’s writing. The agreement, which has been brewing for 18 months, is tremendously broad, encompassing 19 novels and 125 short stories by one of American’s most challenging writers. Faulkner won the Nobel prize for literature, the Pulitzer Prize and was even a screenwriter in Hollywood. Milch, who has won four Emmys and is currently at work on HBO’s ‘Luck,’ a horse racing series featuring Dustin Hoffman, spoke to Carolyn Kellogg by phone.
What was the first William Faulkner work you read?
I think it was [the short story] “The Bear,” when I was in high school. In college I started to get soaked in the materials. Subsequently I worked with R.W.B. Lewis, Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks on a history of American literature -- I did that for seven or eight years. In the course of that work, my interest in Faulkner deepened, and has been sustained ever since.
Do you have a favorite Faulkner novel?
I guess if I had to pick one I’d pick “Absalom, Absalom!” but [laughs] a lot of them are pretty good.
People have said that he’s an unfilmmable writer.
I’ve never understood that. To me he seems enormously cinematic. But I’ve heard that, once or twice.
In “Deadwood,” you were known for coining a unique language, and Faulkner did that as well. What do you think of the texture of Faulkner’s prose, and of his dialogue?
They are superb, and compelling, and absolutely authentic. They’re so contemporary. You know, Faulkner wrote for film, and his ear is just impeccable.
What attracted you to Faulkner in particular?
For me, he is a distinctive voice in American literature in the last century. The variety of the work, and the richness of its perspectives on the great themes. Faulkner speaks to us on the questions of race, the challenges of modernity and modern man’s dilemma in all of its aspects. That he is able to specify among those and bring those themes alive is one of his great gifts. There are so many different kinds of pleasures one gets from encountering those materials. I remember when I was reading “The Bear,” I was reading as a kid. All these years later one returns to that for an entirely different reason. That’s true of so many of his works.
Do you know which of his works you’ll start with?
We haven’t made those decisions as of yet.
Have you visited Oxford, Miss. (where Faulkner lived, and his home is preserved as a museum)?
I haven’t, but my daughter Olivia lives down there, and has generated a friendship with several people connected with the estate. It was through her good offices that I most recently became aware of the possibility of entering into this type of connection.
Faulkner himself, apart from his work, seems like a really interesting character. Biographically, is there anything that could make its way into your upcoming HBO project?
By refraction, that might be the case. It’s important, I feel, to separate the man from his work. He lived a fascinating life, but my teacher Robert Penn Warren was emphatic on the separation of the man and the work. I guess I’ll stick with that.
-- Carolyn Kellogg