Most of Faulkner's works are set in his native state of Mississippi, and he is considered one of the most important "Southern writers," along with Mark Twain, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams. While his work was published regularly starting in the mid 1920s, he was relatively unknown before receiving the Nobel Prize. He is now deemed among the greatest American writers of all time.
The older Falkner was greatly influenced by the history of his family and the region in which they lived. Mississippi marked his sense of humor, his sense of the tragic position of blacks and whites, his characterization of Southern characters and timeless themes, including fiercely intelligent people dwelling behind the façades of good old boys and simpletons. Unable to join the United States Army because of his height, (he was 5' 5½"), Faulkner first joined the Canadian and then the British Royal Air Force, yet did not see any World War I wartime action.
The definitive reason for Faulkner's change in the spelling of his last name is still unknown. Faulkner himself may have made the change in 1918 upon joining the Air Force or, according to one story, a careless typesetter simply made an error. When the misprint appeared on the title page of Faulkner's first book and the author was asked about it, he supposedly replied, "Either way suits me.
Although Faulkner is heavily identified with Mississippi, he was living in New Orleans in 1925 when he wrote his first novel, Soldiers' Pay, after being influenced by Sherwood Anderson to try fiction. The small house at 624 Pirate's Alley, just around the corner from St. Louis Cathedral, is now the premises of Faulkner House Books, and also serves as the headquarters of the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society.
In the early 1940s, Howard Hawks invited Faulkner to come to Hollywood to become a screenwriter for the films Hawks was directing. Faulkner happily accepted because he badly needed the money, and Hollywood paid well. Thus Faulkner contributed to the scripts for the films Hawks made from Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not. Faulkner became good friends with director Howard Hawks, the screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, and the actors Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
An apocryphal story regarding Faulkner during his Hollywood years found him with a case of writer's block at the studio. He told Hawks he was having a hard time concentrating and would like to write at home. Hawks was agreeable, and Faulkner left. Several days passed, with no word from the writer. Hawks telephoned Faulkner's hotel and found that Faulkner had checked out several days earlier. It seems Faulkner had spoken quite literally, and had returned home to Mississippi to finish the screenplay.
Faulkner's Hollywood experience is fictionalized in the Joel and Ethan Coen 1991 film Barton Fink, whose supporting character, W.P. Mayhew, is intended as a composite of Faulkner and his Lost Generation peer, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Faulkner accomplished what he did despite a lifelong serious drinking problem. As he stated on several occasions, and as was witnessed by members of his family, the press, and friends at various periods over the course of his career, he did not drink while writing, nor did he believe that alcohol helped to fuel the creative process. It is now widely believed that Faulkner used alcohol as an "escape valve" from the day-to-day pressures of his regular life, including his financial straits, rather than the more romantic vision of a brilliant writer who needed alcohol to pursue his craft.
Faulkner is known to have had two extramarital affairs. One was with Howard Hawks's secretary and script-girl, Meta Carpenter. The other, lasting from 1949 to 1953, was with a young writer, Joan Williams, who considered him her mentor. She made her relationship with Faulkner the subject of her 1971 novel The Wintering.
Faulkner set many of his short stories and novels in Yoknapatawpha County—based on, and nearly geographically identical to, Lafayette County, of which his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi is the county seat. Yoknapatawpha was Faulkner's "postage stamp," and the bulk of work that it represents is widely considered by critics to amount to one of the most monumental fictional creations in the history of literature. Three novels, The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion, known collectively as the Snopes Trilogy document the town of Jefferson and its environs as an extended family headed by Flem Snopes insinuates itself into the lives and psyches of the general populace. It is a stage wherein rapaciousness and decay come to the fore in a world where such realities were always present, but never so compartmentalized and well defined; their sources never so easily identifiable.
Additional works include Sanctuary (1931), a sensationalist "pulp fiction"-styled novel, characterized by André Malraux as "the intrusion of Greek tragedy into the detective story." Its themes of evil and corruption, bearing Southern Gothic tones, resonate to this day. Requiem for a Nun (1951), a play/novel sequel to Sanctuary, is the only play that Faulkner published, except for his The Marionettes, which he essentially self-published -- in a few hand-written copies -- as a young man.
Faulkner is known for an experimental style with meticulous attention to diction and cadence. In contrast to the minimalist understatement of his peer Ernest Hemingway, Faulkner made frequent use of "stream of consciousness" in his writing, and wrote often highly emotional, subtle, cerebral, complex, and sometimes Gothic or grotesque stories of a wide variety of characters—ranging from former slaves or descendents of slaves, to poor white, agrarian, or working-class Southerners, to Southern aristocrats.
In an interview with The Paris Review in 1956, Faulkner remarked, "Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him." Another esteemed Southern writer, Flannery O'Connor, stated that, "The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down."
Faulkner won two Pulitzer Prizes for what are considered as his "minor" novels: his 1954 novel A Fable, which took the Pulitzer in 1955, and the 1962 novel, The Reivers, which was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer in 1963. He also won two National Book Awards, first for his Collected Stories in 1951 and once again for his novel A Fable in 1955.