JOAN WILLIAMS SAID IT BEST herself when confronted with William Faulkner's curious and cutting response to a book-jacket-blurb request from her editor. "It was obviously," she said, "a very petulant kind of thing. Why couldn't he have just given me a nice quotation?"
Yet she knew why. For five years, 1949 to 1953, Williams and Faulkner experienced an ongoing tug of war over the personal and professional. Faulkner tried the personae of mentor, father figure, and literary conduit in an effort to have a love affair that trumped the other roles. Williams at 20 was no match for Faulkner at 50. She knew she had much to gain in the literary world from his affection and attention — and much to learn from him about the craft — but her reluctance to have sex with Faulkner made a sustainable love affair impossible.
Williams was never sexually attracted to Faulkner, and wanted a family and a husband close in age. His marriage and their age difference stifled her desire. About Faulkner's sexual prowess she said, "Well, he wasn't eighteen." She wanted to feel passionate — and she knew it was the promise of intimacy that helped keep the relationship alive — but she was unmoved by him. Faulkner was angry at her lack of response. He accused her of giving him "crumbs and subterfuge."
"I love you. Dont lie to me. I dont know which breaks my heart the most; for you to believe that you need to lie to me, or to think that you can." Vehement letters like this she labeled "pressure," and she responded to them by detaching and fleeing. Faulkner's overarching goal — to capture Williams's desire and win her heart — collapsed in 1954 when she married a young Sports Illustrated writer, Ezra Bowen. Faulkner wrote in November 1953:
I wont stop in. If this is the end, and I suppose, assume it is, I think the two people drawn together as we were and held together for four years by whatever it was we had, knew — love, sympathy, understanding, trust, belief — deserve a better period than a cup of coffee — not to end like two high school sweethearts breaking up over a coca cola in the corner drugstore.
Williams was one of those rare people who could cut through the clutter to the heart of the matter in a few words. She was eminently quotable, and she often absorbed a difficult, shocking, or upsetting situation and summarized it with three words — "People are horrible." It was almost always appropriate and somehow made whatever had happened a little more bearable.
I met Williams in 1993 while working on a magazine article about Faulkner. And, over the years, I spent a lot of time with her and wrote a lot about her. (She could be quite a taskmaster.) She wanted me to write her biography, but I settled first on a book about her relationship with Faulkner (eventually published as William Faulkner and Joan Williams: The Romance of Two Writers in 2006). Though she always said that she already had written such a book with The Wintering, I knew when she handed me copies of the hundreds ...