'Paris Review Interviews' Probe The Writing Life

The Paris Review Interviews
Picador
The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III
Introduction by Margaret Atwood, edited by Philip Gourevitch
Picador
Paperback, 464 pages
List price: $16

Read an excerpt

Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates (shown above in 1975) is among the writers profiled in The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III. Getty Images hide caption

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In April 2007, author Andrew O'Hagan visited Norman Mailer in Cape Cod. The aging literary lion would pass away that November. But over the course of two days that spring, he gave O'Hagan a lengthy interview, later published in the influential literary journal The Paris Review. The interview was the second he had given to the journal; the first ran in 1964.

In the introduction to his Q&A, O'Hagan writes that the 84-year-old Mailer was "loyal to the spirit of argument and attentive to his opponent's appetite. For instance, after several hours of us locking into one another like two convicts in a Russian novel, Mailer suggested we go lie down, and we were soon asleep on our respective beds with the wind howling outside from Melville's old shipping lanes."

O'Hagan's conversation with Mailer is a standout among the 16 explorations of the vocation of writing reproduced in the third volume of Picador's essential Paris Review Interviews. But in its scope, attentive writing and careful editing, it's also typical. In each chapter, the reader witnesses a fine mind wrestling with the themes and demands of the novel, a play, poetry or a story. We are, in effect, students in a master class rife with opinionated instruction. (Get rid of anything "too literary," says Georges Simenon, the French writer best known for his Inspector Maigret novels: "Adjectives, adverbs and every word which is there just to make an effect.")

However disparate the insight of Ralph Ellison, Ted Hughes, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates and others included here, the collection preserves a sense of continuity — the undying exertion of a great, overarching artistic endeavor. These giants of modern American and world literature share the same quandaries: What is good writing? What does the writing life entail? It's a small joy to read how they puzzle out old dilemmas that future writers will also confront.

Excerpt: 'The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III'

Raymond Carver, "The Art of Fiction"

The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. II
Introduction by Margaret Atwood, edited by Philip Gourevitch
Picador
Paperback, 464 pages
List price: $16

Interviewer:

Is it true that you celebrated your first publication by taking the magazine to bed with you?

Raymond Carver:

That's partly true. Actually, it was a book, the Best American Short Stories annual. My story "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" had just appeared in the collection. That was back in the late sixties, when it was edited every year by Martha Foley and the people used to call it that — simply, "The Foley Collection." The story had been published in an obscure little magazine out of Chicago called December. The day the anthology came in the mail I took it to bed to read and just to look at, you know, and hold it, but I did more looking and holding than actual reading. I fell asleep and woke up the next morning with the book there in bed beside me, along with my wife.

Interviewer:

In an article you did for The New York Times Book Review you mentioned a story "too tedious to talk about here" — about why you choose to write short stories over novels. Do you want to go into that story now?

Carver:

The story that was "too tedious to talk about" has to do with a number of things that aren't very pleasant to talk about. I did finally talk about some of these things in the essay "Fires," which was published in Antaeus. In it I said that a writer is judged by what he writes, and that's the way it should be. The circumstances surrounding the writing are something else, something extraliterary. Nobody ever asked me to be a writer. But it was tough to stay alive and pay bills and put food on the table and at the same time to think of myself as a writer and to learn to write. After years of working crap jobs and raising kids and trying to write, I realized I needed to write things I could finish and be done with in a hurry. There was no way I could undertake a novel, a two- or three-year stretch of work on a single project. I needed to write something I could get some kind of pay-off from immediately, not next year, or three years from now. Hence, poems and stories. I was beginning to see that my life was not — let's say it was not what I wanted it to be. There was always a wagonload of frustration to deal with — wanting to write and not being able to find the time or the place for it. I used to go out and sit in the car and try to write something on a pad on my knee. This was when the kids were in their adolescence. I was in my late twenties or early thirties. We were still in a state of penury, we had one bankruptcy behind us, and years of hard work with nothing to show for it except an old car, a rented house, and new creditors on our backs. It was depressing, and I felt spiritually obliterated. Alcohol became a problem. I more or less gave up, threw in the towel, and took to full-time drinking as a serious pursuit. That's part of what I was talking about when I was talking about things "too tedious to talk about."

Interviewer:

Could you talk a little more about the drinking? So many writers, even if they're not alcoholics, drink so much.

Carver:

Probably not a whole lot more than any other group of professionals. You'd be surprised. Of course there's a mythology that goes along with the drinking, but I was never into that. I was into the drinking itself. I suppose I began to drink heavily after I'd realized that the things I'd wanted most in life for myself and my writing, and my wife and children, were simply not going to happen. It's strange. You never start out in life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat or a thief. Or a liar.

Interviewer:

And you were all those things?

Carver:

I was.

Excerpted from The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III, edited by Philip Gourevitch Picador

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