'Paris Review' Author Interviews: 50 Years Of InsightFor a half-century, the literary journal's interviews, under the banner "The Art of Fiction," have unlocked the mysteries of writing and the eccentricities of writers. Critic Maud Newton reviews a new boxed set, The Paris Review Interviews, Volumes I-IV.
Nowadays we're inundated with authors' commentary on their work. Jose Saramago blogs. Margaret Atwood Tweets. Literary novelists are expected to be available for phone chats with book clubs.
It's difficult in the midst of all this lit-chatter to conceptualize exactly how groundbreaking The Paris Review interviews were when they started to appear in the early 1950s. But as editor Philip Gourevitch has observed, most midcentury literary magazines were preoccupied with literary criticism. The upstart journal's decision to forgo all of that in favor of publishing writers' discussions about their own work was fortuitous.
In a four-volume collection culled from The Paris Review's massive archive, we learn that James Baldwin improvised his sermons, Joan Didion originally wanted to be an actor, Dorothy Parker hated her reputation as a "smartcracker," E.B. White "was never a voracious reader," brainy puzzle-maker Jorge Luis Borges admired Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut was hurt when a reviewer asked critics who'd praised Vonnegut in the past "to now admit in public how wrong they'd been," and Jack Kerouac, a combative and insufferable interviewee, was deeply invested in seeming clever.
The advice on offer to aspiring writers is vast — and sometimes contradictory. In his introduction, Orhan Pamuk recalls discovering Faulkner's interview while he was holed up with his first novel after dropping out of architectural school, and finding the answer to the question that seemed most urgent: "What sort of person should I now become?" An artist, in Faulkner's view, is "completely immoral in that he will rob, beg, borrow or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done. ... The writer's only responsibility is to his art." Toni Morrison would disagree. "Why should I get to steal from you? I don't like that. What I really love is the process of invention." These strongly held opposing views, bound between the same covers, give the volumes immense energy.
Philip Gourevitch became the editor of the Paris Review in 2005.
Philip Gourevitch became the editor of the Paris Review in 2005.
Of course, there are deficiencies. The talk with Graham Greene, one of my favorite writers, is stiff, brief and strangely bloodless. And diversity is lacking.
What separates the best of these conversations from your average author chat, though, is that they take place, by and large, over days or months or years. The interviewer and writer stake out positions. They return time and again, like old friends (or enemies), to debates and ideas they know well. The final interviews, culled from all of this material, are the best kind of fiction. Erased of the cliches, plot summaries and rote commentary that form the bulk of the slapdash author Q&As we see so frequently now, The Paris Review's collection enables us to continue believing that the authors we revere are effortlessly wise and entertaining and spend their lives imparting wisdom about how to write well.
Biography/Writing The Paris Review Interviews I-IV (Boxed Set) Edited by Philip Gourevitch Paperback, 1982 pages Picador List Price: $65.00
INTERVIEWS, VOLUME IV: INTRODUCTION
I once asked a maker of fine gold jewelry why she only worked in such an expensive material, and she replied that the point about gold was its malleability: you can do anything with gold, you can twist it and turn it and it will take what ever shape you want it to take. I thought then, and think now, that English is the gold of languages — that, unlike some other languages I could name, its syntactical freedom and its elasticity allow you to make of it what you will, and that this is why, as it has spread across the world, it has made so many successful local metamorphoses — into Irish English, West Indian English, Australian English, Indian English, and, of course, the many varieties of American English. I was happy to see that, in the Paris Review interview reprinted in this volume, Maya Angelou feels the same way, speaking of "how beautiful, how pliable the language is, how it will lend itself. If you pull it, it says, OK."
Foolishly, perhaps, I have long assumed that English possesses this quality to a greater degree than any other language, and so it is salutary to be reminded by David Grossman that other writers in other languages feel the same way. "Hebrew," Grossman says, "is a flexible language and it surrenders enthusiastically to all kinds of wordplay. You can talk in slang about the Bible and you can speak biblically about everyday life. You can invent words that people can easily understand, because almost every word has a root, and people know the derivation or can usually figure it out. It is a very sexy language. It is gigantic, heroic, and glorious, but at the same time it has large gaps that yearn to be filled by writers." Oh, OK, I find myself conceding, just a touch grumpily; OK, so maybe among languages there's more than one variety of gold.
This is one of the reasons why the Paris Review interviews are so terrific. They don't just entertain you, they make you think, and they even make you rethink what you think you know. Like many writers (and would-be writers, and readers, too) I've been a fan of the Art of Fiction series for as long as I can remember. I've pulled my old copies of the magazine off their shelf and have them beside me as I write, and I am reminded of the eagerness with which, in the spring of 1979, when I was hard at work on my second novel, Midnight's Children, I pored over John Gardner's interview in The Paris Review and thought that if this magazine were ever to say of anything I wrote that it represented "a new and exhilarating phase in the enterprise of modern writing," as the Review's four-headed interviewer said of Gardner, then I would be able to die a happy man.
In the summer of 1981, which was a good time for me, the summer after the publication of Midnight's Children, the summer when I was writing the first draft of its successor, Shame, I was greatly inspired by Donald Barthelme in his Paris Review interview, in particular his comments about his use of fantastic effects. To give a woman golden buttocks in a story was "a way of allowing you to see buttocks." And: "If I didn't have roaches as big as ironing boards in the story I couldn't show Cortes and Montezuma holding hands, it would be merely sentimental. You look around for off setting material, things that tell the reader that although X is happening, X is to be regarded in the light of Y." How very usefull that was to me then and, indeed, how useful it still is!
The Art of Fiction interviews satisfy our — all right, my — deep and abiding inquisitiveness about the writing life. Like most writers, I am interested in other writers, both as a reader and as a nosey parker. I want to know their work but I also want to know where it came from, and how. Perhaps the only writer I can think of who denies feeling like this is V. S. Naipaul. I was once present at Hay-on-Wye's literary festival when Naipaul was being interviewed on stage by the American writer and editor Bill Buford. He replied to Buford's question about the writers he read with a majestic dismissal: "I'm not a reader, I'm a writer." Yet here he is in these pages, offering up one of his many published accounts of his own literary origins, and his writing process, too, presumably because he is willing to go along with the idea that; while he himself is uninterested in reading or learning about other writers, those other writers — and readers, too, of course — might be interested in learning about him. But then, as he tells us, there are many excellent reasons why we might wish to learn about him. "It is immensely hard to be the first to write about anything. It is always easy afterwards to copy," he says, speaking of Miguel Street, and of In a Free State he is happy to tell us that "it is very well made."
It is at moments like these that the Art of Fiction interviews are most revealing, showing us, perhaps, more of the author than even the author knows. The great P. G. Wodehouse's well-known sunniness of spirit acquires an almost shockingly innocent quality when he talks about his war time broadcasts from Berlin — broadcasts that led many to denounce him as a traitor, and that, as he himself says, "altered his whole life," leading him to spend the rest of it in the United States and never go home again. It has always felt painful to me that this most English of English writers, creator of the fantasy England of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, the Drones Club, Blandings Castle, and the imperishable pig the Empress of Blandings should have spent so long in exile. But Wodehouse sounds perfectly happy about the whole thing. Does he resent the way he was treated by the English? "Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now." And how about his American exile? "I'd much sooner live here than in England, I think. I can't think of any place in England I prefer to this. I used to like London, but I don't think I'd like it now ... I'm rather blessed in a way. I really don't worry about anything much. I can adjust myself to things pretty well." Oh, so that's all right, then.
In these pages Jack Kerouac comes over exactly as he should, at once vivid and muddy, full of Kerouacity. Here he is, explaining his own name: "Now, kairn. K (or C) A-I-R-N. What is a cairn? It's a heap of stones. Now Cornwall, cairn-wall. Now, right, kern, also K-E-R-N, means the same thing as cairn. Kern. Cairn. Ouac means 'language of.' So, Kernouac means the language of Cornwall. Kerr, which is like Deborah Kerr. Ouack means language of water. Because Kerr, Carr, etectera means water. And cairn means heap of stones. There is no language in a heap of stones. Kerouac. Ker- (water), -ouac (language of ). And it's related to the old Irish name, Kerwick, which is a corruption. And it's a Cornish name, which in itself means cairnish. And according to Sherlock Holmes, it's all Persian." It's a sign of the skill with which these interviews are conducted and afterwards edited — a process in which the interviewees are closely involved — that the writers come out sounding so honestly and (for the most part) undefendedly like themselves.
And there's disagreement, too. William Styron accepts the influence of Faulkner, among others, and praises him, but with some reservations. "I'm all for the complexity of Faulkner, but not for the confusion ... As for The Sound and the Fury, I think it succeeds in spite of itself. Faulkner often simply stays too damn intense for too long a time." Maya Angelou, though, is politely but firmly unimpressed by both Faulkner and Styron. She is asked, "What do you think of white writers who have written of the black experience — Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury or William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner?" And she replies, "Well, sometimes I am disappointed — more often than not." Literature, we are reminded, is disputed territory.
Three of the writers collected in this volume are friends of mine: Auster, Grossman, Pamuk. But writers talk less to each other about their craft than perhaps they should, so even in these cases what the interviews have to tell me is revealing. Auster talks about "reading with [his] fingers," the act of retyping the whole book once it's finished, and how valuable he finds it — "it's amazing." He marvels at "how many errors your fingers will find that your eyes never noticed." Then there's Grossman's paean to Hebrew, which I've already quoted; and perhaps best of all are Pamuk's wonderful manuscript pages, so astonishingly illustrated by him.
Here, too, are John Ashbery being at once vague and sharp ("I have such an imprecise impression of what kind of a person I am," he says, but he also says, with some asperity, that he tries "to avoid the well-known cliche that you learn from your students"); Philip Roth being sufficient unto himself ("I don't ask writers about their work habits. I really don't care. Joyce Carol Oates says somewhere that when writers ask each other what time they start working and when they finish and how much time they take for lunch, they're actually trying to find out Is he as crazy as I am? I don't need that question answered"); Stephen Sondheim admitting that he uses the Clement Wood rhyming dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus; E. B. White on Charlotte's Web ("Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down"); Ezra Pound talking about Disney's "squirrel film" Perri and praising "the Confucian side of Disney" as "absolute genius"; Marilynne Robinson on how Housekeeping grew out of a "stack of metaphors"; Marianne Moore, interviewed on the day before the election of President Kennedy, but belonging to another age entirely; and Haruki Murakami, as much a writer of his moment as it is possible to be, admitting his fear of having lunch with Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates.
If you aren't a writer, don't worry: this book won't teach you how to be one. If you are a writer, I suspect it will teach you a lot. Either way, it's a treasure chest, and a delight. Begin.
From The Paris Review Interviews, edited by Philip Gourevitch. Copyright 2009 by Salman Rushdie. Published by Picador. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.