TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. For years now, the independent publisher Melville House has been bringing out a paperback series called "The Last Interview." Each slim book gathers together the last interview, along with a few earlier conversations, conducted with prominent deceased writers and thinkers, among them, David Foster Wallace, James Baldwin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Lou Reed. Three more titles have just been added to the series, and book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: There's so much to like about the classy "Last Interview" series. But one of the things I now like best about it is the heavenly trio who was recently added to the lineup - Ernest Hemingway, Philip K. Dick and Nora Ephron. Can you think of three writers who on the face of it would have had less to say to each other at a dinner party? Hemingway would've knocked back the booze and gone all moody and silent. The notoriously paranoid Dick would've been under the table, checking for bugging devices. And Ephron would've channeled what she called the truly life-saving technique taught to her by her Hollywood screenwriter parents to get through a rough time, the mantra, someday this will be a story. But despite their differences, in their respective interviews, Hemingway, Dick and Ephron are in harmonious agreement about the writing life, namely that it's composed of one part inspiration and daily buckets of perspiration. Sure, you don't expect even the most narcissistic artist to go on and on about his or her own genius in an interview. But the degree to which Hemingway, Dick and Ephron, separated by time period and individual temperament, keep hammering home the same message about writing is striking. They all stress that writing is hard and job security a joke but also that there are few joys to rival that of writing a sentence that nails it, whatever it is. Anyone who writes or who knows an aspiring writer should pick up this paperback trio of last interviews, both for encouragement and as a collective cautionary tale. In the interview with George Plimpton, for instance, that opens the Hemingway volume, Papa says he rewrote the ending of "A Farewell To Arms" 39 times. When Plimpton asks, was there some technical problem there, Hemingway curtly replies, getting the words right. The Hemingway interviews are the most simultaneously affecting and frustrating. All four were done in Cuba in the 1950s, and Hemingway seems old and lonely. He keeps the conversation going with his visitors, even as he's reluctant to reflect out loud about writing, instead repeating his familiar adage that talking about writing kills it - no such problem with Philip K. Dick. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Streitfeld says in his terrific introduction to Dick's interviews, Dick long felt neglected working in the ghetto of science fiction. Consequently, he talked the ear off of interviewers when they eventually came knocking late in his career. Dick wrote daily, from noon to 2 a.m., a routine that produced 45 novels in 30 years and five volumes of short stories. These days, of course, he's hailed as one of our most esteemed sci-fi writers, a visionary who gave us tales like "The Man In The High Castle," which was made into an Amazon series, and the novel that inspired the classic film "Blade Runner." But here's Dick in 1977, speaking about the economic realities of the writing life. (Reading) After 25 years, you manage to get a used Dodge. There's people that are standing behind grocery counters that are making more money. One time, I was in Trader Joe's. And I was talking with the clerk, and he made more money than I did. And I was really sore because they had just hired him. He didn't even have seniority as a grocery clerk.
That last line would've gotten a laugh out of Nora Ephron, who's very open in her early interviews about the take-home pay of a freelance writer. She's also - no surprise - funny and smart, smoothly referencing the likes of Charles Lamb, Philip Roth and Lillian Hellman. And you just want her to keep on talking forever. The first interview here dates from 1974, when Ephron was 32, the last from March 2012, a few months before her death. As I was reading the Ephron recollection, I kept thinking back to something Hemingway said in one of his interviews about his legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. I cared so much for Max Perkins that I have never been able to accept that he is dead. Yeah, it's a little startling still to see Ephron's face on the cover of a "Last Interview" paperback. I have hoped to hear her voice from the beyond assuring us fans someday this too will be a story.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed the latest installments in "The Last Interview" series from Melville House publishers. After we take a short break, we'll listen back to my interview with soul singer Otis Clay. He died Friday. And our linguist, Geoff Nunberg will tell us his choice for the 2015 word of the year. This is FRESH AIR.
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