November 24, 2008

The Paris Review Interviews

Posted in Paris Review at 8:00 am by John Self

This is less a review than a simple sigh of appreciation. For those unfamiliar, as I was myself a year or so ago, The Paris Review is an (American) quarterly literary magazine, published since 1953, and edited by George Plimpton for its first 50 years. Its most enduring contribution – in the words of one critic, “one of the single most persistent acts of cultural conservation in the history of the world” – is the Writers at Work interview. Here, in relentless detail, many of the most famous writers of the 20th century present ‘the Art of Fiction’ – or poetry, or drama. They got off to a good start in the first issue when Plimpton called on an old friend, E.M. Forster, who at that time had published no fiction for almost 30 years. The prestige of the names interviewed has rarely dipped since.

Canongate in the UK, and Picador in the US, have recently published the third collected volume of Paris Review Interviews. It is as rich in literary big hitters as the previous volumes: sixteen authors including John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Jean Rhys, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Pinter, Georges Simenon and others. The interest comes not only in the answers but in the questions. How better to open an interview with Joyce Carol Oates than to say: “We may as well get this one over with first: you’re frequently charged with producing too much.” Oates responds:

I really don’t know what to say. I note and to some extent can sympathize with the objurgatory tone of certain critics, who feel that I write too much because, quite wrongly, they believe they ought to have read most of my books before attempting to criticize a recently published one.

Oates doesn’t get it: the main complaint as I understand it is that nobody so productive can be good all the time – and a corollary of that is that we never know which ones of hers to try to find her at her best. One critic said that Oates “slops words across a page like a washerwoman flinging soiled water across the cobblestones.” Incidentally, that interview was conducted in 1978, and in the thirty years since, Oates has produced 41 novels, 21 collections of stories, 7 novellas, 7 collections of plays, 9 books of criticism and essays, 3 volumes of poetry, and 7 children’s books.

Some authors reveal more of themselves than they might intend. Evelyn Waugh is as prickly and reactionary as we might expect, denying the value of experimentation:

Experiment? God forbid! Look at the results of experiment in the case of a writer like Joyce. He started off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic.

Others are more forthcoming, and both interviewee and reader benefit from the technique of these interviews, which is to go into the nuts and bolts of writing, so that John Cheever can discuss both experimentation (more generously than Waugh) -

Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction. One never puts down a sentence without feeling that it has never been put down before in such a way, and that perhaps even the substance of the sentence has never been felt. Every sentence is an innovation.

- and his family’s response to his work.

The [Wapshot] Chronicle was not published – and this was a consideration – until after my mother’s death. An aunt who does not appear in the book said, I would never speak to him again if I didn’t know him to be a split personality.

The starting point of some of the questions may seem trivial – how many hours a day do you write? – but there can’t be many readers who don’t on some level thirst for this kind of thing, the minutiae of a writer’s life. As a result the interviews have the combined thrilling effect of an intellectual transfusion and a guilty pleasure.

I have only two criticisms of the newly published volume 3. The first is that in the UK edition, it has been printed on cheaper, thicker paper than the earlier volumes, making the book blockier and harder to read without the spine breaking. Also, its concentration on famous names robs the reader of the greatest delight of volumes 1 and 2, which was the discovery of fascinating names less well known to us now. In volume one, despite the presence of Hemingway, Bellow, Capote, Eliot, Borges and Vonnegut, the juiciest and most opinionated interviews are with Rebecca West (at almost 50 pages, one of the longest in the book) and Robert Gottlieb, fiction editor: his interview combines his own responses with those of the people whose books he shepherded into print, from Cynthia Ozick to Michael Crichton. Crichton recalls:

Once I called Bob because I had read a book he had edited and had found it redundant. I called him and said, Boy, that book wasn’t very well edited. There was a very snarky silence because he did not take criticism well at all. There was this long silence. Then he said, Dear boy! I think you should consider, when you read a book that seems to you to be not well-enough edited, that perhaps it has already been incredibly edited.

We also learn surprising things, such as Borges’ admiration for West Side Story. In volume 2, notable moments include Graham Greene’s first answer (“What will you have to drink?”) and Philip Larkin’s interview, which he insisted on conducting by letter. “You will get much better answers that way.” He was right, and he is funny and anecdotal when not dealing in the business of literature. When asked if he ever shows unfinished work to anyone, he responds:

What would be the point? You remember Tennyson reading an unpublished poem to Jowett; when he had finished, Jowett said, I shouldn’t publish that if I were you, Tennyson. Tennyson replied, if it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at lunch was downright filthy.

And he is happy to play up to his reputation as a reactionary:

A writer once said to me, If you ever go to America, go either to the East Coast or the West Coast; the rest is a desert full of bigots. That’s what I think I’d like: where if you help a girl trim the Christmas tree you’re regarded as engaged; and her brothers start oiling their shotguns if you don’t call on the minister. A version of pastoral.

Larkin was interviewed in 1982, and sadly – and accurately – refers to his work as a poet in the past tense throughout; he would publish nothing else, and died three years later. Shy of publicity and interviews, he nonetheless agreed to the Paris Review’s request: “I can see I should be in good company.” Indeed, and the only regret about this series – a fourth volume is planned – is all the writers they can’t include. Fortunately, the Paris Review’s website includes a list of all the authors interviewed since its inception, and some interviews are available to download in their entirety. It’s a treasure trove.

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32 Comments »

  1. jem said,

    These have been on my wishlists for ages. And I want them even more now I’ve read this. Thanks for the glimpses inside those covers. I really like the idea of finding out more about the writers you already know alongside perhaps meeting new ones you might like to explore further.

    Shame about the change of production quality, I wonder why.

  2. John Self said,

    I suspect it all comes down to £££, jem: cheaper paper and binding (the pages are glued in this time, whereas in the earlier volumes they’re stitched in signatures, if that makes sense to you). You can see from the picture above that the third volume is thicker as a result, even though it is about 80 pages shorter than vols 1 and 2 (about 440 pages as against 520 pages). It’s also £2 more expensive.

  3. stunoble said,

    Thanks John – a great “sigh of appreciation”. Whether it’s pictures of writer’s desks/offices in the Guardian’s Saturday Review section or interviews like these, I love getting a chance to peek into a writer’s workshop.

  4. Sarah said,

    I’ve enjoyed the riches of voulmes 1 & 2 of these interviews, but haven’t got the third (I don’t think’s it been published here yet). I haven’t reviewed them as it’s hard to anything other than gush and quote length extracts from each interview.

    Like yourself John, in the first two volumes I particulary enjoyed interviews with people I’d only vaguely heard of (if that) like West and Gottlieb. And Larkin’s responses were wonderful, especially his reply “Sheer genius!”

    It’s a pity to hear the third volume has been published to a lesser quality and without those wonderful suprises.That won’t stop me reading tit of course!

  5. workingwords100 said,

    I bought a recent review magazine, not the set, like you did and but I still enjoy it a lot.

    In that issue, there was an interview with Ishiguro, in which he states that the novel, Never Let Me Go was a happy book (???) and new work by Tim Winston.

    In our book club, we were reading both of these authors and it was interesting to see the reactions of the club members.

  6. John Self said,

    I haven’t reviewed them as it’s hard to anything other than gush and quote length extracts from each interview.

    Ah, you spotted that, Sarah! Am I right in thinking you’re in Australia? I’m not sure when Vol 3 is due out there, or who publishes it.

    Stu, I agree on the Writers’ Rooms feature. Mark Thwaite at the Book Depository also gets down to the nitty gritty of writing with authors in his excellent interviews.

    Workingwords, I’m envious, as I was hoping the Ishiguro would feature in vol 3 (it’s not available online either!) – perhaps vol 4 then!

  7. Rob said,

    I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve picked these up in a bookshop, only to put them down in favour of something I needed more urgently. But I think I may be buying myself a little Christmas present…

  8. ijsbrand said,

    For people like Rob, who have other urgencies, the Paris Review nicely puts pdf-files of the interviews on its websites as well. Print those, and you can make as nice a book of them as you like for next to nothing.

    http://www.parisreview.org/literature.php

  9. ijsbrand said,

    Oops, I do have a gravatar.

  10. John Self said,

    Thanks ijsbrand – I see from your site you’ve written about Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army recently. Unfortunately Dutch is a closed book to me so I got no further in finding out your opinion of it! (For me, it’s his weakest book, but still very interesting, as anything he writes is.)

  11. bill said,

    Oh, I want these. I didn’t even know they existed.

    Speaking of Oates, yes, she’s clearly wrong about why people criticize her prolificacy, but what I don’t understand is what she’s expected to do about it. Write less, or publish less? And if the latter, why should she, if she’s satisfied with the work? And while it’s true that she may not always be good, it’s also true that neither was Nathanael West, who published four books in his lifetime.

    Another very good book in this vein is Lawrence Grobel’s “Endangered Species”, which contains long,in-depth interviews with Saul Bellow, Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, Elmore Leonard, Allen Ginsberg, J. P. Donleavy, Andrew Greely, Alex Haley and Neil Simon.

  12. bill said,

    Oh, and James Ellroy is also interviewed in the Grobel book.

  13. ijsbrand said,

    Of the four Wolff books I have reviewed on my booklog so far, it is the first I couldn’t fullheartedly recommend.
    http://boeklog.info/aanbevolen/

    I agree with what you wrote about his stories. The one things bothering me about his memoirs and the novel, is their endings. I never understood why Old School had to retold from a different angle, or why Wolff choose to emphasize his basic unhappiness once more in the last chapter of In Pharaoh’s Army.

  14. John Self said,

    what I don’t understand is what she’s expected to do about it. Write less, or publish less?

    In a word: probably yes. To quote Dame Edna Everage on interviewing Melvyn Bragg (possibly cultural mismatch with those names for non-UK readers, but I’ll plough on anyway): “Don’t write any more, Melvyn dear. Give us all a chance to catch up.”

  15. bill said,

    But what if she LIKES writing?

  16. John Self said,

    If! She clearly likes writing like Harold Shipman liked injecting pensioners. But bill, sometimes people just have to knuckle down and show a little discipline for their own good. Maybe we could put her in touch with a helpline, like the ones they have to help smokers quit.

  17. bill said,

    I’m afraid I’ll have to be the guy calling Oates and saying, “Don’t listen to John, he’s crazy! You don’t have a problem. You’re just having fun! By the way, how’s that book of poetry, the three novels you’re writing, and that career retrospective anthology with fourteen new stories coming along? They’re supposed to be out by next Spring, and you’re not getting any younger, you know.”

  18. Paul said,

    I have read a few of these off the internet and enjoyed them immensely. I remember reading the PG Wodehouse one. It made me laugh out loud when he was asked about writers whose work he liked, and the interviewer asks,

    “What do you think of Jack Kerouac, who died recently?’.

    And Wodehouse exclaims, ‘Jack Kerouac died? Did he?’

    The interviewer solemnly confirms it is so.

    “Oh gosh. Well, they do die off, don’t they?’

    John, I have found that the Borges interview is not available to read online at present. I am intruiged about his admiration for West Side Story. I have a collection of his journalism and he did review movies for an Argentinian newspaper when he was young. He wrote an admiring, slightly overwhelmed, but not uncritical review of Citizen Kane.

  19. John Self said,

    I am intruiged about his admiration for West Side Story.

    Well, let me fill you in on that, Paul. He begins by saying that he feels that “while literary men seem to have neglected their epic duties, the epic has been saved for us, strangely enough, by the Westerns.” (The interview was conducted in 1967.) The interviewer mentions that Borges has seen West Side Story many times.

    BORGES: Many times, yes. Of course, West Side Story is not a Western.

    INTERVIEWER: No, but for you it has the same epic qualities?

    BORGES: I think it has, yes. … When I went to Paris, I felt I wanted to shock people, and when they asked me – they knew that I was interested in the films… – and they asked me, What kind of film do you like? And I said, Candidly, what I enjoy most are the Westerns. They were all Frenchmen; they fully agreed with me. They said, Of course we see such films as Hiroshima Mon Amour or L’Année dernière à Marienbad out of a sense of duty, but when we want to amuse ourselves, when we want to enjoy ourselves, when we want, well, to get a real kick, then we see American films.

    The interview is in Vol 1 of the books.

    Bill, you’re right of course, and besides, Oates does valuable public service by making John Updike seem sluggish and dilatory. Martin Amis writes about Updike’s productivity in The War Against Cliché:

    Beckett was the headmaster of the Writing as Agony school. On a good day, he would stare at the wall for eighteen hours or so, feeling entirely terrible; and, if he was lucky, a few words like NEVER or END or NOTHING or NO WAY might brand themselves on his bleeding eyes. Whereas Updike, of course, is a psychotic Santa of volubility, emerging from one or another of his studies (he is said to have four of them) with his morning sackful of reviews, speeches, reminiscences, think-pieces, forewords, prefaces, introductions, stories, playlets and poems. Preparing his cup of Sanka over the singing kettle, he wears his usual expression: that of a man beset by an embarrassment of delicious drolleries. The telephone starts ringing. A science magazine wants something pithy on the philosophy of subatomic thermodynamics; a fashion magazine wants 10,000 words on his favourite colour. No problem – but can they hang on? Updike has to go upstairs again and blurt out a novel.

  20. Paul said,

    Thanks for those quotes from the Borges interview, John.

  21. Sarah said,

    Yes John I am in Sydney.

    The War on Cliche is another fantastic collection on reading and writing- I’ve always remembered the Updike passage, among others. I’m not without reservations about Martin Amis, but that books redeems it all!

  22. [...]   John Self on the essential Paris Review Interviews: This is less a review than a simple sigh of appreciation. For those unfamiliar, as I was myself a [...]

  23. “The first is that in the UK edition, it has been printed on cheaper, thicker paper than the earlier volumes, making the book blockier and harder to read”

    Exactly the same thing that I spotted when I received Vol 3 a couple of week ago. I emailed Canongate to mildly voice my opinion (I’m not rude) but they ignored me.

    The paper is FSC though so maybe that’s an issue. Still slightly disappointed though.

  24. John Self said,

    Thanks Robert – yes, it could be the FSC issue, as I see the previous two volumes weren’t certified.

  25. Lee Monks said,

    Marvellous reads, the PR series of interviews. Some genuinely shocking revelations, for me at least. Simenon bashed out novels in 11 day spurts? Incredible. Wonder what’d happen if Pynchon or Thomas Harris wrote a chapter a day?

  26. John Self said,

    Volume 4 is now, or imminently, available, featuring interviews with William Styron, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Jack Kerouac, EB White, PG Wodehouse, John Ashbery, Philip Roth, Maya Angelou, Stephen Sondheim, VS Naipaul, Paul Auster, Haruki Murakami, Orhan Pamuk, David Grossman and Marilynne Robinson.

  27. Trevor said,

    I’m hoping to get a break from work today to go pick mine up at the bookstore. Exciting stuff!

  28. Sam said,

    I bought all four volumes with some book tokens I received for Christmas. Brilliant. The best for me were the poets: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes. Jack Gilbert was great: on the many writers who talk about how difficult it is to write, he says, ‘They should try working in the steel mills in Pittsburgh. That’s a very delicate kind of approach to the world – to be so frail that you can’t stand having to write poetry.’

    But I especially loved the Larkin interview:

    ‘Sometimes I think, Everything I’ve written has been done after a day’s work, in the evening: what would it have been like if I’d written it in the morning, after a night’s sleep? Was I wrong? Some time ago a wrtier said to me – and he was a full-time writer, and a good one – I wish I had your life. Dealing with people, having colleagues. Being a writer is so lonely.

    Everyone envies everyone else. All I can say is, having a job hasn’t been a hard price to pay for economic security. Some people, I know, would sooner have the economic insecurity because they have to ‘feel free’ before they can write. But it’s worked for me. The only thing that does strike me as odd, looking back, is that what society has been willing to pay me for is being a librarian. You get the medals and prizes and honorary this and thats – and flattering interviews – but if you turned it round and said, Right, if I’m so good, give me an index-linked permanent income equal to what I can get for being an undistinguished university administrator – well, reason would remount its throne pretty quickly.’

  29. Lee Monks said,

    I’ve read all four volumes (if I could bottle how I felt having a bit of time set aside to read these etc) and the two interviews that still stand out are Capote and Borges. The Naipaul one is funny, in that he really doesn’t put on a metaphorical suit and tie for the interview as some have. He is his curmudgeonly self. That Philip Roth should be party to mass revisions of his interview is unfortunate, and to the detriment of the end product. I completely understand why he (and others) would want to do this, but it’s too measured.

  30. Sam said,

    Capote was funny: ‘[O]ne fine day when I was seventeen, I had my first, second, and third [acceptance], all in the same morning’s mail. Oh, I’m here to tell you, dizzy with excitement is no mere phrase!’

    I liked the Naipaul, too, the deliberately provocative so-and-so.

  31. John Self said,

    Thanks Lee and Sam. You’ve reminded me to get Vol 4 out from under the pile of books it’s been beneath since I bought it last year.

  32. Lee Monks said,

    Dizzy with excitement is no mere overestimation of how I felt each time one of these landed on the doormat! I just hope they keep going and put some more together.


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