As volume 4 of the Paris Review interviews was published, Philip Gourevitch announced that he would step down after four years as the journal’s editor. The news came not long after Granta, its nearest competitor, appointed its third editor since the departure of Ian Jack in 2007. The success of both magazines was founded on long periods of editorial continuity, and so these upheavals now present a particular challenge. Too much change, and the core identity is lost; too little, and a platform for new writing becomes a mouldering literary museum. Initially the challenge was most obvious in the case of The Paris Review, which had remained in the control of its founding editor, George Plimpton, until his death in 2003. But Gourevitch quickly created a more streamlined magazine than its predecessor, while also raising circulation. A writer best known for his work on the Rwandan genocide, he hinted that the venerable literary quarterly would be opened up to writing that offered ‘scrutiny’ of the world. Yet his tenure was marked not by a departure from tradition but a reinvention of it, a fact perhaps best illustrated by his treatment of the flagship Paris Review interview. This new four-volume collection, launched soon after Gourevitch’s arrival in 2006, provides an astute reminder of the literary brand. But it is also a powerful statement of what The Paris Review, or any other literary journal, is really about: the business of writing.
For over fifty years, The Paris Review has been quizzing authors on the art of fiction, poetry, theatre and the short story, with the odd wild excursion into journalism or the musical. In 1991, Harold Bloom even extended its range of interest as far as the art of criticism. The development was slightly ironic for a literary magazine founded on one simple idea: if you have a question about writing, don’t ask a critic. By the time a group of American writers – George Plimpton, Peter Mathiessen and Harold L. Humes – launched The Paris Review in 1953, the ‘little magazines’ circulating in the modernist backwash of literary Paris had become fairly respectable affairs. The shock of the new had long given way to the dry clack of scholarly cadavers. As Plimpton saw it, the contemporary literary magazine was in danger of doing away with literature itself, ‘smothering it under the weight of learned chatter.’ The idea behind The Paris Review, he told Time magazine in 1958, was to ‘put criticism where we thought it belonged: in the back of the book’.
...one flounders about. They want us to be so much better informed than we are.
The new magazine would be devoted to ‘creative work’ only: poetry, short stories and novels. But interviewing writers on their work also gave a young editor the opportunity to publish distinguished authors who were otherwise unlikely to contribute to an obscure literary magazine. Now there are more than three hundred interviews in the archives of The Paris Review, conversations with everyone from T.S. Eliot to John Steinbeck, W.H. Auden to Hunter S. Thompson, William Faulkner, Alice Munro, Chinua Achebe, Elizabeth Bishop, Stephen King, Orhan Pamuk, and Joan Didion (twice). The very first issue carried an interview with E.M. Forster, a Fellow of Plimpton’s former college in Cambridge. The coup was typical of the combination of luck, connections and ingenuity that would carry The Paris Review far beyond the natural lifespan of a literary journal. Ironically, by 1953 Forster had long been more active as a critic than as a novelist. Yet the thrust of that interview worked towards the kind of question that no literary critic, however ingenious, can ever answer: why had he not written a novel since 1924? Forster amiably spoke of novelistic lumps, eggs and mountains, and of the impropriety of keeping a writer’s notebook. The technical questions that interested young writers presented more difficulty: ‘People will not realize how little conscious one is of these things; how one flounders about. They want us to be so much better informed than we are. If critics could only have a course on writers’ not thinking things out. . . .’.
These interviews on the writer’s craft are certainly friendlier to the personal, the haphazard and the accidental than any critical account is likely to be, though there is little haphazard about them. Taking place over hours, days or even years, each is a ‘collaboration’, as Gourevitch puts it – extensively revised and re-worked, with final approval left to the author in question. In the case of Saul Bellow, it was an exercise that ran two or three times a week over five weeks. Philip Larkin, personally resistant to interviewing, lecturing or pontificating of any kind, conducted his encounter entirely by letter. It took five months for him to send a response to the initial set of questions because he found the process of writing it ‘suffocatingly boring’. Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, gave four separate interviews over the course of a decade. In the end, the composite draft was still unsatisfactory ‘so I called in yet another interviewer to make it all of a piece… With utmost tenderness, I interviewed myself.’
The image of the writer speaking to himself perhaps best captures the ethos of the original Paris Review. Disdaining all critical essays and reviews, it provided a rearguard action against a burgeoning critical industry. If the GI Bill of Rights was flooding 1950s Paris with a new generation of literary romantics and modernist troubadours – the post-war city offering not only literary mystique but a cheap place to live – the same circumstances were also conspiring to launch a Richard Ellmann on Joyce. It was in the expanding American universities of the 1950s that the discipline of literary studies would be codified, and the brand of ‘practical criticism’ which took root there was an outgrowth of the formal complexities inherent in modernist writing. Ironically, the founders of this ‘little magazine’ were also treading in the footsteps of the modernist generation. But what they took from modernist literary culture was not its formalism, but the virtues of the personal, the haphazard and the accidental. Part of the attraction of Paris in the 1950s, as much as the 1920s, was its promise of literary community, the social geography that once bound Joyce to Pound to Stein. The Paris Review interviews capture that sense of casual intimacy, bringing the secrets of the literary salon to the reader back home.
Each interview sets a scene: some place the writer at home, others in a bar or a university office. Over time, Parisian cafés are swapped for hotel conference rooms. Marianne Moore is discovered with a Nixon pin sitting on top of her bookcase. Graham Greene disturbs his interviewers with the brownness of his room in St. James’s Street in London. William Styron, in a café on the boulevard du Montparnasse, ends his chat with an invitation for more cognac and a trot to Le Chapelain. The descriptions create mini-dramas, the writers incongruously fleshed out as characters in their own right. Gabriel García Márquez, according to his interviewer, ‘wears a full moustache’, as if he might slip it off the second the visitor leaves. Jean Rhys wears something even stranger: ‘a white silk blouse hidden by an opalescent pink lamé jacket, made to seem somewhat coquettish with ribbons and puffed sleeves’. James Thurber’s voice sounds ‘boyish’, but Ralph Ellison’s ‘crackling, brilliant, sometimes wild’ prose is the creation of a man who speaks with ‘highly emphatic, almost professorial intonations’. Sometimes the work itself seems to collude in fleshing out these opening sketches. Haruki Murakami’s functional office in the Aoyama district of Tokyo is on the sixth floor of a ‘squat and dated-looking’ building. The surreal dream world is only inches away.
By not revising what you’ve already written you simply give the reader the actual workings of your mind during the writing itself
Some take more care than others with their staging. Interviewing Philip Roth in 1983, Hermione Lee became fascinated with the process. The initial conversation lasted a day and a half; after a six month hiatus, the time between finishing one novel and starting another, the mood of Roth’s interview became ‘more combative and buoyant’. The several drafts that passed back and forth served to expose his working methods, ‘raw chunks of talk… processed into stylish, energetic, concentrated prose’. The result, she noted, was not just an account of Roth’s presentation of himself, but an example of it. The best of the Paris Review interviews capture that individual drama in action. Jack Kerouac’s is a case in point: as might be expected, his talk is freewheeling and associative, even when he turns to improvising haiku. But then, the style that drives On the Road might be a far relation of the Paris Review interview itself:
‘By not revising what you’ve already written you simply give the reader the actual workings of your mind during the writing itself – you confess your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way… Well, look, did you ever hear a guy telling a long wild tale to a bunch of men in a bar and all are listening and smiling, did you ever hear that guy stop to revise himself, go back to a previous sentence to improve it, to defray its rhythmic thought impact?… If he pauses to blow his nose, isn’t he planning his next sentence? And when he lets that next sentence loose, isn’t it once and for all the way he wanted to say it? Doesn’t he depart from the thought of that sentence and, as Shakespeare says, “forever holds his tongue” on the subject, since he’s passed over it like part of a river that flows over a rock once and for all and never returns and can never flow any other way in time?’
If the swift, confessional mode of writing which Kerouac describes is typical only of himself, each of these interviews is also an attempt to recapture the workings of the writing mind. Drudgery is a more common theme than inspiration; even Kerouac admits to an entire youth spent revising and rewriting until ‘I was writing one sentence a day and that sentence had no feeling’. But where he disdains ‘craftiness’ and disguise, for most others interviewed this is the secret of the writing craft itself.
According to Philip Roth, the fundamental novelistic gift is the art of impersonation. ‘You have to be awfully naïve not to understand that a writer is a performer who puts on the act he does best – not least when he dons the mask of the first-person singular.’ Some people walk into police stations to confess to crimes they haven’t committed, he remarks, and the false confession appeals to writers too. It is an insight worth bearing in mind when meeting the species face to face. And if it is not a false confession that lies in wait, it is the temptation of the killer line. Asked if her reputation as a ‘wit’ interfered with her acceptance as ‘a serious writer’, Dorothy Parker bemoaned her reputation as a ‘smartcracker’ with a perverse and brilliant eloquence: ‘Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.’ Then there are the confessions which are never quite made. Questioned on his radio broadcasts from Berlin in 1941 – broadcasts that prevented his return to Britain after the war – P.G. Wodehouse blusters in the best Woosterish manner. What prevented an escape to England at the outbreak of war? Two dogs he was very fond of, and the English quarantine laws. ‘We weren’t very good at organizing a thing like that.’ Did he regret making the broadcasts? ‘Oh, yes. Oh, rather. I wish I hadn’t… Yet they were so perfectly harmless, just a comic description of my adventures in camp. Of course, nobody ever published them.’ The manner masks the life, and the disparity between MI5’s suspected Nazi sympathiser and his reputation as a befuddled innocent is no nearer to resolution.
On which side of the paper do you write?
Yet if the literary persona always skulks in the shadows, there is still nothing to compare with the Paris Review interview as an insight into the writing life. It is now a mark of distinction in itself – a cap to a distinguished career – and this can trap some writers into speaking for posterity. But the prestige of the Paris Review interview has also made it an unparalleled literary resource; its power to attract the leading writers of the past half-century has accidentally turned it into a kind of oral history project with brilliantly cranky subjects. William Gaddis admitted that his usual reluctance to give interviews stemmed from their tendency to put ‘the man in the place of his work’. That, and the threat of interviewers who might ask ‘On which side of the paper do you write?’. The Paris Review seduced Gaddis, and so many others, because it does offer a serious engagement with the work, and with methods of working. It might flirt with literary celebrity, with ‘colour’ and telling detail, but ultimately it knuckles down to the nuts and bolts of writing. To many readers, the attraction lies in this firm refusal of mystery about the act itself (though to Philip Larkin, the prospect of visiting universities to explain how a poem was written was ‘like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife’). While Paris Review interviews might be sifted for critical insights, they are traditionally the ground where the apprentice writer hunts for clues on the literary trade.
Perhaps the most memorable piece of advice comes from Ernest Hemingway: such an individual should ‘go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with’. Over the course of this interview Hemingway became increasingly testy at what he considered ‘dull’, ‘old’ and ‘tired’ questions, despite slipping in the odd welcome revelation:
‘… I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine
times before I was satisfied.
– Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
– Getting the words right.’
The next fifty years of interviews might be an expansive footnote to that reply. Their explanations of the craft range from the gloriously obtuse to the most technically practical. Some authors did confide on which side of the page they wrote – or at least whether it was with pencil or typewriter, in the morning or the evening, standing at a desk or lying on a bed with a cigarette and a martini. A young Stephen Sondheim set himself to follow a four-part apprenticeship suggested by Oscar Hammerstein: first adapting a play he admired, then a more flawed piece of theatre, then a non-dramatic work, and only then attempting an original piece of his own. It is a piece of practical intuition that would not be out of place in a creative writing course. But the challenges of writing do not always answer to such logic. For Robert Lowell, it was a case of finding the poem that it was possible to write:
‘Almost the whole problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel, and that takes an awful lot of maneuvering… It’s a terrible struggle, because what you really feel hasn’t got the form, it’s not what you can put down in a poem. And the poem you’re equipped to write concerns nothing that you care very much about or have much to say on. Then the great moment comes when there’s enough resolution of your technical equipment, your way of constructing things, and what you can make a poem out of, to hit something you really want to say. You may not know you have it to say.’
Perhaps in that point, that strange process of discovery, lies the attraction that ultimately confounds all the frustrations of writing. The impression these interviews give is that writers must have faith in a process that will lead them beyond the edges of any map. And when a navigator becomes an explorer, all the technical advice in the world is no help. As James Baldwin describes it: ‘When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something that you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway’.
George Plimpton joked that the typical reader of The Paris Review was a lonely farmer out on the plain who wrote, and threw what he wrote on the fire. With the magazine reportedly having a circulation of little more than 14,000 copies, there are still not that many lonely farmers out on the plain. And now they are also taking MFAs, attending literary festivals, or increasingly relying on the work of publishers’ publicity departments for access to authors’ secrets. When Roland Barthes declared the death of the author back in 1967, it already seemed quaint that The Paris Review still wanted to know whether a writer used a pencil or a pen (‘yellow legal pads and a nice No. 2 pencil’, says Toni Morrison). Since then, generations of critics have been trained to mistrust the intentional fallacy, or at least the fallacy of retrospective intention. And today, most readers have access to book signings and author Q & As as never before. In some respects The Paris Review interview is a literary relic, occupying a twilight zone between the introverted professionalism of the academy and the easy chatter of the book trade. It is the product of a very different literary culture, hearkening back to a way of taking books seriously which relies neither on research grants or serialisation rights. The best literary criticism has the same capacity to surprise, to produce revelations that throw a work into new perspective, but it is unlikely to challenge the fluency of the performance. Neither can it match the fascination of hearing a familiar writer slip into a new voice.
Perhaps the real clue to the continuing attraction of the Paris Review interview lies with George Plimpton’s lone farmer out on the plain. It is an image well suited to the business of writing, and the business of reading. Yet there is, all the time, a community of two at work: the reader who asks, the writer who answers. Interviewed on the art of fiction, Paul Auster suggested that ‘a novel is the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy. The reader and the writer make the book together. No other art can do that. No other art can capture the essential inwardness of human life’. The Paris Review interview does not quite reach these heights, but it offers perhaps the most intimate examination of how we get there.
This review was first published in The Dublin Review of Books.