Monday, January 14, 2013

Writers on Writing: The Paris Review Interviews

As a literature addict, one of my favorite drugs is reading interviews with writers. The interview format allows writers let loose, speak their minds, come up with answers on the spot. Respectively, a good interview allows the reader to see the person behind the book, to listen to their favorite authors use an unscripted conversational lexicon. There’s something so pure and explosive about the language of writers when they’re being interviewed.

The quintessential literary journal of the 20th Century, The Paris Review, deserves credit for creating (or at least popularizing) the literary interview as a form in itself. During the 1950s, when most journals were closely aligned with academia, The Paris Review interviews must’ve been shocking. They’re stripped down, real, devoid of academic ornamentation. Luckily for addicts like me, The Paris Review compiled their interviews into a four-volume series called, simply The Paris Review Interviews. I picked up Volume 1 a few months ago and have been stoked about reading it ever since.

In his introduction to this volume, Philip Gourevitch explains that these collected interviews, “are constructed to stand as testimonials for the ages — if not as definitive portraits of each artist…” If that was the goal, then this collection is a resounding success.

The entire book is chock-full of interesting stories and insights into the writing and editing process. Here are some portions of the interviews that struck me.

Some very talented writers maintain an aura of  humility, even after long and successful careers. Humility is so important in writing, and Dorothy Parker demonstrates this quality perfectly: “My verses are no damn good. Let’s face it, honey, my verse is terribly dated — as anything once fashionable is dreadful now.”

Dorothy Parker speaks about the need for writers to be meticulously observant. “The purpose of the writer is to say what he feels and sees,” she says. “The writer must be aware of life around him.”

When asked about the difference between wit and wisecracking, Parker responds with this quotable gem: “Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.”

“How about the novel?” asks the interviewer. “Have you ever tried that form?” Answer: “I wish to God I could do one, but I haven’t got the nerve.”

Truman Capote explains how he needs to remain emotionally detached from the subject of his fiction: “… emotionality makes me lose writing control: I have to exhaust the emotion before I feel clinical enough to analyze and project it, and as far as I’m concerned that’s one of the laws of achieving true technique… My own theory is that the writer should have considered his wit and dried his tears long, long before setting out to evoke similar reactions in a reader. In other words, I believe the greatest intensity in art in all its shapes is achieved with a deliberate, hard, and cool head.”

Capote also gives a bit of advice to the writer who’s tempted to respond to a critical reviewer: “Never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them down on paper.”

The Ernest Hemingway interview is classic. I love the way Hemingway insults the interviewer several times in hilarious manner: “I see I am getting away from the question, but the question was not very interesting…” Then, a few paragraphs later: “But when you ask someone old, tired questions you are apt to receive old, tired answers.”

Hemingway echoes Dorothy Parker’s notion that writers must first be observers of the world around them: “If a writer stops observing he is finished. But he does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful.” When I was in journalism school one of my favorite professors told me that a journalist’s most essential tool was a fully-functioning bullshit detector. Well, maybe my professor took a cue from Hemingway: “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”

During his interview, Hemingway also gives The Paris Review one of the best book flap quotes ever: “I have all the copies of The Paris Review and like the inteviews much. They will make a good book when collected and that will be very good for the Review.” Well, the old man was right.

T.S. Eliot shares wise advice on breaking the rules of writing: “I always feel it’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.”

There’s an enthralling interview with Jorge Luis Borges, but he’s too long-winded and rambling to quote.  

Big surprise here, but the Kurt Vonnegut interview is my favorite. Vonnegut makes the case that scientists, anthropologists, physicians, etc., should write more fiction. “I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”

The interviewer asks Vonnegut to expound on his “theory” of literature. He quotes Paul Engle, founder of the famous Writers’ Workshop at Iowa: “Don’t take it all so seriously.” A hilarious conversation ensues…

Interviewer: And how would that [advice] be helpful?
Vonnegut: It would remind the students that they were learning to play practical jokes.
Interviewer: Practical jokes?
Vonnegut: If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.

I was unfamiliar with James M. Cain before reading this book, and I may continue to be unfamiliar with his work because he comes off as an extremely arrogant person. When asked what he thinks about Albert Camus’ praise of his writing, Cain says, “He wrote something about me — more or less admitting that he had patterned one of his books on mine, and that he revered me as a great American writer. But I never read Camus.” Well, excuse me, Sir Cain, wouldn’t want to trouble you with those pesky Albert Camus books. About reading the work of Raymond Chandler, Cain says: “Well, I tried.” Jerk.

Rebecca West discusses fascism, feminism and how “the whole of the Vietnam War was the blackest comedy that ever was, because it showed the way you can’t teach humanity anything.”

She lets loose a bit of delightful blasphemy as well: “If there is a God, I don’t think He would demand that anybody bow down or stand up to Him.”

West approaches her fiction like a journalist, to get to the bottom of some important story: “I write books to find out about things.”

Robert Stone has more than a few great lines in his interview. He’s one notable quotable: “life is a means of extracting fiction” When asked if he has an articulated theory of fiction, Stone says, “Fiction must justify itself in every line… The purpose of fiction is to help us answer the question we must constantly be asking ourselves, who do we think we are and what do we think we’re doing.”

And, finally, Robert Gottlieb on editing: “Editing is simply the application of the common sense of any good reader.”

Reading these interviews invigorates me, makes me want to work harder on my own writing. But as I’m plugging away at novels, short stories, poems and nonfiction, I think I’ll pick up Volume 2 for future inspiration.

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