The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4, Edited by Philip Gourevitch

The Paris Review virtually invented the literary interview. Founded in Paris by Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton in 1953, the, perhaps, most famous of the “small magazines” has published more than 300 interviews, beginning with E.M. Forster in Issue 1.

Early on, the focus was on novelists and poets, with each interview a number in “The Art of Fiction” or “The Art of Poetry” series (a total of 202 and 95 so far, respectively). Later, the magazine branched out with “The Art of Nonfiction” (No. 2, Gay Talese), “The Art of the Theatre” (No. 10, Neil Simon), and even “The Art of Humor” (No. 1, Woody Allen).

As early as 1959, Plimpton and company began to publish these interviews in book form. In all, there were nine volumes of Writers at Work, The Paris Review Interviews, the first featuring the likes of William Faulkner, Nelson Algren, William Styron, and Truman Capote, and the final volume, published in 1992, featuring Samuel Beckett, Tom Wolfe, Walker Percy, Tom Stoppard, and critic Harold Bloom, among others.

So, I found it confusing when I came upon The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1 in 2006, edited by the magazine’s current editor Philip Gourevitch. The book contained many interviews that had appeared in the earlier nine volumes, including Capote from the first. I wondered, what was the point? Now we have a four volume boxed set, with what would seem to be the final volume (the finality of that box!) published just last November.

One could quibble that Gourevitch might have better served the magazine’s legacy by reprinting and extending the original series. (Or is he bent on making that legacy his own? I still haven’t forgiven him for changing the magazine itself from its unique, book-like, perfect-bound format to its current format, rendering it indistinguishable from the many dozens of other literary magazines.) He might also have invested in higher quality paper for what should also be considered a reference work for libraries. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and hope that his plan (assuming that he doesn’t quit with just these four volumes) is to reintroduce these remarkable interviews to a new and younger audience.

While most every interview includes The Paris Review-patented question about the author’s writing habits (Alice Munro: “I write every morning, seven days a week. I write starting about eight o’clock and finish up around eleven. Then I do other things the rest of the day. I am so compulsive I have a quota of pages. If I know that I am going somewhere on a certain day, I will try to get those extra pages done ahead of time. That’s so compulsive, it’s awful.”), there’s nothing rote or 20 questions-like to be found in these pages. Plimpton, in particular, had a genius for matching interviewer with author, which almost always results in a “conversation” taking place, rather than an interrogation – and the results are often scintillating.

For example, in this exchange with Jean Rhys (from Volume III), interviewer Elizabeth Vreeland is quick to react to Rhys’ praise of Ford Maddox Ford:

Interviewer: Hemingway takes a lot of swipes at him (Ford) in A Moveable Feast.

Rhys: I think it’s a spiteful book. He bullies everybody. Ford wasn’t at all the way Hemingway described him.

Interviewer: Then he wasn’t pretentious and snobbish and evil-smelling?

Rhys: Not at all. And back then Hemingway wasn’t catty.

The best of these interviews also create a tangible sense of the author in his or her milieu, such as the young, brash William Styron pontificating at a café table in Paris in 1954; the ever-polite Marianne Moore (we imagine her pouring tea, or brandy) in her Brooklyn apartment in 1960; Jorge Luis Borges, nearly blind, talking about encyclopedias real and unreal from his office in the Biblioteca Nacional in Buenos Aires in 1966; or, in 2004, Haruki Murakami talking jazz and marathon running in his entirely nondescript business offices – a mirror of the sterile Tokyo from which his characters often slip into worlds of spirits, mystery and dreams.

But, the real heart of these interviews, which has kept me reading them for decades, is their drawing out from each writer that core of wisdom they possess about writing itself. Here are four examples taken more or less at random.

Interviewer: So you never feel the need to discuss your work with anyone?

William Faulkner: No, I’m too busy writing it. It has got to please me and if it does I don’t need to talk about it. If it doesn’t please me, talking about it won’t improve it, since the only thing to improve it is to work on it some more. I am not a literary man but only a writer.

Robert Lowell: A lot of poetry seems to me very good in the tradition but just doesn’t move me very much because it doesn’t have personal vibrancy to it. I probably exaggerate the value of it, but it’s precious to me. Some little image, some detail you’ve notice – you’re writing about a little country shop, just describing it, and your poem ends up with an existentialist account of your experience. But it’s the shop that started it off. You didn’t know why it meant a lot to you.

Often images and often the sense of the beginning and end of a poem are all you have – some journey to be gone through between these things; you know that, but you don’t know the details. And that’s marvelous; then you feel the poem will come out. 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.

Interviewer: Can you distinguish between inspiration and intuition?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Inspiration is when you find the right theme, one that you really like, that makes the work easier. Intuition, which is also fundamental to writing fiction, is a special quality that helps you to decipher what is real without needing scientific knowledge or any other special kind of learning. The laws of gravity can be figured out much more easily with intuition than anything else. It’s a way of having experience without having to struggle through it. For a novelist, intuition is essential. Basically, it’s contrary to intellectualism, which is probably the thing I detest most in the world.

Interviewer: Do you enjoy writing?

Joyce Carol Oates: Of course, writing is only one activity out of a vast number of activities that constitute our lives. It seems to be the one that some of us have concentrated on, as if we were fated for it. Since I have a great deal of faith in the processes and the wisdom of the unconscious, and have learned form experience to take lightly the judgments of the ego and its inevitable doubts, I never find myself constrained to answer such questions. Life is energy, and energy is creativity. And even when we as individuals pass on, the energy is retained in the work of art, locked in it and awaiting release if only someone will take the time and the care to unlock it.

If you love to read, love to write, or are simply curious about how great authors think and talk about their craft, you’ll find these interviews endlessly fascinating. If you are looking for an interview with a specific author not contained in these four volumes, most of the interviews are available online at Paris in a database searchable by name or by the decade in which the interview was published.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that other great repository of author interviews, the “Conversations With” series of books published by the University Press of Mississippi. Each volume consists of all the available interviews with a single author – and they’ve managed, in several dozen volumes, to include most of the great writers of the last 80 years, beginning with Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In most cases The Paris Review interviews are included, but, in addition, you’ll find interviews published by national magazines and newspapers, book review publications, and the many other small magazines that have published interviews over the years – all of them indebted to The Paris Review Interviews.

RATING 9 / 10