Talking on Against Time

(The Nation, June 7, 2010)

When The Paris Review appeared in 1953, its format was familiar to aficionados of literary periodicals: the first issue featured poems, short fiction and a pair of essays on trends in French and Italian literature. But there was one surprise: a thirteen-page Q&A with E.M. Forster, headed by an image of a manuscript page of thirty-three dense lines of spidery script, beginning with the words "Gentlemen. Gentlemen," culled from an unfinished novel. The interview itself, conducted in Forster's high-ceilinged rooms at King's College, Cambridge, was refreshingly blunt. "interviewers: [We] have also never felt comfortable about Leonard Bast's seduction of Helen in Howards came off allegorically but not realistically. Forster: I think you may be right." Subsequent Q&As with Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, James Thurber, Nelson Algren and Truman Capote helped to establish The Paris Review as a vibrant new literary periodical, and Ernest Hemingway remarked, "I have all the copies of The Paris Review and like the interviews very much. They will make a good book when collected."

The first collection of those interviews, titled Writers at Work, was published by Viking Press in 1958. A second volume, featuring Q&As with Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Mary McCarthy, appeared in 1963. More than a dozen other volumes would follow, and the editors eventually expanded the series to include discussions with playwrights, biographers, nonfiction luminaries, editors and the occasional literary critic; but novelists would always remain at the heart of the enterprise. Nearly all of the interviews were overseen by George Plimpton, who, until his death in 2003, edited the transcripts (and the published collections, most of which are now out of print) with devotion and dramatic flair.

In the decades that followed the journal's debut, perhaps only the Q&As in Playboy equaled its own in quality and reputation. But the two publications adhered to very different editorial practices and procedures. The Playboy interviews were often combative and controversial, and Playboy's editors were not generally inclined to defer to the needs and whims of the subject during the editing process. (Playboy, moreover, did not limit its Q&As to literary figures: the magazine published interviews, up to 25,000 words in length, with Malcolm X, Jimmy Hoffa, Bertrand Russell, Fidel Castro, Albert Speer and John Lennon.)

The Paris Review settled on a more conciliatory approach. As Philip Gourevitch explains in his introduction to a new edition of Paris Review interviews, a four-volume compilation of greatest hits, "A Paris Reviewinterview is always a collaboration, not a confrontation.... The purpose is not to catch writers off guard, but to elicit from them the fullest possible reckoning of what interests them most." To guarantee that outcome, editors have always granted the subject final approval of the transcript. Gourevitch, a distinguished reporter who recently completed a five-year stint as PR's editor, admits that its protocols are "unapologetically at odds with journalistic practice."

The logistics of a PR interview varied widely. Herbert Gold mailed questions to Vladimir Nabokov at the Montreux-Palace Hotel in Switzerland. When Gold arrived at the hotel, he found an envelope waiting for him: "the questions had been shaken up and transformed into an interview." Saul Bellow polished the transcript in hamburger joints and on park benches near the University of Chicago. Don DeLillo answered questions at an Anselm Kiefer exhibition in Manhattan and in "a comically posh bar." Cynthia Ozick sat at her dining room table with a typewriter and spontaneously typed out answers to questions posed by an interviewer seated a few feet away. Jorge Luis Borges met PR in a "large, ornate, high-ceilinged chamber" at the National Library in Buenos Aires, surrounded by Piranesi's etchings. Pablo Neruda was interviewed on a stone bench facing the sea at his home in Isla Negra, Chile.

In the introduction to her 1984 interview with Philip Roth, Hermione Lee outlined a process that she says she found "extremely interesting": in the summer of 1983 she spoke with Roth for a day and a half in his room at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, after which he revised the transcripts she sent him. Roth and Lee continued their dialogue in early 1984, and again Roth went to work on the transcript—processing "raw chunks of talk" into "stylish, energetic, concentrated prose." Intricate sentences were spawned: "Any satirist writing a futuristic novel who had imagined a President Reagan during the Eisenhower years would have been accused of perpetrating a piece of crude, contemptible, adolescent, anti-American wickedness, when in fact he would have succeeded as prophetic sentry just where Orwell failed." Lee referred dryly to her published interview with Roth as "Philip Roth's presentation of himself."

The problem is that when people present themselves, a great deal of material is left out, and the moral, intellectual and biographical contours of the interview are substantially altered. Reading the finished transcript of a Paris Review interview, it's not difficult to detect what has been omitted: Norman Mailer, in two interviews forty years apart, was not asked why he stabbed his second wife, Adele, in their Manhattan apartment in November 1960; Louis-Ferdinand Céline was not asked about his fascist and anti-Semitic pronouncements in the 1930s and '40s; Doris Lessing was not asked about her life-altering experiences in the Communist Party; Gabriel García Márquez was not asked about his cozy relationship with Fidel Castro (for a splendidly combative interview with the Colombian master, excavate Claudia Dreifus's 1982 Q&A in Playboy); V.S. Naipaul was not asked about the chilling scenes of sexual degradation in Guerrillas and A Bend in the River; and Peter Matthiessen was not asked about his work as a CIA agent in Paris in the early 1950s, during which time he founded The Paris Review [see Sherman, "In His League," February 2, 2009]. Indeed, Philip Roth is one of the few writers in the Paris Review interview series who allowed substantial criticism of his oeuvre into the final transcript, which resulted in an unusually supple and invigorating interview.

Since 1953 The Paris Review has printed more than 300 interviews. Some are cringe-inducing: Cynthia Ozick offers a master class in self-pity and narcissism. Some are marred by macho posturing: William Styron felt compelled to single out a "fairy axis" wing in American fiction. Some are diminished by excessive timidity on the part of the interviewer, as when Plimpton could barely string questions together in the presence of his hero, Hemingway. And some interviewers behaved like paparazzi: Jan Morris endured numerous questions from Leo Lerman about her sex-change operation.

But hardly any PR interviews are humdrum; many are extremely impressive, and a few are perfect. Consider Harold Flender's 1968 conversation with Isaac Bashevis Singer. Like many PR interviews, it has a pithy, evocative introduction: "Singer works at a small, cluttered desk in the living room.... His name is still listed in the Manhattan telephone directory, and hardly a day goes by without his receiving several calls from strangers who have read something he has written and want to talk to him about it. Until recently, he would invite anyone who called for lunch, or at least coffee.... He loves birds and has two pet parakeets who fly about his apartment uncaged." After recounting his difficult early years in New York during the Depression ("Take such a thing as the subway—we didn't have a subway in Poland. And we didn't have a name for it in Yiddish"), Singer goes on to describe a literary "misfortune" he sidestepped as a young writer:

[The modern Yiddish writer] was brought up with the idea that one should get out of Jewishness and become universal. And because he tried so hard to become universal, he became very provincial. This is the tragedy.... They told me, Why do you write about devils and imps? Why don't you write about the situation of the Jews, about Zionism, about socialism, about the unions, and about how the tailors must get a raise, and so on and so on?... But young writers are sometimes very stubborn. I refused to go their way.
INTERVIEWER: Don't you believe in a better world?
Singer: I believe in a better world, but I don't think that a fiction writer who sits down to write a novel to make a better world can achieve anything. The better world will be done by many people, by the politicians, by the statesmen, by the sociologists. I don't know who is going to create it or if there will ever be a better world. One thing I am sure is that the novelists will not do it.

In its seamless flow, sly meanderings and subtle humor, the interview reads like a short story by Singer himself, as all parties involved doubtless intended. By the end of the interview, one feels that interviewer Harold Flender, a writer and filmmaker who died in 1975, and PR's editors have captured the essence of Singer, and that there is not much more to say about the man and his work.

Nearly all of the PR interviews emphasize matters of craft and composition; every hammer, nail and wrench in the writer's toolbox is removed for inspection. Some writers are exasperated by the approach: William Gaddis, in his 1987 interview, discouraged his interlocutor from boring him with "talk-show pap" like "on which side of the paper do you write?" But the same questions, with minor variations, reappear in all the interviews: How many hours a day do you write? ("Eleven to one continuously is a very good day's work. Then you can read and play tennis or snooker. Two hours." —Martin Amis.) Do you prefer a pencil, a pen or a machine? ("Lined Bristol cards and well sharpened, not too hard, pencils capped with erasers." —Vladimir Nabokov.) Where do you store a gestating manuscript? ("Another thing I need to do, when I'm near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it." —Joan Didion.)

But the best interviews in the series glide past the customary questions about craft and expose a rich vein of material that any serious biographer would be elated to possess. James M. Cain suggested that his literary embrace of the vernacular—his most famous novel begins, "They threw me off the hay truck about noon"—was a rebellion against his father, a prim college president who insisted on polite and proper English usage: "The first man...who enchanted me not only by what he told me but by how he talked, was Ike Newton, who put in the brick wall over at Washington College, right after my father became president." Don DeLillo reflected on the research he did for Libra: "I went to New Orleans, Dallas, Fort Worth and Miami and looked at houses and streets and hospitals, schools and libraries—this is mainly Oswald I'm tracking but others as well—and after a while the characters in my mind and in my notebooks came out into the world." E.L. Doctorow recalled the moment he knew he had brought The Book of Daniel to fruition. He gave his wife the manuscript and went for a long walk on the beach in southern California: "I came back to the house in the late afternoon, the house in shadows now, and there was Helen sitting in the same chair and the manuscript was all piled upside down on the table and she couldn't speak; she was crying, there were these enormous tears running down her cheeks."

The finest PR interviews throw open, to a certain extent, the elusive gates of creativity. The interview with Salman Rushdie excavates childhood experiences in which the writerly imagination was seeded. Rushdie recalls a trip to the high mountains of Kashmir when he was 12. When his family arrived at the guesthouse, they discovered that the pony carrying the food had gone missing. A guide was dispatched to the local village to request food and was rebuffed, which drove Mrs. Rushdie to despair:

About an hour later we saw this procession of a half-dozen people coming up from the village, bringing food. The village headman came up to us and said, I want to apologize to you, because when we told the guy there wasn't any food we thought you were a Hindu family. But, he said, when we heard it was a Muslim family we had to bring food. We won't accept any payment, and we apologize for having been so discourteous.

Some of the interviews pinpoint the precise moment a writer discovers the work of a lifetime. In his extraordinary 1985 interview with PR's Jeanne McCulloch, biographer Leon Edel described his precocious journey through Paris and London in the 1920s in search of material on Henry James, a quest that brought him face to face with Edith Wharton, Ford Madox Ford and George Bernard Shaw. Edel soon obtained a doctorate from the Sorbonne, but the Depression forced him to work in journalism for the next seventeen years. And then he visited the Widener Library at Harvard:

I found myself one day in a long underground room with very long tables and boxes and trunks and papers and letters everywhere: William James to Henry, Henry to William, Alice to her brothers, all neatly lined up, also letters of mama and papa James, piles of manuscripts, assorted books, and a large wooden box like an army footlocker labeled "Henry James." The secretary in charge said as far as she knew it had never been opened. I opened it.

PR interviewers are given a long leash to nourish their curiosities: "Interviewer: Did you or Jonathan Cape put the comma in the title of the English edition [of Run River]? Didion: It comes back to me that Cape put the comma in." But the questions generally move in productive directions. "Interviewer: What about Rinehart? Is he related to Rinehart in the blues tradition, or Django Reinhardt, the jazz musician?" Ralph Ellison, interviewed in 1955, replied:

My old Oklahoma friend, Jimmy Rushing, the blues singer, used to sing one song with a refrain that went:
Rinehart, Rinehart,
it's so lonesome up here
on Beacon Hill,
which haunted me, and as I was thinking of a character who was a master of disguise, of coincidence, this name with its suggestion of inner and outer came to my mind. Later I learned that it was a call used by Harvard students when they prepared to riot, a call to chaos. Which is very interesting, because it is not long after Rinehart appears in my novel that the riot breaks out in Harlem.

Some writers open their hearts to eulogize lost friends and salute cherished literary influences. James Salter's tribute to Robert Phelps, a founder of Grove Press and a scholar of Colette, is powerful: "[Earthly Paradise] is a wonderful book. I had a copy of it that he inscribed to me. My oldest daughter died in an accident, and I buried it with her because she loved it too." A 1966 interview with Saul Bellow begins unexpectedly with a stirring tribute to an unfashionable writer:

The development of realism in the nineteenth century is still the major event of modern literature. Dreiser, a realist of course, had elements of genius. He was clumsy, cumbersome, and in some respects a poor thinker. But he was rich in a kind of feeling that has been ruled off the grounds by many contemporary writers—the kind of feeling that every human being intuitively recognizes as primary.... He somehow conveys, without much refinement, depths of feeling that we usually associate with Balzac or Shakespeare.

The emotional register of the interviews is exceedingly wide, and not always solemn. Some writers, moved by a spirit of mischief, whimsy or revenge, initiate counterstrikes against book reviewers. William Gaddis remarked in 1987:

The daily reviewer for The New York Times was relieved because [Carpenter's Gothic] was short, so I believe he actually read it. Though he reviewed JR ten years before, in reviewing Carpenter's Gothic he said he had not read JR—couldn't follow it, too long and complicated. That kind of irresponsibility doesn't cheer a writer up, but, of course, these things are not on my mind when I'm working.

Writers are given the chance to illuminate, from oblique angles, close personal relationships. Elizabeth Hardwick commented on Robert Lowell's taste in women: "He liked women writers and I don't think he ever had a true interest in a woman who wasn't a writer—an odd turn-on indeed and one I've noticed not greatly shared."

For this four-volume Picador edition—which includes the famous reproductions of manuscript pages at the head of the Q&As but not the original photographs of the authors—Gourevitch was obliged to choose sixty-four interviews from the PR canon. Many of his choices reveal judicious taste and sound judgment: Ezra Pound, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Dorothy Parker, Eudora Welty, Jorge Luis Borges, Alice Munro, John Ashbery and Toni Morrison, as well as Bellow, Singer, Ellison, Roth and Rushdie. Gourevitch has done his homework: he wisely passed over certain Q&As that don't soar—with Robert Penn Warren, Doris Lessing and Milan Kundera, for instance—and he rightly selected Didion's 2006 interview rather than a weaker one from 1978. (Only a handful of authors were interviewed twice.) Some of the writers that Gourevitch has included—James M. Cain, Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin and Isak Dinesen—were caught in the final years of their lives, and these interviews lend a melancholy, autumnal mood to the collection. The interview with Dinesen, conducted in Rome in 1956, is especially memorable: "I feel that the world is happy and splendid and goes on but that I'm not part of it. I've come to Rome to try and get into the world again. Oh, look at the sky now!" (She died in 1962.)

Gourevitch has rescued at least one masterpiece from the PR archives: Marina Warner's 1981 interview with Rebecca West (1892–1983). Today West is best known for her monumental nonfiction book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), but she also wrote celebrated books on St. Augustine and the Nuremberg trials, in addition to four collections of essays and seven novels. The interview imparts to the reader West's wit, elegance, lucidity, iconoclasm and breathtaking memory:

If I wanted to write anything that attacked anybody, I used to have a look at [Mark Twain's] attack on Christian Science, which is beautifully written. He was a man of very great shrewdness. The earliest article on the Nazis, on Nazism, a sort of first foretaste, a prophetic view of the war, was an article by Mark Twain in Harper's in, I should think, the nineties. He went to listen to the Parliament in Vienna and he describes an awful row and what the point of view of Luger, the Lord Mayor, was, and the man called George Schwartz, I think, who started the first Nazi paper, and what it must all lead to. It's beautifully done. It's the very first notice that I've ever found of the Austrian Nazi party, that started it all.

While the voices of novelists and poets echo through these new volumes, Gourevitch has not neglected PR's tradition of occasionally sitting down with critics and editors. Antonio Weiss's lengthy 1991 Q&A with Harold Bloom is a pungent, exhilarating ride, and a stirring defense of close reading against the encroachments of arid literary theory. When discussing what Bloom calls "the younger members of my profession...the gender and power freaks," the critic becomes a one-man firing squad: "I realized in latish middle age that, no better or worse, I was surrounded by a pride of displaced social workers, a rabblement of lemmings, all rushing down to the sea carrying their subject down to destruction with them." The 1994 interview with former Alfred A. Knopf and New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb bends the format: the Q&A is augmented by interviews with writers Gottlieb has edited over the years, among them Toni Morrison, Mordecai Richler and John le Carré, who said, "Occasionally I'll say I disagree, in which case we will leave the matter in suspense until I recognize that he is right. In no case have I ever regretted taking Bob's advice. In all the large things, he's always been right." Gottlieb lacks Bloom's verbal stamina, but he doesn't hide his views. On what writers want: "A quick's cruelty to animals to keep them waiting." On an "amazing revelation" he had at age 40: "It suddenly came to me that not every person in the world assumed, without thinking about it, that reading was the most important thing in life." On his vocation: "I have fixed more sentences than most people have read in their lives." One senses that Gottlieb is a private man, and that his PR interview is the fullest portrait of him that we are likely to read.

Gourevitch has filled these volumes with riches, but his stewardship of the project is not without blemishes. In his introduction to Volume One, he all but neglects to explain the criteria by which he made his selections, and some of those choices are perplexing. Lackluster Q&As with Hemingway, Styron and Graham Greene are here, while sprightly and revealing sessions with John Updike, Mary McCarthy and Tennessee Williams are not. The interviews with V.S. Naipaul, Richard Price, Paul Auster, Peter Carey, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King and Maya Angelou, all of which made the cut, are not without interest, but in terms of liveliness and overall quality they are inferior to the sessions with Nabokov, Neruda, Hardwick, Doctorow, DeLillo, Salter and Edel, to name just a few authors locked out of these four volumes. As you stroll through the collection, the questions accumulate. Why include an interview with Georges Simenon but not one with Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who is cited as a principal influence by many writers in PR's interview series? Why did Gourevitch include a 1998 interview with Martin Amis when the 1975 Q&A with his father, Kingsley, is funnier? Why include Harold Pinter but not Tom Stoppard? Why Haruki Murakami instead of Kazuo Ishiguro? Why Jack Gilbert but not W.H. Auden? Perhaps only commercial considerations can explain the inclusion of García Márquez and the exclusion of Octavio Paz, whose 1991 interview with Alfred Mac Adam is far more satisfying and revealing.

As the journal's longtime editor, George Plimpton had literary tastes that leaned toward the conventional, but The Paris Review interview series did not ignore writers who might be considered experimental or "difficult": José Saramago, William Gass, John Barth, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Julio Cortázar, Stanley Elkin, Carlos Fuentes and Javier Marías have all been interviewed by PR. None were selected by Gourevitch; the experimental wing of fiction has been neglected in the Picador volumes. Thomas LeClair's 1977 interview with William Gass, a kind of aesthete's manifesto and a vivid portrait in self-loathing, was celebrated around the time of its publication. Is it perhaps too dark and bawdy for Gourevitch's taste? "Interviewer: Have you spent a good part of your writing life getting even? Gass: Yes...yes. Getting even is one great reason for writing." Gass then cites a line from his story "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country": "I want to rise so high that when I shit I won't miss anybody." An especially glaring omission is the 1982 interview with New Directions founder James Laughlin, in which he recounted his relationships with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, and reflected on his wealthy father: "If I asked him for money, he'd say, 'Are you going to publish some more of those books that I can't understand?' And I'd say, 'Yes.' And he'd give it to me."

Obviously Gourevitch faced knotty choices in compiling these volumes. Still, one is left with the feeling that he has leaned too far in the direction of the genteel and the mainstream. These are polite volumes for our polite literary culture—a tidy, tranquil village instead of a sprawling, bustling city.