The Paris Review Interviews, I: 16 Celebrated Interviews

The Paris Review Interviews, I: 16 Celebrated Interviews

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Overview

A Picador Paperback Original

"The Paris Review is one of the few truly essential literary magazines of the twentieth century—and now of the twenty-first. Frequently weird, always wonderful."—Margaret Atwood

How do great writers do it? From James M. Cain's hard-nosed observation that "writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It's not all inspirational," to Joan Didion's account of how she composes a book—"I constantly retype my own sentences. Every day I go back to page one and just retype what I have. It gets me into a rhythm"—The Paris Review has elicited some of the most revelatory and revealing thoughts from the literary masters of our age.

For more than half a century, the magazine has spoken with most of our leading novelists, poets, and playwrights, and the interviews themselves have come to be recognized as classic works of literature, an essential and definitive record of the writing life. They have won the coveted George Polk Award and have been a contender for the Pulitzer Prize.

Paris Review former editor Philip Gourevitch introduces an entirely original selection of sixteen of the most celebrated interviews. Often startling, always engaging, these encounters contain an immense scope of intelligence, personality, experience, and wit from the likes of Elizabeth Bishop, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Rebecca West, and Billy Wilder. This is an indispensable book for all writers and readers.



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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312361754
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 10/17/2006
Series: The Paris Review Interviews , #1
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 654,422
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.17(d)

About the Author

The Paris Review was founded in 1953 and has published early and important work by Philip Roth, V. S. Naipaul, Jeffrey Eugenides, A. S. Byatt, T. C. Boyle, William T. Vollmann, and many other writers who have given us the great literature of the past half century. Some of the magazine's greatest hits have been collected by Picador in The Paris Review Book of People with Problems as well as The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators, and Waiting Rooms and The Paris Review Book of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal, Outsiders, Intoxication, War, Whimsy, Horrors, God, Death, Dinner, Baseball, Travels, the Art of Writing, and Everything Else in the World Since 1953.

Philip Gourevitch is the editor of The Paris Review, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and the author of A Cold Case and We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

William Styron

The Art of Fiction

William Styron was interviewed in Paris, in early autumn, at Patrick's, a café on the boulevard du Montparnasse that has little to distinguish it from its neighbors — the Dome, the Rotonde, Le Chapelain — except a faintly better brand of coffee. Across the boulevard from the café and its sidewalk tables, a red poster portrays a skeletal family. They are behind bars, and the caption reads: TAKE YOUR VACATION IN HAPPY RUSSIA! The lower part of the poster has been ripped and scarred and plastered with stickers shouting: LES AMÉRICANS EN AMÉRIQUE! U.S. GO HOME! An adjoining poster advertises carbonated water: PERRIER! It sings: L'EAU QUI FAIT PSCHITT! The sun reflects strongly off their vivid colors, and Styron, shading his eyes, peers down into his coffee. He is a young man of good appearance, though not this afternoon; he is a little paler than is healthy in this quiet hour when the denizens of the quarter lie hiding, their weak night eyes insulted by the light.

— George Plimpton,Peter Matthiessen,1954

INTERVIEWER

You were about to tell us when you started to write.

WILLIAM STYRON

What? Oh, yes. Write. I figure I must have been about thirteen. I wrote an imitation Conrad thing, "Typhoon and the Tor Bay" it was called, you know, a ship's hold swarming with crazy Chinks. I think I had some sharks in there, too. I gave it the full treatment.

A manuscript page from The Long March by William Styron.

INTERVIEWER

And how did you happen to start? That is, why did you want to write?

STYRON

I wish I knew. I wanted to express myself, I guess. But after "Typhoon and the Tor Bay" I didn't give writing another thought until I went to Duke University and landed in a creative writing course under William Blackburn. He was the one who got me started.

INTERVIEWER

What value does the creative-writing course have for young writers?

STYRON

It gives them a start, I suppose. But it can be an awful waste of time. Look at those people who go back year after year to summer writers' conferences. You get so you can pick them out a mile away. A writing course can only give you a start, and help a little. It can't teach writing. The professor should weed out the good from the bad, cull them like a farmer, and not encourage the ones who haven't got something. At one school I know in New York, which has a lot of writing courses, there are a couple of teachers who moon in the most disgusting way over the poorest, most talentless writers, giving false hope where there shouldn't be any hope at all. Regularly they put out dreary little anthologies, the quality of which would chill your blood. It's a ruinous business, a waste of paper and time, and such teachers should be abolished.

INTERVIEWER

The average teacher can't teach anything about technique or style?

STYRON

Well, he can teach you something in matters of technique. You know — don't tell a story from two points of view and that sort of thing. But I don't think even the most conscientious and astute teachers can teach anything about style. Style comes only after long, hard practice and writing.

INTERVIEWER

Do you enjoy writing?

STYRON

I certainly don't. I get a fine, warm feeling when I'm doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let's face it, writing is hell.

INTERVIEWER

How many pages do you turn out each day?

STYRON

When I'm writing steadily — that is, when I'm involved in a project that I'm really interested in, one of those rare pieces that has a foreseeable end — I average two-and-a-half or three pages a day, longhand on yellow sheets. I spend about five hours at it, of which very little is spent actually writing. I try to get a feeling of what's going on in the story before I put it down on paper, but actually most of this breaking-in period is one long, fantastic daydream, in which I think about anything but the work at hand. I can't turn out slews of stuff each day. I wish I could. I seem to have some neurotic need to perfect each paragraph — each sentence, even — as I go along.

INTERVIEWER

And what time of the day do you find best for working?

STYRON

The afternoon. I like to stay up late at night and get drunk and sleep late. I wish I could break the habit but I can't. The afternoon is the only time I have left and I try to use it to the best advantage, with a hangover.

INTERVIEWER

Do you use a notebook?

STYRON

No, I don't feel the need for it. I've tried, but it does no good, since I've never used what I've written down. I think the use of a notebook depends upon the individual.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find you need seclusion?

STYRON

I find it's difficult to write in complete isolation. I think it would be hard for me on a South Sea island or in the Maine woods. I like company and entertainment, people around. The actual process of writing, though, demands complete, noiseless privacy, without even music; a baby howling two blocks away will drive me nuts.

INTERVIEWER

Does your emotional state have any bearing on your work?

STYRON

I guess like everybody I'm emotionally fouled up most of the time, but I find I do better when I'm relatively placid. It's hard to say, though. If writers had to wait until their precious psyches were completely serene there wouldn't be much writing done. Actually — though I don't take advantage of the fact as much as I should — I find that I'm simply the happiest, the placidest, when I'm writing, and so I suppose that that, for me, is the final answer. When I'm writing I find it's the only time that I feel completely self-possessed, even when the writing itself is not going too well. It's fine therapy for people who are perpetually scared of nameless threats as I am most of the time — for jittery people. Besides, I've discovered that when I'm not writing I'm prone to developing certain nervous tics, and hypochondria. Writing alleviates those quite a bit. I think I resist change more than most people. I dislike traveling, like to stay settled. When I first came to Paris all I could think about was going home, home to the old James River. One of these days I expect to inherit a peanut farm. Go back home and farm them old peanuts and be real old Southern whiskey gentry.

INTERVIEWER

Your novel was linked to the Southern school of fiction. Do you think the critics were justified in doing this?

STYRON

No, frankly, I don't consider myself in the Southern school, whatever that is. Lie Down in Darkness, or most of it, was set in the South, but I don't care if I never write about the South again, really. Only certain things in the book are particularly Southern. I used leitmotifs — the negroes, for example — that run throughout the book, but I would like to believe that my people would have behaved the way they did anywhere. The girl, Peyton, for instance, didn't have to come from Virginia. She would have wound up jumping from a window no matter where she came from. Critics are always linking writers to "schools." If they couldn't link people to schools, they'd die. When what they condescendingly call "a genuinely fresh talent" arrives on the scene, the critics rarely try to point out what makes him fresh or genuine but concentrate instead on how he behaves in accordance with their preconceived notion of what school he belongs to.

INTERVIEWER

You don't find that it's true of most of the so-called Southern novels that the reactions of their characters are universal?

STYRON

Look, I don't mean to repudiate my Southern background completely, but I don't believe that the South alone produces "universal" literature. That universal quality comes far more from a single writer's mind and his individual spirit than from his background. Faulkner's a writer of extraordinary stature more because of the great breadth of his vision than because he happened to be born in Mississippi. All you have to do is read one issue of the Times Book Review to see how much junk comes out regularly from south of the Mason-Dixon line, along with the good stuff. I have to admit, though, that the South has a definite literary tradition, which is the reason it probably produces a better quality of writing, proportionately. Perhaps it's just true that Faulkner, if he had been born in, say, Pasadena, might very well still have had that universal quality of mind, but instead of writing Light in August he would have gone into television or written universal ads for Jantzen bathing suits.

INTERVIEWER

Well, why do you think this Southern tradition exists at all?

STYRON

Well, first, there's that old heritage of biblical rhetoric and storytelling. Then the South simply provides such wonderful material. Take, for instance, the conflict between the ordered Protestant tradition, the fundamentalism based on the Old Testament, and the twentieth century — movies, cars, television. The poetic juxtapositions you find in this conflict — a crazy, colored preacher howling those tremendously moving verses from Isaiah 40, while riding around in a maroon Packard. It's wonderful stuff and comparatively new, too, which is perhaps why the renaissance of Southern writing coincided with these last few decades of the machine age. If Faulkner had written in the 1880s he would have been writing, no doubt, safely within the tradition, but his novels would have been genteel novels, like those of George Washington Cable or Thomas Nelson Page. In fact, the modern South is such powerful material that the author runs the danger of capturing the local color and feeling that's enough. He gets so bemused by decaying mansions that he forgets to populate them with people. I'm beginning to feel that it's a good idea for writers who come from the South, at least some of them, to break away a little from all them magnolias.

INTERVIEWER

You refer a number of times to Faulkner. Even though you don't think of yourself as a "Southern" writer, would you say that he influenced you?

STYRON

I would certainly say so. I'd say I've been influenced as much, though, by Joyce and Flaubert. Old Joyce and Flaubert have influenced me stylistically, given me arrows, but then a lot of the contemporary works I've read have influenced me as a craftsman. Dos Passos, Scott Fitzgerald, both have been valuable in teaching me how to write the novel, but not many of these modern people have contributed much to my emotional climate. Joyce comes closest, but the strong influences are out of the past — the Bible, Marlowe, Blake, Shakespeare. As for Flaubert, Madame Bovary is one of the few novels that move me in every way — not only in its style, but in its total communicability, like the effect of good poetry. What I really mean is that a great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it. Its writer should, too. Without condescending, he should be conscious of himself as a reader, and while he's writing it he should be able to step outside of it from time to time and say to himself, Now if I were just reading this book, would I like this part here? I have the feeling that that's what Flaubert did — maybe too much, though, finally, in books like Sentimental Education.

INTERVIEWER

While we're skirting this question, do you think Faulkner's experiments with time in The Sound and the Fury are justified?

STYRON

Justified? Yes, I do.

INTERVIEWER

Successful, then?

STYRON

No, I don't think so. Faulkner doesn't give enough help to the reader. I'm all for the complexity of Faulkner, but not for the confusion. That goes for Joyce, too. All that fabulously beautiful poetry in the last part of Finnegans Wake is pretty much lost to the world simply because not many people are ever going to put up with the chaos that precedes it. As for The Sound and the Fury, I think it succeeds in spite of itself. Faulkner often simply stays too damn intense for too long a time. It ends up being great stuff, somehow, though, and the marvel is how it could be so wonderful being pitched for so long in that one high, prolonged, delirious key.

INTERVIEWER

Was the problem of time development acute in the writing of Lie Down in Darkness?

STYRON

Well, the book started with the man, Loftis, standing at the station with the hearse, waiting for the body of his daughter to arrive from up North. I wanted to give him density, but all the tragedy in his life had happened in the past. So the problem was to get into the past, and this man's tragedy, without breaking the story. It stumped me for a whole year. Then it finally occurred to me to use separate moments in time, four or five long dramatic scenes revolving around the daughter, Peyton, at different stages in her life. The business of the progression of time seems to me one of the most difficult problems a novelist has to cope with.

INTERVIEWER

Did you prefigure the novel? How much was planned when you started?

STYRON

Very little. I knew about Loftis and all his domestic troubles. I had the funeral. I had the girl in mind, and her suicide in Harlem. I thought I knew why, too. But that's all I had.

INTERVIEWER

Did you start with emphasis on character or story?

STYRON

Character, definitely. And by character I mean a person drawn full-round, not a caricature. E. M. Forster refers to "flat" and "round" characters. I try to make all of mine round. It takes an extrovert like Dickens to make flat characters come alive. But story as such has been neglected by today's introverted writers. Story and character should grow together; I think I'm lucky so far in that in practically everything I've tried to write these two elements have grown together. They must, to give an impression of life being lived, just because each man's life is a story, if you'll pardon the cliché. I used to spend a lot of time worrying over word order, trying to create beautiful passages. I still believe in the value of a handsome style. I appreciate the sensibility that can produce a nice turn of phrase, like Scott Fitzgerald. But I'm not interested any more in turning out something shimmering and impressionistic — Southern, if you will — full of word-pictures, damn Dixie baby talk, and that sort of thing. I guess I just get more and more interested in people. And story.

INTERVIEWER

Are your characters real-life or imaginary?

STYRON

I don't know if that's answerable. I really think, frankly, though, that most of my characters come closer to being entirely imaginary than the other way round. Maybe that's because they all seem to end up, finally, closer to being like myself than like people I've actually observed. I sometimes feel that the characters I've created are not much more than sort of projected facets of myself, and I believe that a lot of fictional characters have been created that way.

INTERVIEWER

How far removed must you be from your subject matter?

STYRON

Pretty far. I don't think people can write immediately, and well, about an experience emotionally close to them. I have a feeling, for example, that I won't be able to write about all the time I've spent in Europe until I get back to America.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel yourself to be in competition with other writers?

STYRON

No, I don't. "Some of my best friends are writers." In America there seems to be an idea that writing is one big cat-and-dog fight among the various practitioners of the craft. Got to hole up in the woods. Me, I'm a farmer, I don't know no writers. Hate writers. That sort of thing. I think that, just as in everything else, writers can be too cozy and cliquish and end up nervous and incestuous and scratching each other's backs. In London once, I was at a party where everything was so literary and famous and intimate that if the place had suddenly been blown up by dynamite it would have demolished the flower of British letters. But I think that writers in the U.S. could stand a bit more of the attitude that prevailed in France in the last century. Flaubert and Maupassant, Victor Hugo and Musset, they didn't suffer from knowing each other. Turgenev knew Gogol. Chekhov knew Tolstoy and Andreiev, and Gorky knew all three. I think it was Henry James who said of Hawthorne that he might have been even better than he was if he had occasionally communicated a little bit more with others working at the same sort of thing. A lot of this philosophy of isolation in America is a dreary pose. I'm not advocating a Writers' Supper Club on Waverly Place, just for chums in the business, or a union, or anything like that, but I do think that writers in America might somehow benefit by the attitude that, What the hell, we're all in this together, instead of, All my pals are bartenders on Third Avenue. As a matter of fact, I do have a pal who's a bartender on Third Avenue, but he's a part-time writer on the side.

INTERVIEWER

In general, what do you think of critics, since they are a subject that must be close to a writer's heart?

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Paris Review Interviews, IV"
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Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents

Introduction by Philip Gourevitch

Dorothy Parker (1956)
Truman Capote (1957)
Ernest Hemingway (1958)
T. S. Eliot (1959)
Saul Bellow (1966)
Jorge Luis Borges (1967)
Kurt Vonnegut (1977)
James M. Cain (1978)
Rebecca West (1981)
Elizabeth Bishop (1981)
Robert Stone (1985)
Robert Gottlieb (1994)
Richard Price (1996)
Billy Wilder (1996)
Jack Gilbert (2005)
Joan Didion (2006)

Contributors
Acknowledgments

Customer Reviews