Philip Gourevitch, ed. | The Paris Review Interviews vol. IV

book_paris.jpgVolume IV of the collected writers’ interviews offers something for everyone and contains a wealth of information about how the writers work.

478 pages. New York: Picador, 2009. $18.00 (paperback)

Although currently based in New York City, The Paris Review was founded in Paris in 1953 and continues to appear on a quarterly basis. Interviews with writers were a staple from the start (in the first issue, George Plimpton interviewed E.M. Forster) and remain one of the Review‘s most popular features. Whether you’re an aspiring or accomplished writer, a student or teacher of literature, or just someone interested in good writing, those interviews are pure catnip; you may very well have to restrain yourself from rolling around on the floor and batting the book from hand to hand.

But seriously, volume IV of the collected writers’ interviews offers something for everyone and contains a wealth of information about how the writers work, as well as the kind of insiderly information which will make you the star of any literary cocktail party (if such things still exist). Just reading the book makes me feel like more of a writer, as if the magic can somehow be transmitted just by touching paper and ink.

The oldest interview in this volume was conducted with William Styron in 1954, the most recent with Marilynne Robinson in 2008. Among the other writers interviewed are Jack Kerouac, P.G. Wodehouse, Philip Roth, Stephen Sondheim, Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami, and the introduction is by Salman Rushdie. Now there’s a varied crew whose only commonality is the quality of their work.

Here’s a few things I learned reading while reading this volume: William Styron got his start at a creative writing course at Duke University, but feels that most such courses are a waste of time. Marianne Moore didn’t plan out her poems; instead, for her, "words cluster like chromosomes." Jack Kerouac was familiar enough with La Dolce Vita to spontaneously quote a scene from it. E.B. White was never a great reader, with the exception of animal stories in his youth and books about small boat journeys as an adult ("…they fascinate me even though they usually have no merit."). But Philip Roth reads all the time, particularly when he’s in heavy writing mode, "as a way of keeping the circuits open."

I’m encouraged to read that Maya Angelou likes to write while lying on a bed—I thought that Augusten Burroughs and I were the only ones who did that. But she keeps a Bible on the bed for inspiration, something not in my usual procedure. And V.S. Naipaul is an inspiration to everyone who doesn’t follow the oft-quoted rule that you must write every day: In his young adult years, he was equally occupied with trying to become a good book reviewer (like me again!), and besides he didn’t force himself to work on his novel every day because "when you are not inspired you do things with a heavy heart."

So these interviews can be like horoscopes; with a little selective interpretation you will always find something that applies to you. And you’ll enjoy reading the rest…and if you don’t you can always just skip ahead to the next interview, making this a great airplane book as well as a good companion in your study. | Sarah Boslaugh


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