The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. I

There’s opinion, ego, wit, insight, personality, history, and, as any Paris Review reader would expect, page after page about the craft of writing itself.

 

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Picador; 528 pgs; $15

Let’s be quick about a verdict: this is the richest, most enjoyable collection of writer interviews I’ve ever come across. There are 16 pieces spanning half a century, and the editors, getting off on an admirably unstuffy foot, give their lead-off position to a clean-up hitter of talkers: Dorothy Parker. At last once a page, she smacks a zinger out of the park. How’s writing for the movies? “Hollywood money isn’t money. It’s congealed snow, melts in your hand, and there you are.” Working at Life with Robert Benchly? “He and I had an office so tiny that an inch smaller and it would have been adultery.” What’s the source of your writing? “Need of money, dear.”

And there’s Truman Capote, sofa’d and sipping something, nodding Parker’s way: “I never write—indeed, am physically incapable of writing—anything that I don’t think will be paid for.” Not so for the cocky, on-high Hemingway, for whom the collection basket means nothing next to artistic work itself. Hemingway tolerates interviewer George Plimpton long enough to insult him three times about the inanity of his questions; ever the good spirit, Plimpton still gives Hem a Great Man at Work introduction—“He places the paper slantwise on the reading board…moving only to shift his weight from one foot to another, perspiring heavily when the work is going well”—that would raise Ron Howard’s arms in praise.

For this first volume, the Paris Review editors have wisely chosen interviews that have been structured differently, preventing the book from ever becoming a repetitive series of Q&As. Kurt Vonnegut’s piece, for example, is essentially an interview with himself. The revered editor Robert Gottleib sent his interviewer out to talk with writers he’d worked with—Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing—and the final piece is a collection of their responses and Gottleib’s thoughts on the same subjects. Readers who have worked as editors will eat up the tasty bits about vast rewrites and back-breaking edits. (Most will just be glad they haven’t had to tell an author, as Gottleib did to Robert Caro over the phone: “I have some bad news. We have to cut fifty thousand words.”)

Saul Bellow spent more than a month editing his own interview, and the result, predictably, is intelligent but a little lifeless. Jorge Luis Borges, on the other hand, is spontaneous and charming: “Look here, I’m talking to an American: there’s a book I must speak about—nothing unexpected about it—that book is Huckleberry Finn.” While fending off his next round of visitors, Borges revels in the conversation, both learning from the interviewer and displaying his own discriminating palate. “Frost is a finer poet than Eliot,” he says at one point. “I mean, a finer poet. But I suppose Eliot was a far more intelligent man; however, intelligence has little to do with poetry.” Readers wanting a second opinion on Eliot can flip forward to Rebecca West’s interview, during which she gives this verdict: “He was a poseur.”

Ah, the offerings of this fabulously full book. There’s opinion, ego, wit, insight, personality, history, and, as any Paris Review reader would expect, page after page about the craft of writing itself. “Nobody can write well using cocaine,” Richard Price cautions us. Makes sense. But Robert Stone’s statement about writing—“It’s goddamn hard. Nobody really cares whether you do it or not.”—is another matter. He’s wrong, of course. We care, and we’re reading. | Stephen Schenkenberg

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