Vendela Veda (ed.) | The Believer Book of Writers Talking To Writers

One piece that stands out is the conversation between Ben Marcus and George Saunders. The two touch on such nuts-and-bolts aesthetics as realism, to which Saunders says: “I think it’s interesting, though, that some writers of our approximate generation have a sort of queasiness around the issue of realism. I know I do. There’s something about the normal approach (‘Bob, age forty-three, pale blond hair—a senior-level accountant—felt good about his marriage. He got into his tan Lexus, thinking of Meribeth.’) that makes me scared and sick. I am always trying to avoid it.”

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Thick with insight, The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers is one of those rare efforts where the hope and the reality mostly collide, giving the reader exactly what they might have expected to encounter within its pages. There’s no long manifesto or wordy introduction mucking up this collection; it’s all main course, arranged cautiously in alphabetical order by the interviewee’s last name, from Chris Abani to Tobias Wolfe. While much of this work originally appeared in the magazine, nearly a third are seeing print for the first time.

The pieces are only broadly interviews. There are two artists in the mix, but as the title suggests, the writers are talking to each other. The usual flow of a Q&A might be the sketchy framework for each of the 23 pieces, but the beauty of what The Believer does in helping pair each of these meetings is to open a conversational dialogue, one in which each writer is open to the other’s digressions and talents. One of the early brilliant interviews features Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster, who discuss everything from Auster’s moviemaking to his longing for immortality. “I want to write books that can be read a hundred years from now,” says Auster, “and readers wouldn’t get bogged down by irrelevant details. You see, I’m not a sociologist, and the novel has often concerned itself with sociology.”

Some conversations don’t work as well. Sean Wilsey’s thankfully brief conversation with fabled Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami falls flat, maybe lost in translation. Still others, like the chat between two of Britain’s finest contemporary novelists, Zadie Smith and Ian McEwan, are intriguing because of the match-up. Smith even confesses, “I’m not good at this. I interviewed Eminem a while ago and when I got home and transcribed it, it was more like ‘An interview with Zadie Smith in which Eminem occasionally says yes and uh-huh.’ I talk too much.” She certainly knows herself well, and claims almost as much print space as McEwan.

The McSweeney’s king himself, Dave Eggers, is represented through his onstage interview with Joan Didion, editor Vendela Vida talks with Californian novelist Susan Straight, and young Londoner Adam Thirlwell does a commendable job with Tom Stoppard at a cricket match. There are interviews with playwright August Wilson, who died last fall, as well as the always-captivating Marilynne Robison.

One piece that stands out is the conversation between Ben Marcus and George Saunders. The two touch on such nuts-and-bolts aesthetics as realism, to which Saunders says: “I think it’s interesting, though, that some writers of our approximate generation have a sort of queasiness around the issue of realism. I know I do. There’s something about the normal approach (‘Bob, age forty-three, pale blond hair—a senior-level accountant—felt good about his marriage. He got into his tan Lexus, thinking of Meribeth.’) that makes me scared and sick. I am always trying to avoid it.”

Without any sort of structure or thematic thread to group the interviews, the ideal way to read The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers is to skip around, randomly jumping into the conversations and taking a sip from any one of the 46 distinct voices. books. believermag.com

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