Let me get the praise out of the way: The Paris Review Interviews Volume II and Tin House Books’ The World Within, two recent collections of interviews with famous writers, are a literary treasure trove, a smorgasbord for the intellect, a cornucopia of language. Anyone who likes to read, write, or meet interesting and articulate people will spend many a happy evening with these books. The pages burn with attitude, theory, anecdotes, quips, gossip, profundity, aphorism, fury and humor. Taken in isolation, each of these interviews (with only a few lackluster exceptions) acts as a stunning glimpse into a remarkable mind. Taken in their totality, the interviews begin to snick against each other until it seems that the authors are sparring in some marvelous palaver, and that you, lucky reader, are a bystander at the greatest literary dinner party ever held.
Here’s a taste. Faulkner: “If I were reincarnated, I’d want to come back as a buzzard. Nothing hates him or envies him or wants him or needs him. He is never bothered or in danger, and he can eat anything.” Faulkner again: “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” Isaac Bashevis Singer (defending the inexplicable from science): “You cannot show in a laboratory that there has ever been a Napoleon, you can’t prove it as clearly as you can an electric current, but we know there was a Napoleon.” George Saunders on one of his early failed novels: “Terrible .?.?. Joyce on stupid pills.” Harold Bloom: “[The] mélange of latest-model feminists, Lacanians, that whole semiotic cackle, latest-model pseudo-historicists, and third-generation deconstructors [are] a pride of displaced social workers, a rabblement of lemmings, all rushing down to the sea carrying their subject down to destruction with them.” Stephen King on the religious aspect of Alcoholics Anonymous: “There’s a scene in Pink Flamingos where Divine eats a piece of dog excrement off the sidewalk. [John] Waters was always asked about that particular scene. Finally, one time he exploded and said, Listen, it was just a little piece of dog shit and it made her a star! Okay? As far as I’m concerned, the whole issue of God is a little piece of dog shit. But if you can swallow that part of the AA program, you don’t have to drink and drug anymore.” Denis Johnson: “You should write only about those things that you would never confide in anyone.” Johnson again: “A book is postponed suicide. [Laughter.]”
If these remarks don’t give you a little shiver in your brain, then there’s nothing to be done for you: You’re defective.
That said, I can’t help but feel that The Paris Review’s interviews, which kicked off in 1953 with George Plimpton interviewing E.M. Forster, were founded on a wrongheaded notion. The problem all begins with the title of the interview series, “The Art of Fiction.” This innocent-seeming label, lodged in the minds of the interviewers and interviewees, has subtly corrupted the great endeavor, tilting the interviews toward the academic and the technical. The interview with poet Robert Lowell begins, “What are you teaching now?” and goes downhill from there. (Interviewer: “Can you think of a place where you added a syllable or two to an otherwise regular line?”) Too many interviewers are overeager to prove their knowledge of the writer’s work, and as a result the conversation spirals down into discussion of particular metaphors or the genesis for certain characters — a gold mine for graduate students, no doubt, but a lessening of the interviews’ larger purpose. In order to explain the writers’ “craft,” thousands of words are wasted on discovering whether the authors write in the morning or the afternoon, and if they use a typewriter or a pen (Toni Morrison, if you for some reason care to know, uses a Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 soft pencil). This triviality does not go unnoticed by the writers themselves. Philip Larkin: “I remember saying once, I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems; it’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife. Whoever I was talking to said, They’d do that too, if their agents could fix it.”
Probably in 1953 the idea of investigating the craft of writing was a bit more novel, but now, in the 21st century, the creative writing MFA market is booming, and bookstores are glutted with advice and insight (much of it quite good). Regardless of all considerations of supply and demand, the art of the interview requires something very different from a mere investigation of the mechanics of fiction. Leave theory and technique to the essay or manual. An interview is a wonderful art form, similar to a one-act play, with an unswerving goal: to expose a human being. It’s no coincidence that the Playboy interviews of the 1960s and 1970s remain the greatest examples of the art form. Uninhibited directness, the desire to strip and reveal, and a craving for intimacy are wonderful virtues for an interviewer. Just as a short story about plumbing is doomed to be a bore, an interview about fiction is a worrisome proposition. An interview should be about a writer, not writing, and a short story should be about a plumber, not pipes.
One of the more artistically inspired pieces is Heather Larimer’s interview with Charles D’Ambrosio in The World Within. From the beginning, the writing has the momentum of fiction. Larimer, a former student of D’Ambrosio’s, wonders if she’s “foolish” for driving out to a near-abandoned Montana mining town to find out why D’Ambrosio has retreated from his life. Like a good poem, the interview now has a speaker, a human point of view rather than a faceless interrogator. She meets D’Ambrosio at a gas station, they wander in the desolate countryside, crawl inside a mineshaft, and shoot at trash with a .22 before returning for the interview itself. And, yes, they talk a fair amount about “the art of fiction” — the guy is a writer after all. But the whole conversation is imbued with a subtle tension, a sense of place and crisis: Will D’Ambrosio stay in the middle of nowhere or return? In some small way, his life seems to be in the balance, and Larimer stays focused on his life, not just his work. Even her technical questions remain doggedly personal: “I wondered how much of the language you use, especially the high diction, is not from your formal education, as you say, but from your dad.” And then comes this terrific exchange:
H.L.: When you went to Russia to do a piece on an orphanage for Nest, it took you three days to begin to pack a duffle bag. How can you be unable to pack and yet able to write an essay?
C.D.: The duffle bag had me baffled. It was black and it was in the middle of my room and I was mystified about how clothes were going to get in it. I wasn’t writing then. Even the essay thing had shut down. All I could do was read Ann Rule books and eat black licorice .?.?. My pathetic daddy wound was aching pretty badly at this time, too, and he shares just about everything with the cretinous shits in Rule’s books — the loathing of women, the cowardice, the brutality — except the actual fact — and even there, I consider him a killer. But really he’s like a serial murderer manqué. And his favorite candy was black licorice and the duffle bag was black and I couldn’t get any clothes in it and the point is: Who needs dreams?
It’s a devastating, perverse and somehow glorious paragraph that speaks to the power of language as a vessel for containing the tumult inside the human mind. The scene’s vividness of character, emotional depth, hypnotizing rhythm, peculiar references, cacophony of images and themes all have the force of the best fiction — it looks stylish but feels dead true. As Gabriel García Márquez told the Paris Review, “What I would really like to do is a piece of journalism that is completely true and real, but that sounds as fantastic as One Hundred Years of Solitude.” All interviews should strive for such things.
THE PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS VOLUME II | Edited by PHILIP GOUREVITCH | Picador | 512 pages | $16 softcover
THE WORLD WITHIN | Tin House | 350 pages | $17 softcover