The Paris Review Interviews, Volume I (review: 4.5/5)

The Paris Review has been popular for years for its interviews with writers, focusing more on the authors’ methods and craft, rather than their products. The Paris Review Interviews, Volume I collects 16 of those interviews over the last half-century, a selection of novelists, poets, screenwriters, and even an editor. One of the unique aspects of the Review’s approach is that the interviewers review and refine and reconstruct the text in concert with the writers. There’s plenty of back-and-forth communication along the way from inception to print. I’ve never read a book full of interviews before, so one of the best parts was to be an observer of that proceess. I learned bit more about the difference between good interviewing (e.g. Borges & Christ) and bad interviewing (Hemingway vs. Plimpton). Of course, the more obvious privilege is learning from the writers themselves—reading about the ideas of really smart people who do really, really difficult work.
You’ll find a lot of great moments in this book. To pick just a few…

Robert Stone on the state of American fiction: “You have famous writers, but there’s no center. There are the best-seller writers, who are anonymous, almost industrial figures…” I love that! Nora Roberts is like GM, James Patterson is PepsiCo, Danielle Steele like Kraft; I can imagine them and their counterparts hulking along churning out self-similar merchandise.

Saul Bellow was interesting for his occupational humility:

There is such a thing as overcapitalizing the A in artist. Certain writers and musicians understand this. Stravinsky says the composer should practice his trade exactly as a shoemaker does. Mozart and Haydn accepted commissions–wrote to order. In the nineteenth century, the artist loftily waited for inspiration. Once you elevate yourself to the rank of a cultural institution, you’re in for a lot of trouble.

Kurt Vonnegut mirrors this attitude: “Trade. Carpenters build houses. Storytellers use a reader’s leisure time in such a way that the reader will not feel that his time has been wasted. Mechanics fix automobiles.”

Jorge Luis Borges is brilliant and his interviewer, Ronald Christ, seemed to be right up there with him. I expect conducting an interview is a lot easier with such a responsive subject, but I love how he was able to ask, prompt, suggest, hint… and just let Borges carry on. The result is the longest and probably the most engaging transcript in the entire book.

On the other hand, George Plimpton’s interview with Ernest Hemingway was simply awful, but in an interesting way. Hemingway comes off as a real jerk. Intelligent, serious, dedicated, but a jerk. For the most part, Plimpton rolls belly-up, yielding ground and changing the subject. It seems like he never really pressed or pursued or challenged. Then again, I wonder how literally accurate the transcription is, after the back-and-forth editing between writer and interview. There has to be some background story there.

I find a certain perfectionist kinship with editor Robert Gottlieb. His perspective:

What is it that impels this act of editing? I know that in my case it’s not merely about words. Whatever I look at, whatever I encounter, I want it to be good—whether it’s what you’re wearing, or how the restaurant has laid the table, or what’s going on on stage, or what the president said last night, or how two people are talking to each other at a bus stop. I don’t want to interfere with it or control it, exactly—I want it to work, I want it to be happy, I want it to come out right.

There’s some other good folks in there: T.S. Eliot, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Billy Wilder, among others. This book probably has the highest educational-value to difficulty-of-reading ratio that I’ve come across in the past couple years. I would have blown through it in a couple of hours if I didn’t have to stop so often to bookmark a worthy exchange or ponder a claim. I hope the rest of the series holds up as well as this volume.

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