A review of The Paris Review Interviews, volume 1

Reviewed by Paul Kane
The Paris Review Interviews, volume 1
Philip Gourevitch (editor)
Canongate Books, January 2007

Some people might possess, or be familiar with, some of the old “Writers at Work” volumes, edited by George Plimpton and published (in the UK, at any rate) by Secker and Warburg: I’ve got about five of them, myself. Those volumes, long out of print, collected together interviews with a plethora of distinguished writers, interviews that originally appeared in the pages of the Paris Review. This book does the same thing and, according to Philip Gourevitch in his introduction, is the first of three projected volumes.

So, what do we get? There are, altogether, interviews with 16 writers. The first, an interview with Dorothy Parker, appeared in 1956; Joan Didion’s is the last, and it dates from only last year (2006). Most of the writers included here are novelists, or predominantly novelists, but there are quite a few poets (e.g. T.S. Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop), an editor (Robert Gottlieb, who has edited works by John Cheever, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison and others), and a couple of screenwriters and directors (e.g. Billy Wilder). Different genres of writing are present in other respects too: crime fiction is represented in the form of James M. Cain, whilst science-fiction has Kurt Vonnegut. So at first sight it would seem that Gourevitch’s claim that “the writers whose voices are collected in these pages could hardly make up a more various and eclectic company” is well supported. There are, though, certain biases in the selection that are not remarked upon by Gourevitch in his introduction. For one thing, the vast majority (to be exact, 14) of the writers included here are North American and all but one (Jorge Luis Borges) write in English. For another, only 4 of the writers are women. One hopes that these biases are unintentional, and will be addressed in the 2 later volumes.

The format of each interview is unchanging. We get an introduction of about 2-3 pages, some of which focuses on a writer’s routine (banal but worth recording: consider how interested one might be in how Shakespeare wrote each day), then it is right down to business: a sustained passage of straight question and answer. Most interviews are about 20-25 pages long, but some are longer; Borges’ is the longest, lasting almost 50 pages. Reading these interviews is like eavesdropping on a series of entertaining, informative and instructive conversations about writing, literature and much else besides. There are no intermediaries; we get the gen raw, more meat and less waffle, right from the writer’s mouth. Here is Joan Didion talking about how she limbers up:
I have never started a novel – I mean except the first, when I was starting a novel just to start a novel – I’ve never written one without rereading Victory [by Conrad]. It opens up the possibilities of a novel. It makes it seem worth doing. (481)

Here is James M. Cain on his troubleshooting approach to the craft:
Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational. (224)

Finally, here’s Robert Stone’s attempt to formulate what his (or maybe, any) writing is designed to achieve:
What you’re trying to do when you write is to crowd the reader out of his own space and occupy it with yours, in a good cause. You’re trying to take over his sensibility and deliver an experience that moves from mere information. (309)

As well as talk about the craft of writing, there are general discussions about literature and politics, and many anecdotes and thought-provoking asides. So Borges talks about his interest in kennings, Vonnegut about the bombing of Dresden. One interesting subtext for me was the contrasting views of Dorothy Parker and Billy Wilder with regard to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in Hollywood. To Parker, Hollywood destroyed Fitzgerald; to Wilder, Fitzgerald was a big-time novelist who didn’t take the time to learn the craft of screenwriting, and he contributed to his own destruction. Overall, Gourevitch’s hope that these interviews will stand “if not as definitive portraits of each artist, then as a significant contribution to such an ultimate portrait, with the added fascination that they are in large measure self-portraits” has been, on my reading, largely fulfilled. But one can’t help but be disappointed that Truman Capote’s interview here dates from 1957, some 9 years before In Cold Blood was published. For after writing that, he was surely a changed person.

The Paris Review Interviews, volume 1 is an engrossing book that will be of interest to anyone with an interest in the literature of the last half-century, and before. There is something to arrest one’s attention on virtually every page.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk