A review of Speaking Volumes conversations with remarkable writers by Ramona Koval

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Speaking Volumes
conversations with remarkable writers
Ramona Koval
Scribe, Pb, 432pp ISBN (13): 9781921640612, RRP: $35.00, September 2010

The writer interview is such a compelling art form. When it’s done right, it not only provides readers with a unique glimpse into the inner life of those who have moved, titillated, enticed, touched, and gutted us, but it is also, often, instructive, thought-provoking, and a powerful insight into the creative process itself. Ramona Koval always does it right. Her interviews are lengthy, pithy, and full of insight – a kind of discourse that stands on its own. This is due, not only to the interviewees, which include some of the most lauded writers of the 21st Century, but partly because of the way in which Koval gets them to open up their lives. These interviews help illuminate the books they discuss and provide insights into characters and themes, but they also take a broader perspective, taking authors on a journey through their pet peeves, interests, political affiliations, through literary analysis and into the heart of the authors’ humanity, their private lives, and the way in which they create.

The twenty eight writers whose interviews were chosen for this book are, without exception, extremely well known and respected. Some were interviewed in their last years, such as Joseph Heller, Judith Wright, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, John Mortimer, and Harold Pinter. There is a bittersweet element to these interviews – the authors talking candidly, often with a strong sense of their impending end and of the need to say certain things in a public forum. Judith Wright in particular, provides a poignant interview, struggling with deafness and visual impairment through an interview that involved writing out questions in large letters on a whiteboard and then struggling with the responses and transcription. Nevertheless, the result for the reader is fluid and transcendent as Wright talks about the teaching of poetry, about her work and the way in which it has been positively and negatively used, the value of nature, emotion and why she stopped writing poetry.

Harold Pinter has two interviews, and they present as almost a continuation of a single discussion. He’s lucid and energetic in both interviews, talking particularly powerfully on the political abuse of language:

I think what we’re talking about there is extraordinary, fundamental hypocrisy, and a misunderstanding of language altogether – or a distortion of language, or abuse of language—which is in itself extremely destructive, because language leads us, politically, it leads us into all sorts of fields. (184)

A common theme through many of these older, canonical writers, is their failure to achieve their great ambitions with language. Always these writers are pushing past their capabilities, aiming to reach some kind of enduring greatness; what Saul Bellow calls “an entire purgation of my system”. Malcolm Bradbury talks about the basic truths, while John Banville talks about the powerful struggle, and the quickening of the world. It’s hard to think of failure in conjunctino with Bradbury, Bellow and Banville (3 of the world’s most successful writerly Bs), but it’s also helpful to know that our own struggles and sense of failure to say what we what is as prevalent in our heroes as it is in ourselves.

There are many gems throughout the book—words of wisdom that are so wise that they resonate off the page (into my notebook in many cases). Jeanette Winterson, for example, talks about ‘creative continuum’:

My view is that there’s a creative continuum which is central to life and that we’re hard wired in our DNA to be creative. Now there are different dilutions and doses of creativity, and in some people creativity is much stronger than in others, and those people tend to be the people who turn out to be the artists. But all of us want to participate, I think, in this creative continuum. (351)

Hanif Kureishi provides advice on plotting, John Banville talks about the value of death, and Martin Amis discusses the particular value of the poet:

what the poet does is slow things down and really examine the moment with meticulous care and meticulous meaning, beset by small fears, and really try locate a moment of significance. (309)

The book isn’t all about business though. Many of the writers provide intimate and personal glimpses of their lives, and are often quite funny. Saul Bellow comes very close to asking Koval on a date. Les Murray takes Koval on a fast paced tour of his home – the land, and even the grave of his ancestors. Toni Morrison talks about why she kept her pen name. Anne Enright discusses sex and why it’s so prevalent in her books. Barry Lopez talks passionately about global warming. Always Koval begins the process by establishing a sense of safety and trust in the author which leads to a tremendous intimacy and honesty on the part of the interviewee. Every interview is a pleasure, full of insight and wisdom. This is a delightful book that bridges the gap between author and reader.

Article first published as Book review: Speaking Volumes: Conversations with Remarkable Writers by Ramona Koval on Blogcritics.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse , She Wore Emerald Then , and Imagining the Future. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks which contains a recent interview with Ramona Koval on this book.