The Paris Review Interviews

I’m not in front of the curve on reviewing the fantastic The Paris Review Interviews volumes, but while I’m highlighting books that you may want to buy others (or may want others to buy for you), I couldn’t help but remind everyone of these gems.  If you haven’t picked up your copy yet, I highly recommend it.  Even if you’ve discovered that you can get many – but not all — of these interviews for free on The Paris Review website, it’s not the same as having these great volumes on the shelf where they can soak in your veneration for years.  Volume IV came out a little over a month ago (I thought they were stopping at three — thank goodness I was wrong), and it’s proved to be just as interesting and fun to read as the previous three volumes.  Now you can get all four volumes in a box set, though that might prove problematic if they put out a Volume V next year.

The-Paris-Review-Interviews

Each volume contains the original interviews published in The Paris Reviewof 16 luminaries of arts and letter (the art of fiction, poetry, criticism, screenwriting, even the musical) spanning the magazine’s life.  Consequently, we have special access to the minds of various literary eras, from Dorothy Parker and T.S. Eliot to Martin Amis and Peter Carey to Richard Price.  There is also a variety of styles, from Ernest Hemingway to Kurt Vonnegut to Salman Rushdie to Stephen King. 

But perhaps my favorite aspect of these interviews (besides the opportunity to hear the voices behind the works) is to see where the artist stood when the interview was given.  We get Hemingway nearing the end of his career in 1958, Eliot in 1959, Waugh in 1963, Wodehouse in 1975, Baldwin in 1984, Wilder in 1996.  Others we get around their prime: Greene in 1953, Bellow in 1966, Morrison in 1993.  There are even a few at their relative beginning, when so much more was to come (or not, as is the case in one of these): Ellison in 1955, Capote in 1957, Pinter in 1966.  Hearing their thoughts from that moment in time, let alone being privy to their writing philosophies and idiosyncrasies, makes these fascinating reading.  I list below the volumes, the interviewees, and the years in which each interview was taken.

Volume I:

  • Dorothy Parker — 1956
  • Truman Capote – 1957
  • Ernest Hemingway — 1958
  • T.S. Eliot — 1959
  • Saul Bellow — 1966
  • Jorge Luis Borges — 1967
  • Kurt Vonnegut — 1977
  • James M. Cain — 1978
  • Rebecca West — 1981
  • Elizabeth Bishop — 1981
  • Robert Stone — 1985
  • Richard Price — 1996
  • Billy Wilder — 1996
  • Jack Gilbert — 2005
  • Joan Didion — 2006

Volume II:

  • Graham Greene — 1953
  • James Thurber — 1955
  • William Faulkner — 1956
  • Gabriel García Márquez — 1981
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer — 1968
  • Robert Lowell — 1961
  • Eudora Welty — 1972
  • Philip Larkin — 1982
  • James Baldwin — 1984
  • William Gaddis — 1987
  • Harold Bloom — 1991
  • Toni Morrison — 1993
  • Alice Munro — 1994
  • Peter Carey — 2006
  • Stephen King — 2006

Volume III:

  • Ralph Ellison — 1955
  • Georges Simenon — 1955
  • Isak Dinesen — 1956
  • Evelyn Waugh — 1963
  • William Carlos Williams — 1964
  • Harold Pinter — 1966
  • John Cheever – 1976
  • Joyce Carol Oates — 1978
  • Jean Rhys — 1979
  • Raymond Carver — 1983
  • Chinua Achebe — 1994
  • Ted Hughes — 1995
  • Martin Amis — 1998
  • Salman Rushdie — 2005
  • Norman Mailer — 2007 (though he was also interviewed in 1964)

Volume IV:

  • William Styron — 1954 (also interviewed in 1999)
  • Marianne Moore — 1961
  • Ezra Pound — 1962
  • Jack Kerouac — 1968
  • E.B. White — 1969
  • P.G. Wodehouse — 1975
  • John Ashbery — 1983
  • Philip Roth — 1984
  • Maya Angelou — 1990
  • Stephen Sondheim — 1997
  • V.S. Naipaul — 1998
  • Paul Auster — 2003
  • Haruki Murakami — 2004
  • Orhan Pamuk — 2005
  • David Grossman — 2007
  • Marilynne Robinson — 2008

Another great thing about these interviews is the process in which they are taken.  Contrary to what is common in interviewing today, the interviewers are not trying to trap the interviewees for our entertainment.  They work closely with the interviewees, sometimes taking the interview over the course of days, then editing and then allowing the interviewees to edit!  It’s that last bit that might have some people questioning the technique.  Won’t they take out all of the good stuff?  Not necessarily.  These are artists, after all, and the interviewers want them to be able to express their most articulate response to the questions.  That is to our benefit, especially when the interviewee is allowed to revise for style, clipping out awkward phraseology or vague generalities.  These interviews are primarily about the artistic process and the artistic philosophies espoused by these artists, and it’s great to have these clear voices come through.  Plus, it’s the rare interview that doesn’t give some perspective on the subject.  Who knew that Capote was as self-satisfied and verbose as he’s been portrayed?  His long answers give us some light. 

Interviewer:  Were you sure then that you wanted to be a writer?

Capote:  I realized that I wanted to be a writer.  But I wasn’t sure I would be until I was fifteen or so.  At that time I had immodestly started sending stories to magazines and literary quarterlies.  Of course no writer ever forgets his first acceptance; but one fine day when I was seventeen, I had my first, second, and third, all in the same morning’s mail.  Oh, I’m here to tell you, dizzy with excitement is no mere phrase!

Then we have this:

Interviewer:  Did you have much encouragement in those early days, and if so, by whom?

Capote:  Good Lord!  I’m afraid you’ve let yourself in for quite a saga.  The answer is a snake’s nest of No’s and a few Yes’s.  You see, not altogether but by and large, my childhood was spent in parts of the country and among people unprovided with any semblance of a cultural attitude.  Which was probably not a bad thing, in the long view.  It toughened me rather too soon to swim against the current — indeed, in some areas I developed the muscles of a veritable barracuda, especially in the art of dealing with one’s enemies, an art no less necessary than knowing how to appreciate one’s friends.  But to go back.  Naturally, in the milieu aforesaid, I was thought somewhat eccentric, which was fair enough, and stupid, which I suitably resented.

That is only a quarter of the answer to the question, but it’s such a wonderful look at the man excited to be recounting his rise.  I love it.

And Hemingway was just as abbreviated in his answers as he was in his fiction. 

Interviewer:  Do you think the intellectual stimulus of the company of other writers is of any value to an author?

Hemingway:  Certainly.

….

Interviewer:  How do you name your characters?

Hemingway:  The best I can.

And as forthrightly crotchety.

Interviewer:  Do you find it easy to shift from one literary project to another or do you continue through to finish what you start?

Hemingway:  The fact that I am interrupting serious work to answer these questions proves that I am so stupid that I should be penalized severely.  I will be.  Don’t worry.

Thank goodness his serious work, and the serious work of many others, has been interrupted by this serious work.

7 thoughts on “The Paris Review Interviews”

  1. Rob says:

    Hi Trevor,
    These Paris Interviews volumes are exquisite aren’t they? However, there was only ever the plan of releasing 4 volumes. So good news in that the box set won’t be getting a ‘problematic’ addition next year, but bad news in that we won’t be getting our thrills from the publication of further volumes (that said I find it hard to believe that the powers that be will forever turn their back on such a ‘money spinner’).

    Oh and almost snap with regards to your book shot :)
    Warmest
    Rob

  2. Trevor says:

    So I’m a year off! I thought last year’s was the last and that Vol. IV meant that they were so pleased wig the project they decided to extend it. I guess it might be just as well; there will be more volumes in the future, even if they don’t belong to this same serires. Thanks for the news, Rob.

    And nice picture! I think yours is arranged much more creatively than mine ;).

  3. Nadia says:

    These are on my Christmas List. I was so excited to see that they had released a fourth volume. Can’t wait to read these! I’m really looking forward to reading the Jean Rhys and Vonnegut interviews. These will be such a treat to gift someone with.

  4. Trevor says:

    You will not be disappointed, Nadia!

  5. Stewart says:

    The boxset is sitting atop one of my shelves (I bought US, which worked out cheaper: strange that) and I keep looking up to it, wondering if should pull a volume out and delve in. Too much on my plate at the mo’, but hopefully will get through a few over Christmas.

  6. Nicola says:

    Darn, I wish I’d had access to these volumes when I was writing my Rebecca West dissertation! I love writers talking about the writing process. I suppose you need a certain amount of arrogance to see a book through. One to go on my wishlist.

  7. Trevor says:

    Good luck getting some time Stewart. Even if you don’t get a lot of time, though, some are very short!

    Nicola, I was surprised as well at how many of them come across as very humble, shocked even, that they are considered writers worth listening to. Definitely worthy of your wishlist!

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