The art of the interview: ‘The Paris Review’

The Paris Review, since its inception in 1953, has run interviews with authors in a series it calls ‘The Art of Fiction’. These delightful pieces, especially the ones from the mid-1950s, the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, tell of a time before the internet, an era of gentlemanly sophistication, a boy’s club with chunky ink pens, Imperial paper sizes, chain-smoking, all-day drinking and the writer’s best friend, the mechanical typewriter.

The pattern for these ‘classic’ interviews began with a preface, an introductory text set in italics. This described the circumstances of the interview, the author’s home, the date(s) in which the interviewing took place, and intriguing details such as the interior of the writer’s home, office, his or her demeanour, the interviewer’s first impression of the author, and even a description of the clothing they were wearing.

Today, much of this tradition has been jettisoned, perhaps replaced by editorial photography, but the later introductions are seldom as charming; usually dreary recaps of the writer’s career, and no matter how eye-catching the photo, it never has the same delightful resonance.

Graham Greene, interviewed in the spring of 1953, emphasised finding meaning in his novels not in his interview answers; he stressed the importance of ‘childhood and adolescence’ in forming ‘the writer’, whose career then becomes one of making that private world public.

Some of the replies to the interviewer’s questions are disarmingly honest. Truman Capote, for instance, is asked: ‘Are there devices one can use in improving one’s technique?’ To which he replies: ‘Work is the only device I know of.’ And there are frequent questions about writing longhand versus using a typewriter. ‘What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine?’ the interviewer asks Capote.

‘I am a completely horizontal author…’ he replies. ‘I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in long-hand (pencil).’

Capote continues, ‘…I type a third draft on yellow paper, a very special certain kind of yellow paper.’ He writes in bed with the typewriter balanced on his knees, claiming to write ‘a hundred words a minute’. Then after putting his writing away for some weeks, or a month, he returns to it by typing out the final draft on white paper.

Capote comes from the school of writers who are superstitious about the writing process, which he admits ‘could be termed a quirk’. He believes in lucky and unlucky numbers (which I assume means even and odd), and he ‘will not tolerate the presence of yellow roses’ even though they are his favourite flower, nor will he travel on a plane with two nuns or allow three or more cigarette butts in a cigarette tray. And he ‘won’t begin or end anything on a Friday.’

The interview with Saul Bellow in 1965 took place over the summer and again later in the year – two hours a day ‘at least twice and often three times a week throughout the entire five-week period.’ He was ‘at great pains to make his ideas transparent to the interviewer, asking repeatedly if this was clear or if he should say more on the subject.’ The typescripts from the recording sessions were carefully edited ‘in pen and ink’ by Bellow. The interview locations were given as: Bellow’s apartment overlooking lake Michigan, on a ‘Jackson Park bench’, and ‘with beer and hamburgers at a local bar’.

Jack Kerouac was forty-five when he was interviewed. His thirtieth novel had been published earlier that year. He was living with his wife and mother. The interviewer notes that the house had no telephone. Kerouac writes ‘an average of 8,000 words a sitting, in the middle of the night’, adding that, ‘I really hate to write’ – because he is forced to creep about the house while the others are sleeping.

‘What are work-destroyers?’ To which he replies the distraction of literary wannabes seeking advice and short-cuts — or, as he puts it, ‘certain people’.

The interviewers often ask about the writer’s ideal reader. ‘Do you imagine an ideal reader for your books? To which, Anthony Burges replies, ‘The ideal reader of my novels is a lapsed Catholic and failed musician, short-sighted, color-blind, auditorily biased, who has read the books that I have read. He should also be about my own age.’

The spring 1969 interview with John Cheever comes across much like a meeting at one of the affluent households in the first part of his short story The Swimmer, his own stone house was built in 1799 – ‘a tour of the house and grounds was obligatory’. ‘For the interview Cheever was wearing a faded blue shirt and khakis.’ The conversation immediately gets down to the important things: Cheever’s dislike of curtains and ‘television reception’. Oh, the perils of living in the countryside.

Cheever changes the subject when the conversation gets around to his work. ‘Aren’t you bored with all this talk? Would you like a drink? Perhaps lunch is ready I’ll just go downstairs and check. A walk in the woods, and maybe a swim afterwards?’ Cheever has an office ‘in town’, which I’m guessing means Manhattan, not the local town. Cheever enjoys using a chainsaw to cut wood, watching television and playing backgammon.

Cheever’s replies are strikingly honest and insightful. ‘Do you feel drawn to experiment in fiction…?’ To which he replies, ‘Fiction is experimentation.’ And then he adds, ‘Every sentence is an innovation.’ How true. And when he is asked if he belongs to any literary tradition he says, ‘No.’, but then he elaborates, clarifying that American novelists are not part of a tradition. (Although they are now.)

Kurt Vonnegut’s interview was an amalgam of interviews that had taken place over the previous decade. In the seminal interview from 1976 – which has served to update the previous sessions: ‘He camps in an armchair in a shaggy tweed jacket, Cambridge grey flannels, a blue Brooks Brothers shirt, slouched down, his hands stuffed into his pockets.’ His writing desk is empty apart from a typewriter and the latest copy of Interview. Vonnegut is chain-smoking Pall Mall cigarettes; during the interview he smokes almost a complete pack.

Joan Didion comments on the male dominated writer’s culture. ‘…in the late ’50s early ’60s – there was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts.’ And, she adds, ‘A woman who writes novels had no particular role.’

While one might imagine Cheever inhabiting an affluent neighbourhood, where the gardens come with swimming pools as standard, it’s something of a shock when the interviewer turns up to working-class hero, Raymond Carver’s home, and there in the drive way is a brand-new Mercedes Benz, parked outside the pleasant suburban dwelling. Carver writes at a desk with nothing on it except a typewriter. Very minimalist, very zen; even though he is tired of the ‘minimalist’ label attributed to his writing.

Some of the interviewers’ preoccupations seem irrelevant or almost quaint now: the hand writing versus (the demonic) typewriter battle, the increasing (and apparently concerning) trend of authors writing journalism. The questions can sometimes feel like traps, attempting to coerce writers into revealing themselves, or committing themselves to a particular position, one perhaps of only passing academic interest. Ballard is asked if he is interested in ‘cultural decadence’ and when he replies – beautifully – about a fascination with ‘drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels’ he’s threatened with ‘inviting the worst sort of psychoanalytic interpretation’. This smacks of bullshit – Ballard is simply interested in maintaining a ‘mystery I never want to penetrate’. He’s never happier than when he ‘can write about drained swimming pools and abandoned hotels’ because it represents a paradox and a palpable loss – environments with a telling sense of something having gone wrong, no doubt.

Ballard talks about the preliminary work that goes into his novels. For High Rise he wrote a 25,000-word report from the viewpoint of a social worker. ‘I wish I’d kept it; I think it was better than the novel.’ What are his working habits like? ‘Every day five days a week. Longhand now it’s less tiring than a typewriter.’ He sets himself a target of 700 words a day. He writes the first and second draft in long hand and types out the final draft. He writes for two hours in the morning, a walk, followed by two hours in the afternoon, ‘Then at six a scotch and soda, and oblivion.’ When asked about giving advice to young writers, Ballard warns, ‘do anything else, take someone’s golden retriever for a walk, run away with a saxophone player.’

Image: Raymond Carver manuscript.