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what to read :: The Paris Review interviews

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As the name suggests, The Paris Review was founded in Paris. In 195 Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton set out to highlight fiction and poetry and diminish the then dominant role of criticism, although not abolish it completely. Throughout the decades, The Paris Review has scouted out some of the best writers of our time, often publishing them before anyone else. Some of these people include Philp Roth, T.C. Boyle, and currently literary star Rick Moody.

Along with original works. which have included short stories by Jack Kerouac, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Italo Calvino, The Paris Review has conducted some of the best interviews with intriguing and provocative writers of their day. Still being featured to this day, these interviews are available in full on The Paris Review‘s website, searchable by author name or decade in which the magazine published the long form dialogues.Here are some of my personal favorites organized by decade starting from the most recent and reaching back until the beginning of the archive.

In the 2010s R. Crumb, “perhaps the most influential cartoonist of his or any generation,” was interviewed after his illustrated book of Genesis was published. In the interview he talks about his experience working on the book as well as his history as a comic book artist, at one point explaining the role LSD had on his art.He’d come across psychedelics through the “protohippies” he’d met in Cleveland. “They started taking LSD and urged me to try it, so Dana [Crumb’s first wife] got some LSD from a psychiatrist, it was still legal in ’65. We took it and that was totally a road-to-Damascus experience. It knocked you off your horse, taking LSD. I remember going to work that Monday, after taking LSD on Saturday, and it just seemed like a cardboard reality. It didn’t seem real to me anymore. Seemed completely fake, only a paper-moon kind of world. My coworkers, they were like, Crumb, what’s the matter with you, what happened to you? Because I was just staring at everything like I had never seen it before. And then it changed the whole direction of my artwork. Other people who had taken LSD understood right away what was going on, but the people who hadn’t, my coworkers, they didn’t get it.”

George Plimpton, co-founding editor, interviewed Robert Giroux, an editor and publisher best known as his role as 1/3rd of the publishing house Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, in a series called “The Art of Publishing”. There they discussed Robert’s career including his first editing assignments: “Almost my first assignment was Virginia Woolf’s novel Between the Acts. Being a neophyte, I was amazed when Mr. Brace handed me the British proofs, until I realized why—there was nothing to edit.”

Scottish writer and novelist Andrew O’Hagan interviewed Norman Mailer on note-taking, style, and Hemingway. When asked if he remembered when he’d heard Hemingway shot himself he said, “I remember it very well. I was with Jeanne Campbell in Mexico and it was before we got married. I was truly aghast. A certain part of me has never really gotten over it. In a way, it was a huge warning. What he was saying is, Listen all you novelists out there. Get it straight: when you’re a novelist you’re entering on an extremely dangerous psychological journey, and it can blow up in your face.”

On writing as self-annihilation: “It uses you profoundly. There’s simply less of you after you finish a book, which is why writers can be so absolutely enraged at cruel criticisms that they feel are unfair. We feel we have killed ourselves once writing the book, and now they are seeking to kill us again for too little.”In a segment called “The Art of Journalism,” Douglas Brinkley, Terry McDonell sat down with the legendary Hunter S. Thompson and spoke about the San Francisco scene in the 60s, Ken Kesey’s influence on his writing, and Kerouac’s: “Kerouac taught me that you could get away with writing about drugs and get published.” It appears we have Kerouac to thank for much of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

In the 1990s the first participant in the series, “The Art of Editing”  was Robert Gottlieb, the renown publisher and editor in chief of Knopf, a division of Random House. As someone who feels that what happens between editor and writer should stay between the two, the only way Gottlieb would agree to an interview was if his authors asked him questions. In this interview you’ll see questions from Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison (who Robert convinced to quit her day job and write full time), biographer Robert Caro, among other instantly recognizable names.

Also in this decade is Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, and Susan Sontag.

In the 80s The Paris Review snagged an interview with Czech ex-patriot Milan Kundera, then living in Paris. Those who love Kundera appreciate his philosophical, historical novels. In the interview he discusses his approach to the craft: “In order to make the novel into a polyhistorical illumination of existence, you need to master the technique of ellipsis, the art of condensation. Otherwise, you fall into the trap of endless length.”

In an interview with novelist Doris Lessing the subject of gurus in the 70s came up. She told of a first-hand account in New York: “I think people are always looking for gurus. It’s the easiest thing in the world to become a guru. It’s quite terrifying. I once saw something fascinating here in New York. It must have been in the early seventies—guru time. A man used to go and sit in Central Park, wearing elaborate golden robes. He never once opened his mouth, he just sat. He’d appear at lunchtime. People appeared from everywhere, because he was obviously a holy man, and this went on for months. They just sat around him in reverent silence. Eventually he got fed up with it and left. Yes. It’s as easy as that.”

The interviews in the 1970s included A Clockwork Orange author, Anthony Burgess. Although his most famous novel is much-loved by anarchists, he spoke of discipline in writing: “The practice of being on time with commissioned work is an aspect of politeness. I don’t like being late for appointments; I don’t like craving indulgence from editors in the matter of missed deadlines. Good journalistic manners tend to lead to a kind of self-discipline in creative work. It’s important that a novel be approached with some urgency. Spend too long on it, or have great gaps between writing sessions, and the unity of the work tends to be lost. This is one of the troubles with Ulysses. The ending is different from the beginning. Technique changes halfway through. Joyce spent too long on the book.”

Also interviewed during this decade were John Gardner, John Steinbeck (who also made an appearance in the 60s), and Gore Vidal.

The 60s were a lively time both in life at-large and within the pages of the literary magazine. Featured interviews included chats with Jorge Luis Borges, William S. Burroughs, Simone de Beauvior, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Aldous Huxley, among others.

The 50s were not sparse on intellectuals either with T.S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, Ernest Hemingway, and Dorothy Parker—who starts out talking about her work at Vogue and Vanity Fair.

Anyone who takes literature, publishing, and the writing life, in general, serious owes a great debt to this brilliant literary magazine.


Written by Gabrielle

May 10, 2011 at 9:46 am

Posted in books

Tagged with , , ,

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