The Paris Review Interviews
Essential advice for writers, from the literary greats.
From the 1950s onwards, The Paris Review contributors have engaged in wonderful conversations with some of the world’s greatest authors: Faulkner, Gardner, Hemingway, Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates… These interviews may be, as Dave Eggers once claimed, “the closest thing to an MFA that you can get while sitting alone on your couch.” Hyperbolic? Perhaps, but the sentiment is genuine. The Paris Review interviews are exemplary: they are didactic but not condescending, they’re stimulating and informative, and above all, they go into the kind of depth one wishes most creative writing teachers would bother to plumb. In short, these are interviews with writers, for writers, about writing, and they don’t disappoint.
Volume 3 of the collected Paris Review interviews, edited by Philip Gourevitch, features conversations with Rushdie, Carver, Amis, Achebe, Waugh, Ellison, Pinter and several more. The upcoming fourth volume (to be released in November), will feature Pound, Styron, Roth, Naipaul and Auster. Let’s be clear: if you are interested in what one of your favorite authors has to say about the craft, it’s not unlikely that you’ll find him in one of these collections; with the exception, perhaps, of Pynchon and Salinger.
But the question to be asked, I think, is: How useful are these interviews for the advanced writer? Is this just a collection of tips for beginners, or will I learn something even if I’m already on the road to publication? These are valid concerns, because each volume of interviews, in paperback, is the price of a typical hardback… and so far there are four of them. So to answer these questions, I can only speak from my own experience as a writer trying to write something publishable. Are they useful? Absolutely. There is a moment in some beginning writers’ lives when they believe they’ve finally found a voice and a great plot, and they become, to put it bluntly, arrogant. No more advice for me, thank you, they say. They think they need to focus on developing their own styles without the interference of other authors. To a point, the idea is correct: it’s better to create something original than to be merely derivative. But the great advantage that these interviews offer is that they are full of different takes on the art of writing. Through the inevitable allegiance that we form towards some of the writers interviewed, we begin to be more discriminate in our tastes, we learn to ignore the advice that doesn’t apply to us and to adopt some of the intellectual and moral positions that made our favorite authors so influential. All this, of course, is only one part of growing as a writer. Still, it’s an important one, not to be dismissed as trivial.
The Paris Review Interviews are fun reading at worst, and life-changing at best. Learn how Georges Simenon, author of over 400 novels, managed to publish 6 books a year and still have time to sleep with “over 10,000” women. See for yourself the effect that working for a film company had on Ted Hughes’ development as a poet. Enjoy the rants on morality delivered by Norman Mailer, William Carlos Williams’ take on Emily Dickinson and the importance of words in poetry, and Carver’s claim that he sometimes throws away half of a story before it is complete in his eyes. I am writing of this as though it were a circus; but in a way that’s what it is. These are professionals, each in his own chapter-cage, giving advice that has the potential to awe. Any writer will benefit.