I have interviewed and I have been interviewed. No, that's incorrect. I've been questioned and I've asked questions. There is a difference. On the surface, of course, an interview is simply a list of questions and answers, whats and wheres and how-did-yous, but a Q&A is not an interview. They're hard to pull off and I don’t think I’ve mastered the art yet. Sometimes it's the fault of the interviewer, sometimes it's the interviewee.
The Paris Interviews Vol. 4 is a mixed bag. As with the previous collections it spans decades. Some writers are at the beginnings of their careers, others are into the final verse of their swansongs. Ezra Pound was well enough to complete his interview over three days but proved too poorly to finish proofreading it. Who knows what he might have changed or added. Perhaps it's the better without the rough edges trimmed, more like the man himself (we'll never know) whereas Marianne Moore saw fit to correct herself in a footnote, a minor faux pas which I certainly would never have caught but it's nice to get things right.
There are poets in this collection, novelists, an essayist (E. B. White) and even a songwriter if you can call Stephen Sondheim merely a songwriter; no playwrights though although I'm sure one or two of them will have had a crack at a play.
Apart from crisscrossing the various literary forms the interviewees are from all over the globe although this is edition is top-heavy on Americans. Even the one Briton has lived in America for years:
- United Kingdom: P. G. Wodehouse
- Trinidad: V. S. Naipaul
- Japan: Haruki Murakami
- Turkey: Orhan Pamuk
- Israel: David Grossman
So, when faced with a roster like that who would you pick to read first? For me it was a no-brainer: Wodehouse; not because he was the only Brit, but because I wanted to start off with someone who was effusive and enthusiastic about what he did and had been doing for seventy-odd years. I haven't done the sums but I'm sure Pound could have given him a run for his money but I also knew what to expect from Pound and I didn't feel like bombastics. These two were the oldest writers interviewed and both indeed passed away not long afterwards. Marilynne Robinson is the baby of the bunch. Although born in 1943 her first novel was only published in 1980.
One thinks of Wodehouse as quintessentially English so it surprised me to find that he had lived in America albeit "on twelve acres in Remsenburg, a pretty, quiet little town in eastern Long Island" for a great many years. There was much to make me smile here. Whereas many of the other authors in the volume are intense, there's none of that here, but there is passion undoubtedly. No, 'passion' is not right – 'delight', that's the word. I'm not an optimist – far from it – and so when I find watching and listening to them endlessly fascinating: how can people be like that? Here's the opening of the interview:
You're ninety-one now, aren't you?
Ninety-one and a half! Ninety-two in October.
You don't have any trouble reading now, do you?
How about writing?
Oh, as far as the brain goes, I'm fine. I've just finished another novel, in fact. I've got a wonderful title for it, Bachelors Anonymous. Don't you think that's good? Yes, everybody likes that title. Peter Schwed, my editor at Simon and Schuster, nearly always alters my titles, but he raved over that one. I think the book is so much better than my usual stuff that I don't know how I can top it. It really is funny. It's worked out awfully well. I'm rather worried about the next one. It will be a letdown almost. I don't want to be like Bernard Shaw. He turned out some awfully bad stuff in his nineties. He said he knew the stuff was bad but he couldn't stop writing.
Yes, of course he's talking about Shaw but he's also talking about himself. He could also be talking about most of the writers represented here.
The one that for some reason surprised me was Kerouac. I doubt Wodehouse and Kerouac are often mentioned in the same sentence but they have one thing in common, their effervescence. Both literally bubble over with the joy of writing. Kerouac even writes a poem there and then in the middle of the interview:
How do you write haiku?
Haiku? You want to hear haiku? You see you got to compress into three short lines a great big story. First you start with a haiku situation – so you see a leaf, as I told her the other night, falling on the back of a sparrow during a great big October wind storm. A big leaf falls on the back of a sparrow. How are you going to compress that into three lines? Now in Japanese you got to compress it into seventeen syllables. We don’t have to do that in American – or English – because we don’t have the same syllabic bullshit that your Japanese language has. So you say: "Little sparrow" – you don't have to say little – everybody knows a sparrow is little because they fall so you say:
with big leaf on its back –
No good, don't work, I reject it.
A little sparrow
when an autumn leaf suddenly sticks to its back
from the wind.
Hah, that does it. No, it's a bit too long. See? It's already a bit too long, Berrigan, you know what I mean?
Seems like there's an extra word or something, like when. How about leaving out when? Say:
an autumn leaf suddenly sticks to its back –
from the wind!
Hey, that’s all right. I think when was the extra word. You got the right idea there, O'Hara! "A sparrow, an autumn leaf suddenly" – we don't have to say suddenly do we?
an autumn leaf sticks to its back –
from the wind!
[Kerouac writes final version into a spiral notebook.]
Okay, so it's not great poetry but it may become great later. I say 'later' because earlier in the interview Kerouac admitted:
[H]aiku is best reworked and revised. I know, I tried. It has to be completely economical, no foliage and flowers and language rhythm, it has to be a simple little picture in three lines. At least that's the way the old masters did it, spending months on three little lines…
After the formal interview had been completed Kerouac said to the two interviewers:
So, you boys are poets, hey? Well, let's hear some of your poetry.
and they ended up spending another hour with him reading their own stuff which was nice, I thought.
I can't imagine V. S. Naipaul being like that. In his introduction the interviewer remarked that he "can be a difficult companion" and yet, despite his "edginess … the slight air of unpredictability" and the fact that the man's "neurotic circuitry is still buzzing" he conceded, much to my surprise knowing what I know about him, that "Naipaul proved to be an interviewer's delight." The bottom line is that Naipaul does not suffer fools gladly and several times throughout the interview which was "culled from a series of conversations in New York and India" you often see him saying things like this to his interviewer:
Try it again. Rephrase it. Make it simple and concrete so we can deal with it.
Be concrete. Where am I rough? Where have you found me harsh? Give me an example.
I had expected Pound to come across much the same way so I didn't rush to read his interview but I was pleasantly pleased by what I found there. He is direct and does not pussyfoot around the issues but I was particularity impressed by his answer to this question:
You have given advice to the young all your life. Do you have anything special to say to them now?
To improve their curiosity and not to fake. But that is not enough. The mere registering of bellyache and the mere dumping of the ashcan is not enough. In fact the University of Pennsylvania student Punchbowl used to have as its motto, "Any damn fool can be spontaneous."
and in another part of the interview when asked what the greatest quality a poet can have:
I don’t know that you can put the needed qualities in hierarchical order, but he must have a continuous curiosity, which of course does not make him a writer, but if he hasn’t got that he will wither.
Having beaten my head against his Cantos as a young man I was pleased to hear him admit though that "the writing is too obscure as it stands" – and here I thought I was just thick.
I found myself working through the poets first of all, after Wodehouse that is. Some I knew better than others but probably the one I enjoyed the most was Marianne Moore. The interviewer says that "Miss Moore spoke with an accustomed scrupulosity, and with a humour that her readers will recognise." What a lovely word – scrupulosity – and so apt too. I had seen an interview with her recently – the first time I'd ever heard her speak – and so I suspect that's why this particular interview came so alive to me. I was particularly struck by this admission:
I disliked the term "poetry" for any but Chaucer's or Shakespeare's or Dante's. I do not now feel my original hostility to the word, since it is a convenient, almost unavoidable term for the thing (although hardly for me – my observations, experiments in rhythm, or exercises in composition). What I write, as I have said before, could only be called poetry because there is no other category in which to put it.
It never occurred to me that what I wrote was something to define. I am governed by the pull of the sentence as the pull of a fabric is governed by gravity.
Very striking. She never set out to be a poet. Painting was the top of her artistic interests. In fact she says:
I have a passion for rhythm and accent and so I blundered into versifying.
Ashbery was exactly the same:
I had tried painting earlier, but I found that poetry was easier than painting.
I had a similar experience. With me it was between painting, composing and writing and, for much the same reason, writing won out. I was interested too by a similar remark he makes to Moore's above in answer to this question:
When you say that sometimes you think your poetry is weird, what do you mean exactly?
Every once in a while I will pick up a page and it has something, but what is it? It seems so unlike what poetry "as we know it" is. But at other moments I feel very much at home with it. It's a question of a sudden feeling of unsureness at what I'm doing, wondering why I am writing the way I am, and also not feeling the urge to write in another way.
Before I move away from the poets I’d like to highlight a couple of things that Ashbery said when asked what determines a line break for him. He talks about a couple of examples and then admits:
[A]lthough the line break is very important to me, I don’t really understand how I know when it is supposed to happen.
When I was in college, I used to write a kind of four-beat line, which seemed much more real, genuine, to me [than iambic pentameters]. Now I guess it is free verse, whatever that is.
It came as no great surprise when a couple of pages later he is asked for the “indispensable element” that makes something into poetry he says it’s one of those “good but unanswerable questions.” Of course I have to agree with him, you can’t define poetry in a sound bite and once you start listing all the things that can and can’t be poetry the resultant document is closer to legalese than anything else.
You kind of expect a writer who’s been at it for years, and with some success, to know what they’re doing and to be able to explain what they’re doing in words, the tools of their trade. If the poets had a hard time explaining how they went about their business the prosers don’t fare much better. Paul Auster (who “died as a poet” but was “reborn as a novelist”) freely admits:
No book I've ever published has ever turned out as I thought it would. Characters and episodes disappear; other characters and episodes develop as I go along. You find the book in the process of doing it. [italics mine]
He then illustrates this finding process by talking about how his novel Mr. Vertigo “seemed to acquire a life of its own” and grew from the short story he thought he was writing into a full-blown novel:
Writing has always been like that for me. Slowly blundering my way toward consciousness.
Another blunderer! That “blundering”, for Auster at least, takes place one paragraph at a time:
The paragraph seems to be my natural unit of composition. The line is the unit of a poem, the paragraph serves the same function in prose – at least for me. I keep working on a paragraph until I feel reasonably satisfied with it, writing and rewriting until it has the right shape, the right balance, the right music – until it seems transparent and effortless, no longer “written”. That paragraph can take a day to complete or half a day, or an hour, or three days.
I can empathise with Auster quite a bit actually having written only poetry for twenty years before finding myself expressing my thoughts in prose. With me it was three years, with Auster a year, of “wallowing in the doldrums” before picking up a pen and finding that “the words came out as prose” but I agree emphatically with his reasoning because it was exactly how I felt at the time:
The only thing that mattered was saying the thing that needed to be said. Without regard to preestablished conventions, without worrying about what it sounded like.
In interviews of this nature it’s inevitable that there will be a number of questions that even the most inventive interviewer will be hard-pressed to avoid, questions like: Do you enjoy writing? or Does writing come easily to you? Young or old the answers are much the same. In answer to the first question, William Styron, a writer I’m unfamiliar with, answered forcibly:
I certainly don’t. I get a fine warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much neglected by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it, writing is hell.
Marilynne Robinson answered the second question with:
The difficulty cannot be overstated. But at its best, it involves a state of concentration that is a satisfying experience, no matter how difficult or frustrating. The sense of being focused like that is a marvellous feeling.
Whereas, for Auster, the paragraph is the most important component of a book, for the Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, it is the chapter, and no feeling his way along either:
The division of a book into chapters is very important for my way of thinking. When writing a novel, if I know the whole story line in advance – and most of the time I do – I divide it into chapters and think up the details of what I’d like to happen in each. I don’t necessarily start with the first chapter and write all the others in order. When I’m blocked, which is not a grave thing for me, I continue writing whatever takes my fancy. I may write from the first to the fifth chapter, then if I’m not enjoying it I skip to number fifteen and continue from there.
Do you mean that you map out the entire book in advance?
Everything. ... But the final chapter I always write at the end. That is definite. I like to tease myself, ask myself what the ending should be. I can only execute the ending once.
The odd man out in this collection, of course, is Stephen Sondheim. Of course he’s not just a songwriter – far from it – but I was still surprised to find he’d studied under the composer Milton Babbitt whom he describes quite rightly as “the avant-gardist’s avant-gardist.” Not only that but he’d asked Babbitt to teach him atonal music. I loved Babbitt’s response:
He said, There’s no point until you’ve exhausted tonal resources for yourself. You haven’t, have you? I said, No, and I suspect I’ll never want to. So I never did study atonal music.
It reminds me so much of Schoenberg’s comment: “There is still plenty of good music to be written in C major.” I think this is something that a lot of writers can relate to as well because there are plenty of avant-garde writers out there and it must be tempting to abandon the humble sentence, to set language free and see where it takes you. The simple fact is when I look at writers like Pinget I have to realise that I don’t think like that so how could I possibly expect to write like that?
Of all the writers in the book the one I expected to relate to the least was Haruki Murakami. I imagined that the cultural divide would be too wide to bridge. There were things about him that I did relate to. Like me he was also a late starter – he was twenty-nine – and, like me, finding that he was writing a novel “was a surprise” but he “got used to it instantly.” He tells the interviewer: “I just started to write a novel out of the blue. I wanted to write something but I didn’t know how.” Like me he’s also something of a loner. He has no friends who are writers. Unlike me, though, he prefers not to write reviews. He says: “I think my job is to observe people and the world, and not to judge them.”
Overall this is a solid collection and I don’t think it really matters too much whether you’ve read an author or are even unfamiliar with their work. For those of you who are interested in the creative process every one of these interviews is fascinating. I actually think few people will be able to hold their hands up and say they love every writer listed here but I wouldn’t let that put you off. That said a familiarity with the background to each writer would stand you in good stead. A lot of names are dropped – of individuals, of groups, of magazines – and no one explains who these are, like the reference to Babbitt above, I expect few will have heard of him and only a select few of those will have heard anything by him and a precious few will own anything by him and, yes, that would include me.
At the start I mentioned the quality of the interviews and the main thing you can say about them is that interviewers were chosen who knew their subjects well and could happily reference works and incidents from their subjects’ lives accurately; you never get the impression that they’re pawing though their notes at any point. We also get a detailed note of the setting of the interview, the circumstances and over what period of time it took place: Maya Angelou’s took place, for example, on the stage of the YMHA on Manhattan’s upper East Side in front of a large, predominately female, audience; David Grossman’s took place over four consecutive days; Roth’s had a gap of six months in the middle and what we get to read was heavily edited and revised; there was a similarly long gap in the interview with Auster; Wodehouses’s interview took place over several sessions interrupted only by a break to watch his favourite soap opera:
I understand that you’re going to watch The Edge of Night with me. That’s splendid!
Splendid! Yes, not a word that gets overused these days but a good word to finish this article on. Impossible to cover everything in this book and I wouldn’t even try. I’ve tried to include a bit of everyone but I see a few only get name checks. Suffice to say this is a splendid collection and will keep you entertained for days. And the great thing, of course, is that you can read it in any old order you fancy.