Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 13 November 2008

All writers are Martians

All writers are Martians. – Martin Amis

No we're not.

Okay, some of us might be. There are times certainly I've felt like I don't belong. It's an odd thing being a writer. I wonder what on earth Amis could have been on about when he said that?

But let me digress. I like books of quotations. I grew up with The Public Speaker's Treasure Chest, in fact I still have the book. I devoured it as a kid. There were wonderful, striking, moving titbits from people I had never heard of … and even one or two that I had. But there's a problem with quotations, they're presented like proverbs, and that's how some of them will be passed down into history, little nuggets of wisdom to chew on, like: When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you (Friedrich Nietzsche). Great stuff. It's a thought-provoking sentence but only one out of a 240 page book.

This is why I was delighted when a copy of The Paris Review Interviews Vol. III dropped through my letter slot from those nice people at Canongate who are publishing the UK version. If you're compiling a book of quotations, this is a goldmine. Just look at that one from Martin Amis. Of course I'm quoting him out of context. You all knew that. And that is the great thing about this collection, there is plenty of context.

There are a lot of things to like about The Paris Review's whole approach to interviewing its subjects. In our sound-byte-focused society interviews are not what they once were. We want them to get to the point, plug what they're come to plug and make room on the sofa for the next guest. And that's not what The Paris Review is about at all.

Each interview begins the same way, as you might expect, with a little bit about the person being interviewed. That's helpful because although I know full well who Jan Morris and Georges Simenon are and what I might expect from them, not all the names were well known to me. Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer for instance – I was glad for a bit on him. He is best known for his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1959), which apparently is the most widely read book in modern African literature; something else to add to my Amazon wish list I suspect.

The next thing, before we ever get into the interview, the scene is set: we're told where the interview took place and over what period of time. In some cases the interview takes place over weeks, in differing locations and occasionally even by letter and phone. Other people chip in, too, occasionally, Karen Blixen's secretary, Clara Svendsen, for instance, and in the case of the ailing William Carlos Williams, his wife virtually monopolises the second part of the interview; she reported later that Bill, as she called him, had "been much entertained" by both her involvement in the interview and the fact the magazine afforded her such an amount of space when he got to see the proofs.

We get descriptions of the authors, pencil sketches, yes, but with a touch of colour and wit too. I was delighted by how Andrew O'Hagan, for instance, describes Norman Mailer in his dotage as "something Zeus-like" before proceeding to let Mailer recount an amusing anecdote about how often he finds he now needed to pee even taking advantage of phone boxes on occasion; it certainly puts him in perspective. The same could be said for Andrew Philips's description of Joyce Carol Oates from 1978:

Ms. Oates is striking-looking and slender, with dark hair and large, inquiring eyes. She is highly attractive but not photogenic; no photo has ever done justice to her appearance, which conveys grace and high intelligence.

So no photo then. Actually, and unexpectedly, there were no photographs of any of the authors. Instead each interview included a page of the writers work, like this one from Ralph Ellison:

Click to enlarge

So, before we even get to the first question, you can tell that these are not going to be your typical question and answer sessions. Yes, obviously there are questions and answers, some quite lengthy, but there is also a real feel that what we are privy to here are conversations; they mostly don't feel scripted. Some, like Pinter's, are interviews from the early days of the writer's career; others, as in the case of Williams, are at the end of his life (Williams literally passed away before the issue in which his interview appears was printed).

They take place where the writers are most comfortable. Evelyn Waugh for example:

"I hope you won't mind if I go to bed," he said, going into the bathroom. From there he gave me a number of comments and directions.
He re-entered, wearing a pair of white pyjamas and metal-rimmed spectacles. He took a cigar, lit it, and got into bed.

Cheever, a notoriously difficult interviewee, led Annette Grant a merry chase in 1976:

During the course of several visits we did in fact mostly eat, drink, walk, swim, play backgammon, or watch television. […] On the day of the last taping we spent an afternoon watching the New York Mets win the World Series from the Baltimore Orioles.
Afterward we walked in the woods, and as we circled back to the house, Cheever said, "Go ahead and pack up your gear, I'll be along in a minute to drive you to the station" . . . upon which he stepped out of his clothes and jumped with a loud splash into a pond, doubtless cleansing himself with his skinny-dip from one more interview.

Of course, with a book like this you jump to your favourite author. I've read and watched many interviews with Pinter. He interviews well and I could hear the rich sonorities of his voice clearly in my head as I read through his piece. What is fascinating is comparing the man he was in 1966 to the ailing man I watched accept the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.

All the above is procrastination you must understand. I'm sitting here with a book with 38 post-its sticking out of it and I've probably got another 1500 words max to mention some of them. There's no good way to do this so I'll just dive in. In addition to the bit I've quoted above, Andrew Philips says of Joyce Carol Oates: "One receives the impression that she never speaks in anything but perfectly formed sentences." That could be said of most of the authors in this collection.


All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel – and isn't that what we're all clamouring for these days? – is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.


[W]hen a novel is finished I always have the impression that I have not succeeded. I am not discouraged, but I see – I want to try again.


I don't know what kind of characters my plays will have until they . . . well, until they are. Until they indicate to me what they are. I don't conceptualise in any way. Once I've got the clues I follow them – that's my job, really, to follow the clues.


Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction. One never puts down a sentence without the feeling that it has never been put down before in such a way, and that perhaps even the substance of the sentence has never been felt. Every sentence is an innovation.

When I was excited about life, I didn't want to write at all. I've never written when I was happy. I didn't want to be. But I've never had a long period of being happy. Do you think anyone has? I think you can be peaceful for a long time. When I think about it, if I had to choose, I'd rather be happy than write. You see, there's very little invention in my books. What came first with most of them was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down. I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go. It leaves a sort of melancholy behind and then it goes.

A block is when we can't get through to the real thing. Many writers write a great deal, but very few write more than a very little of the real thing. So most writing must be displaced activity. When cockerels confront each other and daren't fight, they busily start pecking imaginary grains off to the side. That's displaced activity. Much of what we do is a bit like that, I fancy. Bit it's hard to know which is which.


Plots only matter in thrillers. In mainstream writing the plot is – what is it? A hook.
Writing is waiting, for me certainly. It wouldn't bother me if I didn't write one word in the morning. I'd just think, you know, not yet.

When I'm in my room with the door shut, nothing signifies except what I'm trying to wrestle with. Writing's too hard, it just requires so much of you and most of the time you feel dumb. I always think you start at the stupid end of the book, and if you're lucky you finish at the smart end.
I work just as hard when I'm not writing a book as when I am. I sit there and let things happen, mostly I throw away the next day what I wrote the day before. But pure creativity is just seeing what shows up.

And the thing is these are exactly what I was talking about at the start of this review, some of the most quotable bits from a collection of very diverse authors, playwrights and poets, from different eras and backgrounds all trying to distil their craft into a few wise words that the rest of us can carry with us to help us make sense out of what we try and do as writers. I'm sure readers would enjoy this book too but I suspect that it's the writers out there who will really appreciate what these various authors have to say, as Margaret Atwood says in her introduction to the book:

[These] interviews are a great encouragement to other writers, especially at moments of wavering faith. Why am I doing such an eccentric thing as writing? Is it just undigested neurosis? Why spend all day in a room, in the company of a bunch of people who don't really exist? What good does it do the world? Isn't it unhealthy? Why waste the paper? Every writer has such thoughts from time to time, and to know that others have had them too is reassuring: I am not the only one who has viewed the page with loathing.

There is some touching stuff here too, like Raymond Carver talking about the first time he was published – he took the magazine to bed with him: "I did more looking and holding than actual reading. I fell asleep and woke up the next morning with the book there in bed beside me, along with my wife." Or the fact that there's a word in the middle of 'Hawk Roosting' – one of his most anthologised poems – that Ted Hughes was never happy with. Or Martin Amis talking about how his father felt about his son being a writer: "My father said to me that when a writer of twenty-five puts pen to paper he's saying to the writer of fifty that it's no longer like that, it's like this." Then he compares that with Somerset Maugham's reaction to Amis's father's debut novel. It's quite poignant really. Writing is an ongoing thing. It's about time for the current generation to say to Amis, "No, not like that, like this!" And I'm sure he would take that better than some of his peers.

Bernardus Carnotensis is someone I doubt many of you will have heard of. He's better known as Bernard of Chartres but I doubt that'll help much. Most of us will be familiar with his metaphor, nanos gigantum humeris insidentes – that's "dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants" to you and I and, in time, I expect most of the writers in this book will only be remembered for a few wise words of wisdom. I'm sure Amis hopes it's not, "All writers are Martians." Here's your chance to find out just what he really meant when he said that. (And, no, I'm not going to tell you).

The book has been reviewed by all the big boys, and, since we've been talking a lot about quotes in this review, let's end with one or two more:

Fascinating . . . This book will intrigue and delight any serious reader or writer. It may even inspire.-- The Times Literary Supplement

As The Paris Review Interviews reveals, there is an art to the interview and a value to what it brings. . . . In the best interviews, the exchange of question and answer brings the authors to life.-- The Wall Street Journal

The most remarkable and extensive interviewing project we possess. . . A series of excursions, alternately purposeful and capricious, with side trips, stops for tea, and mystifications.-- The New York Times

but I'd like to qualify one comment made by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune which had this to say: "A stimulating, funny, and provocative snapshot of five decades' worth of (mostly) American literary history . . . The resulting conversations are luminous and often revelatory."

Of the sixteen interviews, actually only six are with Americans. Here's the full list and the years of the interviews:

1955 - RALPH ELLISON (American)
1976 - JOHN CHEEVER (American)
1978 - JOYCE CAROL OATES (American)
1983 - RAYMOND CARVER (American)
2007 - NORMAN MAILER (American)

1963 - EVELYN WAUGH (British)
1966 - HAROLD PINTER (British)
1995 - TED HUGHES (British)
1997 - JAN MORRIS (British)
1998 - MARTIN AMIS (British)

1955 - GEORGES SIMENON (Belgian)

1956 - ISAK DINESEN (Danish)

1979 - JEAN RHYS (Dominican)

2005 - SALMAN RUSHDIE (Indian)

1994 - CHINUA ACHEBE (Nigerian)

The Paris Review Interviews Vol. III is available from Canongate Books in the UK and was published on 6th November 2008. A Picador edition is already out in the United States.

Oh, one last thing, I just found out yesterday that The Truth About Lies is Canongate's Gatekeeper's Site of the Week. Wasn't that a coincidence? No, honest, it was.


Waterrose said...

Ok, I want that book.

Jim Murdoch said...

Waterrose, my job is done.

Dave King said...

That is a fantastically good post, Jim. Like Waterrose, it made me want the book. I shall have to have it, infact.

You mention that interviews are not what they once were, and that is true. Certainly, so far as interviews on T.V. for example are concerned, ione of the big differences seems to be that the interviewers no longer listen to the answers. They are thinking about their next (prepared) question. So no true dialogue develops and the discussion does not plumb the depths.

Anonymous said...

A masterly post, Jim. Fascinating extracts and bits of commentary. Hasn't Harold nailed it on writing? Following clues - that's all any of us do. Paris Review should bunging you for this plug!

Marion McCready said...

What a thorough review, jim! I enjoyed it but all my money's going on poetry books!

Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, glad you liked the review and, yes, interviews are not what they were. I actually saw Parkinson interviewed a couple of days ago and he was talking about the very same thing, how things used to be and where they're heading. And I see the Internet contributing to that. The thing is, I like a good in-depth look into something. Why do we always have to gloss over things?

Dick, yes, 'masterly' was what I was aiming for. And, seriously, this is a book to sit and underline. I've been intending to do a post about The Paris Review practically since I started blogging but other things just kept getting in the way. Well, now I have.

And, Sorlil, poetry is not everything. (I can't believe I just wrote that. Thirty years ago I never would).

Ken Armstrong said...

There's only one little error that I can see in this super post.

The line near the end should read; "The book has been reviewed by all the big boys... now." :)

Nicely done!

Jim Murdoch said...

Kenneth, size is not important.

Jena Isle said...

That was a thorough review Jim. Can you do mine? Proofread it kidding. I can't seem to comprehend how you must have really digested the book. Brilliant post!

Btw, I have given you an award and a tag at Gewgaw Writings. You deserve the award. You may or may not pick up.


annie said...

Terry Gross does OK. :)

While I wasn't dismayed at the direction the post went, I wish that writers as aliens had been the topic of discussion. For the past few months I've felt disconnected from and alien to my world; hearing how other people deal with a similar phenomenon is comforting and insightful. ;)

Anonymous said...

"All writers are Martians" - Yes, writers are Martians.

How many of the billions on earth can pen a 'War and Peace', or a 'Brothers Karamazov', or a 'Hard Times', or a 'Fathers and Sons'.

Art Durkee said...

Did you know that The Paris Review has a vast online archive of past interviews? Many of these you can download, too:

Maybe you already cited this, and I just missed it. I find it a great service, personally, and have enjoyed reading many of the interviews this way.

Anonymous said...

I like a "good in-depth look at something," too -- thanks, Jim. This was great (not to mention encouraging).

Jim Murdoch said...

Jena, glad you liked the review and thanks for the award. I've not put up the last few I've received – I really don't like clutter – but it's gratifying to get them anyway.

Annie, Terry Gross is new to me so I can't comment but if she's upholding the age-old traditions of the in-depth interview then more power to her elbow. Sorry the blog wasn't what you expected though. Maybe one for another day.

Parvez, there is a school of thought that says we're all capable if only we can make contact with that side of us. I think that's probably true.

Beth, glad you were encouraged. I was too. Couldn't have written what I did otherwise.

And, Art, yes, I've visited the site before – it's where I found the interview with Larkin I keep quoting from – but it didn't seem quite right to plug the blog over the book besides this really is a book I'm glad to have and I'm thinking of getting the first two volumes too.

McGuire said...

Writer's are Martians because they are Alien even to each other.

Jim, I'm amazed you only found one decent quote in Beyond Good and Evil. Nietzsche is one of the most amazing philosopher-poets, in my view. (Most philosphers are horribkle writers)...and in terms of quotability (not in itself a quality any philosopher should seek) is unrivalled. I'm amazed and disturbed.

'Doesn't it seem that moralists hate the jungle and the tropics? And that the 'tropical person' must be discredited at all costs, whether as a disease or degeneration in mankind or else as his own self-punishing hell? Why should this be so? To favour the 'moderate regions'? The moderate people? The 'moral' people? The mediocre people?-
Notes for a chapter on 'morals as timidity'.

-I always loved that quote, there a hundreds more.

Jim Murdoch said...

First of all, McGuire, I've never read Beyond Good and Evil, and that's kind of the point I wanted to make, that you can pick up quotes like this all over the place and I think it's a shame that so many serious authors from the past centuries are only remembered for a single sentence or two, if that.

McGuire said...


As ever, perhaps I am too hasty, but F.N. is highly quotable and perhaps that is a terrible fate for him, for anyone. To be remembered for merely a few sentences.

Jim Murdoch said...

And, McGuire, that's the best most of us can hope for. Just imagine how many writers have slaved for a lifetime to be forgotten completely in a few short years.

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