The Paris Review Interviews


How does a writer become a serious novelist?


Ninety-nine percent talent… ninety-nine percent disipline… ninety-nine percent work. He must never  be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.  

– Conversation with William Faulkner, The Paris Review Interviews, volume 3

Solid American literary magazine The Paris Review has recently started releasing anthologies of its interviews with novelists, poets, essayists and dramatists. Since the magazine was started in 1953 with the aim that, as Margaret Atwood says in her foreword, ‘all writers of note were to be drawn into their net,’ then the interview collections read like a symposium of the last half-century’s greatest scribblers.

And when we say ‘interview’ we’re not talking about the syndicated Q + A many novelists do when they have a book to promote. These are long discussions that delve into every aspect of the writing life: not just theme and narration but more prosaic and workmanlike matters like the typewriter versus the word processor and how to fit the craft around full-time work and supporting a family.

Except these matters aren’t prosaic, and I don’t think I’m saying this just because I write fiction as well. The interviews are an essential resource for the aspiring writer, true, but they are also essential for the reader. And it’s not like the inevitable disappointment when you solve the Rubik’s cube or find out how the magician does his tricks. It’s more like actually being there, in the place where conscious meets subconscious, where all the work is hammered out. Or sitting in a table outside the bar with the evening sun slanting down in a thousand different versions of America.

The dialogue goes into the personal as well as the literary lives. We get Raymond Carver’s alcoholism (‘Let’s just say, on occasion, the police were involved and emergency rooms and courtrooms’) Salman Rushdie on his assassination contract and Martin Amis on his relationship with his father (‘I’m almost certain that it was the introduction of a minor character called Martin Amis that caused my father to send the book windmilling through the air’). It’s striking that the interviewers know as much about the novels as the novelist, and make intelligent contributions: then you realise that this is how interviews should be and that the anthologies provide a striking contrast to the debasement of contemporary journalism.

All in all, these three volumes (and this is the last? Say it ain’t so!) take their place among the few books that are essential to the writer. The anthologies are hundreds of pages long but fly past like a raucous chat with an old friend. They will ignite your love of literature, especially American literature, and (at least in my case) bring on a thrill of anticipation that there is so much left to go.


2 Responses to “The Paris Review Interviews”

  1. canadada Says:

    cool, thanks for that …

  2. passer-by Says:

    I don’t know why everyone is making such a fuss over the publication of Paris Review interviews in book form, as if it was something new and amazing. *Nine* volumes of them appeared, under the title Writers at Work, between the mid-1950s and the mid-1990s, and they still turn up in secondhand bookshops and online. (The Faulkner interview is in Volume 1.) Funny how the publishers don’t mention them any more.
    At least I now know what that phrase “cultural amnesia” means!

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