The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III

How much you enjoy the third collection The Paris Review Interviews will depend entirely on how much you enjoy reading intelligent and thoughtful writers discussing intelligent and thoughtful subjects. I happen to love reading author interviews–even interviews with authors I don’t particularly like–and hence, I enjoyed this book quite a bit.

Covering sixteen disparate authors and fifty-two tumultuous years, the interviews here are by turns insightful, hilarious, strange, and at times, infuriating. The first interview (the book is organized chronologically), a 1955 conversation with Ralph Ellison evokes all of these emotions. One can almost feel Ellison’s restraint as he patiently replies to asinine questions like, “Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest?” and, “But isn’t it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority?” If anything, these politicized charges prompt Ellison to some of the most salient observations about literature’s universalizing powers that I’ve ever read.

In his 1964 interview, poet William Carlos Williams also sheds quite a bit of light on his art and craft. Interestingly, his wife is also a major part of the interview, discussing at some length her own role in her husband’s writing. Beyond literature, craft, and writing, Williams also sets another early theme that unites the interviews collected here–dissing other writers. He calls T.S. Eliot a “conformist” determined to set poets back twenty years. Evelyn Waugh picks up on this theme in his 1963 interview. Of Faulkner: “I find Faulkner intolerably bad.” And Raymond Chandler: “I’m bored by all those slugs of whiskey. I don’t care for all the violence either.” Zing!

Don’t feel too bad for Chandler, though; he comes off funny and earthy and sad in his 1983 interview, especially when he discusses his alcoholism, and how and why he quit drinking. Apparently, teaching–and drinking–with John Cheever when the two were teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1973 had a major impact on Chandler’s decision to stop drinking.

John Cheever focuses mostly on the writing craft in his 1976 interview–not much talk of drinking here. He does, however, share this insight: “Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction.” I’ve never liked Cheever’s writing, but he’s a great interview. In his 1994 interview, Achebe–an author whose fiction (and essays) I do like comes off as far more insightful and far less pretentious. On why creative writing classes exist: “I think it’s very important for writers who need something else to do, especially in these precarious times. Many writers can’t make a living. So to be able to teach how to write is a valuable to them. But I don’t really know about its value to the student.” Lovely. MFAs beware!

The interviews collected here are funny, smart, and very entertaining–whether its Achebe on general misunderstandings of his famous Conrad essay, Salman Rushdie on New Wave Cinema, or Joyce Carol Oates on Finnegans Wake, The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III is full of smart people talking about smart things–and what’s better than that? Highly recommended.

The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III is available October 28th, 2008 from Picador.