From “Don’t Everybody Talk at Once! (The Esquire Literary Survey).” Published in Esquire, August 1986.
The “article” consists of a ten-question questionnaire Esquire fiction editor Rust Hills sent to around fifty American writers.
What’s the greatest price you’ve paid in your career?
MAX APPLE: Over a career it’s more like a mortgage. You pay it out day by day and keep hoping that the rate will go down and some day you’ll renegotiate from strength.
VANCE BOURJAILY: $722,250—which is the difference between what my first nine books earned and the million dollars I’d have had by then if I’d made movies (if I’d had the ability).
HAROLD BRODKEY: The pain of clear thought.
HARRY CREWS: My liver.
J. P. DONLEAVY: Leaving everyone convinced I was a ruthless bastard.
STANLEY ELKIN: You’re sitting on an airplane, say, or talking to someone at a party, and the guy in the next seat or the person at the party says “And what do you do for a living, sir?” and you gotta say ‘I’m a writer,” and he says “Have you written anything I might have heard of?” This is the price I have paid for my career.
RICHARD FORD: Writers don’t have “careers.” Advertising executives do. The highest price I’ve paid is twenty-five dollars for a pizza Carver and I bought once in Port Angeles, Washington, in 1983.
BRUCE JAY FRIEDMAN: Little, if any, time on the playing field.
WILLIAM H. GASS: Ordinary life. We can’t find competent help to do our living for us. Another way of putting it: being an ordinary person in an ordinary world doing an ordinary job. What a waste of life that is.
BARRY HANNAH: Lack of peace of mind, lack of money.
KEN KESEY: Fame—it has made me the observed instead of the observer. Bad for a writer.
JAMES ALAN McPHERSON: I have been known to give up family, friends, and money in order to maintain my sense of personal integrity. I think it is this trait of character, whether or not based on “right” and “wrong,” that is at the basis of my work as a writer and as a teacher.
LEONARD MICHAELS: Marriage.
TONI MORRISON: Good company: that of my children and of friends. Much too little of both.
JOYCE CAROL OATES: ? (Perhaps I haven’t paid it yet.)
TIM O’BRIEN: My health, my golf game, fun.
PADGETT POWELL: You mean all the agony and wheel-racked whimpering before one can utter the good words? Or the booze and fractured homelife and fly-off-the-handle meannesses to the gentle folk around you? Or the loss of self-confidence. All that? Naa. I’ve gone scot-free.
REYNOLDS PRICE: I’ve been paid—thirty years of steady reward.
RICHARD PRICE: Too Much + Too Soon = Arrested Development.
TOM ROBBINS: I ’ve never thought of it as a career. A “careen” is more like it. And it would have been cheap at any price.
JOHN SAYLES: Writing is so much easier than the other jobs I’ve had. I can’t imagine any of it as “paying a price.”
BOB SHACOCHIS: The sacrifice of the artist is a romantic illusion. The possibility of forfeiture and loss is, if anything, democratic. Any person who makes a commitment to the pursuit of something meaningful is at risk.
JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN: Circa $5.75 for an Absolut on the rocks at the Hotel Dorset, New York City.