Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Writing is Hell

The Paris Review Interviews: Volume 4, Canongate


INTERVIEWER
Describe your reading practice. Did you read this book sitting up or lying down?

REVIEWER
I prefer to read at the end of the day, semi-recumbently.

INTERVIEWER
You read on a bed?

REVIEWER
Or a couch, yes.

INTERVIEWER
Do you use a tri pillow?

REVIEWER
Generally not. I prefer the organic feel of multiple stacked pillows. It feels less artificial to me. There’s a kind of primitiveness in it that aids the reading process.

INTERVIEWER
Do you hold the book in both hands?

REVIEWER
No. I use my left hand to grip the spine, generally at the book’s base. I use my left thumb for stabilisation, letting the tip of it splay rightward to within a millimetre or two of the text itself. This keeps my right hand free to turn the pages, which I prefer to do from the bottom corner. 

INTERVIEWER
Do you have any reading rituals? Paul Valéry used to adjust his gonads while reading. Joyce Carol Oates likes to get some “sounds” going on the stereo.

REVIEWER
I do like to have a bit of a “feed bag” going. Kool Fruits, chips – anything small.  

INTERVIEWER
Can you describe the contents of this book?

REVIEWER
It contains sixteen interviews conducted by the Paris Review. The subjects are all writers. Some of the interviews have been dug out from deep in the magazine’s archives, while some were done as recently as 2008. So we get long-dead figures like Ezra Pound alongside writers so contemporary that I bet you’ve never heard of them. 

INTERVIEWER
Let’s talk about some of the interviews. How did you approach the interview with Maya Angelou?

REVIEWER
Gingerly, having noted that it was prefaced by a draft of Angelou’s ode to Oprah Winfrey.

INTERVIEWER
And what about the interview itself?

REVIEWER
On its first page I encountered the following two sentences, spoken by Ms Angelou: “I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy – it’s serious business.” At this point I used the fingertips of my right hand to locate the terminal page of the interview. Then, bringing my wrist into play, I swept the intervening “chunk” of pages briskly from right to left.   

INTERVIEWER
You’re a skipper?

REVIEWER
When provoked.

INTERVIEWER
Let’s talk about some of the other interviewees. Marianne Moore, E. B. White, John Ashbery, Haruki Murakami, Orhan Pamuk, David Grossman, Marilynne Robinson … Why did you cough nervously just then?

REVIEWER
Er …

INTERVIEWER
Dear God. You’ve never read any of these people’s work, have you?

REVIEWER
But you should see all the other books I’ve read.

INTERVIEWER
You’re a monster.

REVIEWER
I’d prefer to say that the people interviewed in this book constitute a veritable laundry list of writers I’ve never read or wanted to read. I have, however, read a few of the people in here. 

INTERVIEWER
Such as?

REVIEWER
P. G. Wodehouse. William Styron. Philip Roth. Paul Auster.

INTERVIEWER
What did you make of the Auster interview?

REVIEWER
You may recall that I’m not all that keen on Auster’s work. As a result, I’ve never particularly wanted to be told how many drafts the man does, or at what point he switches from the quadrille notebook to the Olympia typewriter. It’s like reading the dietary secrets of someone you secretly consider to be a bit flabby. It’s like reading how many press-ups Kevin Rudd does each morning.

INTERVIEWER
What about the Philip Roth interview?

REVIEWER
The Roth interview dates from 1984, and I first read it a long time ago. As a young writer I was deeply encouraged to learn that even people like Roth have to struggle hard to get things written. “I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive,” Roth says. One of the general messages of the Paris Review interviews is that even the best writers find writing a wickedly hard business. This may be why a lot of reviewers like and recommend the books. Reviewers are writers too, and these books can make a writer feel less alone. Whether they’re of similar interest to the general reader I’m not sure. 

INTERVIEWER
I’m sensing you have some reservations about this book.

REVIEWER
Yes. There’s an American-ness about it that I was frequently irritated by. Remember that the Paris Review is largely an American operation, in spite of its name. Its interview compilations are disproportionately stacked with American writers, of massively discrepant worth. Volume Two of this series gave a guernsey to Stephen King, for example.

INTERVIEWER
Would you care to fashion this into a whopping generalisation?

REVIEWER
I’ll try. Americans venerate their writers, as they venerate their stars in any field. In a way this is healthier than the Anglo-Australian tendency to reward excellence with open scorn. But lack of scepticism has its hazards. Americans can be too ready to accord shamanic or oracular status to any person who writes for a living, irrespective of the merits of the work. During certain interviews in this book, you find yourself wishing that at least one of the parties involved had been born with a sense of irony. The fifty-page interview with Jack Kerouac is a hefty example. By the end of it Kerouac is either drunk or else in an unusually rambling mood even by his standards. Yet everything he says or does is faithfully transcribed, regardless of its fatuity. He picks up a harmonica, he plays the piano, he knocks the microphone off the stool.

INTERVIEWER
You don’t believe that getting drunk all the time can play a vital role in the creative process?

REVIEWER
No, but some of these interviews come from an era when that idea was in the air. William Styron, interviewed in Paris in 1954, reveals that he gets drunk every night, sleeps in late every morning, and writes in the afternoons with a hangover – which all sounds very manly and Hemingwayesque. But read Styron’s much later memoir Darkness Visible to find out what happened to his mind when he tried to stop drinking. It’s one of the most frightening books I’ve ever read.

INTERVIEWER
So what interviews did you like?

REVIEWER
The one with Stephen Sondheim is a standout. When someone as illuminating as Sondheim is talking, the Paris Review’s readiness to listen at length is invaluable. Sondheim is fascinatingly specific about the nuts and bolts of songwriting: how hard it is to find rhymes for the word “life”; why the 1943 Roget’s thesaurus is preferable to all other editions. He is a superb demystifier. “Art is craft,” he says, “not inspiration.” P. G. Wodehouse has some similarly tradesmanlike things to say about the mechanics of plot construction. As a rule, these interviews are at their most instructive when their subjects are talking about points of technique. When, on the other hand, the interviewees are encouraged to riff on metaphysical questions, the results seem to me far less compelling.

INTERVIEWER
Encouraged?

REVIEWER
Yes. At its worst this book has a whiff of piety about it. I don’t just mean that the interviewers can be unduly reverent about the people they’re interviewing. I mean that some of the writers in these pages are encouraged to air, without a hint of reticence or modesty, the details of their not very remarkable religious convictions. This too seems a very American transaction. 

INTERVIEWER
You’re talking about Maya Angelou?

REVIEWER
Not just her. Marilynne Robinson also has some very boring things to say about the nature of her faith. Not content to leave it at that, she takes a rather banal swipe at the New Atheists. She accuses Richard Dawkins of being “naïve” about contemporary science; she ludicrously implies that he, Dawkins, might not be entirely aware of the latest developments in quantum physics; and she leaves it to be inferred that these developments might somehow lend weight to her own belief in the Gospels. These are the kind of feeble arguments you’d expect to hear from an incensed person of faith giving Dawkins a one-star roasting on Amazon. A serious writer who wants to put a dent in Dawkins’s arguments should really address them properly – i.e. write about them at length. Robinson, looking to trounce him with a couple of specious one-liners, inadvertently demonstrates the limits of the interview form. Speech is a crude instrument, and beyond a certain point it will no longer do: you begin to need writing to do justice to the complexity of things. Maybe that’s why writers are moved to start writing in the first place – because off-the-cuff speech has become inadequate to their needs.  

INTERVIEWER
Does that mean that you’ll be running out to buy some of Marilynne Robinson’s books?

REVIEWER
I didn’t say that.

INTERVIEWER
A final question. Faulkner has said of writers, “All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection.” Would you put yourself in this category?

REVIEWER
No.