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Interviews with Literary Legends

Posted on Monday, February 28, 2011 at 10:14 AM

A collection of wisdoms on craft and conscience

By Peter P. Jacobi

As with previous volumes of The Paris Review Interviews, so it is with the recent, Volume 4, as edited by Philip Gourevitch (Picador, 2009). The major rush that comes from digging into its pages results from becoming privy to personalities and adventure-filled biographical material, to author alliances with fellow figures of fame, compellingly expressed literary insights, and comments -- sagacious, satiric, and otherwise -- made about fellow writers.

Gourevitch edited the remarkable Paris Review for five years, stepping down just about the time the book was published, so to return to his writing (for The New Yorker and to complete a book about Rwanda). The 16 interviews included in this collection, done across several decades, reportedly constitute the final volume in the set. They focus on writers of prose and poetry who turn out to be sharing, each generously responsive to long series of questions.

And that leads me to elements scattered through most of these question/answer dialogues that deal with craft and conscience. I thought that passing along a few such wisdoms might be useful to you.


Poet Marianne Moore, interviewed by Donald Hall in 1960, said: "I am governed by the pull of the sentence as the pull of a fabric is governed by gravity ... I like symmetry."


Poet/editor Ezra Pound, when asked by Hall in 1962 about the greatest quality a poet can have, said: "I don't know that you can put the needed qualities in hierarchic order, but he must have a continuous curiosity, which of course does not make him a writer, but if he hasn't got that, he will wither. And the question of doing anything about it depends on a persistent energy."

Strong Plot

Humorist P.G. Wodehouse, interviewed in 1975 by Gerald Clarke, said: "I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I'm such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it okay -- you're sunk."

Prosaic Language

Poet John Asbery, who spoke with Peter Stitt in 1983, said: "For a long time a very prosaic language, a language of ordinary speech, has been in my poetry. It seems to me that we are most ourselves when we are talking, and we talk in a very irregular and anti-literary way."

Possessed Readers

Novelist Philip Roth was interviewed in 1984 by Hermione Lee and noted: "What I want is to possess my readers while they are reading my book -- if I can, to possess them in ways that other writers don't. Then let them return, just as they were, to a world where everybody else is working to change, persuade, tempt, and control them."

Make It Look Easy

Poet/novelist/essayist Maya Angelou told George Plimpton in 1990: "Nathaniel Hawthorne says, 'Easy reading is damn hard writing.' I try to pull the language into such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy ... I know when it's the best I can do. It may not be the best there is. Another writer may do it much better. But I know when it's the best I can do. I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, No. No. I'm finished. Bye. And leaving it alone. I will not write it into the ground. I will not write the life out of it."

Perfect Paragraph

Novelist Paul Auster and interviewer Michael Wood chatted in 2003. Auster spoke of the paragraph: "The paragraph seems to be my natural unit of composition. The line is the unit of a poem; the paragraph serves the same function in prose - at least for me. I keep working on a paragraph until I feel reasonably satisfied with it, writing and rewriting until it has the right shape, the right balance, the right music -- until it seems transparent and effortless, no longer 'written.'"

Details, Details

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami said to John Wray in 2004: "I like details very much. Tolstoy wanted to write the total description; my description is focused on a very small area. When you describe the details of small things, your focus gets closer and closer."

Tidbits from the Style Guy

E.B. White said a lot of things about the art of the essay to George Plimpton in 1969, just as one would expect from The Elements of Style guy: "A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper ... Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer -- he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words ... I don't think it [style] can be taught. Style results more from what a person is than from what he knows ... A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter."

And, as part of a summary to his interview, White added: "A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world. He must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation ... I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me."

I recommend the collection to you.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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