The first issue of The Paris Review, a literary magazine founded by a group of young American exiles in France in 1953, opened with a ‘Letter to an editor’ written by the novelist William Styron. He disdained the usual rigmarole associated with the launch of a ‘little’ magazine – the grandiose declaration of intent, the windy generalities about the character of the ‘age’ and so on. The Paris Review, Styron declared, would simply concentrate on fiction and poetry, and leave the grinding of axes and the beating of drums to others (by whom he probably meant the New York intellectuals associated at the time with journals like Partisan Review and Dissent). What mattered was good writing.
Philip Gourevitch, the current editor of The Paris Review (whose offices are not in Paris but in downtown Manhattan), cites Styron’s anti-manifesto approvingly in his introduction to the first volume of The Paris Review Interviews, which are being published in this country by Canongate. The book gathers together 16 of the ‘Writers at Work’ interviews for which the magazine became famous and which embody Styron’s and the founding editors’ rather austere commitment to the craft of writing.
A good example is the 1958 interview with Ernest Hemingway conducted by Gourevitch’s predecessor as editor, George Plimpton. After a preamble in which he describes Hemingway’s writing room in Havana in considerable detail (‘Hemingway stands when he writes … in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu’), Plimpton simply asks: ‘When do you work? Do you keep to a strict schedule?’
Gourevitch thinks this preoccupation with how writers write is crucial. ‘When you ask them about technique, what emerges is that all these very different writers tend to be very well defended against the idea of serving anything but their own vision and voice.’ And the interviews themselves, in fact, which are all done in a straightforward question-and-answer format, are designed to give free rein to the writer’s voice – Kurt Vonnegut’s laconically self-undermining humour, for instance, or Saul Bellow’s strenuous accounting with his own talent.
The idea, Gourevitch says, is to ‘help someone create what is largely a self-portrait.’ There’s a difference, therefore, between an interview and a profile. In a profile, the actual interviewing is subsumed under the narrative voice, which belongs to the journalist; whereas in an interview, it’s the interviewee’s voice that dominates.
Gourevitch compares it with Socratic dialogue: as in Plato’s colloquies, where Socrates pleads ignorance in order to let his interlocutor draw the truth out of himself, the interviewer here plays dumb. ‘The most striking example is the Hemingway interview. Plimpton allowed Hemingway to insult him frequently, and this becomes part of the energy of the interview.’ By shutting up and taking it on the chin, the interviewer lures his subject into self-disclosure. ‘We ask people about their sleeping habits, eating habits, which way their desk faces. But that can tell you a lot.’
The illumination is hard-won, however. Many of the interviews were conducted in several sessions, often spread over a number of years, and are the product of extensive collaboration between editors and interviewees. Gourevitch claims, with some justification, that the interview attains the status of literature in The Paris Review, but it takes work. ‘I’ve come to realise that all art or literature involves a considerable amount of compression. Novels don’t take place in real time; several years of a character’s life are compressed into a hundred and twenty pages. And the interviews too are the idealised compression of a conversation.’
Some interviewees were more involved in the editorial process than others. Bellow apparently rewrote his interview almost entirely, and Gourevitch tells me, somewhat ruefully, about an unnamed writer he’s working with at the moment. ‘She was reading the edited transcript and said, “I’m a writer, not a talker. When I read this, I see what I was getting at and I want to write something. Let me have it for a couple of months.” Basically, we’ll end with a written piece by this writer.’
There’s a kind of generosity at work here, and it’s what makes the Paris Review interviews so good. The writer is invited to present to us his best face and to let us in on the sort of conversation we wish we could have had – like this, for instance: ‘INTERVIEWER: What is a twerp in the strictest sense, the original sense? VONNEGUT: It’s a person who inserts a set of false teeth between the cheeks of his ass. INTERVIEWER: I see. … I don’t quite understand why someone would do that with false teeth. VONNEGUT: In order to bite the buttons of the backseats of taxicabs. That’s the only reason twerps do it. It’s all that turns them on.’
‘The Paris Review Interviews. Volume 1’ is published by Canongate at £16.99