Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Paris Review interviews online: re-reading the cool, the hip, and the curmudgeon

That Kentucky man-of-rare-letters Ed McClanahan once remarked of his own method of writing that sometimes he followed his nose, sometimes his muse, and sometimes his muse's nose. One of the continuing pleasures of the internet's endless hall-of-mirrors is that occasionally one is able to reflectively follow all three at the same time. The Paris Review interviews -- sixty years' worth -- are now all available online, and they are a pleasure to have available at last all in a single place to discover, or discover again.

Lorin Stein, the editor at The Paris Review, is building a reputation for rejuvenating the magazine's literary cool -- by recalling the Review's freewheeling past. The New York Times, perhaps with just a bit of hyper-cool hyperbole, describes an office only lacking Terry Southern's expected appearance: "Mr. Stein, 37, is a proud throwback. His desk has an old-fashioned Rolodex, a vintage Lucky Strike case and a neat bowl of paper clips. A small, cream-colored saucer doubled as an ashtray for his Marlboro Reds. A martini glass, mostly drained of Tanqueray, rested near a typed manuscript."

That "mostly drained" martini glass with its Tanqueray -- there's the TS ultra-detail, the put-away.

Those who have wandered bookshops and old magazine stacks and stumbled on stray volumes of The Paris Review Interviewsin their multi-part book form are now free to spend leisurely hours discovering that their literary heroes (and sometimes, villains) are just as they imagined -- or not as the reader imagined them at all.

As expected, Eliot, Marianne Moore, Nabokov, and Faulkner cast long shadows, while Auden, Cheever, Anthony Burgess, and Kingsley Amis best one another's observations sounding as if they had cocktails in hand. (“After fifty, one ceases to digest; as someone once said: ‘I just ferment my food now'": that's Henry Green's witty answer in a 1958 talk with Terry Southern.) In a unexpected wistful moment, tough-guy Hemingway lets his guard down: “. . . the best writing is certainly when you are in love.”

A previously unpublished Ray Bradbury interview from the 1970s: "A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am. But it burns with a high flame." Dorothy Parker, Kurt Vonnegut, and Woody Allen all make appearances. And here's Guy Davenport on his education, sounding a common note of many writers everywhere trying to find their voice: “I learned early on that what I wanted to know wasn’t what I was being taught.”

Aldous Huxley, Reynolds Price, V.S. Naipaul, Joseph Heller, John Steinbeck, Seamus Heaney: for any reader, spending an hour with a great author is easy; far more difficult is stopping at a sane and necessary point amid the sheer volume of interviews. One unexpected idea sparks another and sends a reader scurrying from Shelby Foote's ruminations on dip-pens to Sam Shepard's views on the terrible price of story endings: “I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster.” Much the same can be said of Ted Berrigan's and Aram Saroyan's complete 1968 interview with an increasingly drunken  Jack Kerouac, as the talk literally careens around served drinks and proffered drugs:

INTERVIEWER What do you think about the hippies and the LSD scene?

KEROUAC They're already changing, I shouldn't be able to make a judgment. And they're not all of the same mind. The Diggers are different . . . I don't know one hippie anyhow . . . I think they think I'm a truck-driver. And I am. As for LSD, it's bad for people with incidence of heart disease in the family [knocks microphone off footstool . . . recovers it]. Is there any reason why you can see anything good in this here mortality?

INTERVIEWER Excuse me, would you mind repeating that?

KEROUAC You said you had a little white beard in your belly. Why is there a little white beard in your mortality belly?

INTERVIEWER Let me think about it. Actually it's a little white pill.

KEROUAC A little white pill?


KEROUAC Give me.

INTERVIEWER We should wait till the scene cools a little.

KEROUAC Right. This little white pill is a little white beard in your mortality which advises you and advertises to you that you will be growing long fingernails in the graves of Peru.

With an online collection as broad as The Paris Review interviews there are many surprises, and readers will bring their own judgements as to what can be glanced at or read in depth after a few interviewer's questions. I might have to read more of the stories of T.C. Boyle after reading his 2000 comments, and there are scores of writers whose work I'm just as eager to discover for the first time.

Other than some well-known names, the group of more recent interviews is less interesting, but that's more than likely due to my own lack of reading than any fault of the writers being interviewed. Still, it may give the reader pause to consider that in the craft of writing, even 
Stephen King can have his moments of doubt no matter how unexpected:

"Every book is different each time you revise it. Because when you finish the book, you say to yourself, This isn’t what I meant to write at all. At some point, when you’re actually writing the book, you realize that. But if you try to steer it, you’re like a pitcher trying to steer a fastball, and you screw everything up. As the science-fiction writer Alfred Bester used to say, The book is the boss. You’ve got to let the book go where it wants to go, and you just follow along. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a bad book. And I’ve had bad books."
In the new-old era of The Paris Review, maybe that's just King's way of saying he's seeing Kerouac's white beard in his mortality belly.

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