In Francine Prose’s introduction to BOMB: The Author Interviews, a collection of 35 interviews spanning 30 years, she repeats the word “conversation.” “Interview” suggests an uneven exchange, but “conversation” implies interaction between participants. Whether interview or conversation, the idea that two writers would sit and talk shop, and allow us to listen, is enticing.
The art of literary conversation, by whatever name, is certainly not new. Hannah Rosefield opened her review of John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist to a larger discussion of our cultural obsession with the interview as a way to look behind the authorial mask. Rosefield is dismissive of Freeman’s collection of 55 profiles of novelists, calling them “weirdly artificial…as if the writer is sitting alone in a restaurant or, sometimes, in her glamorous apartment, addressing occasional comments to the atmosphere.” Literary hero worship.
Rosefield isn’t enthralled with interviews as a whole, but her discussion is insightful. Many contemporary writers are known for their disinterest in the form — ranging from the prolific and visible Joyce Carol Oates to the prolific and invisible Thomas Pynchon — but she traces the displeasure back to Henry James, who gave his first interview in 1904, nearly 30 years after he published his first novel.
The magazine that has become synonymous with interviews is The Paris Review, which, as Rosefield notes, published a long interview with E.M. Forster in their first issue, Spring 1953. John Rodden, author of Performing the Literary Interview: How Writers Craft Their Public Selves, the first book-length examination of the literary interview genre, thinks George Plimpton “virtually invented” the literary interview as a genre for the “little magazine.” The magazine’s “Paris editorial office on the legendary Left Bank and [Plimpton’s] talented group of young expatriate co-editors gave the magazine cachet with both the American literary intelligentsia and with European writers.” Plimpton “became the bridge figure linking the ‘highbrow’ French and the journalistic or ‘Hollywoodized’ American interview traditions.” In practical terms, the form was perfect and inexpensive (free) for an ambitious little magazine. For authors, interviews were faster and easier to complete than original essays. Plimpton didn’t care much for capturing unrehearsed moments. He “was the first editor to work on revision after revision of an interview, making it into a sculpted artwork.”
Only an unrealistic purist would scoff at such editing. Rodden considers interviews performance art, simply another, very public genre for writers to play within. He offers a useful, provisional taxonomy of five interview types. Traditionalists “put their work in the foreground.” Their interviews are plain, direct, and marked by “self-effacement.” They “eschew all inquires into their private lives, and sometimes even questions about the relation between their lives and their work.” In contrast, raconteurs are storytellers who thrive on anecdotes, digressions, and asides: “traditionalists downplay their personalities, however, raconteurs display them.” They are performers. (Plimpton was pure raconteur).
Advertisers are self-promoters who “exploit interviews…to make their personae into objects of interest and contention equal to or greater than their work.” Provocateurs manipulate the form even further by defying the conventions of typical exchanges. Finally, prevaricators are liars, whose contradictory selves muddle any sense of their conversational words holding worth beyond artistic performances.
Whereas the collected interviews from The Paris Review lean heavily on the single author as authority, the pieces in BOMB: The Author Interviews are entirely different beasts. Francine Prose is correct that these are conversations, and they become quite fluid. I do not think it is reductive to agree with Rosefield that interviews are written for writers; in fact, I think interviews are more useful to writers than craft essays or lectures that are chiseled toward theses: “What people really want to know is what it is that the writer does that enables her to transform ordinary words — the same ones non-writers use all day, every day — into art.”
In that way, writer interviews serve a strangely utilitarian purpose. They open the writer. They disarm her. The BOMB interviews evolve into meditations on art and action. “Inspire” might be a thin word in our cynical literary present, but dare I say that reading these conversations made me want to handwrite excerpts on index cards and lean them against books on my shelves. Rather than dismiss interviews for their performative components, I am more drawn to them as literary duets. A great interview as conversation reaches the sentiment Wallace Stevens dramatized in “Of Modern Poetry,” that moment when a poem performs for an “an invisible audience [that] listens, / Not to the play, but to itself, expressed / In an emotion as of two people, as of two / Emotions becoming one.” The conversations in BOMB: The Author Interviews are like “metaphysician[s] in the dark,” stripped of introductory context or description of body language. There are only words.
Here are snapshots of some of my favorite exchanges from this worthwhile anthology.
Patrick McGrath and Martin Amis
McGrath: Do you see [literature] decaying alongside everything else?
Amis: Literature? No. I mean, they say the novel is dead. Well, try and stop people writing novels. Or poems. There’s no stopping people. I suppose it’s conceivable that no one will know how to spell in 50 years’ time, but not while the books are still there. You don’t need a structure. The autodidact is omnipresent in fiction.
Roberto Bolaño and Carmen Boullosa
Boullosa: Women writers are constantly annoyed by this question, but I can’t help inflicting it on you — if only because after being asked it so many times, I regard it as an inevitable, though unpleasant ritual: How much autobiographical material is there in your work? To what extent is it a self-portrait?
Bolaño: A self-portrait? Not much. A self-portrait requires a certain kind of ego, a willingness to look at yourself over and over again, a manifest interest in what you are or have been. Literature is full of autobiographies, some very good, but self-portraits tend to be very bad, including self-portraits in poetry, which at first would seem to be a more suitable genre for self-portraiture than prose. Is my work autobiographical? In a sense, how could it not be? Every work, including the epic, is in some way autobiographical. In The Iliad we consider the destiny of two alliances, of a city, of two armies, but we also consider the destiny of Achilles and Priam and Hector, and all these characters, these individual voices, reflect the voice, the solitude, of the author.
Dennis Cooper and Benjamin Weissman
Weissman: How do you find the language for your books? Everything echoes everything else in a particular way. You’re able to make the most intense things happen in a single, seemingly nondescript sentence.
Cooper: It’s a combination of things. The writing has a very strong rhythm. It seems half of what I do is maintain rhythms and fuck with them. I choose words partially based on syllable count and on sound. You don’t notice all this reading it necessarily, but it’s structured like music. Every sentence length, the way it moves, sounds…it’s all calculated to create an effect. In Try, I was working with a hyper-real version of how I talk or the way inarticulate Californian kids speak. The way you might start to say something clearly then wander, confused, and you’ll stall, then you’ll take it back and rush forward in a different direction, then step back, and try to sum up your thought…all that movement is so beautiful. I try to mimic that a lot, make it recognizable, but brewing it up with a kind of poetry.
Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat
Danticat: I think most folks would want me to ask you, those of us who’ve been waiting with bated breath for this book: What the heck took you so long?
Díaz: What, really, can one say? I’m a slow writer. Which is bad enough but given that I’m in a world where it’s considered abnormal if a writer doesn’t produce a book every year or two — it makes me look even worse. Ultimately the novel wouldn’t have it any other way. This book wanted x number of years out of my life. Perhaps I could have written a book in a shorter time but it wouldn’t have been this book and this was the book I wanted to write. Other reasons? I’m a crazy perfectionist. I suffer from crippling bouts of depression. I write two score pages for every one I keep. I hear this question and want to laugh and cry because there’s no answer. What I always want to ask other writers (and what I’ll ask you) is how can you write about something so soon after it’s happened? What’s to be gained by writing about something — say, the death of a father and uncle, as you do in your new book, Brother, I’m Dying — when the moment is close?
Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Safran Foer
Safran Foer: What wouldn’t you sacrifice for your writing?
Eugenides: I used to be scared of that line from Yeats, “perfection of the life or of the work.” I thought I’d never be able to make that choice, that I wasn’t disciplined enough, or committed enough. It sounded so painfully ascetic. But now I find that my work pretty much is my life. I don’t think I could operate without it. The lucky thing is that writing has only made me sacrifice things I can get along without: a frisky social life, a manly feeling of being “out in the world,” office gossip, teammates. You can be married and write. You can have a family and write. So you do have a life, after all. It’s waiting for you just outside your studio.
Brian Evenson and Blake Butler
Butler: Do you feel haunted by the things you delete?
Evenson: It’s starting to sound like that. I mean, all these possibilities of fiction accumulate. One way that a lot of my stories start is from reading something and seeing it go in one direction and thinking, Hey, I could take this in another direction. In fact, “The Second Boy” originated with a passage from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in which a boy falls down “a shaft or pit or chasm up the mountain.” The ambiguity of that phrasing opened something up for me. A lot of my stories come from the path that another story could have taken but didn’t take. They attempt to animate these moments that could have existed but didn’t.
Rachel Kushner and Hari Kunzru
Kushner: The polemical work is not a work of art; it’s something lower. It doesn’t transcend its objective to influence and explain.
Kunzru: It’s instrumentalized writing.
Kushner: Precisely. The novel ideally is not reducible to the political. It’s a journey toward meaning that transcends the frame of politics. Blood Meridian — just to think of a great novel that traverses the political — is not simply a book about the violent policies of the American government paying out for scalps on the Western frontier. It takes up subject matter that is inescapably political, but it builds of systemic violence a work that comes to rest only in the territory of art, where the thing built is so elegant and strange that it cannot be justified or even really explained.
Kunzru: I always get muddled between intention and effect. The author’s intention is never visible in a text — we know this as good poststructuralists. Also, we can read anything politically; we can read things that are silent about political issues against the grain. Maybe engagé is a useful word. I think the novel has to hold things open rather than close things down or collapse things onto a single polemic point of view.
Eldridge: Which brings me to teaching. Where do you begin with your graduate students at Columbia? What do you say on the first day?
Marcus: I try to stress how important it is, when you’re asking for the attention of a reader, that you’re doing the most intense, interesting, compelling, fascinating thing that you could possibly do. I focus on getting writers to recognize when they become bored while reading other people and why. And then why they might allow themselves that boredom when they’re writing. Students want to give themselves permission that as readers they won’t give to another writer. Graduate students in fiction are some of the least forgiving readers I have ever met. They tend to be very critical of almost everything.
Sharon Olds and Amy Hempel
Hempel: You also said one purpose of a poem is to cause another poem to be written. Does that work for you and for somebody reading your work?
Olds: I would think so. I often write poems after I’ve read poems. What I was thinking was that if you have a story all ready to be written and you don’t write it, maybe the next one won’t come down the chute. Was it Bill Matthews who said that we need to write our bad poems, because if we don’t write them, how will we get to the next one, which might be a good one? But of course, what you say is also true, that we inspire each other.
Tobias Wolff and A.M. Homes
Homes: How do you know when you’re finished with a story?
Wolff: When everything necessary is done, and I feel as if even another word would be superfluous — would, in a manner of speaking, break the camel’s back. That sense of completion comes about in different ways, and plot is only the most obvious of them. You should feel, when you’ve finished a story, that it has achieved a life independent of yours, that it has somehow gathered up the golden chain that connected you. This feeling is not always reliable. I often go back and revise endings that I was pretty sure about when I set the last period to the page. In writing, of course, everything is subject to revision. But I am guided, however roughly, by inexplicable instincts like the one I have just attempted to describe.