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February 02, 2007

Lilian Pizzichini asks, can you pick up tips on being a better writer by reading interviews with great writers? The Paris Review Interviews volume 1

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

The Paris Review Interviews volume 1
introduction by Philip Gourevitch
London: Canongate, 2007
Paperback, £14.99

I used to play cello. My mother kept me out of school a whole year to study music and counterpoint. She thought I had ability, but I was absolutely without talent. We played chamber music - someone came in to play the violin; my sister played the viola, and mother the piano. That cello - I played it worse than anyone on earth.
This piece of biographical information comes from Ernest Hemingway on being asked by a Paris Review interviewer if he could play a musical instrument. It is an exceptional insight into the great novelist's childhood. There are many such moments of revelation in what is otherwise a dry, soulless collection. In this instance, what could have been a relatively inane response instead conjures up a world ruled by a ditzy Southern matriarch mad about Mozart and Schubert and determined her offspring shall follow her suit. In terms of artistic development, what a lucky man Hemingway was to have had such an artistic, eccentric mother - and what good material she must have given him for future novels. Furthermore, how much, one is left wondering, did Hemingway's prose owe to his mother's misguided musical promptings and concentrated study of harmony and counterpoint?

The 16 interviews in the Canongate reissue (two further volumes are promised), date from 1956 (in which Dorothy Parker reveals herself to be self-lacerating, discursive and nostalgic) to 2006 (Joan Didion: concise, repressed, no diversions). The format of each interview is agreeably modest in its formality. A brief sketch of the subject in his or her habitat is followed by around 10 lively questions. They have to be lively because earnestness is pounced upon by eagle-eyed writers. The questions then generate unmediated responses transcribed word for word from the horses' mouths. There is no attempt to provide ambient colour or description of tone or manner. Each conversation has the immediateness of a radio Q&A session led by an incisive version of Sue Lawley. These interviewers know what they are doing, and they do it with love and respect.

The only points at which the format reveals cracks are in the interviews with Saul Bellow in which he explains his novels - what they mean, why they are what they are - rather than talks about writing. T. S. Eliot's interview is indescribably dull; he comes across as stiff and pompous, despite the reassurance in the preliminaries that he was chuckling throughout. Either Eliot was a subtle ironist in conversation or the transcript does not pick up on gentle mockery.

In the case of Hemingway, the mockery is gloriously obvious and the format contains his derogation beautifully. Early in the interview one senses he is stiff with resentment at having been interrupted from the task under question. He is asked:

Who would you say are your literary forebears - those you have learned the most from?
His answer is:
Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart, Quevedo, Dante, Virgil, Tintoretto, Hieronymus Bosch, Brueghel, Patinir, Goya, Giotto, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, San Juan de la Cruz, Gongora - it would take a day to remember everyone.
He goes on to explain that the answer he provides is an
examination of conscience,
and that the reasons why that is so would take a day to explain, just as it took a lifetime to be influenced by the above writers, composers and artists. He mentions harmony and counterpoint (as referenced above), and is thus led into reminiscing about his year on the cello. From one simple question, we learn so much. Writing is an inexact science and the formation of talent is a living process whereby the writer becomes truly human before becoming truly a writer. This at least is what we glean from Hemingway's interview.

Since most avid readers are writers manqué and only an insatiable reader would want to read this book, what we really want from this book is the inside track on writing. There have been quite a few books published in the past year on the art of writing (I've reviewed two of them - Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel and Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots - for this website), and of course, the creative-writing industry is just that: an industry. Hemingway always maintained that it was bad luck to talk about writing. It takes away

whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk's feathers if you show it or talk about it,
he once said. But, in a confusingly contradictory vein, he went on to write pages and pages of letters and diaries - even an entire (unpublished) manuscript on the very subject. He would offer advice to other writers on good working habits and discipline. All that talking didn't stop him writing. But his reluctance to divulge the secrets contained in the art of writing and the craft of re-writing reflect the mystique that surrounds inspiration and the wearisome hard work it entails. I wonder what he would have thought of creative-writing courses. They have never been more popular. Every adult-education institute in the land offers lessons on how to write the next Bridget Jones or on how to dress our memories in exquisite descriptions, and over-lay them with ingenious incidents and keenly delineated characters.

In his conversation with George Plimpton (the revered editor of PR), Hemingway talks of

wearing down seven number-two pencils
as a good day's work, and relates the joy of being on a roll. Writing is hard work, it can't be taught, but when it's good, it's wonderful.

Not always though - don't forget, Hemingway shot himself, so it wasn't all eagerly blunted pencils and celebratory tequilas - Joan Didion speaks of writing fiction as

a fraught business, an occasion of daily dread,
and of how each morning she retypes a string of already-written pages to get herself past "that blank terror". It really is a brave thing that writers do - looking into the void, that is.

Sometimes they find monsters there. Nietzsche once said:

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.
Speaking of which, Truman Capote, interviewed in 1957, when he was 32, talks in practical terms of working in bed, and being a
horizontal author,
and of his preoccupation with
the placing of a comma, the weight of a semi-colon.
But if you are really looking for tips on how to write a bestseller or literary masterpiece - or, God forbid, both - James M. Cain is the most helpful, practical, charming and generous writer here. He is someone I have never read, although I've seen the films - The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce - I am definitely going to read him now. Cain was interviewed in 1977 a few months before he died and he speaks as though there is not much time left. He talks of a Maryland childhood dominated by his tyrannical professor father whose emphasis on grammatically correct formal speech was subverted by Cain's brilliant rendition of American vernacular (if the films are anything to go by). He talks of the profundity that can be conveyed by
the roughneck who uses fairly good grammar.
Simple language conveys deep thoughts with poetic concision. Cain's interview is a wonderful lesson. His final words of advice are:
If you're not lying awake at night worrying about it, the reader isn't going to, either. I always know that when I get a good night's sleep, the next day I'm not going to get any work done. Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It's not all inspirational.
Albert Camus was inspired by Cain to write The Outsider. I think that says enough.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.


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"Stiff and pompous" is the usual complaint of those who want to be, but can't. I thought Eliot was genial in the PR interview, and quite helpful. It is surprising to find someone who reads Eliot's arcane conservatism and hopes, for her sake, to find irony.

Posted by: Janotec at February 3, 2007 07:53 PM
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