There are some questions that you should never ask a writer – they are instant death to any hoped-for conversation. But at every literary party or book launch I’ve ever attended, the worst of them invariably pops out like a cork from a champagne bottle, straight into the writer’s eye: Do you write by hand or use a computer?
The Paris Review has been boldly posing such questions to writers since 1953, when this seminal literary magazine was founded in Paris by Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton, often travelling to the writers’ homes to accept their hospitality before plunging in with all those hoary old favourites. Do you use a notebook? Do you write in the mornings or at night? Have you had run-ins with friends or writers whose books you’ve reviewed?
It’s not surprising then that some of the writers, often the most interesting, have a slightly grumpy tone as they strive to maintain dignity, purpose and patience. In a conversation that took place in New York in 1956, William Faulkner (pencil–paper–whisky) appears almost as a parody of himself, like a famous Shakespearean actor gamely taking part in Coronation Street.
Interviewer: What techniques do you use to arrive at your standard?
Faulkner: Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique.
There is now a splendid new volume that brings together sixteen of these intriguing conversations with the Great Men of literature (apparently there are very few Great Women, only three included in this volume). The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 2 is edited by Philip Gourevitch and contains an introduction by the Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. While the names of the interviewers – often well-known writers th
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