- The Paris Review Interviews, Volume 1
When the Paris Review formed in Paris fifty-three years ago, novelist William Stryon penned—and published as a preface in the journal's first issue—its simple credo: "The Paris Review would strive to give predominant space to the fiction and poetry of both established and new writers . . . [End Page 184] So long as they're good." Adhering to Stryon's core principle, the quarterly seduced readers with a mélange of creative work that swiftly went against the grain of literary criticism, in particular the New Criticism that flourished in every university English program and most literary journals between the mid-'30s and late '60s. The review's penchant for publishing interviews, however, manifests another story.
Titled as part of the Paris Review's "Writers-at-Work" series, each interview amplified the journal's idiosyncratic voice and piqued the curiosity of other editors, such as Hugh Hefner and Andy Warhol, who launched their own magazines. Like a short story, the interviews were (and remain) entertaining, paradoxical, didactic, mysterious and, many times, remarkable. Together they shaped the journal's reputation and redefined the concept of biographical literature.
Now collected in the first of three volumes, The Paris Review Interviews includes sixteen interviews presented in chronological order. Timeless and engaging, the selected interviews are characterized by the acuity, idiosyncrasy and wisdom that define the writer's life and work. Editor Philip Gourevitch says in his introduction that the interview's purpose, "is not to catch writers off guard, but to elicit from them the fullest possible reckoning of what interests them most—their lives and work as writers, who they are and where they come from, and how they go about doing what they do all day."
Laying bare the foundation of each writer's life—their hopes, fears, and habits—is what The Paris Review Interviews does best. We learn about Joan Didion's writing experience during her years at UC–Berkeley: "We [students] were constantly being impressed with the fact that everybody else had done it already and better . . . I didn't think I could write. It took me a couple of years after I got out of Berkeley before I dared to start writing." We discover Richard Price's yearning to return to writing fiction: "I never wanted to be a screenwriter, first and foremost because a screenwriter is not a real writer. You're not an architect; you're a draftsman." We are made privy to Truman Capote's writing method: "I can't think unless I'm lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I've got to be puffing and sipping." As the day's work progressed, Capote upgraded his beverages, switching from "coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis." [End Page 185]
History's influence upon a writer's experience plays a pivotal role. In the case of Kurt Vonnegut, his capture during the Dresden bombings in World War II eventually formed the basis of Slaughterhouse Five: "It was a moment of truth . . . because American civilians and ground troops didn't know American bombers were engaged in saturation bombing. . . . I said, by God, I saw something after all! I would try to write my war story, whether it was interesting or not and try to make something out of it." Elizabeth Bishop explains that while she was attending Vassar College during the Great Depression, "everybody was frantic trying to get jobs. All the intellectuals were communist except me. I'm always very perverse so I went in for T.S. Eliot and Anglo-Catholicism."
Structurally, the interview represents a form of compression, a collaborative effort between interviewer and subject. Though several interviews were conducted by a series of editors over countless meetings and sessions—some lasting for over a decade—editors offered each interviewee a chance to revise his or her words. Since the majority of the interviews can be downloaded for free on the journal's website, the reader may question its purpose...