The Paris Review Interviews

Paris Review

The Paris Review, a quarterly literary magazine, was started in Paris in 1953 by George Plimpton, Harold L. Humes, and Peter Matthiessen.  William Styron stated the magazine’s goal in the first issue: “The Paris Review hopes to emphasize creative work—fiction and poetry—not to the exclusion of criticism, but with the aim in mind of merely removing criticism from the dominating place it holds in most literary magazines.”

Plimpton edited the magazine from its founding until his death in 2003.  In 1973 the magazine moved from Paris to New York City, but retained its original name.  Plimpton was succeeded by Philip Gourevitch in 2005, but he left in 2009 to pursue his writing career.  In 2010 Lorin Stein became the editor and remains in that post.

Paris Review Interviews

One of the treasures of The Paris Review is its interviews of well-known writers.  In 2006 Gourevitch oversaw the publication in book form of four volumes of interviews, and in late-2010 Stein made all of the magazine’s interviews available free of charge over the internet.  The list of people interviewed is staggering.  They include E. M. Forster (the first peerson interviewed), Thornton Wilder, Robert Penn Warren, William Styron, James Thurber, Irwin Shaw, George Simenon, Dorothy Parker, Françose Sagan, Alberto Moravia, Frank O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, and William Faulkner.  And those are only some of those who were interviewed during the 1950s.  If you enjoy getting inside the heads of writers, you’ll love these interviews.

To get to the interviews click here.  Then click on “Decade” to choose a decade that interests you, or choose “Name” to see the list of interviewees in alphabetical order.

Below are a few quotes from some notable authors who have been interviewed.  I found it difficult to choose which of the many celebrated authors to select.  And then choosing only one quote from each was even more difficult.

“I will say of the writers of today that some of them, thank God, have the sense to adapt to their times.  Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead is a great book.  And I thought William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness an extraordinary thing.  The start of it took your heart and flung it over there.  He writes like a god.  But for most of my reading I go back to the old ones—for comfort.  As you get older you go much farther back.  I read Vanity Fair about a dozen times a year.  I was a woman of eleven when I first read it—the thrill of that line ‘George Osborne lay dead with a bullet through his head.’  Sometimes I read, as an elegant friend of mine calls them, ‘who-did-its.’  I love Sherlock Holmes.  My life is so untidy and he’s so neat.  But as for living novelists, I suppose E. M. Forster is the best, not knowing what that is, but at least he’s a semifinalist, wouldn’t you think?  Somerset Maugham once said to me, ‘We have a novelist over here, E. M. Forster, though I don’t suppose he’s familiar to you.’  Well, I could have kicked him.  Did he think I carried a papoose on my back?  Why, I’d go on my hands and knees to get to Forster.  He once wrote something I’ve always remembered: ‘It has never happened to me that I’ve had to choose between betraying a friend and betraying my country, but if it ever does so happen I hope I have the guts to betray my country.’  Now doesn’t that make the Fifth Amendment look like a bum?” – Dorothy Parker (1956)

“. . . I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence— especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation.  Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon.  Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher.  From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence.  I don’t mean to imply that I successfully practice what I preach.  I try, that’s all.” – Truman Capote (1957)

“I try to write books that can be read in one way by a literal-minded reader, and in quite another way by a reader alert to symbolic abbreviation and parodistic elements.  And yet, it’s the same book—or nearly.  A trompe l’oeil [something that deceives the eye], a work of ‘as if.’ ” – Joyce Carol Oates (1978)

“The life of the freelance writer of humor is highly speculative and not to be recommended as a vocation. In the technical sense, the comic writer is a cat on a hot tin roof. His invitation to perform is liable to wear out at any moment; he must quickly and constantly amuse in a short span, and the first smothered yawn is a signal to get lost. The fiction writer, in contrast, has much more latitude. He’s allowed to sideslip into exposition, to wander off into interminable byways and browse around endlessly in his characters’ heads. The development of a comic idea has to be swift and economical; consequently, the pieces are shorter than conventional fiction and fetch a much smaller stipend.” – S. J. Perelman (1963)

“It’s [writing’s] hostile in that you’re trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture.  It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way.  Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare.  Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it.  The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.” – Joan Didion (1978)

“As I read Homer, he’s a remarkable combination of the timeless, immortal phrase, and of the timely, too, and he’s meant to be heard, not read. ‘Homer makes us Hearers’—in Pope’s fine formulation—‘and Virgil leaves us Readers.’ The Iliad is more than half dialogue, direct discourse; the Odyssey more than two-thirds. Both are very dramatic poems, in other words, filled with many voices. It’s as if Homer were a ventriloquist, projecting his voice into the voices of dozens of people living within his poems. That’s one of the most important things to capture—if you can—the dramatic sense that he conveys. Whole books (Books Nine and Twenty-four of the Iliad, Nineteen and Twenty-three of the Odyssey, the reunion of the king and queen) could be lifted out of the text and placed directly on a stage. They’re plays waiting to be performed.” – Poet and Translator Robert Fagles (1999)

“I write about taboo subjects: Tibet, the Korean War, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square incident.  After the Tiananmen massacre I became very outspoken.  The CrazedA Free LifeWar Trash—these books offend the authorities in China.  I’ve never intended my writing to be political, but my characters exist in the fabric of politics.  That is to say, it is impossible to avoid politics, especially in China.  And of course, the Chinese authorities are afraid of truthful stories told from an individual’s point of view.” – Ha Jin (2009)

“I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, ‘Look.’  I looked and all I saw was water.  And he said, ‘Look again,’ which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle.  It was a great revelation to me.  I can’t explain it.  He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw.  Painters have often taught writers how to see.  And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.” – James Baldwin (1984)

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