Writing About Writers

That Write Stuff

A new interview book gives cause to note a recent flurry of excellent writer chats.

Book Cover Now that I am more kindly disposed toward The Paris Review--the literary institution founded by George Plimpton and a cohort of his pals back in the wild and crazy 1950s--since they have dropped the hyperbolic "DNA of literature" slogan, I am pleased to pass on the news of the newest volume of The Paris Review Interviews (Picador) and in fact, the offering of a slip-covered set of all the extant volumes.

Some of the interviewees in this volume include Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Kurt Vonnegut, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Price, Joan Didion, Gabriel García Márquez, Philip Larkin, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Robert Lowell, Ralph Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Maya Angelou, Haruki Murakami, Paul Auster, Marilynne Robinson, and, of course many more.

Old pal Colum McCann, an excitable boy, enthuses:
The Paris Review books should be given out at dinner parties, readings, riots, weddings, galas--shindigs of every shape. And they're perfect for the classroom too, from high schools all the way to MFA programs. In fact, I run a whole semester-long creative writing class based on the interviews. How else would I get the world's greatest living writers, living and dead, to come into the classroom with their words of wisdom, folly and fury? These books are wonderful, provocative, indispensable.
While I am at it I feel compelled to make mention of a number of recent interviews that, if not indispensable, are significant by virtue of their subjects. There is no one like Gore Vidal for both his grasp of American history and clear-eyed, unsentimental analysis. His chat in London with Johann Hari features such gems as:
I was like everyone else when Obama was elected--optimistic. Everything we had been saying about racial integration was vindicated," he says, "but he's incompetent. He will be defeated for re-election. It's a pity because he's the first intellectual president we've had in many years, but he can't hack it. He's not up to it. He's overwhelmed. And who wouldn't be? The United States is a madhouse. The country should be put away--and we're being told to go away. Nothing makes any sense." The President "wants to be liked by everybody, and he thought all he had to do was talk reason. But remember--the Republican Party is not a political party. It's a mindset, like Hitler Youth. It's full of hatred. You're not going to get them aboard. Don't even try. The only way to handle them is to terrify them. He's too delicate for that.
And for good measure the Atlantic offers up a snappy Q&A notable for:
In one recent interview, you referred to FDR as a great man.

He was a very great man.

But you opposed his foreign policy.

Well, of course. FDR was damaging the Republic by his imperial ways.

How do you reconcile that with your affection for him?

It's like saying, "I like you and your wife, but I'm not coming to your house for supper because she's the worst cook whom I've ever submitted to." Would that be considered misogyny or venom and viciousness? I'm supposedly very vicious, trying to destroy people all the time. I'm simply saying that she may be a wonderful wife, and I adore being with her--but I won't eat a meal at her house. I have this same problem with Jack Kennedy. He was a good friend--witty, sharp, and very smart. I would rather be with him than practically anybody now alive. But what did he do for us in a thousand days? He invades Cuba, fucks up, and brings the world close to a nuclear collision over the so-called missiles down there in Cuba. Deplorable.
And for good measure:
Who is the best leader in the Democratic Party right now?

Do you mean, Who can give the best speech? Who can raise the most money? Look, I'm not a sentimentalist. Nor am I a romantic. I don't believe in the Great Man theory of history. Great men come along very seldom--and when they do, it's pretty bloody. But, as once observed, God looks after alcoholics, little children, and the United States of America.
Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridien) reportedly finds interviews anathema (which explains their dearth), but he recently sat down with John Jurgensen and director John Hillcoat (The Road) in San Antonio and chatted about this and that including the forthcoming theatrical release of the film based on The Road. My favorite quote:
WSJ: How does the notion of aging and death affect the work you do? Has it become more urgent?

CM: Your future gets shorter and you recognize that. In recent years, I have had no desire to do anything but work and be with [my son] John. I hear people talking about going on a vacation or something and I think, what is that about? I have no desire to go on a trip. My perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper. That's heaven. That's gold and anything else is just a waste of time.
Recently I mentioned Umberto Eco's latest project and book and coincidentally Der Spiegel published a detailed conversation with Don Umberto that is most illuminating indeed.
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