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Interview Roundup, Eleventh and Final Part: Davis, Gimenez-Smith, Dixon, Irving, Borges

“When you’re not wearing your glasses, all you can see is what is close to you. You can’t see the context. You can’t see the rest of the room or across the street. I also didn’t wear my glasses some of the time out of vanity. I have thought about this because I notice it all the time—that in reading students’ work or discussing other peoples’ work, I don’t have much trouble focusing on detail, word to word, sentence to sentence, but I have to make a major effort to step back from a piece of writing and summarize what its themes are. As a child I resisted knowing much about the outside world—politics, international situations. In college I had only a very vague sense of facts, of distances. I remember being asked in some psychological test how far it is from New York to London, and even though I’d been to Europe at least twice already, I said about 15,000 miles. I was terrible at current events in school. I did well on one assignment which was to take a newspaper article and point out where the reporter was showing bias. Again, that was a close textual analysis.” – Lydia Davis in BOMB

“I am enthralled by syntax, by the sinews of the sentence. Often my absorption in the line leads to language becoming pure sound for me, something like murmur, but of course the printed word itself and at least the shadow of its meaning always remain. I love Wittgenstein’s take on this stuff, the way he seems so utterly perplexed by it, which I think is the correct attitude to take when it comes to thinking about the relationship between the look of the word on the page and the sound of the word in your head or your ear. There’s a line somewhere in the Investigations: “Remember that the look of a word is familiar to us in the same kind of way as its sound.” I suppose “Tree Tree Tree” speaks to this look–sound problematic in some way.
My first language was Spanish. Writing in a language other than that with which I grew up, with which I learned to think and feel, has surely had some bearing on my relationship to writing. I love finding words and sounds from other languages buried in English; I prefer to imagine discrete languages as continuous, like adjoining rooms connected by a common door — sound. When I revise a poem, I’m thinking primarily about sound, syllables as phonemic puzzle pieces. I wrote “Tree Tree Tree” in graduate school; I think it was exhibitive of my coming to this awareness of new sonic possibilities in my writing.” – Carmen Gimenez-Smith in La Bloga

“I write about sex the way it is. I try not to be salacious. I, in fact, go out of my way not to be. I feel the best way to handle sex is naturally. I don’t write to get anyone excited by my depictions of sex. But I don’t want to write something other than the way it happened. Lots of times I just say the couple did it. Other times, because of what’s happening in the sex act that reveals plot and character, it’s necessary to go in to greater detail. Sex has usually been an important part of most of the characters in my fiction, but just one part.” – Stephen Dixon in Bookslut

“When people ask me what my novels are “about”, the word “about” gives me the chills. I believe that, in any novel of mine, the principal objective is the construction of the whole. The excitement for me is the architect’s excitement. That little road map I make, making my way backwards to where I think the story should begin, that little sketch, the skeleton of the novel, the scaffolding of the building I’ve not yet made, is nothing but an outline of the action of the story. There are no details. The details emerge as the sentences do. I sometimes think that what I do as a writer is make a kind of colouring book, where all the lines are there and then you put in the colour. I never start writing the novel, consecutively telling the story, until I’ve gone from that last sentence to the first. I now have those two poles and I know all the action. From the moment I start writing, I don’t have to think about what’s going to happen, and maybe this is why Thomas Hardy is almost as important to me as Dickens. I like the writing in Dickens far better than I like the writing in Hardy, especially the dialogue. For someone like me, who knows the fate of all his characters, how wonderful it is that Hardy believed, as he surely did, in the predetermination of all his characters.” – John Irving in New Statesman

“Ah, Middlemarch! Yes, of course! You mean the whole universe is linked together; everything linked. Well that’s one of the reasons the Stoic philosophers had for believing in omens. There’s a paper, a very interesting paper, as all of his are, by De Quincey on modern superstition, and there he gives the Stoic theory. The idea is that since the whole universe is one living thing, then there is a kinship between things that seem far off. For example, if thirteen people dine together, one of them is bound to die within the year. Not merely because of Jesus Christ and the Last Supper, but also because all things are bound together. He said—I wonder how that sentence runs—that everything in the world is a secret glass or secret mirror of the universe.” – Jorge Luis Borges in the Paris Review

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March 19th, 2011 / 4:03 am

Interview Roundup, Part Ten: Eugenides, Jelinek, Adichie, Solzhenitsyn, Carson

“That’s what gave me such trouble and why it took me so long to write the damn book at first. It took me two years to get this first-person omniscient narrator. I was sure I needed a first-person narrator for many reasons. I wanted the story of Calliope’s transformation to be intimate. I also wanted to avoid — and this is a very practical writerly point — to avoid the pronominal problem with he/she that we’re having in this interview. I wanted it to be ‘I.’ And the point is also that we’re all an I before we’re a he or a she. So it seemed important to have this ‘I,’ but in order to tell the story of the grandparents and the parents, if I remain in a first-person narrative voice, I can’t go into their minds and tell you what they’re feeling. It becomes very dry and voyeuristic. It took me a long time to figure out how to have a first-person that could also switch into the third-person. I had to basically give myself permission to do that, and I had a lot of scruples against doing it for the first couple of years. So I wrote the story many different ways — sometimes all third-person, sometimes all first-person. I knocked my head until I finally realized I could have the narrator do both things and give the sense to the reader that Cal, telling the story years later, is possibly inventing things and maybe knows things that he can’t but that’s all right. I worried that the reader would resist certain things that Cal knows, but I’ve found that actually readers don’t bother themselves with the details as much as I do. In general, readers don’t worry about things like, how would he know this about his grandmother?” – Jeffrey Eugenides, in Salon

“The novel is the opposite of pornography. Pornography suggests desire everywhere and at every moment. The novel proves that this does not exist, that it is a construct meant to keep women willing, because they are usually pornographic objects anyway, while men look at them, and can almost penetrate their bodies with their gaze. But I am used to being misunderstood. I am even blamed for what I attempt to analyze in my writing. As so often happens, the messenger is attacked, and not what she expresses. No one is interested in that.” – Elfriede Jelinek at Serpent’s Tale

“I’m not sure my writing in English is a choice. If a Nigerian Igbo like myself is educated exclusively in English, discouraged from speaking Igbo in a school in which Igbo was just one more subject of study (and one that was considered ‘uncool’ by students and did not receive much support from the administration), then perhaps writing in English is not a choice, because the idea of choice assumes other equal alternatives.” – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie in WOCALA

“Periods of rapid and fundamental change were never favourable for literature. Significant works, have nearly always and everywhere been created in periods of stability, be it good or bad. Modern Russian literature is no exception. The educated reader today is much more interested in non-fiction. However, I believe that justice and conscience will not be cast to the four winds, but will remain in the foundations of Russian literature, so that it may be of service in brightening our spirit and enhancing our comprehension.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Independent

“In surfaces, perfection is less interesting. For instance, a page with a poem on it is less attractive than a page with a poem on it and some tea stains. Because the tea stains add a bit of history. It’s a historical attitude. After all, texts of ancient Greeks come to us in wreckage and I admire that, the combination of layers of time that you have when looking at a papyrus that was produced in the third century BC and then copied and then wrapped around a mummy for a couple hundred years and then discovered and put in a museum and pieced together by nine different gentlemen and put back in the museum and brought out again and photographed and put in a book. All those layers add up to more and more life. You can approximate that in your own life. Stains on clothing.” – Anne Carson, in the Paris Review

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March 17th, 2011 / 1:50 am

Interview Roundup Part Nine: Markson, Hoang, Zhuoxiang, Gudmundsson, Shozo

“I thought The Recognitions was—Lowry being English—the great American novel of that period. That’s the only other letter I wrote to a writer, but it was different from the Lowry one. When The Recognitions came out, it was shat on by every reviewer. They said, ‘How dare he write so long a book? How dare he deliberately try to create a masterpiece?’ I wrote this casual letter, saying, ‘Screw them. Some of us out here know what you did.’ When my wife and I went to Mexico for three years, an editor came down there, and Aiken had given him my name. We had him to dinner, and all I did was talk about The Recognitions. And this guy said, ‘Shut up already. Tell me about Mexico. I’ll read it when I get home.’ And he did. The Recognitions came out in 1955, and this would have been about 1961. One day I get a letter there: ‘Dear David Markson, If I may presume to answer yours of”—whatever it was—’May 16, 1955.’ It turned out that this editor, Aaron Asher, had come home, read the book, and decided to resurrect it. There had never been a paperback, and he put it in print, and it brought Gaddis back to life.” – David Markson, in Conjunctions

“I first conceived of this novel as one that would explore the occult & religion as mythologies, but as I started researching, I found a lot about numerology and mathematics. Since I was little, I wanted to be a scientist or a mathematician (I’m not quite sure why I’m not, to be completely honest!) so I decided to use the superficial constraint of the form of a parabola to shape this text. Again, while researching, I came to understand that there were so many more mythologies out there than just the occult & religion. As such, I expanded the scope of my novel. I wanted to create a work that dialogued within itself.  As for the shape of the text, I wanted to mimic the traditional triangular structure of a novel, but I wanted to invert it. A parabola was a perfect fit!  I love interactive novels. I think the various tests that appear throughout the text add a new level of interactivity. Ideally, readers would actually take some of the tests. Additionally, I know many people (myself included) who put a great deal of weight on personality tests, IQ, and psychology. I see these as modern-day myths, a new form of “religion” and a method of categorization. To me, IQ seems to be especially troubling, particularly because of the mass sterilization in the early to mid 20th century based on the Army Beta IQ test. I based some of the questions on my test on that original test.” – Lily Hoang at Experimental Fiction / Poetry

“If Literature is to be defined by that which bears and even demands repeated readings, then certainly, of all the genres, lyrics are the most dominant form of Literature in the Mandarin-speaking world at the moment—due to the ubiquity of the Internet, the traditional ‘being quoted’ has taken on the technologized form of ‘being forwarded’, or ‘being cut and pasted’.” – Li Zhuoxiang at Asymptote

” As a publisher, I once edited the Icelandic translation of another ‘untranslatable’ work; ULYSSES by James Joyce. I went with the translator to Dublin, we met some relatives of Joyce, saw the sites of the book, and I think the translation is very well done and gives a lot to the Icelandic reader. One just has to accept that it is another work, the connotations are different, and there is another audience. Once you have accepted this, translations are a wonderful add-on to literature. And for writers who write in a language like Icelandic, which only 300 thousand people can understand, they are an absolute necessity.” – Halldor Gudmundsson in IceNews

“Japanese people today are becoming more and more interested in Taiwanese literature, primarily because of Taiwanese movies, which are very popular in Japan. Flicks like March of Happiness and Lament of the Sand River ran for a month or two at theaters. Movies directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien are very popular in Japan. It’s easier to get hooked on a movie than a novel, so a lot of people will see a movie first and then go out and start buying novels.” – Fujii Shozo in Taiwan Panorama

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March 16th, 2011 / 7:04 am

Interview Roundup Part Eight: Lasky, Coetzee, Butler, Arasanayagam, Saramago

“I think poetry should do what it was meant to do—exist.  And then the big things that need to be done—like saving the world, for instance—needs to be up to us as humans.  We need poetry, but we need it like we need a tool.  Poetry is our poetry hammer.   And likewise, poetry is human, even as it is dead.  And so I think poetry can connect us to our humanity if we bring the human back into it.  I am interested in this Armantrout statement, as I think I know what she means (or at least can interpret what she means to support my own views).  I think she is saying that poetry should bring in the superhuman—the everyhuman—and be the summation of all the voices that it can summate.  Because in every person there is some power that can be brought—whether it be coaxed or triggered depending on the specific personality—into every poem.  And when we only seek out “voyeuristic identification” in our poems, we only expect the smallest parts of humanity (its meaningless specifics) from them.  And in that way, humanity becomes even more and more entrenched in meaninglessness when we identify with poems in these empty ways.  To make meaning we need to value meaning and vice versa.  It is a feedback loop.” – Dorothea Lasky in Octopus

“It is difficult to be a so-called successful writer and to occupy a marginal position at the same time, even in our day and age.” – J. M. Coetzee in Ohio Swallow

Devil Girl From Mars is the movie that got me writing science fiction, when I was 12 years old. I had already been writing for two years. I began with horse stories, because I was crazy over horses, even though I never got near one. At 11, I was writing romances, and I’m happy to say I didn’t know any more about romance than I did about horses. When I was 12, I had this big brown three-ring binder notebook that somebody had thrown away, and I was watching this godawful movie on television. (I wasn’t allowed to go to the movies, because movies were wicked and sinful, but somehow when they came to the television they were OK.) It was one of those where the beautiful Martian arrives on Earth and announces that all the men on Mars have died and they need more men. None of the Earthmen want to go! And I thought, ‘Geez, I can write a better story than that.’ I got busy writing what I thought of as science fiction.” – Octavia Butler in Locus

“I wonder if my kind of work will appeal to the West. Writers like Michael Ondaatje are wonderful, I admire them, but they are based in Britain or Canada, in the land of the expatriates, and very consciously write with an eye and ear to another kind of readership.” – Jean Arasanayagam in The Hindu

“An idea had been with me since about 1972: the idea of a siege, as in a besieged city, but it was not clear who was besieging it. Then it evolved into a real siege, which I first thought of as the siege of Lisbon by the Castilians that occurred in 1384. I joined to this idea another siege, which occurred in the twelfth century. In the end, the siege was a combination of those two historical ones—I imagined a siege that lasted some time, with generations of besieged as well as generations of besiegers. A siege of the absurd. That is to say, the city was surrounded, there were people surrounding it, and none of this had a point. In the end all of this came together to form a book that was, or that I wanted to be, a meditation on the notion of the truth of history. Is history truth? Does what we call history retell the whole story? History, really, is a fiction—not because it is made up of invented facts, for the facts are real, but because in the organization of those facts there is much fiction. History is pieced together with certain selected facts that give a coherence, a line, to the story. In order to create that line, many things must be left out. There are always those facts that did not enter history, which if they had might give a different sense to history. History must not be presented as a definitive lesson. No one can say, This is so because I say it happened this way.” – Jose Saramago in the Paris Review

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March 15th, 2011 / 7:43 am

Interview Roundup Part Seven: Whitehead, Klima, Krilanovich, Touré, Roy

“My whole life I’ve seen those elevator inspection certificates. I’d go to school, when I was a kid, and come back and the person had been there, the exact same guy for 10 years. The elevator seemed perfectly fine, so what’d he do? I was thinking about what would make a funny detective story. Well, why not put this person in a situation where he actually has to apply his esoteric skills to a straightforward mystery? But then I had to actually make up what kinds of skills he had, and it became all about elevators and not so much this chase-the-McGuffin sort of story.” – Colson Whitehead, in Salon

“I said something simple about the situation and there was tremendous applause. The strange thing was that afterwards many people came up and said that they had not known I was living in Prague all these years. Blacklisted writers had been made non-existing persons by the regime. People thought we lived in exile; in a way we did.” – Ivan Klima, in The Guardian

“Oh yes, I explicitly used cutups for this novel. Lots and lots, especially during the big push, the heavy lifting that took place in ’06. And I’m talking cutups in the classic Burroughs/Gysin sense, two texts sliced down lengthwise and reattached with their opposites: AA and BB become AB and BA. Then you strike out the word fragments caught in between so it looks like a crooked seam. They’re great aesthetic objects, just on their own. You may notice a few words and scenarios in the OEC crop up again and again—I think some of the sections involving day laborers—and that’s the residue of the cutups. Eventually I rewrote things so much that the effect was mostly obliterated, but it did help generate content, which was my reason for doing them. I wanted to come up with ideas that I couldn’t simply conjure up through ordinary means—out of thin air, the old fashioned way.” – Grace Krilanovich in Hobart

“Early on there was an assumption from editors that I could write about hip-hop and black music but not about white music.  Once an editor suggested I’d be lost writing about Eric Clapton, which is strange because he’s steeped in black music.  I just kept fighting and I found white subjects who others didn’t want to cover and did them well.  In time my editors realized I could write about anything.” – Touré in No Strings Attached News

“I don’t see a great difference between The God of Small Things and my works of nonfiction. As I keep saying, fiction is truth. I think fiction is the truest thing there ever was. My whole effort now is to remove that distinction. The writer is the midwife of understanding. It’s very important for me to tell politics like a story, to make it real, to draw a link between a man with his child and what fruit he had in the village he lived in before he was kicked out, and how that relates to Mr. Wolfensohn at the World Bank. That’s what I want to do. The God of Small Things is a book where you connect the very smallest things to the very biggest: whether it’s the dent that a baby spider makes on the surface of water or the quality of the moonlight on a river or how history and politics intrude into your life, your house, your bedroom.” – Arundhati Roy in The Progressive

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March 14th, 2011 / 3:33 am

Interview Roundup Part Six: Kundera, Egan, Dawson, Endo, Simmons

“Musil and Broch saddled the novel with enormous responsibilities. They saw it as the supreme intellectual synthesis, the last place where man could still question the world as a whole. They were convinced that the novel had tremendous synthetic power, that it could be poetry, fantasy, philosophy, aphorism, and essay all rolled into one. In his letters, Broch makes some profound observations on this issue. However, it seems to me that he obscures his own intentions by using the ill-chosen term “polyhistorical novel.” It was in fact Broch’s compatriot, Adalbert Stifter, a classic of Austrian prose, who created a truly polyhistorical novel in his Der Nachsommer [Indian Summer], published in 1857. The novel is famous: Nietzsche considered it to be one of the four greatest works of German literature. Today, it is unreadable. It’s packed with information about geology, botany, zoology, the crafts, painting, and architecture; but this gigantic, uplifting encyclopedia virtually leaves out man himself, and his situation. Precisely because it is polyhistorical, Der Nachsommer totally lacks what makes the novel special. This is not the case with Broch. On the contrary! He strove to discover “that which the novel alone can discover.” The specific object of what Broch liked to call “novelistic knowledge” is existence. In my view, the word “polyhistorical” must be defined as “that which brings together every device and every form of knowledge in order to shed light on existence.” Yes, I do feel close to such an approach.” – Milan Kundera in the Paris Review

“On the other hand, I think Great Books should be taught and read—but there are certain subjects that are difficult to embrace at a young age, and certainly the impact of time is going to fall pretty flat. So this book,Goon Squad, is very much a response to the rereading of Proust, honestly. I thought, “How would you write about time now?” And technology plays a big part in In Search of Lost Time, which is really not much talked about. There is one part: He [Proust] looks up in the air and an airplane goes by and it is so shocking because it feels like such a 19th-century novel. It’s really not.” – Jennifer Egan, in the Morning News

“I had that same relationship with Plath, actually. I think I was too caught up in her biography to give her poetry the attention and work it deserves. Also, my biggest love right now, the British Renaissance, was not a love of mine in undergrad. Not at all. It came later in graduate school. But now I can’t get enough of “Paradise Lost,” for example. No lie. It’s amazing. Frightening, really sexy, and incredibly dense yet completely readable like a novel.” – Erica Dawson, in The Black Telephone

“Dialogue is a process and we are at the beginning. Looking back in history we now see that Christianity has been in dialogue since its inception. Jesus was a Jew. He spoke like a Jew, thought like a Jew and acted like a Jew. Christianity was at first seen as a Jewish sect. The person who brought it into the Greek world and initiated the first great dialogue was St. Paul. Then in the 13th century, when Aristotle was introduced into Europe, Aquinas initiated a dialogue that resulted in a Thomism that dominated Catholic theology until the Second Vatican Council. Now, even as we speak, Christianity is in the process of extracting itself from one culture and becoming incarnate in another. The new culture is deeply influenced by Asian religions and the work of dialogue is only the beginning. ” – Shusaku Endo in America

“When I write a story, I type a sentence and read it out loud. And then I change it, and read it out loud again. And then I write the next sentence, and I read it out loud, and I read the previous sentence out loud, and I change that. And this goes on for a while. The repetitions tend to come out of a desire for a musicality to the writing, which follows from the fact that I am reading it out loud as I am writing it.” – Matthew Simmons, in Dark Sky

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March 13th, 2011 / 5:50 am

Interview Roundup Part Five: Szymborska, Beah, Beattie, Derby, Cicero

“I don’t believe I have a mission. Sometimes I really have a spiritual need to say something more general about the world, and sometimes something personal. I usually write for the individual reader–though I would like to have many such readers. There are some poets who write for people assembled in big rooms, so they can live through something collectively. I prefer my reader to take my poem and have a one-on-one relationship with it.” – Wislawa Szymborska, in the LA Times

“Recently I was giving a talk, and someone asked if I would ever write a romance novel. It was a funny question. But then I thought, well, okay, maybe. I come from a different culture and it could work to my advantage or disadvantage. What I consider romantic may not necessarily be what other people consider romantic. I’ve lived in this culture long enough to test some of the hypotheses of what romance is to me on a few people, and it hasn’t worked out quite that well [laughs]. For example, in the context of Sierra Leone, romance could mean a woman cooking for a man and sending a dish to the man’s house as a sign of showing that she cares and that she loves the man. Whereas in the West if you ask some women to cook for you, they may think otherwise—they may think you see them as belonging to the kitchen and that sort of thing.” - Ishmael Beah, in FSG Work in Progress

“If I can see the landscape, I can put people in the world of the story. It’s very visual, even if it might not register that way with the reader (“Carleyville left late because of the rain.”) I have every texture and tone I need there-In the character’s name, in the alliteration of “left late”, and the rain . . . suddenly a very specific rain, for my story alone! Really, it was more than enough to begin. Yeah, I watch surfaces. In our house in Virginia, my husband hung a relief he’d carved on the living room wall (he is perverse: the room is charcoal grey; his relief of two intertwined figures is verdigris), and at a certain time of day, just for a matter of minutes, a shadow is cast and the peacock feathers (homage to Flannery O’Connor) in the vase above the bookcase make a strange foliage shadow that seems to suspend the real and reflected figures in a forest – but all the while, you know you’re looking at quickly changing shadows and reflections, as well as the original object.” – Ann Beattie in Folio

“i don’t think that the internet has changed the way i write, necessarily, but it certainly has opened up a new set of possibilities for myself and other writers in terms of finding an audience, and i think that has had a pretty profound impact. when i started writing, there were very few feasible options in terms of publishing work, and even then, the feasibility was questionable. there was also a predictability – i wasn’t aware, then, of journals like conjunctions or grand street, and everything else was just too…agrarian. every lit journal i was exposed to was named after a tree, or an antique milliner’s tool, or something having to do with the ocean.” – Matthew Derby, in Identity Theory

“I found out it is hard to talk seriously about anything to the media. Recently they filmed The Human War to be made into a movie. The movie will be out next year sometime, I don’t know when or where it will appear. I had several interviews with major media outlets, like newspapers, college newspapers, and the local news. I got asked for simple, little questions that meant nothing. At one point during the filming, one of the directors asked me to talk to an actor about a character, I mentioned Plato and everyone got weirded out. It is strange, society wants authors, authors who know things, society might even want philosophers, not sure. But they don’t want us to know things in public in front of everyone. This is probably what many conservatives dislike, that there are people in society that know things. Most people are scared of people who know things and are also scared of those things they know. I probably wouldn’t mention Sartre or Nietzsche or Richard Wright, I wouldn’t mention anything. I would say, “ROAD TRIP NOVEL” “MICHAEL CERA” “CHINESE” “LOOKING FOR ONE SELF.” They would be attracted to those words. I would be saying those words and phrases, thinking in my head, “These words mean nothing.” But they wouldn’t, those words would mean a million wonderful money making things.” – Noah Cicero, in Bookslut

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March 11th, 2011 / 7:15 pm