When I read interviews with fancy, famous writers, I am somewhat bewildered. These writers discuss craft and process and influence in near-spiritual terms as if they exist on an alternate plane where they are perpetually able to articulate profundity. There’s writing and there’s being a writer and the more success you achieve, the more you have to spend your time being a writer—being interviewed, writing op eds and essays, getting your picture taken, coming up with pithy lists of what you are reading or cooking or how you are spending each hour of the day and maybe, just maybe, writing new books. All this business of being a writer must have some purpose. There must be an audience with an insatiable desire for the marginalia and minutiae of famous writers or it might be that this is part of the game—write book, sell book, sell book, sell book.
There is writing and there is being a writer and you can’t have one without the other. Helen Dewitt, author of Lightning Rods, alludes to this in a comment on the Paris Review blog when she notes that, “the industry requires the professional to put writing on hold not just for a day or two, or a week, but for years,” and that after he wrote Freedom, “Franzen then had to do a roadshow to shift copies of the artifact. The fact that his editor saw him as the most important writer of his generation did not mean that his editor thought his time would better be spent (gasp) writing.”
It must be exhausting being a writer, all that blah blah blah. I read interviews with fancy, famous writers and wonder, “Do they ever watch television or are they spending that valuable time thinking up intelligent answers to interview questions?”
Of course, because of an interview, I know fancy writers watch television, or at least, so confesses Umberto Eco who said, “I suspect that there is no serious scholar who doesn’t like to watch television. I’m just the only one who confesses. And then I try to use it as material for my work. But I am not a glutton who swallows everything. I don’t enjoy watching any kind of television. I like the dramatic series and I dislike the trash shows.”
Technically, this confession doesn’t really count because he eschews the trash (or as I like to call it, quality programming) but it’s a small reassurance.
This is the age of sharing. We find something insightful online and tell everyone on our blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook. We say, MUST READ, so as to convey a certain urgency, to let others know, beyond this link lies something necessary. I often see quotations from famous writers being highlighted as MUST READ–tidbits that convey something of great importance about writing or life that are so unbearably articulate I want nothing more than to crawl in bed to watch an episode of Big Rich Texas, a reality show gleefully devoid of substance.
Still, I admire these bits of wisdom. The words seem so sharp and important. At the same time, I have to know—is there some kind of training program where famous writers learn to talk like famous writers? How does one sign up for that program? Preparation is everything.
I also spend a fair amount of time reading the Paris Review interview archive, which is a fine repository of writers being writers. I like to find excerpts I can show my students to say, see, it’s not just me telling you [insert principle of fiction], [insert famous writer’s name] agrees—celebrity endorsement as pedagogy. Look, sometimes it works. The interviews are generally engaging, insightful, and educational but I also marvel, once again, at the level of articulation these writers have developed, this sense of how to respond to questions in ways that carry some gravity.
Take this interview with Julian Barnes where he is asked what literature is for him. Barnes says, “The shortest is that it’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts. Beyond that, literature is many things, such as delight in, and play with, language; also, a curiously intimate way of communicating with people whom you will never meet.”
He totally had that sexy answer at the ready. HOW? Does this eloquence come with maturity and experience or does it simply come with being a writer accomplished enough to be interviewed by The Paris Review? A better question might be, why do I devote mental energy to the why of interview answers? (It’s summer, okay?)
Fancy writers seem able to display eloquence not only about literature and writing but also more unwieldy topics like religion. When she was interviewed, Marilynne Robinson spoke about what religion does for her. She said, “Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.”
Those deep thoughts were just kicking around, and available in her mental Rolodex. Of course, we don’t know how long she paused before answering the question. We don’t know if she furrowed her brow or stuttered or took her sweet time but still, those words came out of her mouth in the perfect order. Maybe I’m easily amused but that facility with insight intrigues me. It’s like my phone. I touch it and things happen and I don’t understand why but I am still delighted.
These writers are extraordinarily well read. They can speak across genres and time periods and make interesting connections and discuss influence in ways that seem effortless. Samuel Delany recounts how it was War & Peace that showed him, “novels were where it’s at.” Norman Rush’s influences were determined by his father’s library. “As for my earlier influences, they were largely determined by my father’s library. D. H. Lawrence. Actually, a lot of Lawrence. And James Joyce. The Sexual Life of Savages by Bronisław Malinowski—my father was a sort of armchair libertine.” Woody Allen didn’t even read a novel until he was college age. He read comic books instead.
Sometimes we learn things about fancy writers that might be surprising. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles was inspired, in part by Winesburg, Ohio. Upon reading that book, Bradbury thought, “Someday I’d like to write a book like this, but I’d set it on Mars.” Other times, we learn things about fancy writers that somehow aren’t surprising at all. Jonathan Franzen, for example, had a “good high school experience.”
The recall of fancy writers is uncanny. They are apparently able to recount every moment between conception and literary success in exacting detail. It’s like they know they’re going to need to remember everything because someday, everything will matter. Mark Helprin remembers how he used to look at people’s hands as a child. Margaret Drabble remembers loneliness and being feeble, the books she read, how she followed her sister everywhere. John Ashberry experienced feelings of isolation, too. Richard Wilbur’s first poem was “a horrible little poem about nightingales.” David Mitchell “would indulge in a visual fantasy that involved imagining my name on the jacket of a book—usually Faber and Faber—and I’d feel a whoosh inside my rib cage.”
It’s not that these would be difficult things for anyone to remember, but when I think about most of my childhood, it is an indeterminate blur. I wasn’t really paying attention. I was just being a kid. If I were ever interviewed with the precision of these interviews, I have no idea what I might say about the early years beyond something like, “Well, there was this one time, my brother and I put our baby brother in a laundry basket and shoved him down the basement stairs and for fun, I wrote little stories on napkins.”
It is refreshing to see that fancy writers don’t necessarily remember everything. When asked what she recalled from her first Paris Review interview (ooh la la), Ann Beattie replied, “You know, I really don’t remember much. It happened almost thirty years ago, and in those days I was doing a lot of interviews.”
Writers are still doing a lot of interviews when their books come out—answering questions about process and favorite breakfasts and other such critical things. You start to wonder how writers keep track of it all as they churn through one interview after another. You wonder what they can possibly have left to say when they receive an interview request from PithyBookblogName.blogspot.com. One can only be enamored with oneself for so long. Gravity is finite
In truth, everyone can be interviewed these days—famous writers, obscure writers, good writers, bad writers. This is the future. The business of being a writer has been democratized. Everyone gets to be heard, gets to have a moment where their words hold a certain gravity, even for just a little while, in some small corner of the Internet.
I interview writers with some regularity. It’s harder than it looks. I mean, it’s not really hard but it’s not a mindless task either. You don’t want to look ridiculous or pedantic or sycophantic. You don’t want to ask boring questions that have been asked a hundred times. You want to avoid the kinds of questions that might appear on one of those canned interviews writers put together to be sent out with galleys because those questions have already been answered. You don’t want to ask questions so ostentatiously original that the interview becomes more about the interviewer than the interviewee. Mostly, you want to find a way to encourage the interviewee to say something interesting, to offer readers some unique insight into what it means to be a writer, and what it means to write, and maybe what it means to be alive, here and now.
And still, even when you do your best to ask the best questions, people want to know what writers are reading and what their favorite childhood books are and if they write in the morning on a typewriter or if they write in the woods with a pencil. Did you know that Isak Dinesen’s favorite fruit is the strawberry?
Maybe we want to know that famous writers, they’re just like us—these writers rose from humble beginnings and read the same books we did and had to make time for writing and work and marriage and children and met with failure and also some luck. Maybe it allows us to believe that for us, too, all things are possible.
What strikes me about interviews with famous writers is that we get this moment of recognition, but we also get to see how things have changed in this business of being a writer, and how they have stayed the same. It’s good to know your history. In 1949, Ray Bradbury went to New York to try and sell some short stories. In his interview, he said, “I took my stories around to a dozen publishers. Nobody wanted them. They said, We don’t publish stories. Nobody reads them. Don’t you have a novel?”