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The Paris Review Interviews, vol 2. Edited by Philip Gourevitch

Gold mined from literary treasures lights up the writer's trade and toil

When did a disgruntled writer first complain about being stitched up by a treacherous interviewer? Certainly before the 1890s, when even the reclusive Henry James fulminated against "interviewers, intruders, invaders". Since then, literary stars have searched for the contradictory goal of lavish media attention joined to complete control over their spoken words. The nearest they ever come to this elusive grail is an outing in the broad acres of Writers at Work, the Paris Review interview series that unites expansive-length, all-but-verbatim transcription and copy approval. Even if you believe that an interviewer serves both reader and subject best by acting as an interpreter and not merely a stenographer, the format has often yielded pure gold as well as a lot of brass over more than 50 years.

This is the second volume that the magazine's current editor, Philip Gourevitch, has collated from its precious archives. These 16 interviews begin in 1953 with Graham Greene, whose tame interrogators invite him to ramble and so disclose "the unknown things about you". "Very frank," runs the master's typically unforthcoming reply. "What will you have to drink?" The selection ends in 2006, with Stephen King. Still in constant pain seven years after his near-fatal accident, the prolix lord of the uncanny tries to go to AA meetings "on a regular basis".

Philip Larkin's riposte to a question about "consciousness-expanding drugs" ("those of my generation are drinkers") suggests one recurrent theme, confirmed by James Baldwin: "Everyone I've been close to drinks." Sometimes all the beans remain unspilled: a dry and technical interview with the deeply troubled Robert Lowell shows that the Paris Review's reverence can mean discretion and evasion if the subject so desires.

At best, the concentration on craft and method lights up the writer's trade and toil. Faulkner talks of the bloodsucking horrors of Hollywood; Marquez fixes the optimum hours for a writing routine (9am to 2.30pm); Alice Munro insists on walking three miles every day. And Toni Morrison, comparing her novel Jazz to Keith Jarrett's piano-playing, stresses not the simple melody of plot but the "echoes and shades and turns and pivots" around it. Likewise, readers will enjoy these wandering improvisations not for any direct line of biography or criticism, but for the incidental shades and turns of giants strolling at their ease.

Boyd Tonkin

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