The Paris Review started life in 1953 as a biannual journal publishing poetry, fiction, essays and plays. Bucking the trend for academic criticism, its American editors decided the best way to investigate the writing life was to ask its prime practitioners about it. The first issue carried, under the heading "Writers at Work", an interview with the 74-year-old EM Forster - quite a result for a new, Paris-based journal, but only the beginning. In the next 10 issues, they subjected several legendary figures, including Faulkner, Moravia, Sagan, Simenon, Joyce Cary, Thornton Wilder and Angus Wilson, to the same treatment.
Two Review staffers would arrive with a list of questions and, as the great writer creaked into life, would scribble down replies at blinding speed (tape recorders came later) before producing a transcript to be cut, honed, shaped and edited, and given to the author to approve or adjust. Collaborations could take several sessions, and run into years, but that was why the subjects liked and trusted the magazine. The pieces built up a portrait of their character and work, over which they had final say. Modern journalists may abhor the practice of letting interviewees glimpse, let alone approve, copy. But as Philip Gourevitch, editor of this collection, points out, George Plimpton, the Review's first editor, set the template for the literary Q&A that has been imitated everywhere in the past half-century, from Playboy to Warhol's Interview.
This is the first of three volumes gleaned from an archive of 300 interviews, and it's an absolute treat. The 16 encounters, some nearly 50 pages long, date from 1956 (a feisty, bittersweet Dorothy Parker) to last year (a twice-bereaved, resilient, impatient Joan Didion), and feature god-like eminences (Hemingway, TS Eliot, Borges, Bellow) and lesser beings who turn out to be unexpectedly good value (Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, James M Cain). It's nothing short of thrilling to find the Olympians being asked to explain themselves. Why, Mr Borges, are there so many knives and swords and guns in your work? How, Billy Wilder, did you and IAL Diamond, come up with the last line of Some Like It Hot?
A unique selling point of the PR interviews has always been their interest in the writer's modus operandi - where and how the words are set down. Many writers respond with comical gravitas: Dorothy Parker writes two-fingered on a typewriter; TS Eliot can write for no more than three hours a day. Capote writes prone on a sofa or bed, smoking and drinking coffee, mint tea, then sherry and martinis. Joan Didion goes back to page one and re-types everything ("It gets me into a rhythm").
Hemingway, pompous and fetishistic, writes in the bedroom of his Havana house standing "on the worn skin of the lesser kudu", on onion-skin paper, noting his daily progress on charts. Sanity is restored by Bellow, who refuses to discuss his work habits because "for the artist to give such loving attention to his own shoelaces [is] dangerous, even immoral".
What do we learn of the writing life? Of the roots of creativity, of muses and inspiration, there is surprisingly little. Even when confronted by the Paris Review acolytes kneeling before them, most authors prove reticent about the actual process. Hemingway explains: "Though there is one part of writing that is solid and you do it no harm by talking about it, the other is fragile and if you talk about it, the structure cracks." The subjects are mostly happier with slightly moth-eaten formulations about "craft" and "style". Some wonderful insights, however, break the surface.
Saul Bellow identifies "a primitive prompter or commentator within", an "observing instrument" which has for years advised us and told us what the real world is, and "from this source come words, phrases, syllables". Vonnegut, noting that only one man on the planet benefited from the bombing of Dresden which he memorably evoked in Slaughterhouse Five ("Me. I got three dollars for each person killed"), claims that, as the youngest child of the family, the only way he could get attention at the dinner table was by being funny. "And that's what my books are, now that I'm a grown-up - mosaics of jokes."
Borges, an awesomely learned polyglot, reveals that most of the allusions in his stories are "put there as a kind of private joke", and reveals his passion for Westerns. James M Cain insists that novel-writing can't be taught and disparages "this bunkum and stinkum of college creative-writing courses". The creator of the hard-boiled style also reveals that his dad was a stickler for grammar at home, and that his own dialogue is unsayable by actors, because "Cain's dialogue is written to the eye".
Readers who feel short-changed by, say, TS Eliot's refusal to advise a young poet about "what disciplines or attitudes he might cultivate to improve his art" may be cheered by the quality of anecdote and gossip elsewhere. Rebecca West, every inch the literary grande dame, bitches about Cyril Connolly, Ivy Compton-Burnett ("obviously a nanny") and TS Eliot, whom she decided to dislike on hearing that he has only one picture of his wife (but several of himself) on the walls of his home.
It's in their quirky individuality, their shafts of animus, their little obsessions and jokes that these writers come alive, rather than in their more prescriptive or portentous moments. As Kurt Vonnegut says, the words "Don't take it all too seriously" should be inscribed over the entrance to a writer's workshop, "to remind the students that they were learning to play practical jokes... If you make people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper, what is that but a practical joke?"
John Walsh's novel 'Sunday at the Cross Bones' is due in May from Fourth EstateReuse content