Yes, we mean outrageous in all ways possible, including some very choice language. This is just a taste of the many inverviews that can be found through the Paris Review, going back to the 1950’s, and many others in various journals besides. We’ve chosen these five because they offer some sage writing advice amidst the eccentric. Enjoy the fearless (what Steve Almond calls the “Messianic ideation”) character of these great writers, and watch them flip the tables on the interview process.
“The interviewer had sent ahead a number of questions. When he arrived at the Montreux Palace, he found an envelope waiting for him—the questions had been shaken up and transformed into an interview. A few questions and answers were added later, before the interview’s appearance in the 1967 Summer/Fall issue of The Paris Review. In accordance with Nabokov’s wishes, all answers are given as he wrote them down. He claims that he needs to write his responses because of his unfamiliarity with English; this is a constant seriocomic form of teasing. He speaks with a dramatic Cambridge accent, very slightly nuanced by an occasional Russian pronunciation.”
INTERVIEWER: And the function of the editor? Has one ever had literary advice to offer?
NABOKOV: By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”
INTERVIEWER: Are there significant disadvantages to your present fame?
NABOKOV: Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.
- from the Paris Review, Summer-Fall 1967, No. 41
2. Anne Carson
“Carson was born in Canada and teaches ancient Greek for a living” — is so minimalist that it sounds like a parody of a back-flap biography. Carson told me that, years ago, she had a bad experience with the private-detective model of journalism and would prefer never to do it again. It took her publisher a couple of weeks to wear her down to the point that she would agree, even in a limited way, to participate in a profile. Carson later described those weeks as akin to water torture. In the end, she agreed to exchange some e-mails. This felt like a significant victory.”
On writing: “we’re talking about the struggle to drag a thought over from the mush of the unconscious into some kind of grammar, syntax, human sense; every attempt means starting over with language. starting over with accuracy. i mean, every thought starts over, so every expression of a thought has to do the same. every accuracy has to be invented. . . . i feel i am blundering in concepts too fine for me.”
On ice bats: “I made up ice bats, there is no such thing.”
On teaching: “when i began to be published, people got the idea that i should ‘teach writing,’ which i have no idea how to do and don’t really believe in. so now and then i find myself engaged by a ‘writing program’ (as at nyu, stanford) and have to bend my wits to deflect the official purpose.”
On contradiction: “i realize all this sounds both chaotic and dishonest and probably that is the case. contradiction is the test of reality, as Simone Weil says.”
- from the New York Times, “The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson”, by Sam Anderson, March 14, 2013
“He reentered, wearing a pair of white pajamas and metal-rimmed spectacles. He took a cigar, lit it, and got into bed. I sat down in an armchair at the foot of the bed, juggling notebook, pen, and enormous cigar between hands and knees…I had prepared a number of lengthy questions—the reader will no doubt detect the shadows of them in what follows—but I soon discovered that they did not, as I had hoped, elicit long or ruminative replies. Perhaps what was most striking about Mr. Waugh’s conversation was his command of language: his spoken sentences were as graceful, precise, and rounded as his written sentences. He never faltered, nor once gave the impression of searching for a word. The answers he gave to my questions came without hesitation or qualification, and any attempt I made to induce him to expand a reply generally resulted in a rephrasing of what he had said before.”
INTERVIEWER: Would you say, then, that Charles Ryder was the character about whom you gave the most information?
WAUGH: No, Guy Crouchback. [A little restlessly] But look, I think that your questions are dealing too much with the creation of character and not enough with the technique of writing. I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.
INTERVIEWER: Does this mean that you continually refine and experiment?
WAUGH: Experiment? God forbid! Look at the results of experiment in the case of a writer like Joyce. He started off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic.
- from the Paris Review, Summer-Fall 1963, No. 30
“Auden’s kitchen was long and narrow, with many pots and pans hanging on the wall. He preferred such delicacies as tongue, tripe, brains, and Polish sausage, ascribing the eating of beefsteak to the lower orders (“it’s madly non-U!”). He drank Smirnoff martinis, red wine, and cognac, shunned pot, and confessed to having, under a doctor’s supervision, tried LSD: “Nothing much happened, but I did get the distinct impression that some birds were trying to communicate with me.”
INTERVIEWER: In the early thirties, did you write for an audience that you wanted to jolt into awareness?
AUDEN: No, I just try to put the thing out and hope somebody will read it. Someone says: “Whom do you write for?” I reply: “Do you read me?” If they say, “Yes,” I say, “Do you like it?” If they say, “No,” then I say, “I don’t write for you.”
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any aids for inspiration?
AUDEN: I never write when I’m drunk. Why should one need aids? The Muse is a high-spirited girl who doesn’t like to be brutally or coarsely wooed. And she doesn’t like slavish devotion—then she lies.
- from the Paris Review, Spring 1974, No. 57
Q: Do you have any favorite dead writers?
Walker Percy: None that I care to talk about. Please don’t ask me about Dostoevski and Kierkengaard.
Q: How about yourself? Would you comment on your own writing?
Walker Percy: No.
Q: Why not?
Walker Percy: I can’t stand to think about it.
Q: Could you say something about the vocation of writing in general?
Walker Percy: No.
Q: Do you regard yourself as a southern writer?
Walker Percy: That is a strange question, even a little mad. Sometimes I think that the South brings out the latent madness in people. It even makes me feel nutty to hear such a question.
Q: What’s mad about such a question?
Walker Percy: Would you ask John Cheever if he regarded himself as a north-eastern writer?
– from Questions they never asked me so He asked them Himself by Walker PercyDo you have a favorite author interview? Send it to us or share below!
- by Sophie Soprani