Finished ‘The Paris Review Interviews Vol. III’. In her introduction Margaret Attwood gives some tips: “read your manuscript with a ruler; you catch the typos better that way. Make a birth chart for your characters; then you’ll always know how old they are. These interviews, she says, “are a great encouragement to other writers, especially at moments of wavering faith. Why am I doing such an eccentric thing as writing? Is it just undigested neurosis? Why spend all day in a room, in the company of a bunch of people who don’t really exist? What good does it do to the world? Isn’t it unhealthy? Why wasted the paper? Every writer has such thoughts from time to time, and to know that others have had them too is reassuring: I am the only one who has viewed the page with loathing…”
Ralph Ellison Quotes: He [Malraux] was the artist revolutionary rather than a politician when he wrote Man’s Fate, and the book lives not because of a political position embraced at the time but because of its larger concern with the tragic struggle of humanity. Most of the social realists of the period were concerned less with tragedy than with injustice.
On characters getting out of control…No, because I find that a sense of the ritual understructure of the fiction helps to guide the creations of characters. Action is the thing. We are what we do and do not do. The problem for me is to get from A to B to C. My anxiety about transitions greatly prolonged the writing of my book. The naturalists stick to case histories and sociology and are willing to compete with the camera and the tape recorder. I despise concreteness in writing, but when reality is deranged in fiction, one must worry about the seams.
On fiction and morality… One function of serious literature is to deal with the moral core of a given society. Well, in the United States the Negro and his status have always stood for that moral concern. (From Issue 8, 1955)
Georges Simenon: Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy.
On ‘commercial’ writing…a work of art can’t be done for the purpose of pleasing a certain group of readers… In writing for any commercial purpose you have always to make concessions.
On ‘knowing’ what will happen…I know nothing about the events when I begin the novel. On the envelope I put only the names of the characters, their ages, their families. I know nothing whatever about the events that will occur later. Otherwise it would not be interesting to me.
On when the ‘incidents’ begin to form… On the eve of the first day I know what will happen in the first chapter. Then, day after day, chapter after chapter, I find what comes later. After I have started a novel I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day.
When working…I don’t see anybody, I don’t speak to anybody, I don’t take a phone call – I just live like a monk. All the day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels… generally a few days before the start of a novel I look to see that I don’t have any appointments for eleven days. Then I call the doctor. He takes my blood pressure, he checks everything. And he says, OK.
Never satisfied… when a novel is finished I have always the impression that I have not succeeded. I am not discouraged, but I see – I want to try again. (From Issue 9, 1955)
Evelyn Waugh: In his introduction Julian Jebb writes: 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… However, I should like to so something to dismiss the mythical image of Evelyn Waugh as an ogre of arrogance and reaction.
On being a ‘reactionary’: An artist must be a reactionary. He has to stand out against the tenor of the age and not go flopping along; he must offer some little opposition. Even the great Victorian artists were all anti-Victorian, despite the pressures to conform.
Jebb asks: Despite the great variety of the characters you have created in your novels, it is very noticeable that you have never given a sympathetic or even a full-scale portrait of a working-class character. Is there any reason for this?
Waugh: I don’t know them, and I’m not interested in them. No writer before the middle of the nineteenth century wrote about the working classes other than as grotesques or as pastoral decorations. Then when they were given the vote certain writers started to suck up to them. (From Issue 30, 1963)
John Cheever. Interviewer Annette Grant asks: I was reading the confessions of a novelist on writing novels: “If you want to be true to reality, start lying about it.” What do you think?
Cheever: Rubbish. For one thing the words “truth” and “reality” have no meaning at all unless they are fixed in a comprehensible frame of reference. There are no stubborn truths. As for lying, it seems to me that falsehood is a critical element in fiction.
Grant: Can you give an example of a preposterous lie that tells a great deal about life?
Cheever: Indeed. The vows of holy matrimony.
Grant: Do characters take on identities of their own?
Cheever: The legend that characters run away from their authors – taking up drugs, having sex operations, and becoming president – implies that the writer is a fool with no knowledge or mastery of his craft. This is absurd. Of course, any estimable exercise of the imagination draws upon such a complex richness of memory that it truly enjoys the expansiveness – the surprising turns, the response to light and darkness – of any living thing. But the idea of authors running around helplessly behind their cretinous inventions is contemptible.
Cheever on plotting: I don’t work with plots. I work with intuition, apprehension, dreams, concepts. Characters and events come simultaneously to me. Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction. Of course, one doesn’t want to be boring… one needs an element of surprise. But a good narrative is a rudimentary structure, rather like a kidney.
Cheever on experimenting: Fictions is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction. One never puts down a sentence without the feeling that it has never been put down before in such a way, and that perhaps even the substance of the sentence has never been felt. Every sentence is an innovation.
Grant: Do you think fiction should give lessons?
Cheever: No. Fiction is meant to illuminate, to explode, to refresh. I don’t think there’s any consecutive moral philosophy in fiction beyond excellence. Acuteness of feeling and velocity have always seemed to me terribly important. People look for morals in fiction because there has always been a confusion between fiction and philosophy. (From Issue 67, 1976)
Joyce Carol Oates: on how far we go back re our location in time: Since I was born in 1938, the decade is of great importance to me. This was the world of my parents, who were young adults at the time, the world I was born into. The thirties seem in an odd way still “living” to me, partly in terms of my parents’ and grandparents’ memories, and partly in terms of its treatment in books and films. But the twenties are too remote – lost to me entirely! I simply haven’t had the imaginative power to get that far back.
I identify very closely with my parents in ways I can’t satisfactorily explain. The lives they lived before I was born seem somehow accessible to me. Not directly, of course, but imaginatively. A memory belonging to my mother or father seems almost to “belong” to me. In studying old photographs I am struck sometimes by a sense of my being contemporary with my parents – as if I’d known them when they were, let’s say, only teenagers. Is this odd? I wonder. I rather suspect others share in their family’s experiences and memories without knowing quite how.
On writing: All of us who write, work out of a conviction that we are participating in some sort of communal activity. Whether my role is writing, or reading and responding, might not be very important. I take seriously Flaubert’s statement that we must love one another in our art as the mystics love one another in God. By honouring one another’s creation we honour something that deeply connects us all, and goes beyond us. (From Issue 74, 1978)
Jean Rhys: When I was excited about life, I didn’t want to write at all. I’ve never written when I was happy, I didn’t want to. But I’ve never had a long period of being happy… I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go. It leaves a sort of melancholy behind and then it goes. I think it was Somerset Maugham who said that if you “write out” a thing… it doesn’t trouble you so much. You may be left with a vague melancholy, but at least it’s not misery – I suppose it’s like a Catholic going to confession, or like psychoanalysis.
On titles – I’ve always known it before, but this time I can’t. I’ve got a title, but the publisher’s not pleased with it. They want to call it “Smile Please,” but I want to call it “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down.” That’s what I feel is happening. Of course, I don’t know. I only know what I read in the papers. (From Issue 76, 1979)
Raymond Carver: on one’s work changing/influencing people – I guess I came to the hard realisation that art doesn’t make anything happen. No. I don’t believe for a minute in that absurd Shelleyan nonsense having to do with poets as the “unacknowledged legislators” of the world. What an idea! Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. I like that. The days are gone, if they were ever with us, when a novel or a play or a book or poems could change people’s ideas about the world the live in or even about themselves. (From Issue 88, 1983)
Chinua Achebe: There is that great proverb – that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. That did not come to me until much later. Once I realized that, I had to be a writer. I had to be that historian. It’s not one man’s job. It’s not one person’s job. But it is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail – the bravery, even, of the lions.
On writers engaging in public issues – I don’t lay down the law for anybody else. But I think writers are not only writers, they are also citizens. They are generally adults. My position is that serious and good art has always existed to help, to serve, humanity. (From Issue 133, 1994)
Jan Morris: on misremembering! – He [George Molnar] crunched the bread in sort of a lascivious way. He spread the pâté kind of unguently. He almost slurped the wine. I thought it was so marvellous. When I came to describe it, I could see it all again so clearly: the dancing sea, the clear Australian sky, the green lawn; above us were the wings of the Sydney opera house, like a benediction over this experience. It was only when I finished the chapter that I remembered that the Sydney opera house hadn’t been built yet! (From Issue 143, 1997)
Martin Amis: on writing on a computer – By the way, it’s all nonsense about how wonderful computers are because you can shift things around. Nothing compares with the fluidity of longhand. You shift things around without shifting them around – in that you merely indicate a possibility while your original thought is still there.
On fact in fiction – He [Tom Wolfe] suggested a ratio of seventy percent research, thirty percent inspiration. But the trouble is that the real world probably isn’t going to fit into the novel. In a sense, it’s better to do the research in your mind. You need detail, you need pegs, but you don’t want too much truth, you don’t want too much fact. I would reverse the ratio – thirty percent research, seventy percent inspiration. Perhaps even thirty percent research is too much. You want a few glimmers from the real world but then you need to run it through your psyche, to reimagine it. Don’ transcribe, reimagine it. (Issue 146, 1998)
Norman Mailer: on writing in old age – As you grow older, there’s no reason why you can’t be wiser as a novelist than you ever were before. You should know more about human nature every year of your life. Do you write about it quite as well or as brilliantly as you once did? No, not quite. You’re down a peg or two there.
Interviewer – There’s a story Shelley Winters told about you. The way I heard it, she came to you around 1950 and asked you to help her understand Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy. She badly wanted to be cast as the factory girl in George Stevens’s screen adaptation. It eventually came out as A Place in the Sun, with Montgomery Cliff. A sweet story, that.
NM: She said, I’ve got to read this book An American Tragedy, and it’s seven hundred pages, I can’t read it by tomorrow, and so forth. So I said, All right, I’ll come over and see you. And of course I had my own little agenda tucked into the middle of it. Hey, I’ll be alone with this blonde movie actress and maybe good things will come of it. So I get there and she’s got a bad case of hives, and she’s got a bandanna wrapped around her head, and her chin is swollen, and she looks like hell, and she’s in an old kimono, totally unsexy, and she looks ready to go in for a strong case of the weeps.
In those days I wasn’t always very effective, but that day I was. I said, Now look, first of all it’s a seven-hundred page book, but your part of it is only in the middle, and I showed her about two hundred and fifty pages in the middle. Read as much as you can tonight, and don’t panic. The key thing is that you can play this role, and what you want to remember is, she’s a working-class girl you’re playing, and she’s a girl who’s completely without artifice. She is what she is. And that’s the core of Roberta Alden. It’s what gets her into the love affair with Clyde, and it’s what makes her lose it.
So I go home afterward. I might as well have been in the desert for all the sex there was going to be that day. And I speak to my wife, in the righteous tones of a husband who’s been out trying to gallivant and has failed. And then, of course, twenty-four hours later Shelley calls me up and says, Norman, I got the role. She says, I was talking to him and I said, Mr Stevens, the way I look at it is Roberta Alden is a girl completely without artifice. And he said, Hey, you know, you’re not the dummy I thought you were. So she got the role. Once she’d been working on it for a few weeks, she called again and said, Norman, I need some new dialogue. I need some new lines. I’ve used that statement about artifice a few times now and he’s getting tired of it.
On God and the USA – Most of the country believes in Jesus Christ. And they believe that compassion is the greatest virtue. But we only believe this on Sundays. The other six days of the week, we’re an immensely competitive nation. (From Issue 181, 2007)