The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III, collects in-depth, candid interviews with subjects as diverse as Evelyn Waugh, Raymond Carver, Chinua Achebe, and Joyce Carol Oates. It's an endlessly interesting read, offering literary insight and gossipy anecdotes in equal measure: Ralph Ellison discusses the influence of African American folklore on his work, Ted Hughes rails against the invention of the word "processor," Carver explains why he quit drinking, and the famously haughty Waugh dismisses the entire thinking population of the United States with the offhand remark, "I don't think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?" The book is also an effective catalogue of the endlessly varied approaches writers take to their work. I spoke via telephone with Paris Review Editor Philip Gourevitch about editing the collection and the business of writing. ALISON HALLETT
MERCURY: You're kind of a nerve-wracking interview subject.
GOUREVITCH: Why's that?
Because you've just edited three books of interviews.
Oh, that. Yeah, watch out. I know all the moves. I have a little scorecard here.
Thanks. That helps. So. What criteria do you use in determining which interviews to include in these collections?
That they're fantastic. Seriously. They're almost all really good, the Paris Review interviews from over the years, but there are some that are more successful and more enduring versions of the form. And it does not necessarily correlate to the writers that you yourself according to your taste might [choose]. It's not necessarily the same list, where you could say, "These are my 20 favorite writers, these are my 20 favorite interviews." It's about the success of the interview, the degree to which the writer opens up, the way the whole thing works.
Organizationally, was there any attempt to connect related themes or ideas from interview to interview?
They emerge, but they're not overly intended. Certainly there are themes that are central to Paris Review interviews, period: the nature of the craft, how one goes about one's work, what are the central preoccupations for the writer—not simply the themes of their work, but the actual craft and practice of how they go about achieving a style, working with a style, staying free, working against the accumulation of habits, acquiring habits. How one actually goes about being a working writer, through all of the periods of inspiration and lack of inspiration of a lifetime.
It's tempting, as a writer, to take the interviews as instructive, but it's also sort of impossible, because there's so much contradiction from piece to piece.
I think what you realize is that each in their own way, the writers have found that they need to invent a way to work. In other words, what they're saying is, "This has worked for me." If one of them sounds right to you, they probably are right for you. And what's liberating in a sense about it for a young writer, or a writer who's finding their way with their craft, and wondering what the difference is between them and people who have really managed to do it, is to realize that there really isn't a fixed way. I mean, I think if you had lawyers at work, there'd be a clearer sense of what a career trajectory might look like. Or heart surgeons at work. They wouldn't be like, "Oh, well, I never show up for work."
"I drink two shots of whiskey..."
"I never sleep before an operation...." Whereas here what you start to see is that what they're each pursuing in their own very different and idiosyncratic ways, the real throughline, is that they're trying to find ways to remain free. To remain free to say what they think, to see the world the way they do, to find a style that is their own, to find a language that is their own, to tell the stories that are central to them; not to become encumbered by their own past performances and what they've done before, not to become inhibited by social and financial and other kinds of restraints, family restraints. That each in their own way is going through a kind of daily, and yearly, and lifelong, book-by-book struggle to stay free.
What can we expect from your Powell's reading?
I'll be talking about the book and the magazine, reading from it, discussing the interviews and the approach to them, taking questions, and anything else anyone wants to ask me.