“Authors are sometimes like tomcats: they distrust all the other toms, but they are kind to kittens.”
Most interviews today tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum between lazy conversation and blatant publicity puffery, the truly exceptional interview a kind of near-lost art. But it wasn’t always so. In the spring of 1953, The Paris Review built from scratch a new paradigm for the art of the interview, which endures as a gold standard sixty years later. In the introductory essay to the 1958 anthology Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series (public library) — which also gave us this fantastic anatomy of the four stages of writing — the inimitable Malcolm Cowley, who edited the collection, recounts the Paris Review origin story and examines the secret of what made their interviews such a timeless echelon of the craft:
Most of the interviewers either have had no serious interest in literature or else have been too serious about themselves. Either they have been reporters with little knowledge of the author’s work and a desire to entrap him into making scandalous remarks about sex, politics, and God, or else they have been ambitious writers trying to display their own sophistication, usually at the expense of the author, and listening chiefly to their own voices.
What makes the Paris Review interviewers and their ethos different, Cowley observes, can be boiled down to two essentials — homework and humility:
The interviewers belong to a new generation that has been called “silent,” though a better word for it would be “waiting” or “listening” or “inquiring.” They have done their assigned reading, they have asked the right questions, or most of them, and have listened carefully to the answers. The authors, more conscious of their craft than authors used to be, have talked about it with an engaging lack of stiffness.
Even more interesting than the question of interview style is that of motive — what prompted George Plimpton and his co-founders to forever change the face — and economics — of literary writing by redefining the art of the interview when they launched The Paris Review in 1953 in what closely resembles contemporary startup culture? Cowley writes:
The new quarterly had been founded by young men lately out of college who were in Europe working on their first novels or books of poems. Their dream of having a magazine of their very own must have been more luminous than their picture of what it should be, yet they did have a picture of sorts. They didn’t want their magazine to be “little” or opinionated (engagé, in the slang of the year) or academic. Instead of printing what were then the obligatory essays on Moby Dick and Henry James’s major phase, they would print stories and poems by new authors and pay for them too, as long as the magazine kept going. They wanted to keep it going for a long time, even if its capital was only a thousand dollars, with no subventions in sight. They dreamed that energy and ingenuity might take the place of missing resources.
But The Paris Review differed from other literary magazines in one crucial aspect: Its intricate osmosis of art and commerce.
Like [other magazines] it wanted to present material that was new, uncommercial, “making no compromise with public taste,” in the phrase sanctified by The Little Review, but unlike the others it was willing to use commercial devices in getting the material printed and talked about. “Enterprise in the service of art” might have been its motto. The editors compiled a list, running to thousands of names, of Americans living in Paris and sent volunteer salesmen to ring their doorbells. Posters were printed by hundreds and flying squadrons of three went out by night to paste them in likely and unlikely places all over the city. In June 1957 the frayed remnants of one poster were still legible on the ceiling of the lavatory in the Café du Dôme.
And thus the interviews themselves became at first a kind of merchandizing gimmick designed to build circulation — The Paris Review needed big names to hook readers, but couldn’t afford original writing, so the interview offered a welcome loophole of unpaid name-dropping:
“So let’s talk to them,” somebody ventured — it must have been Peter Matthiessen or Harold Humes, since they laid the earliest plans for the Review — and “print what they say.” The idea was discussed with George Plimpton, late of the Harvard Lampoon, who had agreed to be editor. Plimpton was then at King’s College, Cambridge, and he suggested E. M. Forster, an honorary fellow of King’s, as the first author to be interviewed. It was Forster himself who gave a new direction to the series, making it a more thoughtful discussion of the craft of fiction than had at first been planned.
But soon, it became clear that the interview itself held unique allure as its own genre of literary entertainment and The Paris Review team quickly honed its craft down to a science:
Interviewers usually worked in pairs, like FBI agents. Since no recording equipment was available for the early interviews, they both jotted down the answers to their questions at top speed and matched the two versions afterward. With two men writing, the pace could be kept almost at the level of natural conversation. Some of the later interviews … were done with a tape recorder. After two or three sessions the interviewers typed up their material; then it was cut to length, arranged in logical order, and sent to the author for his approval.
The most obvious question, of course, is why some of the era’s most revered literary legends would agree to discuss, in print, the most intimate and profound details of their craft with a duo of recent college graduates. Here, we once again see the human element — that quintessential blend of empathy, sheer goodwill, and indulgent delight in a tickled ego — come into play:
Some of [the authors] disliked the idea of being interviewed but consented anyway, either out of friendship for someone on the Review or because they wanted to help a struggling magazine of the arts, perhaps in memory of their own early struggles to get published. Others … were interested in the creative process and glad to talk about it. Not one of the interviewers had any professional experience in the field, but perhaps their experience and youth were positive advantages. Authors are sometimes like tomcats: they distrust all the other toms, but they are kind to kittens.
Cumulatively, Cowley argues, the interviews painted a powerful portrait of the writer:
In spite of their diversity, what emerges from the interviews is a composite picture of the fiction writer. He has no face, no nationality, no particular background and I say “he” by grammatical convention, since [some] of the authors are women; they all have something in common, some attitude toward life and art, some fund of common experience.
Though The Paris Review has since released all of the archival interviews online, as well as in an irresistible boxed set, Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series is worth a read even if only for Cowley’s lengthy and insightful introductory essay, which explores in over twenty pages such facets of the writing craft as daily routines, motivations, and work ethic.