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Posts Tagged ‘literature’

16 OCTOBER, 2013

What Makes a Great Interview

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“True storytellers write not because they can but because they have to. There is something they want to say about the world that can only be said in a story.”

Perhaps because it blends the transfixing allure of voyeurism with the intricacy of introspection, the art of the interview is among the most elusive of journalistic feats. In How to Read a Novelist (public library) — a magnificent collection of conversations with 55 literary icons, including David Foster Wallace, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood — celebrated writer and book critic John Freeman showcases the interview’s most commanding incarnation as he sets out “to describe an encounter, to show to the reader what the writer revealed to me, at their own choosing, over an hour or two or three, sometimes more, of conversation.”

Freeman, who belongs to that generation of “silent” interviewers ushered in by the Paris Review revolution, frames the appeal of literary interviews against the backdrop of a necessary caveat:

It was a breach of everyone’s privacy when a reader turns to a writer, or a writer’s books, for vicariously learned solutions to his own life problems. This is the fallacy behind every interview or biographical sketch, to tether a writer’s life too literally to his work, or to insist that a novel function as a substitute for actually living through the mistakes a person must live through in order to learn how to properly, maybe even happily, survive.

And yet he speaks to the peculiar mesmerism of so breaching a writer’s privacy in particular:

I have always felt there is something electrifying about meeting novelists. It isn’t like running into a celebrity, where your eye readjusts to the true physical contours of someone seen primarily on-screen. It has to do with grasping that the creator of a fictional world, a universe that lives inside you as a reader while also feeling strangely disembodied, is not as interior as that world but alive: flesh and blood.

Freeman, however, is wary of the observer-expectancy effect that inevitably filters into each such conversation as the interviewer, being human and thus an embodiment of Hunter S. Thompson’s contention that “there is no such thing as Objective Journalism,” inevitably bends it through the prism of his own experience:

An interview [is] a form of conversation that has the same relationship to talking as fiction does to life. In order to work, fiction must abide by a set of rules it defines for itself, even if invisibly, and if an interview is to flow like a chat between two people it, too, must follow a set of conventions, some of them quite contradictory to how we are taught to interact naturally. Namely, that the interviewer asks all of the questions, offers pieces of information only for the purpose of stimulating more from the subject, and, primarily, that neither party calls attention to the artificiality of what is happening.

There is, however, a powerful antidote to this peril, one that sets the masterful interviewer apart. One thing Freeman’s fantastic interviews reveal, by virtue of contrast, is the insidiousness of online Q&A masquerading as interviews — those formulaic exchanges, most often conducted via email, that attempt to fit their subject into a template of compulsory questions, portending to reveal something meaningful about the complexity and inner workings of a singular mind while squeezing it into this one-size-fits-all model. The richness of the truly revelatory interview, of course, comes from those unplanned meanderings between planned questions, which unfold through the art of conversation and not though the dutiful adherence to a template.

Indeed, Freeman found himself with a gradually dwindling list of prepared questions as he began to really listen to his subjects, rather than dictating the course of the conversations:

I began arriving at interviews having read the books but without a single question in hand. This forced me to listen to people’s answers, and it meant we could have an actual conversation, with all the unpredictability and freshness of a good one.

In a way, then, a great interview abides by the third of legendary artist Richard Diebenkorn’s 10 rules of painting: “Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.” It is perhaps no coincidence that we find a beautiful symmetry between the art of the interview and the art of fiction — this supremacy of the intuitive over the intentional is also something Freeman finds as a steady undercurrent beneath all of his subjects’ work, the answer to the quintessential question of why writers write. He puts it beautifully:

True storytellers write, I believe, not because they can but because they have to. There is something they want to say about the world that can only be said in a story.

Of course, specific motives and inclinations differ across authors. (Though, arguably, they all comply with Orwell’s model of the four universal motives.) Freeman writes:

For some novelists, like Toni Morrison or Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Louise Erdrich, this task of telling stories about a place has a political dimension; it is about making visible a history, a sensibility, which history has repressed or occluded. For other writers, like David Foster Wallace, the need to write grew from an obsession with language, and further dimensions of their work all developed from that originating fire. Some of these novelists, like Mark Danielewski or Susanna Clarke, were so new to publishing that what haunted them was still developing and they spoke of it warily, revising and thinking aloud. Others were so near the end of their career—such as Philip Roth or Norman Mailer—they had already begun to try to curate how their work was read after they stopped writing or living.

The one recurring theme of psychological drive, however, appears to be the impulse for unity and integration, for “making the disparate parts of the world, and [the writer’s] experience, whole.” And so, once again, we arrive at Freeman’s mastery of the interview and insight into the form’s true role:

An interviewer’s job, I found, was not to close that gap — between here and there, between what was broken and what was whole — but to make it more mysterious.

His own role, however, he sees as one of necessary invisibility, made visible only through its steadfast implicit sensibility:

It would have felt grandiose to include much of myself in these pieces. I am there, I suppose, in the questions I ask and in the things I note. I am there in the tack I take through their books, and the quotes I chose to give the narrative of our encounter sail, as all interviewers must do, but the self I live in, the one made by factors accidental and chosen, remains, I hope, discrete. I have done this with the goal of making it easier for readers to step into the frame and imagine themselves there.

In this regard, the great interviewer is a sort of curator* of conversation, both absent and present. (* Suppose, for a moment, the word weren’t made as vacant of meaning by way of misuse and overuse, and still stood for something — stood for what it once used to designate, as in a museum curator who gently guides you along a theme of importance and interest.) This is something that sets apart not only today’s most exceptional interviewers, but also our time’s finest cultural “curators” — take, for instance, Andrew Sullivan, who highlights notable ideas from other publications, yet whose voice and sensibility are very much present and absolutely unmistakable even as his own extensive commentary is absent from most of his selections.

Freeman is also mindful of the novelist’s ever-fluid self — something Anaïs Nin articulated beautifully in 1946 — and this awareness informs his approach:

The only thing an interviewer can do to capture what a novelist truly does is to make them talk and tell stories, and think aloud. These are not meant to be definitive life profiles but rather glimpses spied through a moving window. Writers are always evolving, publishing, and they are also in constant direct or indirect dialogue with another.

(Coincidentally, at the recent New Yorker Festival, Jonathan Franzen affirmed this sentiment by noting, “I should have more conversations like this in public because it actually forces me to organize my thoughts.”)

One of Freeman’s keenest insights touches on the same immutable insecurity that drives writers’ notorious penchant for productivity rituals (“I have a theory [that] if you lead a very repetitious life, your imagination works very well,” Haruki Murakami tells Freeman), the famous writerly self-consciousness which drives even the greatest literary virtuosos to see their completed work as “a kind of miracle”:

Whether they have a Nobel or a Pulitzer, or a first novel ten years in the making, all of these novelists are still shocked, each time they finish, that it gets done at all. Perhaps that is why chance remains, aside from sheer effort, the most cited factor in how they discovered their voices.

Ultimately, however, it is at this interplay between doggedness and serendipity — something successful scientists welcome as “chance-opportunism” — that anchors writers to themselves:

In the end, it becomes impossible to separate the two forces from one another, just as it is so difficult, but necessary, to separate writers from their work. Their bodies are their bodies of work, and even the most prolific of them, like Updike, are driven against a dying of the light.

How to Read a Novelist goes on to employ this intricate art of the interview in unraveling the secrets of the craft and the essence of the writer’s soul, in all its uncontainable, template-resistant complexity. Complement it with the collected wisdom of literary greats.

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01 OCTOBER, 2013

Vintage Catalog Cards for Literary Classics from the Semi-Secret Archive of the Library of Congress

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An affectionate reminder that a book is a node in a complex human network of authors, readers, and librarians, connecting time, space, and sensibility.

When Melville Dewey devised his revolutionary decimal system in the late 19th century, he imposed order on the chaos of the library by creating a taxonomy of book placement. Suddenly, librarians were no longer needed — at least not as literal book-retrievers, which had been their task for centuries. Instead, they found a new role as intellectual guides who helped patrons decide what to read and scholars find the books best suited for their research. One thing that didn’t change, however, was the mechanism by which librarians performed their magic — the holy catalog card.

That magic springs to life anew in Card Catalog: 30 Notecards from the Library of Congress (public library) — a delicious collection of vintage cards, both handwritten and manually typeset, from the little-known trove of the Library of Congress. At once bittersweet mementos of a bygone era and timeless testaments to the staying power of literature’s greatest works, the cards — neatly stacked in a box with tabbed dividers — catalog such beloved authors as Virginia Woolf (who had particularly strong opinions about how one should read a book), Ernest Hemingway (who famously believed that “writing, at its best, is a lonely life” but would’ve had to concede that reading is the life of company), Aldous Huxley (though not indexing his little-known, only children’s book), and James Joyce (who would’ve been delighted to add this card to his list of personal legends). More than mere ephemera of literary fetishism, however, the cards are a reminder that a book is a node in a complex human network of authors, readers, and librarians, connecting countless eras, geographies, and sensibilities by the inextricable common thread that is the joy of reading.

Most of the cards are purely descriptive, yet somehow lovingly so:

Some, however, are downright poetic: The one on Emerson’s Self-Reliance — the timeless treatise that shaped the ideal in America, greatly influenced Thoreau’s famous case for the simple life, and permeated Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom — cites the title page of a 1902 edition:

So this then is the essay on Self-reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, wherein is told how, although we can never be independent, yet through the mental habit of self-reliance is the highest physical, mental and spiritual attainment secured: and as all individual life is a manifestation of self-reliance, a cheerful and noble self-reliance is the best service we can render our Maker, and. . . .

Others are subtly ironic in the context of history’s hindsight. Salinger, for instance, may have found the “DO NOT DISCARD” stamp a particular affront to is efforts to engineer the myth of his own disappearance as he spent the last half-century of his life crafting the public image of an author who simply wanted to be left alone.

Mostly, however, the cards remind us that however the written word may morph in medium and however many sensationalistic death tolls we may hear — for the novel, for handwriting, for the public intellectual — the spirit of literature will endure. Along with it, our impulse to organize beloved books — much like our impulse to order the cosmos and map time — will remain an immutable part of the human story.

Complement Card Catalog: 30 Notecards from the Library of Congress with the unquiet history of libraries and famous writers’ collected wisdom on literature.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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30 AUGUST, 2013

William Faulkner’s Little-Known Jazz Age Drawings, with a Side of Literary Derision

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From the sartorial to the satiric, or how the award-winning author’s youthful pretensions earned him a helping of high-brow mockery.

The latest addition to luminaries’ secret talents in a surprising discipline — including Richard Feynman’s sketches, Dr. Seuss’s wartime propaganda, and Marilyn Monroe’s poetry — comes from none other than William Faulkner. As if it weren’t already pleasantly disorienting to learn that he penned a little-known children’s book with a kooky inception, it turns out the Nobel- and Pulitzer-winning author also had a deftness for drawing.

In 1916, as he was about to turn twenty, Faulkner began contributing poems and sketches to the Mississippian, the literary magazine at Ole Miss — the University of Mississippi, in which he would enroll three years later for a brief three-semester stint before dropping out in 1920. But Faulkner continued to draw for the magazine until 1925 — shortly before he penned the aforementioned little-known children’s book while courting his future wife — even earning small commissions for his drawings, largely inspired by Aubrey Beardsley, bearing that distinct Jazz Age swanky sensibility and reminiscent of Henry Clarke’s sensual 1919 illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales, with a twinge of Goreyana. The drawings were published only once, in William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry (public library; public domain), an out-of-print anthology released months after Faulkner’s death in 1962 by The Atlantic Monthly’s imprint.

But in Becoming Faulkner: The Art and Life of William Faulkner (public library), Philip Weinstein argues that the drawings were merely part of Faulkner’s budding pretensions — which included claims to have served in the British Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, which he never actually did:

During the postwar years … Faulkner remained in aggressively role-playing mode. Following the initial season of sporting his unearned war uniform — worn not only on ceremonial occasions but at dances and on golf courses as well — he settled into an equally self-conscious role as a special student at the university. He took courses in English, Spanish, and French, but he was better-remembered for his cultural and sartorial pretensions. Earlier, his expensive tailored suits had earned him the title “The Count.” Now his more elaborate costuming — replete with cane, limp, and swagger — elicited from his university peers the derisive term “Count No ’Count.” Seemingly descent from Parnassus and returned from war-torn France, Faulkner maintained his façade of imperturbability. He published poems in the university literary magazine, the Mississippian, as well as contributed elegant, Beardsley-inspired drawings.

Indeed, his drawings pushed his already irked peers over the edge and an orchestrated high-brow mockery ensued:

Annoyed classmates eventually refused to take his cultural pretensions lying down. The title of one his poems — a translation of Paul Verlaine’s “Fantoches” — was misprinted in the Mississippian as “Fantouches.” That title and the poem’s most famous line — “la lune ne garde aucune rancune” — soon generated a satiric response. There appeared in the same magazine a counter-poem — “Whotouches,” described as “Just a Parody on Count’s ‘Fantouches’ by Count Jr.” — and it ended thus: “how long the old aucune raccoon.” Journalistic ripple effects continued, and a month later the Mississippian published “Cane de Looney” written by one “Peruney Prune.”

And yet the drawings, taken in and of themselves, are undeniably lovely.

Should you be so lucky, you might be able to snag one of the few surviving copies of William Faulkner: Early Prose and Poetry still floating around. Else, there’s always a voyeuristic look back at Faulkner’s other secret talent.

Open Culture Lit Hitchhiker

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23 JULY, 2013

The Only Surviving Recording of Raymond Chandler’s Voice, in a BBC Conversation with Ian Fleming

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“You starve to death for ten years before your publisher knows you’re any good.”

Raymond Chandler (July 23, 1888–March 26, 1959) endures as one of the most celebrated novelists and screenwriters in literary history, an oracle of insight on the written word, a lovable grump dispensing delightfully curmudgeonly advice on editorial manners, and a hopeless cat-lover. In July of 1958, to mark the publication of Chandler’s last book, Playback, BBC brought Chandler and Ian Fleming together on the air. Fleming and the BBC broadcaster producing the program picked up Chandler at 11 A.M. on the day of the interview and even though they “found his voice slurred with whisky,” the broadcast went quite well. Seven months later, Chandler died. This discussion, which covers heroes and villains — Fleming’s James Bond and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe — and the relationship between author and character, is believed to be the only surviving recording of the author’s voice. Transcribed highlights below.

Chandler on the doggedness literary success (or any creative success) requires:

How long did it take me [to become a successful writer]? You starve to death for ten years before your publisher knows you’re any good.

Fleming on villains:

I find it … extremely difficult to write about villains, villains I find extremely difficult people to put my finger on. … The really good, solid villain is a very difficult person to build up, I think.

Fleming and Chandler on heroes:

Your hero, Philip Marlowe, is a real hero — he behaves in a heroic fashion. My leading character, James Bond, I never intended to be a hero — I intended him to be a sort of blank instrument wielded by a government department, who would get into bizarre, fantastic situations and more or less shoot his way out of them, get out of them one way or another.

Chandler on James Bond and how he differs from Marlowe:

A man with his job can’t afford to feel tender emotions — he feels them but he has to quell them.

Fleming, responding to Chandler’s amazement at how he can write so many James Bond books in addition to his intense editorial commitments, offers a glimpse of his creative routine and a testament to the value of discipline:

I have two months off in Jamaica every year, in my contract with the Sunday Times, and I sit down and a write a book every year during those two months.

Chandler on the difference between the British and the American thriller:

The American thriller is much faster paced.

Complement this with Chandler’s collected wisdom on writing, which is among history’s finest advice on the craft, then revisit the only surviving recordings of Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman.

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