The Paris Review: a look into the mind of the modern writer

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Literary magazine The Paris Review has been interviewing writers for over sixty years. Interviewees are selected with an ethos similar to the Nobel Prize for Literature, in that only proven masters of the art are chosen. Name any great writer from the last half-century and the chances are that they’ve talked to The Paris Review.

Pablo Neruda:

I don’t have a schedule, but by preference I write in the morning. Which is to say that if you weren’t here making me waste my time (and wasting your own), I would be writing.

Interviews with writers rarely disappoint. This is unsurprising when you think about it, the chief requirement of their art being to choose the right words, but there is something more: interviews with writers tend to go far beyond the subject of literature, because literature takes everything as its subject.

Gunter Grass:

While I would never write a story that was simply and specifically about some political reality, I see no reason to omit politics, which has such a great, determining power over our lives. It seeps into every aspect of life in one way or another.

The Paris Review interviews have become legendary. Formality is dispensed with and the interviews turn into conversations, so much so that often the interviewer is not sure where the thread is leading, if anywhere. Jack Kerouac, for example, baffles his interviewer – and the readers, come to that – with a strange question near the conversation’s end.

Jack Kerouac:

Why is there a little white beard in your mortality belly?

It is a dangerous game, hearing writers talk about how they write: the would-be writer cannot help but be tempted to emulate those authors who were probably the reason for his literary aspirations in the first place. The sheer quantity of interviews (over 300) helps here. Immersing yourself in the interviews, you find each writer unfailingly and extremely different to the next, so that in the end there is only one example, common to every writer, left to emulate: to find your own way.

Geoff Dyer:

The process of book writing for me is entirely one of trial and error.

Hunter S. Thompson:

I hadn’t adjusted too well to society — I was in jail for the night of my high school graduation — but I learned at the age of fifteen that to get by you had to find the one thing you can do better than anybody else  […] at least this was so in my case. I figured that out early. It was writing.

For aspiring writers of any sort – journalism, poetry, novels, short stories, criticism, non-fiction, plays, screenwriting et al. – the interviews at The Paris Review are an inexhaustible resource of both wisdom and reality checks. Over the next few weeks/months, I’ll be conducting a whistlestop tour of the online archive: my favourite place on the whole internet.

Read them all here:

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