This is the best chat show you ever saw. Cherry picked from between 1956 and 2006, here you have – for the first seven interviews alone – Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Saul Bellow, Jorge Luis Borges and Kurt Vonnegut, talking at length about life and literature. Is there a better way of spending a Sunday afternoon? The writers interviewed are for the most part elderly, looking back on a lifetime’s achievement. Many are asked about the writing process itself – the routine of it, how it is that a novel or a poem can spring from a person sitting at a desk with a pencil or a typewriter. Asked how he starts a poem, Jack Gilbert is unhelpful:
There’s no one way. Sometimes I’m walking along the street and I find it there. Sometimes it’s something I’ve been thinking about. Sometimes it’s an apparition. (p. 452)
Robert Stone is more practical:
[I type] until something becomes elusive. Then I write in longhand in order to be precise. On a typewriter or word processor you can rush something that shouldn’t be rushed – you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity. (p. 308)
Richard Price, having gone from writing novels to screenplays, talked up his novel Clockers to publishing houses – not having written a word – as though it were a screenplay: he wanted the ‘hugger-mugger’, the ‘emergency meetings’ of collaborative writing. ‘I wanted someone waiting, someone keeping the light burning in the window.’ (p. 386). Joan Didion constantly re-writes the 90 pages preceding the point she has reached, advancing incrementally. Hemingway believes ‘it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes’ (p. 50), but nonetheless reveals:
When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, and you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. (p. 38)
Trying ‘to live through until the next day’ is presumably the point at which the interview occurred, because he is extremely testy throughout. It was perhaps unkind to put it directly after the cheery Truman Capote interview:
I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. (p. 28)
Borges comes across as a sweet, slightly tremulous old man, deeply immersed in and alive with literature. His interview is punctuated every few pages by the entrance of one Susana Quinteros, who announces ‘Señor Campbell is still waiting’, to which Borges responds, ‘Yes, yes, we know. The Campbells are coming!’ (p. 136). She never tires of drawing his attention to his waiting visitor, and he shows no interest in having Campbell shown in before the interview is over, though he is quite aware of the humour in the situation. Unlike Hemingway, he is as engrossed in the interview as he would be in a book. He says, ‘I don’t think ideas are important’, which endeared him to me immediately. A writer should be judged by ‘the enjoyment he gives and by the emotion one gets’. He gives the example of Kipling’s Kim as a book in which the ideas behind it and the feeling one gets from it are at odds with one another:
Suppose you consider the idea of the Empire of the English – well, in Kim I think the characters one really is fond of are not the English, but many of the Indians, the Mussulmans. I think they’re nicer people. And that’s because he thought them – no! no! not because he thought them nicer – but because he felt them nicer. (p. 131)
Prior to reading this interview I’d never read Borges (I’m reading Fictions at the moment), but that’s really not the kind of remark you’d expect from someone famous for such conceptual stories.
There is so much in this book I haven’t touched on (e.g. Billy Wilder’s funny and well balanced take on script writing, Rebecca West’s hard boiled scattiness or Kurt Vonnegut’s awful one liners), it leads in all kinds of directions, adds pounds to the reading list, and is just an all round terrific thing. If BBC 4 modelled a chat show on it – well, you can dream. Here’s one more quote from Jack Gilbert, whose interview is my favourite thing here:
INTERVIEWER: What, other than yourself, is the subject of your poems?
GILBERT: Those I love. Being. Living my life without being diverted into things that people so often get diverted into. Being alive is so extraordinary I don’t know why people limit it to riches, pride, security – all of those things life is built on. People miss so much because they want money and comfort and pride, and house and a job to pay for the house. And they have to get a car. You can’t see anything from a car. It’s moving too fast. People take vacations. That’s their reward – the vacation. Why not the life? Vacations are second-rate. People deprive themselves of so much of their lives – until it’s too late. Though I understand that often you don’t have a choice. (p. 456)