August 2, 2021

Of the art of asking and answering

By NELSON RIVERA

Every good interview saves an event. If the interviewer has a solid knowledge of the author; if the author, often declining his reluctance, has agreed to answer the questions posed by the interlocutor; if the necessary agreements have been established for questions and answers to flow; if the meetings take place without significant interruptions; If the mere transcription of what has been discussed is submitted to the benefit of a good edition, without the adjustments detracting the spirit in which the conversation took place, then the most probable thing is that the result will be a lasting exchange, a good that manages to survive the ephemeral condition of journalism, and remain in time as a valuable object of the literary universe.

The Paris Review It was created in 1953, in New York, by the journalist, writer and athlete George Plimpton; the scholar of Amerindian cultures and storyteller Peter Matthiessen – winner of the National Book Prize in 1979, for The snow leopard-; novelist, meteorologist, and filmmaker Harold L. Humes; the publisher Thomas Henry Guinzburg —who would later succeed his father at the head of Viking Press—; and the poet and literary critic Donald Hall, 2006 United States Poet Laureate. For 50 years, until his death in 2003, Plimpton was the uninterrupted editor.

In its multifaceted history – just one example: between 1956 and 1957, the magazine was based on a cargo ship – an event marks the path of The Paris Review to our time: Plimpton asks the English Philip Nicholas Furbank and FJH Haskell to interview Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970), for the first installment, corresponding to the spring of 1953 (edition that includes two texts by George Steiner). Plimpton’s commission is clearly marked: they had to interrogate the novelist about schedules, routines, working methods, origin of the stories or themes, technical issues of writing, ease or difficulty in writing, editing the texts and other issues, as a point starting to inquire into worldviews, into the links with other authors and works, in the way in which each author understands his insertion in the republic of letters.

That idea, common in our time, to investigate literary cuisine, appeared as a novelty in those years. Writers at Work —Writers at work— would soon become one — not the only one — of the outstanding attributes of the magazine’s editorial personality. In the second edition, summer 1953, the interviewee was Francois Mauriac; in the autumn one, Graham Greene; in the winter one, Irwing Shaw. And so it has continued, with astonishing discipline, to this day (Enrique Vila-Matas was one of the 2020 interviewees).

The admirable edition of El Acantilado

From the mid-1970s, selections of the interviews began to be published. Plimpton himself owes a first anthology published in 1974 (United States), which the Kairós publishing house translated into two volumes – each with ten interviews – under the title of Conversations with writers, in the years 1980 and 1981. Years later —1996—, in Argentina, the publishing house El Ateneo published at least four selections: one, Writers confessions. The Paris Review reports. Narrators 1, prefaced by Luis Chitarroni. A second, Narrators 2, prefaced by Carlos Eduardo Feiling. A third, with the label of New American novel, with a foreword by Rodrigo Fresán. And, a fourth, dedicated to Latin American writers, presented by Noé Jitrik. I also know a selection of 18 interviews, published by El Aleph Editores in Spain (2007), by the critic Ignacio Echevarría. There are likely to be other editions in our language.

The edition that El Acantilado put into circulation in December 2020 is a kind of great battleship: it contains one hundred (100) interviews, published between 1953 and 2012, distributed in two volumes that exceed 2,800 pages. The choice is remarkable: a hundred of the most recognized, admired, read and awarded authors. They are a good part of those who are recognized as the best of the best.

Except for the similarity between the questions dedicated to work habits, creative sources and the link of each author with their works and characters, most of the interviews are unmistakable in their specificity, in their dynamics and in the experience they provide. . Of some of them it can be said: they are a spectacle for the intelligence, under the logic of asking and answering. The effort to avoid the vain question predominates. Often the interviewer is an expert on the work and on the author’s previous statements. Those who interrogate — writers, critics, poets, philologists, biographers, publishers, university professors — do not improvise. There is an art of the question, whose foundation is the investigation, the detailed knowledge of the books and the trajectory of the interviewee.

There is not only one any technique —An art of questioning wisely— but a in response technique, which is, after all, the verbal magic that makes certain interviews exceptional pieces: refinement in expression, a pressing desire to put things in their place, to clear the way of common places, an almost imperious need to remove the ground the dilemmatic or reducing formulas. And it is fair because the author has a interest, that each interview is a event: unrepeatable staging, exchange where the interviewee, when asked by an expert, gives his best: concentrated, brief and clear. Almost without exception, in all of them they talk about the beginnings, vocations, appreciation of critics, literary friendships, influences, working methods, sources, admired works, editors. Life anecdotes abound. A few interviews — Brodsky in the first volume, Walcott and Steiner in the second — are dazzling with the richness and overflow of ideas: they push the interview to its highest limit: that place where it can be considered a variant of the essay.

Noticeable trends

Despite the impossibility of formulating any generalization that encompasses the hundreds of interviews, several trends are persistent. The first, very recurrent, is one of discomfort and even rejection of questions about influences: they deny or dismantle them in an exhaustive way. Writers perceive themselves as unique creators of their works. Few accept his literary background. Or, when they recognize them, they delimit them in some way.

Another trend that reappears almost unanimously: the rejection of the critics. They say: they are nothing more than gossip. Or, if the work doesn’t meet their previous criteria, they condemn them. Or they make excessive interpretations: the authors argue that critics write about books they have not written. Or: I am not interested, I do not read them. Many agree: the critics attribute intentions or theorizations beyond the will of the writer.

Linked to the above, it is worth noting the third insistence of the writers, specifically the narrators: to draw a thick dividing line between the creator and his characters. The authors insist: I am not my character.

Another trend that claims to be noted: a certain hostility towards journalism is repeated. Previous refusals, extreme conditions, revision practices, back and forth of the originals occur. It could be synthesized like this: the writer does not like the superficiality of journalism. And harshness in the presence of the recorder. Although, it must be said, sometimes the interviewee is surprised by the knowledge that the interviewer has of his work.

Others: the presumption-experience among novelists that the characters take control of the narrative (an idea that provokes Nabokov’s anger). Among the narrators, Hemingway stands as the most repeated and overwhelming reference. If this tour allows for any conclusions, I will say: Hemingway might be the most influential, admired, and controversial storyteller of the 20th century. In addition to the great novelists of the 19th century, especially the Russians, Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf, Proust, and Nabokov enjoy a wide literary reputation among their colleagues. Less mentioned, Anton Chekhov and Eudora Welty could top the ranking of storytellers. Among the poets, two powerful beacons: Frost, for his incomparable poems; Auden, for his keen intelligence.

A hypothesis to conclude these notes: generations and authors pass. Many things change in the world and in experience, but there are certain questions — certain ambitions — that journalism asks writers that remain unchanged, unaltered, and inescapable.


*The Paris Review. Interviews (1953-2012). Volumes 1 and 2. Translation from English: María Belmonte, Javier Calvo, Gonzalo Fernández Gómez and Francisco López Martín. Ediciones El Acantilado, Quaderns Crema SA Spain, 2020.

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