E.M. Forster, The Art of Fiction No. 1
François Mauriac, The Art of Fiction No. 2
Graham Greene, The Art of Fiction No. 3
Irwin Shaw, The Art of Fiction No. 4
William Styron, The Art of Fiction No. 5
Alberto Moravia, The Art of Fiction No. 6
Joyce Cary, The Art of Fiction No. 7
Ralph Ellison, The Art of Fiction No. 8
Georges Simenon, The Art of Fiction No. 9
James Thurber, The Art of Fiction No. 10
Nelson Algren, The Art of Fiction No. 11
William Faulkner, The Art of Fiction No. 12
Dorthy Parker, The Art of Fiction No. 13
Joy Williams, The Art of Fiction No. 223
Aharon Appelfeld, The Art of Fiction No. 224
Herta Müller, The Art of Fiction No. 225
Hilary Mantel, Art of Fiction No. 226
Lydia Davis, Art of Fiction No. 227
Elena Ferrante, Art of Fiction No. 228
Jane Smiley, The Art of Fiction No. 229
Dag Solstad, The Art of Fiction No. 230
Jay McInerney, The Art of Fiction No. 231
Alasdair Gray, The Art of Fiction No. 232
Interviewed by P. N. Furbank & F. J. H. Haskell
“That is not all of Arctic Summer—there is almost half as much of it again—but that’s all I want to read because now it goes off, or at least I think so, and I do not want my voice to go out into the air while my heart is sinking. It will be more interesting to consider what the problems before me were, and why I was unlikely to solve them. I should like to do this, though it may involve us a little in fiction technicalities…”
So said E. M. Forster, addressing an audience at the Aldeburgh Festival of 1951. He had been reading part of an unfinished novel called Arctic Summer. At the end of the reading, he went on to explain why he had not finished the novel, which led him to mention what he called “fiction technicalities.”
INTERVIEWER: Now, can we ask you a few questions about the immediate business of writing? Do you keep a notebook?
FORSTER: No, I should feel it improper.
INTERVIEWER: But you would refer to diaries and letters?
FORSTER: Yes, that’s different.
INTERVIEWER: When you go, say, to the circus, would you ever feel, How nice it would be to put that in a novel?
FORSTER: No, I should feel it improper. I never say, That might be useful. I don’t think it is right for an author to do so. However, I have been inspired on the spot. “The Story of a Panic” is the simplest example; “The Road from Colonus” is another. Sense of a place also inspired me to write a short story called “The Rock,” but the inspiration was poor in quality, and the editors wouldn’t take the story. But I have talked about this in the introduction to my short stories.
FORSTER: I find it difficult to recognize people when I meet them, though I remember about them. I remember their voices. [As do I, JH]
FORSTER: In no book have I got down more than the people I like, the person I think I am, and the people who irritate me. This puts me among the large body of authors who are not really novelists and have to get on as best they can with these three categories. We have not the power of observing the variety of life and describing it dispassionately. There are a few who have done this. Tolstoy was one, wasn’t he?
INTERVIEWER: Can you say anything about the process of turning a real person into a fictional one?
FORSTER: A useful trick is to look back upon such a person with half-closed eyes, fully describing certain characteristics. I am left with about two-thirds of a human being and can get to work. A likeness isn’t aimed at, and couldn’t be obtained, because a man’s only himself amid the particular circumstances of his life and not amid other circumstances. [emphasis mine, JH] So that to refer back to Dent when Philip was in difficulties with Gino, or to ask one and one-half Miss Dickinsons how Helen should comport herself with an illegitimate baby, would have ruined the atmosphere and the book. When all goes well, the original material soon disappears, and a character who belongs to the book and nowhere else emerges. [emphasis mine, JH].
INTERVIEWER: How far aware are you of your own technical clevernesses in general?
FORSTER: We keep coming back to that. People will not realize how little conscious one is of these things; how one flounders about. They want us to be so much better informed than we are. If critics could only have a course on writers’ not thinking things out—a course of lectures….
INTERVIEWER: What led you to make the remark quoted by Lionel Trilling, that the older you got the less it seemed to you to matter that an artist should “develop.”
FORSTER:I am more interested in achievement than in advance on it and decline from it. And I am more interested in works than in authors. The paternal wish of critics to show how a writer dropped off or picked up as he went along seems to me misplaced. I am only interested in myself as a producer. What was it Mahler said?—“anyone will sufficiently understand me who will trace my development through my nine symphonies.” This seems odd to me; I couldn’t imagine myself making such a remark, it seems too uncasual. [The use of “uncasual” instead of “formal” strikes me here, and I enjoy the distinction that Forster makes. JH] Other authors find themselves much more an object of study. I am conceited but not interested in myself in this particular way. Of course, I like reading my own work, and often do it. I go gently over the bits that I think are bad.
INTERVIEWER: But you think highly of your own work?
FORSTER: That was implicit, yes. My regret is that I haven’t written a bit more—that the body, the corpus, isn’t bigger. I think I am different from other writers; they profess much more worry (I don’t know if it is genuine). I have always found writing pleasant and don’t understand what people mean by “throes of creation.” I’ve enjoyed it, but believe that in some ways it is good. Whether it will last, I have no idea.
Interviewed by Jean Le Marchand
“Every novelist ought to invent his own technique, that is the fact of the matter. Every novel worthy of the name is like another planet, whether large or small, which has its own laws just as it has its own flora and fauna. Thus, Faulkner’s technique is certainly the best one with which to paint Faulkner’s world, and Kafka’s nightmare has produced its own myths that make it communicable. Benjamin Constant, Stendhal, Eugène Fromentin, Jacques Rivière, Radiguet, all used different techniques, took different liberties, and set themselves different tasks. The work of art itself, whether its title is Adolphe, Lucien Leuwen, Dominique, Le Diable au corps or À la Recherche du temps perdu, is the solution to the problem of technique.”
With these words François Mauriac, discussing the novel in the French literary magazine La Table Ronde of August 1949, described his own position. In March 1953, he was interviewed on the same subject for The Paris Review by Jean le Marchand, Secrétaire Générale of La Table Ronde. M. Le Marchand began by asking him about his earlier statement.
INTERVIEWER: Do you make notes for future use? When you see something of interest in the course of life do you think, “That will be something I can use”?
MAURIAC: Never; for the reason I have just given. I don’t observe and I don’t describe; I rediscover. I rediscover the narrow Jansenist world of my devout, unhappy, and introverted childhood. It is as though when I was twenty a door within me had closed forever on that which was going to become the material of my work.
INTERVIEWE: Don’t you find, rather, that at a time when the impact of events such as those in Algeria is very heavy, the world has detached itself somewhat from fiction? Perhaps the distance is no longer there that is necessary for the reception of the novel.
MAURIAC: Every period in history has been more or less tragic. The events we are living through would not suffice to explain what is loosely called “the crisis of the novel,” which is not, I might add, a crisis of readership, inasmuch as the public does read novels today, and printings are much larger today than they were in my youth.
No, the crisis of the novel, in my opinion, is of a metaphysical nature, and is connected with a certain conception of man. The argument against the psychological novel derives essentially from the conception of man held by the present generation, a conception that is totally negative. This altered view of the individual began a long time ago. The works of Proust show it. Between Swann’s Way (the perfect novel) and The Past Recaptured we watch the characters dissolve. As the novel advances, the characters decay.
Today, along with nonrepresentational art, we have the nonrepresentational novel—the characters simply have no distinguishing features.
I believe that the crisis of the novel, if it exists, is right there, essentially, in the domain of technique. The novel has lost its purpose. That is the most serious difficulty, and it is from there that we must begin. The younger generation believes, after Joyce and Proust, that it has discovered the “purpose” of the old novel to have been prefabricated and unrelated to reality.
MAURIAC: And yet, I admire in the young novelists their “search for the absolute,” their hatred of false appearances and illusions. They made me think of what Alain and Simone Weil said of a “purifying atheism.” But let’s not go into that—I’m no philosopher.
INTERVIEWER: That’s what everyone says you are. Besides, why deny it?
MAURIAC: Each time literary talent decreases, the philosophers gain. I am not saying that’s against them, but little by little they have taken over. The present generation is terribly intelligent. In the old days one could have talent and still be a little stupid; today, no. Insofar as the young are philosophers, they probably have much less need of fiction than we did.
It is very important, all the same, that the master who has most influenced our period in literature should be a philosopher. Jean-Paul Sartre has, moreover, great talent, without which he would not have taken the position he now occupies. Compare his influence to that of Bergson, who stayed in the domain of ideas and only affected literature indirectly, through his influence on the literary men themselves.
MAURIAC: The rarest thing in literature, and the only success, is when the author disappears and his work remains. We don’t know who Shakespeare was, or Homer. People have worn themselves out writing about the life of Racine without being able to establish anything. He is lost in the radiance of his creation. That is quite rare.
There are almost no writers who disappear into their work. The opposite almost always comes about. Even the great characters that have survived in novels are found now more in handbooks and histories, as though in a museum. As living creatures they get worn out, and they grow feeble. Sometimes we even see them die. Madame Bovary seems to me to be in poorer health than she used to be. . . .
MAURIAC: My enemies believe I want to remain on stage at any price—that I make use of politics in order to survive. They would be astounded indeed if they knew that my greatest happiness is to be alone on my terrace, trying to guess the direction of the wind from the odors it carries. What I fear is not being forgotten after my death, but, rather, not being enough forgotten. As we were saying, it is not our books that survive, but our poor lives that linger in the histories.
Interviewed by Simon Raven & Martin Shuttleworth
INTERVIEWER: There are just one or two other questions on a similar tack: many of your most memorable characters, Raven for instance, are from low life. Have you ever had any experience of low life?
GREENE: No, very little.
INTERVIEWER: What did you know about poverty?
GREENE: I have never known it. I was “short,” yes, in the sense that I had to be careful for the first eight years of my adult life but I have never been any closer.
INTERVIEWER: Then you don’t draw your characters from life?
GREENE: No, one never knows enough about characters in real life to put them into novels. One gets started and then, suddenly, one can not remember what toothpaste they use; what are their views on interior decoration, and one is stuck utterly. No, major characters emerge; minor ones may be photographed.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, you are “a writer who is a Catholic;” we seem to have cleared up that, but there are still a few gaps to be filled before we can know why you are a writer. Do you remember that you once said on the wireless that when you were fourteen or so and read Marjorie Bowen’s Viper of Milan you immediately began to scribble imitation after imitation: “from that moment I began to write. All the other possible futures slid away . . .”
GREENE: Yes, that was so; I am very grateful to Marjorie Bowen. In that talk I was engaged on a little mild baiting of the intellectuals. Pritchett had said that Turgenev had influenced him most; somebody else, somebody else. I chose Marjorie Bowen because as I have told you, I don’t think that the books that one reads as an adult influence one as a writer. For example, of the many, many books on the art of the novel, only Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction has interested me at all. But books such as Marjorie Bowen’s, read at a young age, do influence one considerably. It is a very fine book, you know. I re-read it again recently.
INTERVIEWER: Do you see much of your fellow authors?
GREENE: Not much, they are not one’s material. A few of them are very dear friends of mine but for a writer to spend much of his time in the company of authors is, you know, a form of masturbation.
Interviewed by George Plimpton and John Phillips
[A]lmost every writer will tell you that events that happened to him before he started writing are the most valuable to him. Once he starts writing he seems to observe the world through a filter. I believe that’s true about writers: that the unconscious observation of things, a kind of absorbing of life that goes on before he becomes a writer, that is what is most useful to him. When he starts observing things professionally and taking notes and trying to remember, he may collect a lot more but he loses the spontaneous quality and the flow. He becomes too systematic.
INTERVIEWER: Well, what about success? Certainly that’s beneficial to a writer?
SHAW: To a certain extent it is. But everybody forgets that a writer who has had success—even one who’s made a lot of money on one book—may have waited fifteen years for that one book, and before he can produce another one, it may be another fifteen years, if ever. And I’m not only talking about commercial or critical failure. There’s the kind of running failure that dogs a writer all his life—ideas that only get half-written, false beginnings, first drafts that suddenly go dead and have to be thrown away, even crucial paragraphs that stiffen under your hand and refuse to be revived. And then, whole books—even if they’ve been well received—that nag you long after they’ve been published, because you see where you could have done something better with them. And then, American writers, more than any others, are haunted by the fear of failure, because it’s such a common pattern in America. The ghost of Fitzgerald, dying in Hollywood, with his comeback book unfinished, and his best book, Tender Is the Night, scorned—his ghost hangs over every American typewriter. An absolutely necessary part of a writer’s equipment, almost as necessary as talent, is the ability to stand up under punishment, both the punishment the world hands out and the punishment he inflicts upon himself. If he doesn’t have the faith in himself, the energy, the ambition, to shake it off or absorb it and plow ahead, he’ll wind up a one-book man or a two-book man, and hitting the bottle instead of the typewriter. Failure is more consistent—for everybody—than success. It’s like living in a rainy belt—there are some sunny days, but most of the time it’s wet outside and you’d better carry your umbrella. Anyway, failure is apt to produce self-pity, and it’s been my experience that self-pity can be very productive.
SHAW: Still, for a long time, the intellectual in America has had, at least socially and psychologically, a difficult time. In the thirties the Communists were making their first big dent, and it was they who began to belittle the intellectuals in places like New York. They were joined by the violent right-wing newspapers who hated Roosevelt and expressed their contempt of the intellectuals by inventing such phrases as the “brain trust.”
INTERVIEWER: You’d say that the intellectual, and particularly the writer, is much better respected in Europe than in the States?
SHAW: Not in Europe, generally. Remember what happened to the intellectuals in Germany and in Russia. But in Western Europe, yes. Look at François Mauriac, a Nobel Prize winner and one of the best living French novelists, writing a column on anything he pleases, on politics or a play he’s seen the night before, or a point of religious doctrine, twice a week, which is published on the front page of Figaro, the biggest conservative paper in France. Can you imagine either one of our two living Nobel Prize winners—Pearl Buck or William Faulkner—writing a column like that for The New York Times?
INTERVIEWER: What is thought of the writer in America, then?
SHAW: He’s a freak. People feel uncomfortable when he’s around. He has odd, inconsistent ways of making his living, and nine times out of ten he can’t earn his living by writing. He’s distrusted and maybe he’s subversive. An American writer is always a potential witness for an investigating committee. Right now, the situation has worsened: at least in the thirties an occasional writer was asked to the White House. Now, attacking writers as among the most eggheaded of intellectuals is considered a good way of guaranteeing an election. I might mistrust intellectuals, but I’d mistrust nonintellectuals even more.
Interviewed by Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton
INTERVIEWER: What value has the creative writing course for young writers?
STYRON: It gives them a start, I suppose. But it can be an awful waste of time. Look at those people who go back year after year to summer writers’ conferences, you get so you can pick them out a mile away. A writing course can only give you a start, and help a little. It can’t teach writing. The professor should weed out the good from the bad, cull them like a farmer, and not encourage the ones who haven’t got something. At one school I know in New York, which has a lot of writing courses, there are a couple of teachers who moon in the most disgusting way over the poorest, most talentless writers, giving false hope where there shouldn’t be any hope at all. Regularly they put out dreary little anthologies, the quality of which would chill your blood. It’s a ruinous business, a waste of paper and time, and such teachers should be abolished.
INTERVIEWER: You refer a number of times to Faulkner. Even though you don’t think of yourself as a “Southern” writer, would you say that he influenced you?
STYRON: I would certainly say so. I’d say I’ve been influenced as much, though, by Joyce and Flaubert. Old Joyce and Flaubert have influenced me stylistically, given me arrows, but then a lot of the contemporary works I’ve read have influenced me as a craftsman. …As for Flaubert, Madame Bovary is one of the few novels that move me in every way, not only in its style, but in its total communicability, like the effect of good poetry. What I really mean is that a great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it. Its writer should, too. Without condescending, he should be conscious of himself as a reader, and while he’s writing it he should be able to step outside of it from time to time and say to himself, Now if I were just reading this book, would I like this part here? I have the feeling that that’s what Flaubert did—maybe too much, though, finally, in books like Sentimental Education.
INTERVIEWER: [Do] you start with emphasis on character or story?
STYRON: Character, definitely. And by character I mean a person drawn full-round, not a caricature. E. M. Forster refers to “flat” and “round” characters. I try to make all of mine round. It takes an extrovert like Dickens to make flat characters come alive. But story as such has been neglected by today’s introverted writers. Story and character should grow together; I think I’m lucky so far in that in practically everything I’ve tried to write these two elements have grown together. They must, to give an impression of life being lived, just because each man’s life is a story, if you’ll pardon the cliché. I used to spend a lot of time worrying over word order, trying to create beautiful passages. I still believe in the value of a handsome style. I appreciate the sensibility that can produce a nice turn of phrase, like Scott Fitzgerald. But I’m not interested any more in turning out something shimmering and impressionistic—Southern, if you will—full of word-pictures, damn Dixie baby talk, and that sort of thing. I guess I just get more and more interested in people. And story.
INTERVIEWER: Do you enjoy writing?
STYRON: I certainly don’t. I get a fine, warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it, writing is hell.
INTERVIEWER: How many pages do you turn out each day?
STYRON: When I’m writing steadily—that is, when I’m involved in a project that I’m really interested in, one of those rare pieces that has a foreseeable end—I average two-and-a-half or three pages a day, longhand on yellow sheets. I spend about five hours at it, of which very little is spent actually writing. I try to get a feeling of what’s going on in the story before I put it down on paper, but actually most of this breaking-in period is one long, fantastic daydream, in which I think about anything but the work at hand. I can’t turn out slews of stuff each day. I wish I could. I seem to have some neurotic need to perfect each paragraph—each sentence, even—as I go along.
Interviewed by Anna Maria de Dominicis & Ben Johnson
MORAVIA: Yes. But I want it quite clearly understood: my works are not autobiographical in the usual meaning of the word. Perhaps I can put it this way: whatever is autobiographical is so in only a very indirect manner, in a very general way. I am related to Girolamo, but I am not Girolamo. I do not take, and have never taken, either action or characters directly from life. Events may suggest events to be used in a work later; similarly, persons may suggest future characters; but suggest is the word to remember. One writes about what one knows. For instance, I can’t say I know America, though I’ve visited there. I couldn’t write about it. Yes, one uses what one knows, but autobiography means something else. I should never be able to write a real autobiography; I always end by falsifying and fictionalizing—I’m a liar, in fact. That means I’m a novelist, after all. I write about what I know.
INTERVIEWER: And your film work?
MORAVIA: Script writing, you mean? I haven’t actually done much, and what little I’ve done I haven’t particularly enjoyed.
INTERVIEWER: Yet it is another art form.
MORAVIA: Of course it is. Certainly. Wherever there is craftsmanship there is art. But the question is this: up to what point will the motion picture permit full expression? The camera is a less complete instrument of expression than the pen, even in the hands of an Eisenstein. It will never be able to express all, say, that Proust was capable of. Never. For all that, it is a spectacular medium, overflowing with life, so that the work is not entirely a grind. It’s the only really alive art in Italy today, owing to its great financial backing. But to work for motion pictures is exhausting. And a writer is never able to be more than an idea-man or a scenarist—an underling, in effect. It offers him little satisfaction apart from the pay. His name doesn’t even appear on the posters. For a writer it’s a bitter job.
INTERVIEWER: Did you work from notes on La Romana? Rumor has it—
MORAVIA: Never. I never work from notes. I had met a woman of Rome—ten years before. Her life had nothing to do with the novel, but I remembered her, she seemed to set off a spark. No, I have never taken notes or ever even possessed a notebook. My work, in fact, is not prepared beforehand in any way. I might add, too, that when I’m not working I don’t think of my work at all. When I sit down to write—that’s between nine and twelve every morning, and I have never, incidentally, written a line in the afternoon or at night—when I sit at my table to write, I never know what it’s going to be till I’m under way. I trust in inspiration, which sometimes comes and sometimes doesn’t. But I don’t sit back waiting for it. I work every day.
INTERVIEWER: I suppose you were helped some by your wife. The psychology . . .
MORAVIA: Not at all. For the psychology of my characters, and for every other aspect of my work, I draw solely upon my experience; but understand, never in a documentary, a textbook, sense. No, I met a Roman woman called Adriana. Ten years afterward I wrote the novel for which she provided the first impulse. She has probably never read the book. I only saw her that once; I imagined everything, I invented everything.
INTERVIEWER: A fantasia on a real theme?
MORAVIA: Don’t confuse imagination and fantasy; they are two distinct actions of the mind. Benedetto Croce makes a great distinction between them in some of his best pages. All artists must have imagination, some have fantasy. Science fiction, or—well, Ariosto . . . that’s fantasy. For imagination, take Madame Bovary. Flaubert has great imagination, but absolutely no fantasy.
INTERVIEWER: Working without notes, without a plan or outline or anything, you must make quite a few revisions.
MORAVIA: Oh, yes, that I do do. Each book is worked over several times. I like to compare my method with that of painters centuries ago, proceeding, as it were, from layer to layer. The first draft is quite crude, far from being perfect, by no means finished; although even then, even at that point, it has its final structure, the form is visible. After that I rewrite it as many times—apply as many “layers”—as I feel to be necessary.
INTERVIEWER: Was that your only tilt with the censors?
MORAVIA: Oh, no; not by any means! I’ve been a lifelong anti-Fascist. There was a running battle between me and the Fascist authorities beginning in ‘29 and ending with the German occupation in 1943, when I had to go into hiding in the mountains, near the southern front, where I waited nine months until the Allies arrived. Time and again my books were not allowed to be mentioned in the press. Many times by order of the Ministry of Culture I lost jobs I held on newspapers, and for some years I was forced to write under the pen name of Pseudo.
Censorship is an awful thing! And a damned hardy plant once it takes root! The Ministry of Culture was the last to close up shop. I sent Agostino to them two months before the fall of Fascism, two months before the end. While all about them everything was toppling, falling to ruin, the Ministry of Popular Culture was doing business as usual. Approval looked not to be forthcoming; so one day I went up there, to Via Veneto—you know the place; they’re still there, incidentally; I know them all—to see what the trouble was. They told me that they were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to give approval to the book. My dossier was lying open on the desk, and when the secretary left the room for a moment I glanced at it. There was a letter from the Brazilian cultural attaché in it, some poet, informing the Minister that in Brazil I was considered a subversive. In Brazil of all places! But that letter, that alone, was enough to prevent the book’s publication. Another time—it was for Le Ambizioni sbagliate (The Wheel of Fortune)—when I went up, I found the manuscript scattered all over the place, in several different offices, with a number of different people reading parts of it! Censorship is monstrous, a monstrous thing! I can tell you all you want to know about it.
INTERVIEWER: Incidentally, what do you think of the future of the novel?
MORAVIA: Well, the novel as we knew it in the nineteenth century was killed off by Proust and Joyce. They were the last of the nineteenth-century writers—great writers. It looks now as if we were going toward the roman à idée or toward the documentary novel—either the novel of ideas, or else the novel of life as it goes on, with no built-up characters, no psychology. It’s also apparent that a good novel can be of any kind, but the two forms that are prevalent now are the essay-novel and the documentary novel or personal experience, quelque chose qui arrive. Life has taken two ways in our time: the crowd and the intellectuals. The day of the crowd is all accident; the day of the intellectual is all philosophy. There is no bourgeoisie now, only the crowd and the intellectuals.
Interviewed by John Burrows & Alex Hamilton
INTERVIEWER: You mean an idea about the nature of the world that guides the actions of the characters you are creating?
CARY: Not so much the ideas as their background. I don’t care for philosophers in books. They are always bores. A novel should be an experience and convey an emotional truth rather than arguments. [Emphasis mine, JH]
INTERVIEWER: Miss Hardy complains that the form shows too clearly in your novels.
CARY: Others complain that I don’t make the fundamental idea plain enough. This is every writer’s dilemma. Your form is your meaning, and your meaning dictates the form. But what you try to convey is reality—the fact plus the feeling, a total complex experience of a real world. If you make your scheme too explicit, the framework shows and the book dies. If you hide it too thoroughly, the book has no meaning and therefore no form. It is a mess.
INTERVIEWER: Are the political aspects of your work controlled by the same ideas?
CARY: Religion is organized to satisfy and guide the soul—politics does the same thing for the body. Of course they overlap—this is a very rough description. But the politician is responsible for law, for physical security, and in a world of tumult, of perpetual conflict, he has the alternatives, roughly again, of persuading people or shooting them. In the democracies, we persuade. And this gives great power to the spellbinder, the artist in words, the preacher, the demagogue, whatever you call him. Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy, these were great spellbinders—as well as Lacordaire. My Nimmo is a typical spellbinder. Bonser was a spellbinder in business, the man of imagination. He was also a crook, but so are many spellbinders. Poets have started most of the revolutions, especially nationalist revolutions. On the other hand, life would die without poets, and democracy must have its spellbinders.
INTERVIEWER: That’s what you meant, then, when you said that what makes men tick should be the main concern of the novelist? The character’s principle of unity?
CARY: And action, their beliefs. You’ve got to find out what people believe, what is pushing them on … And of course it’s a matter, too, of the simpler emotional drives—like ambition and love. These are the real stuff of the novel, and you can’t have any sort of real form unless you’ve got an ordered attitude towards them.
INTERVIEWER: Aissa Saved was the first one you published?
CARY: Yes, and that was not until I was over forty. I’d written many before, but I was never satisfied with them. They raised political and religious questions I found I could not answer. I have three or four of them up there in the attic, still in manuscript.
INTERVIEWER: Was this what made you feel that you needed a “new education”?
CARY: At twenty-six I’d knocked about the world a good bit and I thought I knew the answers, but I didn’t know. I couldn’t finish the novels. The best novel I ever wrote—at least it contained some of my best stuff—there’s about a million words of it upstairs, I couldn’t finish it. I found that I was faking things all the time, dodging issues and letting my characters dodge them.
INTERVIEWER: Could you tell us something about your working methods?
CARY: Well—I write the big scenes first, that is, the scenes that carry the meaning of the book, the emotional experience. The first scene in Prisoner of Grace was that one at the railway station, when Nimmo stops his wife from running away by purely moral pressure. That is, she became the prisoner of grace. When I have the big scenes sketched I have to devise a plot into which they’ll fit. Of course often they don’t quite fit. Sometimes I have to throw them out. But they have defined my meaning, given form to the book. Lastly I work over the whole surface.
INTERVIEWER: When does the process, the book, start?
CARY: Possibly years ago—in a note, a piece of dialogue. Often I don’t know the real origin. I had an odd experience lately, which gave me a glimpse of the process, something I hadn’t suspected. I was going round Manhattan—do you know it?
INTERVIEWER: Not yet.
CARY: It’s an island and I went round on a steamer with an American friend, Elizabeth Lawrence, of Harper and Brothers. And I noticed a girl sitting all by herself on the other side of the deck—a girl of about thirty, wearing a shabby skirt. She was enjoying herself. A nice expression, with a wrinkled forehead, a good many wrinkles. I said to my friend, “I could write about that girl—what do you think she is?” Elizabeth said that she might be a schoolteacher taking a holiday, and asked me why I wanted to write about her. I said I didn’t really know—I imagined her as sensitive and intelligent, and up against it. Having a hard life but making something of it, too. In such a case I often make a note. But I didn’t—and I forgot the whole episode. Then, about three weeks later, in San Francisco, I woke up one night at four—I am not so much a bad sleeper as a short sleeper—I woke up, I say, with a story in my head. I sketched the story at once—it was about an English girl in England, a purely English tale. Next day an appointment fell through and I had a whole day on my hands. I found my notes and wrote the story—that is, the chief scenes and some connecting tissue. Some days later, in a plane—ideal for writing—I began to work it over, clean it up, and I thought, Why all these wrinkles? That’s the third time they come in. And I suddenly realized that my English heroine was the girl on the Manhattan boat. Somehow she had gone down into my subconscious, and came up again with a full-sized story. And I imagine that has happened before. I notice some person because he or she exemplifies some part of my feeling about things. The Manhattan girl was a motive. And she brought up a little piece of counterpoint. But the wrinkles were the first crude impression—a note, but one that counted too much in the final writing.
CARY:I was thinking in terms of music. My short stories are written with the same kind of economy—and no one would publish them. Some of them, now being published, are twenty years old. Because each note has to count and it must not be superfluous. A son of mine, a composer, wrote some music for the BBC lately. The orchestra was small, and the musicians’ union wouldn’t let him conduct. He heard one of the players ask the conductor what the stuff was like. The conductor, no doubt intending to warn the player, answered, “It’s good, but the trouble is that every note counts.” I suppose the editors who rejected me felt like that. They wanted a little more fluff.
Interviewed by Alfred Chester & Vilma Howard
INTERVIEWER: But isn’t it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority?
ELLISON: All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the novel—and isn’t that what we’re all clamoring for these days?—is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.
INTERVIEWER: But still, how is the Negro writer, in terms of what is expected of him by critics and readers, going to escape his particular need for social protest and reach the “universal” you speak of?
ELLISON: If the Negro, or any other writer, is going to do what is expected of him, he’s lost the battle before he takes the field. I suspect that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance—but it must be acceptance on his own terms. Perhaps, though, this thing cuts both ways: the Negro novelist draws his blackness too tightly around him when he sits down to write—that’s what the antiprotest critics believe—but perhaps the white reader draws his whiteness around himself when he sits down to read. He doesn’t want to identify himself with Negro characters in terms of our immediate racial and social situation, though on the deeper human level identification can become compelling when the situation is revealed artistically. The white reader doesn’t want to get too close, not even in an imaginary recreation of society. Negro writers have felt this, and it has led to much of our failure.
Too many books by Negro writers are addressed to a white audience. By doing this the authors run the risk of limiting themselves to the audience’s presumptions of what a Negro is or should be; the tendency is to become involved in polemics, to plead the Negro’s humanity. You know, many white people question that humanity, but I don’t think that Negroes can afford to indulge in such a false issue. For us, the question should be, what are the specific forms of that humanity, and what in our background is worth preserving or abandoning. The clue to this can be found in folklore, which offers the first drawings of any group’s character. It preserves mainly those situations which have repeated themselves again and again in the history of any given group. It describes those rites, manners, customs, and so forth, which insure the good life, or destroy it; and it describes those boundaries of feeling, thought, and action which that particular group has found to be the limitation of the human condition. It projects this wisdom in symbols which express the group’s will to survive; it embodies those values by which the group lives and dies. These drawings may be crude, but they are nonetheless profound in that they represent the group’s attempt to humanize the world. It’s no accident that great literature, the product of individual artists, is erected upon this humble base. The hero of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and the hero of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” appear in their rudimentary forms far back in Russian folklore. French literature has never ceased exploring the nature of the Frenchman. Or take Picasso—
INTERVIEWER: Can you give us an example of the use of folklore in your own novel?
ELLISON: There are certain themes, symbols, and images which are based on folk material. For example, there is the old saying among Negroes: If you’re black, stay back; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re white, you’re right. And there is the joke Negroes tell on themselves about their being so black they can’t be seen in the dark. In my book this sort of thing was merged with the meanings which blackness and light have long had in Western mythology: evil and goodness, ignorance and knowledge, and so on. In my novel the narrator’s development is one through blackness to light; that is, from ignorance to enlightenment, invisibility to visibility. He leaves the South and goes North; this, as you will notice in reading Negro folk tales, is always the road to freedom—the movement upward. You have the same thing again when he leaves his underground cave for the open.
It took me a long time to learn how to adapt such examples of myth into my work—also ritual. The use of ritual is equally a vital part of the creative process. I learned a few things from Eliot, Joyce and Hemingway, but not how to adapt them. When I started writing, I knew that in both “The Waste Land” and Ulysses, ancient myth and ritual were used to give form and significance to the material; but it took me a few years to realize that the myths and rites which we find functioning in our everyday lives could be used in the same way. In my first attempt at a novel, which I was unable to complete, I began by trying to manipulate the simple structural unities of beginning, middle, and end, but when I attempted to deal with the psychological strata—the images, symbols, and emotional configurations—of the experience at hand, I discovered that the unities were simply cool points of stability on which one could suspend the narrative line, and that beneath the surface of apparently rational human relationships there seethed a chaos before which I was helpless. People rationalize what they shun or are incapable of dealing with; these superstitions and their rationalizations become ritual as they govern behavior. The rituals become social forms, and it is one of the functions of the artist to recognize them and raise them to the level of art.
I don’t know whether I’m getting this over or not. Let’s put it this way: Take the “Battle Royal” passage in my novel, where the boys are blindfolded and forced to fight each other for the amusement of the white observers. This is a vital part of behavior pattern in the South, which both Negroes and whites thoughtlessly accept. It is a ritual in preservation of caste lines, a keeping of taboo to appease the gods and ward off bad luck. It is also the initiation ritual to which all greenhorns are subjected. This passage states what Negroes will see I did not have to invent; the patterns were already there in society so that all I had to do was present them in a broader context of meaning. In any society there are many rituals of situation which, for the most part, go unquestioned. They can be simple or elaborate, but they are the connective tissue between the work of art and the audience.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have everything thought out before you began to write Invisible Man?
ELLISON: The symbols and their connections were known to me. I began it with a chart of the three-part division. It was a conceptual frame with most of the ideas and some incidents indicated. The three parts represent the narrator’s movement from, using Kenneth Burke’s terms, purpose to passion to perception. These three major sections are built up of smaller units of three which mark the course of the action and which depend for their development upon what I hoped was a consistent and developing motivation. However, you’ll note that the maximum insight on the hero’s part isn’t reached until the final section. After all, it’s a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality. Each section begins with a sheet of paper; each piece of paper is exchanged for another and contains a definition of his identity, or the social role he is to play as defined for him by others. But all say essentially the same thing: “Keep this nigger boy running.” Before he could have some voice in his own destiny, he had to discard these old identities and illusions; his enlightenment couldn’t come until then. Once he recognizes the hole of darkness into which these papers put him, he has to burn them. That’s the plan and the intention; whether I achieved this is something else.
INTERVIEWER: Would you say that the search for identity is primarily an American theme?
ELLISON: It is the American theme. The nature of our society is such that we are prevented from knowing who we are. It is still a young society, and this is an integral part of its development.
INTERVIEWER: A common criticism of first novels is that the central incident is either omitted or weak. Invisible Man seems to suffer here; shouldn’t we have been present at the scenes which are the dividing lines in the book—namely, when the Brotherhood organization moves the narrator downtown, then back uptown?
ELLISON: I think you missed the point. The major flaw in the hero’s character is his unquestioning willingness to do what is required of him by others as a way to success, and this was the specific form of his “innocence.” He goes where he is told to go; he does what he is told to do; he does not even choose his Brotherhood name. It is chosen for him and he accepts it. He has accepted party discipline and thus cannot be present at the scene since it is not the will of the Brotherhood leaders. What is important is not the scene but his failure to question their decision. There is also the fact that no single person can be everywhere at once, nor can a single consciousness be aware of all the nuances of a large social action. What happens uptown while he is downtown is part of his darkness, both symbolic and actual. No, I don’t feel that any vital scenes have been left out.
ELLISON: You know, I’m still thinking of your question about the use of Negro experience [How representative of the American nation would you say Negro folklore is?] as material for fiction. One function of serious literature is to deal with the moral core of a given society. Well, in the United States the Negro and his status have always stood for that moral concern. He symbolizes among other things the human and social possibility of equality. This is the moral question raised in our two great nineteenth-century novels, Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn. The very center of Twain’s book revolves finally around the boy’s relations with Nigger Jim and the question of what Huck should do about getting Jim free after the two scoundrels had sold him. There is a magic here worth conjuring, and that reaches to the very nerve of the American consciousness—so why should I abandon it? Our so-called race problem has now lined up with the world problems of colonialism and the struggle of the West to gain the allegiance of the remaining non-white people who have thus far remained outside the communist sphere; thus its possibilities for art have increased rather than lessened. Looking at the novelist as manipulator and depicter of moral problems, I ask myself how much of the achievement of democratic ideals in the U.S. has been affected by the steady pressure of Negroes and those whites who were sensitive to the implications of our condition, and I know that without that pressure the position of our country before the world would be much more serious than it is even now. Here is part of the social dynamics of a great society. Perhaps the discomfort about protest in books by Negro authors comes because since the nineteenth century, American literature has avoided profound moral searching. It was too painful and besides there were specific problems of language and form to which the writers could address themselves. They did wonderful things, but perhaps they left the real problems untouched. There are exceptions, of course, like Faulkner who has been working the great moral theme all along, taking it up where Mark Twain put it down.
I feel that with my decision to devote myself to the novel I took on one of the responsibilities inherited by those who practice the craft in the U.S.: that of describing for all that fragment of the huge diverse American experience which I know best, and which offers me the possibility of contributing not only to the growth of the literature but to the shaping of the culture as I should like it to be. The American novel is in this sense a conquest of the frontier; as it describes our experience, it creates it.
Interviewed by Carvel Collins
Mr. Simenon’s study in his rambling white house on the edge of Lakeville, Connecticut, after lunch on a January day of bright sun. The room reflects its owner: cheerful, efficient, hospitable, controlled. On its walls are books of law and medicine, two fields in which he has made himself an expert; the telephone directories from many parts of the world to which he turns in naming his characters; the map of a town where he has just set his forty-ninth Maigret novel; and the calendar on which he has X-ed out in heavy crayon the days spent writing the Maigret—one day to a chapter—and the three days spent revising it, a labor which he has generously interrupted for this interview.
GEORGES SIMENON: Just one piece of general advice from a writer has been very useful to me. It was from Colette. I was writing short stories for Le Matin, and Colette was literary editor at that time. I remember I gave her two short stories and she returned them and I tried again and tried again. Finally she said, “Look, it is too literary, always too literary.” So I followed her advice. It’s what I do when I write, the main job when I rewrite.
INTERVIEWER: What do you mean by “too literary”? What do you cut out, certain kinds of words?
SIMENON: Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence—cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.
INTERVIEWER: Is that the nature of most of your revision?
SIMENON: Almost all of it.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anything else you can say to beginning writers?
SIMENON: Writing is considered a profession, and I don’t think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don’t think an artist can ever be happy.
SIMENON: Because, first, I think that if a man has the urge to be an artist, it is because he needs to find himself. Every writer tries to find himself through his characters, through all his writing.
INTERVIEWER: He is writing for himself?
SIMENON: Yes. Certainly.
INTERVIEWER: Are you conscious there will be readers of the novel?
SIMENON: I know that there are many men who have more or less the same problems I have, with more or less intensity, and who will be happy to read the book to find the answer—if the answer can possibly be found.
INTERVIEWER: Even when the author can’t find the answer do the readers profit because the author is meaningfully fumbling for it?
SIMENON: That’s it. Certainly. I don’t remember whether I have ever spoken to you about the feeling I have had for several years. Because society today is without a very strong religion, without a firm hierarchy of social classes, and people are afraid of the big organization in which they are just a little part, for them reading certain novels is a little like looking through the keyhole to learn what the neighbor is doing and thinking—does he have the same inferiority complex, the same vices, the same temptations? This is what they are looking for in the work of art. I think many more people today are insecure and are in search of themselves.
There are now so few literary works of the kind Anatole France wrote, for example, you know—very quiet and elegant and reassuring. On the contrary, what people today want are the most complex books, trying to go into every corner of human nature. Do you understand what I mean?
INTERVIEWER: I think so. You mean this is not just because today we think we know more about psychology but because more readers need this kind of fiction?
SIMENON: Yes. An ordinary man fifty years ago—there are many problems today which he did not know. Fifty years ago he had the answers. He doesn’t have them anymore.
INTERVIEWER: Then if the readers interest you, it is because they want a novel to probe their troubles? Your role is to look into yourself and—
SIMENON: That’s it. But it’s not only a question of the artist’s looking into himself but also of his looking into others with the experience he has of himself. He writes with sympathy because he feels that the other man is like him.
INTERVIEWER: If there were no readers you would still write?
SIMENON: Certainly. When I began to write I didn’t have the idea my books would sell. More exactly, when I began to write I did commercial pieces—stories for magazines and things of that kind—to earn my living, but I didn’t call it writing. But for myself, every evening, I did some writing without any idea that it would ever be published.
INTERVIEWER: You probably have had as much experience as anybody in the world in doing what you have just called commercial writing. What is the difference between it and noncommercial?
SIMENON: I call “commercial” every work, not only in literature but in music and painting and sculpture—any art—which is done for such-and-such a public or for a certain kind of publication or for a particular collection. Of course, in commercial writing there are different grades. You may have things which are very cheap and some very good. The books of the month, for example, are commercial writing; but some of them are almost perfectly done, almost works of art. Not completely, but almost. And the same with certain magazine pieces; some of them are wonderful. But very seldom can they be works of art, because a work of art can’t be done for the purpose of pleasing a certain group of readers. [Emphasis mine, JH]
SIMENON: The beginning will be always the same; it is almost a geometrical problem: I have such a man, such a woman, in such surroundings. What can happen to them to oblige them to go to their limit? That’s the question.
INTERVIEWER: I remember you once told me that in your commercial novels you would sometimes insert a non-commercial passage or chapter.
SIMENON: Yes, to train myself.
INTERVIEWER: How did that part differ from the rest of the novel?
SIMENON: Instead of writing just the story, in this chapter I tried to give a third dimension, not necessarily to the whole chapter, perhaps to a room, to a chair, to some object. It would be easier to explain it in the terms of painting.
SIMENON: To give the weight. A commercial painter paints flat; you can put your finger through. But a painter—for example, an apple by Cézanne has weight. And it has juice, everything, with just three strokes. I tried to give to my words just the weight that a stroke of Cézanne’s gave to an apple. That is why most of the time I use concrete words. I try to avoid abstract words, or poetical words, you know, like “crepuscule,” for example. It is very nice, but it gives nothing. Do you understand? To avoid every stroke which does not give something to this third dimension.
On this point, I think that what the critics call my “atmosphere” is nothing but the impressionism of the painter adapted to literature. My childhood was spent at the time of the Impressionists and I was always in the museums and exhibitions. That gave me a kind of sense of it. I was haunted by it.
INTERVIEWER: Have you ever dictated fiction, commercial or any other?
SIMENON: No. I am an artisan; I need to work with my hands. I would like to carve my novel in a piece of wood. My characters—I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional. And I would like to make a man so that everybody, looking at him, would find his own problems in this man. That’s why I spoke about poetry, because this goal looks more like a poet’s goal than the goal of a novelist. My characters have a profession, have characteristics; you know their age, their family situation, and everything. But I try to make each one of those characters heavy, like a statue, and to be the brother of everybody in the world. And what makes me happy is the letters I get. They never speak about my beautiful style; they are the letters a man would write to his doctor or his psychoanalyst. They say, “You are one who understands me. So many times I find myself in your novels.” Then there are pages of their confidences; and they are not crazy people. There are crazy people too, of course; but many are on the contrary people who—even important people. I am surprised.
INTERVIEWER: Early in your life did any particular book or author especially impress you?
SIMENON: Probably the one who impressed me most was Gogol. And certainly Dostoyevsky, but less than Gogol.
INTERVIEWER: Why do you think Gogol interested you?
SIMENON: Maybe because he makes characters who are just like everyday people but at the same time have what I called a few minutes ago the third dimension I am looking for. All of them have this poetic aura. But not the Oscar Wilde kind—a poetry which comes naturally, which is there, the kind Conrad has. Each character has the weight of sculpture, it is so heavy, so dense.
Interviewed by George Plimpton & Max Steele
INTERVIEWER: Is the act of writing easy for you?
THURBER: For me it’s mostly a question of rewriting. It’s part of a constant attempt on my part to make the finished version smooth, to make it seem effortless. A story I’ve been working on—“The Train on Track Six,” it’s called—was rewritten fifteen complete times. There must have been close to 240,000 words in all the manuscripts put together, and I must have spent two thousand hours working at it. Yet the finished version can’t be more than twenty- thousand words.
INTERVIEWER: Then it’s rare that your work comes out right the first time?
THURBER: Well, my wife took a look at the first version of something I was doing not long ago and said, “Goddamn it, Thurber, that’s high-school stuff.” I have to tell her to wait until the seventh draft, it’ll work out all right. I don’t know why that should be so, that the first or second draft of everything I write reads as if it was turned out by a charwoman.
Interviewed by Alston Anderson & Terry Southern
INTERVIEWER: Did you have any trouble getting The Man with the Golden Arm published?
NELSON ALGREN: No, no. Nothing was easier, because I got paid before I wrote it. It got a very lucky deal because they had an awful lot of money, the publishers did, during the war. Doubleday had a big backlog. I was working for Harper’s—that is, I’d done one novel. Under the way they operate—well, it’s a very literary house; I mean, they’d give you, oh, maybe a five-hundred-dollar advance and then you’re on your own. And then if the book goes on two years—well, but I mean, you take the risk. They pay in literary prestige, they have an editor who once edited something by Thomas Wolfe or something; they figure that way. And I didn’t see it, just didn’t know what the score was, you see. So a guy from Doubleday came along, and I said what I wanted was enough to live on by the week for a year. And he said, “what do you call enough to live on?” and I said, “Fifty dollars,” which seemed like a lot to me then—and he said, “Well, how about sixty dollars for two years?” [Emphasis mine, JH ] He raised it himself, see; I mean, they were author-stealing, of course, and ah—well, I had a very bad contract at Harper’s anyhow. So they gave me that sixty-a-week deal for two years, which was very generous then, and—I told them I was going to write a war novel. But it turned out to be this Golden Arm thing. I mean, the war kind of slipped away, and these people with the hypos came along—and that was it. But they had so much money it was fantastic. It’s very hard to get out of the habit of thinking you’re going to kill them if you ask for fifty a week.
INTERVIEWER: How do you think you arrived at it thematically —rather than a war novel?
ALGREN: Well, if you’re going to write a war novel, you have to do it while you’re in the war. If you don’t do the thing while you’re there—at least the way I operate—you can’t do it. It slips away. Two months after the war it was gone; but I was living in a living situation, and . . . I find it pretty hard to write on anything in the past . . . and this thing just got more real; I mean, the neighborhood I was living in, and these people, were a lot more real than the Army was.
ALGREN: …They’d just come up and fix, and that was it. I got along with them pretty good—but it took me a remarkably long time to make any connection between that and the book. I didn’t want to go over to their place because it took time from the book; I felt I shouldn’t have been goofing off like that. But I enjoyed going over there. We’d sit around and they’d always have music; they didn’t always go right for the needle, you know, a lot of times they didn’t have it. Then I began to feel very dimly that maybe there was something usable there. I thought about it very—timidly, and finally I said to the agent, “You think that, uh—do you think it’s too sensational?” She said, “No, use it.” She insisted that I use it, so I hung it on there; I hung it on there without really knowing a great deal about it. It was an afterthought. I got the mood of the thing, but I didn’t have much time to, you know, do it thoroughly. I know a little bit more about it now, but what I learned, I learned after the book came out.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever feel that you should try heroin, in connection with writing a book about users?
ALGREN: No. No, I think you can do a thing like that best from a detached position
INTERVIEWER: Do you think of any particular writers as having influenced your style, or approach?
ALGREN: Well, I used to like Stephen Crane a lot and, it goes without saying, Dostoyevsky—that’s the only Russian I’ve ever reread. No, that ain’t all, there’s Kuprin
INTERVIEWER: Do you have a feeling of camaraderie, or solidarity, with any contemporary writers?
ALGREN: No, I couldn’t say so. I don’t know many writers.
INTERVIEWER: How do you avoid it?
ALGREN: Well, I dunno, but I do have the feeling that other writers can’t help you with writing. I’ve gone to writers’ conferences and writers’ sessions and writers’ clinics, and the more I see of them, the more I’m sure it’s the wrong direction. It isn’t the place where you learn to write. I’ve always felt strongly that a writer shouldn’t be engaged with other writers, or with people who make books, or even with people who read them. I think the farther away you get from the literary traffic, the closer you are to sources. I mean, a writer doesn’t really live, he observes.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think there’s been any sort of tradition of isolation of the writer in America, as compared to Europe?
ALGREN: We don’t have any tradition at all that I know of. I don’t think the isolation of the American writer is a tradition; it’s more that geographically he just is isolated, unless he happens to live in New York City. But I don’t suppose there’s a small town around the country that doesn’t have a writer. The thing is that here you get to be a writer differently. I mean, a writer like Sartre decides, like any professional man, when he’s fifteen, sixteen years old, that instead of being a doctor he’s going to be a writer. And he absorbs the French tradition and proceeds from there. Well, here you get to be a writer when there’s absolutely nothing else you can do. I mean, I don’t know of any writers here who just started out to be writers, and then became writers. They just happen to fall into it.
INTERVIEWER: Have you consciously tried to develop a style?
ALGREN: Well, I haven’t consciously tried to develop it. The only thing I’ve consciously tried to do was put myself in a position to hear the people I wanted to hear talk talk.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think, then, that you’re more interested in idiom than in idea? And isn’t that generally characteristic of American writers?
ALGREN: That’s cutting it pretty close, all right. I think of a tragic example: Dick Wright. I think he made . . . a very bad mistake. I mean, he writes out of passion, out of his belly; but he won’t admit this, you see. He’s trying to write as an intellectual, which he isn’t basically; but he’s trying his best to write like a Frenchman. Of course, it isn’t strictly an American-European distinction, the belly and the head; you find the same distinction here. A book like Ralph Ellison’s, for example, or Peter Matthiessen’s, stays better with me than the opposite thing, a book like Saul Bellow’s. Bellow’s is a book done with great skill and great control, but there isn’t much fire. [Emphasis mine, JH] I depend more on the stomach. I always think of writing as a physical thing. I’m not trying to generalize, it just happens to be that way with me.
INTERVIEWER: Were you trying to dramatize a social problem?
ALGREN: Well, there’s always something wrong in any society. I think it would be a mistake to aim at any solution, you know; I mean, the most you can do is—well, if any writer can catch the routine lives of people just living in that kind of ring of fire to show how you can’t go out of a certain neighborhood if you’re addicted, or for other reasons, that you can’t be legitimate, but that within the limitation you can succeed in making a life that is routine—with human values that seem to be a little more real, a little more intense, and human, than with people who are freer to come and go—if somebody could write a book about the routine of these circumscribed people, just their everyday life, without any big scenes, without any violence, or cops breaking in, and so on, just day-to-day life—like maybe the woman is hustling and makes a few bucks, and they get a little H just to keep from getting sick, and go to bed, and get up—just an absolutely prosaic life without any particular drama to it in their eyes—if you could just do that straight, without anybody getting arrested—there’s always a little danger of that, of course—but to have it just the way these thousands of people live, very quiet, commonplace routine . . . well, you’d have an awfully good book.
Interviewed by Jean Stein
INTERVIEWER: How about yourself as a writer?
FAULKNER: If I had not existed, someone else would have written me, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, all of us. Proof of that is that there are about three candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. But what is important is Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important, since there is nothing new to be said. Shakespeare, Balzac, Homer have all written about the same things, and if they had lived one thousand or two thousand years longer, the publishers wouldn’t have needed anyone since.
INTERVIEWER: But even if there seems nothing more to be said, isn’t perhaps the individuality of the writer important?
FAULKNER: Very important to himself. Everybody else should be too busy with the work to care about the individuality.
INTERVIEWER: And your contemporaries?
FAULKNER: All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide. I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.
INTERVIEWER: Do you read your contemporaries?
FAULKNER: No, the books I read are the ones I knew and loved when I was a young man and to which I return as you do to old friends: the Old Testament, Dickens, Conrad, Cervantes, Don Quixote—I read that every year, as some do the Bible. Flaubert, Balzac—he created an intact world of his own, a bloodstream running through twenty books—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare. I read Melville occasionally and, of the poets, Marlowe, Campion, Jonson, Herrick, Donne, Keats, and Shelley. I still read Housman. I’ve read these books so often that I don’t always begin at page one and read on to the end. I just read one scene, or about one character, just as you’d meet and talk to a friend for a few minutes.
INTERVIEWER: And Freud?
FAULKNER: Everybody talked about Freud when I lived in New Orleans, but I have never read him. Neither did Shakespeare. I doubt if Melville did either, and I’m sure Moby Dick didn’t.
INTERVIEWER: Do you ever read mystery stories?
FAULKNER: I read Simenon because he reminds me something of Chekhov.
INTERVIEWER: Would you comment on the future of the novel?
FAULKNER: I imagine as long as people will continue to read novels, people will continue to write them, or vice versa; unless of course the pictorial magazines and comic strips finally atrophy man’s capacity to read, and literature really is on its way back to the picture writing in the Neanderthal cave.
INTERVIEWER: And how about the function of the critics?
FAULKNER: The artist doesn’t have time to listen to the critics. The ones who want to be writers read the reviews, the ones who want to write don’t have the time to read reviews [Emphasis mine, JH]. The critic too is trying to say “Kilroy was here.” His function is not directed toward the artist himself. The artist is a cut above the critic, for the artist is writing something which will move the critic. The critic is writing something which will move everybody but the artist.
Interviewed by Sam Weller
INTERVIEWER: You’re self-educated, aren’t you?
BRADBURY: Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?
I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school.
INTERVIEWER: You have said that you don’t believe in going to college to learn to write. Why is that?
BRADBURY: You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.
INTERVIEWER: But your books are taught widely in schools.
BRADBURY: Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them and that’s what kids like in school. They read about rocket ships and encounters in space, tales of dinosaurs. All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story. And that’s what kids like. Today, my stories are in a thousand anthologies. And I’m in good company. The other writers are quite often dead people who wrote in metaphors: Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne. All these people wrote for children. They may have pretended not to, but they did.
INTERVIEWER: Do the novel and short story present different problems to you?
BRADBURY: Yes, the problem of the novel is to stay truthful. The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone.
But a novel has all kinds of pitfalls because it takes longer and you are around people, and if you’re not careful you will talk about it. The novel is also hard to write in terms of keeping your love intense. It’s hard to stay erect for two hundred days. So, get the big truth first. If you get the big truth, the small truths will accumulate around it. Let them be magnetized to it, drawn to it, and then cling to it.
INTERVIEWER: In Zen in the Art of Writing, you wrote that early on in your career you made lists of nouns as a way to generate story ideas: the Jar, the Cistern, the Lake, the Skeleton. Do you still do this?
BRADBURY: Not as much, because I just automatically generate ideas now. But in the old days I knew I had to dredge my subconscious, and the nouns did this. I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.
INTERVIEWER: After you’ve made your list of nouns, where do you go from there?
BRADBURY: I begin to write little pensées about the nouns. It’s prose poetry. It’s evocative. It tries to be metaphorical. Saint-John Perse published several huge volumes of this type of poetry on beautiful paper with lovely type. His books of poetry had titles like Rains, Snows, Winds, Seamarks. I could never afford to buy his books because they must have cost twenty or thirty dollars—and this was about fifty years ago. But he influenced me because I read him in the bookstore and I started to write short, descriptive paragraphs, two hundred words each, and in them I began to examine my nouns. Then I’d bring some characters on to talk about that noun and that place, and all of a sudden I had a story going. I used to do the same thing with photographs that I’d rip out of glossy magazines. I’d take the photographs and I’d write little prose poems about them.
Certain pictures evoke in me things from my past. When I look at the paintings of Edward Hopper, it does this. He did those wonderful townscapes of empty cafes, empty theaters at midnight with maybe one person there. The sense of isolation and loneliness is fantastic. I’d look at those landscapes and I’d fill them with my imagination. I still have all those pensées. This was the beginning of bringing out what was me.
INTERVIEWER: Can you cite an example of a pensée in your own work?
BRADBURY: The description of the foghorn in the short story “The Fog Horn.” The paragraph describing the dinosaur in “A Sound of Thunder.” Those are good examples.
INTERVIEWER: Do you write outlines?
BRADBURY: No, never. You can’t do that. It’s just like you can’t plot tomorrow or next year or ten years from now. When you plot books you take all the energy and vitality out. There’s no blood. You have to live it from day to day and let your characters do things.
INTERVIEWER: With the publication of Fahrenheit 451, you were hailed as a visionary. What would you warn us about today?
BRADBURY: Our education system has gone to hell. It’s my idea from now on to stop spending money educating children who are sixteen years old. We should put all that money down into kindergarten. Young children have to be taught how to read and write. If children went into the first grade knowing how to read and write, we’d be set for the future, wouldn’t we? We must not let them go into the fourth and fifth grades not knowing how to read. So we must put out books with educational pictures, or use comics to teach children how to read. When I was five years old, my aunt gave me a copy of a book of wonderful fairy tales called Once Upon a Time, and the first fairy tale in the book is “Beauty and the Beast.” That one story taught me how to read and write because I looked at the picture of that beautiful beast, but I so desperately wanted to read about him too. By the time I was six years old, I had learned how to read and write.
We should forget about teaching children mathematics. They’re not going to use it ever in their lives. Give them simple arithmetic—one plus one is two, and how to divide, and how to subtract. Those are simple things that can be taught quickly. But no mathematics because they are never going to use it, never in their lives, unless they are going to be scientists, and then they can simply learn it later. My brother, for example, didn’t do well in school, but when he was in his twenties, he needed a job with the Bureau of Power and Light. He got a book about mathematics and electricity and he read it and educated himself and got the job. If you are bright, you will learn how to educate yourself with mathematics if you need it. But the average child never will. So it must be reading and writing. Those are the important things. And by the time children are six, they are completely educated and then they can educate themselves. The library will be the place where they grow up.
INTERVIEWER: Which of your recent stories are you particularly proud of?
BRADBURY: One of my very favorite stories from any era of my career is The Toynbee Convector. It’s about a man who convinces the world that he has invented a time machine and that he has seen the future, and that if we don’t change things, the world will go to hell. Of course, it’s all a lie, but people believe him. In many ways, that man in that story is me, warning people about the future.
BRADBURY: Edgar Rice Burroughs never would have looked upon himself as a social mover and shaker with social obligations. But as it turns out—and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly—Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world.
INTERVIEWER: Why do you think that?
BRADBURY: By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely.
I find this in most fields. The need for romance is constant, and again, it’s pooh-poohed by intellectuals. As a result they’re going to stunt their kids. You can’t kill a dream. Social obligation has to come from living with some sense of style, high adventure, and romance. It’s like my friend Mr. Electrico.
BRADBURY: Seventy-seven years ago, and I’ve remembered it perfectly. I went back and saw him that night. He sat in the chair with his sword, they pulled the switch, and his hair stood up. He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.
Interviewed by Lucas Wittmann
INTERVIEWER: What did you learn from [Raymond Carver]?
MCINERNEY: He said you have to write every day.
INTERVIEWER: Even when he was at the height of his drinking, he was trying to do that?
MCINERNEY: He was relentless about that. And I think he was right. You can’t always write well, and sometimes you can’t write at all, but if you’re not there at your desk trying, then you won’t succeed. Before then, I had thought of writing as something akin to divine inspiration. I would wait for the muse. Turns out you have to be dressed and ready for the muse or she will never come [Emphasis mine, JH].
I think he felt writing was like any skill, requiring constant practice. In Syracuse, for the first time in my life, I did write every day. There was the usual workshop situation, which I suppose may have been helpful, but what was certainly helpful was Carver going over my stuff page by page in his office. Likewise Tobias Wolff, the other fiction writer there at the time. I was lucky to get both of them. They had very different approaches. Carver tended to treat a short story like a living creature, whereas to Toby it was a mechanism that could be adjusted and tinkered with and taken apart and reassembled.
INTERVIEWER: Which approach did you find yourself drawn to?
MCINERNEY: I found them both useful. For many years, whenever I would reach for an overly pretentious word or phrase, I would hear Carver questioning it. He would say, Why did you use the word earth when what you really meant was dirt? Carver worked at that level, the level of the sentence. He was relentlessly economical. He felt that if you couldn’t justify verbiage or descriptions, they had to go. There had to be a reason for everything that was in the story [Emphasis mine, JH]. Wolff taught me much more about construction, structure, pacing.
MCINERNEY: I think that book ended up being fairly influential. I don’t want to name names, but I’ve heard certain female writers say that book kind of opened them up. But it also raised questions about men appropriating female subject matter, female voices. I sometimes wish I had been smart enough to publish it under a pseudonym.
INTERVIEWER: A female pseudonym?
MCINERNEY: Yeah. It’s not that the book had a terrible reception, but it certainly didn’t have anything like the reception of Bright Lights, Big City. I suppose it ¬requires more than the usual suspension of disbelief, at least for a page or so. A book by Jay McInerney in the voice of a twenty-one-year-old woman? But if fiction is anything other than journalism, it is a leap of imagination into the minds and the hearts of characters who are not the author. Otherwise it’s just memoir. I mean, if novels can’t range freely among the different genders and even races of the world, then the enterprise fails [Emphasis mine, JH].
MCINERNEY: Years ago, I had the opportunity to interview E. L. Doctorow, and I asked him the question you’re asking me. He said writing a novel is like driving cross-country at night—you can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. I like that. Of course, the metaphor falls apart if you examine it too closely, because there are maps and highways and GPS, but I think the basic principle is authentic. I may see a chapter or two ahead, but I can’t usually see clear to the end. I was well over halfway through the first draft when I got the sense that I wanted to figure out a way to keep Russell and Corrine together.
Interviewed by NAME