IN BOTH these collections of conversations with novelists and poets, much of what those interviewed say is of a piece with their writing. They offer an articulate, well developed commentary which springs from the same experience and concerns expressed in their work.
In the 14 interviews in his collection, Charles Ruas certainly facilitates this connection, using the authors' books as the basis for many of his questions. In the tradition of the Paris Review interviews where parts of these conversations appeared, he is interested in the artist at work -- in the artistic imagination, the writer's "thoughts and experiences at the time of the writing," the social and cultural context in which the works are created, and the writer's voice both within the work and in the broader sense which extends "the 'authenticity' of language and execution . . . to include attitudes towards the world, manifest in . . . even the spoken word."
Several are drawn from his radio interviews for New York's WBAI in the 1970s; others center on books written in the 1980s. The questions are thoughtful, the interviews well- shaped. There is a sense both of development and a timely focus on recent work -- Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings, for example, or Robert Stone's A Flag For Sunrise.
The result is a mixture of biography, literary history, entertainment, and marginal notation on the authors' writings which tends to reinforce the ideas and style we perceive in their work. Gore Vidal is provocative, at odds with convention. Speaking of his "God help us, a tetralogy" ending with Lincoln he says, "What little the average thoughtful American -- that is, the 5 percent of the country who read books -- what little they know about American history, I taught them." Toni Morrison talks eloquently about the Bible, ghosts, and folk stories that formed the culture she grew up in -- "an animated world in which trees can be outraged and hurt, and in which the presence or absence of birds is meaningful" -- and of the "metaphors, the rhythm, the music" of black language and the mythology which informs her novels.
There are also some surprises. Joseph Heller liked being in the army during World War II -- "there was a sense of being sprung -- it was like going away to camp." E.L. Doctorow explains how he turned away from "analytical sophistication . . . in order to write. Faulkner made the point that nobody really wants to know how visceral writers really are, how intuitive, how they perceive at such a low degree of intellection in their everyday work. . . . In my daily life, too, I tried to live plainly and without sufficient thought. All my decisions I make without sufficient thought."
The 16 authors interviewed in Nancy Bunge's collection are also asked to explore the creative process, with a more specific focus on the teaching experience. Bunge's questions center on the value of writing workshops, the writers' aspirations for their students, their teaching methods, and the effect of having so many young writers trained at unversities, as well as the way each writer goes about his own work. Many of those interviewed, like Marvin Bell and Theodore Weiss, are poets; a few, like Wallace Stegner, write fiction.
THESE writers offer no shortcuts and few techniques and exercises for good writing, notwithstanding Allen Ginsberg's lengthy and beguiling explanation of why "the best teaching is done in bed" in "the classical tradition." They differ in their approaches to teaching, but they are remarkably consistent in feeling that a writer must develop both an honest sense of his own language and perceptions and a sense of his relationship to the world -- what poet Diane Wakowski describes as "getting one's deepest self in touch with that most outside the self, what poetry is," and William Stafford calls "a trustful, undistorted entry into the language that's natural to yourself."
They are also realistic about limits of what they can teach; yet several agree with Clarence Major that "I don't believe that I can always help anyone become a better writer, but I think I can always help them become better readers . . . more sensitive to language and how it's put together. They take that writerly experience back to the reading process . . . and therefore, they can read with greater sensitivity, and more pleasure too." More than Ruas' work, which is broader in scope, Findingthe Words conveys an understanding of the craft and workmanship of writing.
Like the authors in Conversations With American Writers, those in Bunge's collection can be counted on to mirror the qualities and concerns of their work, and to speak openly of themselves within the conventions of the literary interview. The conversations in both books respect the limits of privacy set by the writers. Clearly these limits vary; by their work, previous statements, and responses, Eudora Welty and Norman Mailer invite different sets of questions. But even when Mailer talks about his relationship with the murderer Jack Abbott, or the late Truman Capote his experiences with drugs, there is the feeling that we are still seeing the public personae, what we are allowed to see. In contrast, some of the interviews with less well known writers in Finding the Words seem more artless. The interviews in both collections are candid without being intimate, examining for the most part the facets of art rather than personality.