In days gone by it was a truth universally acknowledged that one bought Playboy for the pictures, the New Yorker for its cartoons and the Paris Review for its “Writers at Work” interviews. While each magazine also offered wonderful fiction, thoughtful or humorous essays, and even high-minded symposia on cultural issues of the day, the enjoyment of such features could always be put off till tomorrow or next week. But no one ever deferred checking out Miss March or Miss November, flipping through pages in search of the latest from Charles Addams and George Price, or sitting down to read what E.M. Forster or Ralph Ellison had to say about the art of fiction.
In their way, the Paris Review’s pioneering literary conversations were as much the stuff of daydreams as any blond centerfold. Being a bookish teenager, I read to pieces the first three “Writers at Work” compilations, which included extended talks with James Thurber, Georges Simenon, Thornton Wilder, Dorothy Parker, William Burroughs, Evelyn Waugh, Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Truman Capote, Jean Cocteau, S.J. Perelman, Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway and many others. Through these interviews a 16-year-old could revel in the (somewhat specious) glamour of the literary life, find out about important books worth tracking down (“The Sacred Wood ,” “My Life and Hard Times ,” “Decline and Fall”) and, above all, pick up lots of writing tips. Faulkner, declaiming in his full-blown Nobel Prize voice, was particularly inspiring:
“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
Author interviews have certainly never stopped being popular. For instance, the University Press of Mississippi has issued outstanding volumes of literary conversations with dozens of writers, ranging from Isaac Asimov to Eudora Welty. More recently, Melville House started its own more modest series, “The Last Interview” a title that simultaneously echoes Randy Pausch’s best-selling “The Last Lecture” while also indicating that no one included is still alive. In slender trade paperbacks, with a uniform design (notably a cover drawing of each author by Christopher King), the collection spotlights novelists and philosophers (but no poets yet), Hannah Arendt as well as Kurt Vonnegut. Screenwriter/journalist Nora Ephron is part of the most recent trio, which also includes Ernest Hemingway and science-fiction legend Philip K. Dick.
After reading around the entire series, I can attest that each volume offers, besides useful insights into its particular author’s work, what an old friend would call “civilized entertainment.” Nearly all the titles actually contain several interviews, and some add introductions. For instance, the Roberto Bolaño opens with a 40-page critical essay — one-third of the book — by its editor, Marcela Valdes. The otherwise excellent Ray Bradbury volume offers four interviews, all of them conducted by its editor, Sam Weller, between 2010 and 2012, very late in the great writer’s career. For Jacques Derrida only the philosopher’s actual last “testament,” titled “Learning to Live: Finally,” is reprinted but with an introduction, annotations and an extensive bibliography. Two of Lou Reed’s questioners — the multi-talented novelists Neil Gaiman and Paul Auster — are now probably as well known as the legendary co-founder of the Velvet Underground.
Open any one of these “Last Interview” paperbacks and you’ll soon discover a remark or observation worth remembering. David Foster Wallace declares, “I don’t think I’ve ever found anything as purely ‘moving’ as the end of ‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ when I first read it.” Asked “What is heaven like?” Bolaño immediately answers, “Like Venice.” Speaking in 1987, James Baldwin observes that Norman Mailer “decided not to be a writer. He decided to be a celebrity instead and that’s what he is now.”
“Ernest Hemingway: The Last Interview ” incorporates the writer’s classic Paris Review conversation with George Plimpton, but also adds a terrific profile by Robert Manning, who concludes: “He made himself easy to parody, but he was impossible to imitate.” When Robert Emmett Ginna comments on how interesting those “Writers at Work” pieces could be, Hemingway grunts,
“ ‘Yeah? . . . Some pretty good. But,’ he leaned forward confidentially, ‘what a lot of bull---, too. How some of those guys can believe themselves. Jesus!”
In another postmodern moment, Nora Ephron reveals that she used to go through old Paris Reviews “hoping to find the secret of how to write a novel in six weeks, but of course you don’t.” As one might expect of the screenwriter of “When Harry Met Sally. . .” and the memorably titled essay collection “Wallflower at the Orgy ,” Ephron is breezy and funny throughout. We learn that she preferred taking notes to using a tape recorder when working on magazine profiles. Why? “I think that there are very few people worth listening to twice.”
Last year, David Streitfeld — a business reporter for the New York Times (and a former Washington Post publishing correspondent) — edited “Gabriel García Márquez: The Last Interview.” His exceptionally charming introduction about meeting the reclusive author of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” hooks the reader with its first sentence: “Everyone said it was like getting an audience with the pope.” Little surprise, then, that Streitfeld’s opening essay for “Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview” may be the best short overview of the man and his work now available. In Dick’s conversations — especially with Charles Platt — the science fiction icon reflects on paranoia, our increasing loss of privacy, the nature of reality, drugs, the search for transcendence, and what it’s like to produce 16 novels in five years. Dick never sounds crazy, quite the contrary:
“To me the great joy in writing a book is showing some small person, some ordinary person doing something in a moment of great valor, for which he would get nothing and which would be unsung in the real world. The book, then, is the song about his valor. You know, people think that the author wants to be immortal, to be remembered through his work. No. I want Mr. Tagomi from ‘The Man in the High Castle’ always to be remembered.”
A final note: Any of these Melville House paperbacks is short enough to be finished in a single evening. Consequently you just might want to collect them all — they do look good when grouped together on a shelf. What’s more, the series is still going strong. Next up for the “Last Interview” treatment will be the influential urban planner Jane Jacobs, author of the classic “Death and Life of Great American Cities.”
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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