Blogs by L. G. Figgins
The Paris Review Interviews, Volume IV
1/13/2010 7:35:51 AM
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The Paris Review Interviews, IV includes in-depth interviews with numerous literary luminaries. These timeless interviews provide invaluable inspiration and insight for accomplished and aspiring writers alike...
This critically acclaimed series continues with another eclectic lineup, including Philip Roth, Ezra Pound, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson, Stephen Sondheim, E. B. White, Maya Angelou, William Styron and more.
In each of these remarkable extended conversations, the authors touch every corner of the writing life, sharing their ambitions, obsessions, inspirations, disappointments, and the most idiosyncratic details of their writing habits.
From the interview with Maya Angelou:
If you had to endow a writer with the most necessary pieces of equipment, other than, of course, yellow legal pads, what would these be?
Ears. Ears. To hear the language. But there's no one piece of equipment that is most necessary. Courage, first.
What is the best part of writing for you?
Well, I could say the end. But when the language lends itself to me, when it comes and submits, when it surrenders and says, I am yours, darling—that's the best part.
From the interview with William Styron:
Do you enjoy writing?
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.
How many pages do you turn out each day?
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 on it, of which very little is spend 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.
And what time of the day do you find best for writing?
The afternoon. I like to stay up late at night and get drunk and sleep late. I wish I could break the habit but I can’t. The afternoon is the only time I have left and I try to use it to the best of my advantage, with a hangover.
From the interview with Ezra Pound:
Your work includes a great range of experience, as well as of form. What do you think is the greatest quality a poet can have? Is it formal, or is it a quality of thinking?
I don’t know that you can put the needed qualities in hierarchic order, but he must have a continuous curiosity, which of course does not make him a writer, but if he hasn’t got that he will wither. And the question of doing anything about it depends on a persistent energy. A man like Agassiz is never bored, never tired. The transit from the reception of stimuli to the recording, to the correlation—that is what takes the whole energy of a lifetime.
You have given advice to the young all your life. Do you have anything special to say to them now?
To improve their curiosity and not to fake. But that is not enough. The mere registering of bellyache and the mere dumping of the ash can is not enough. In fact the University of Pennsylvania student Punchbowl used to have as its motto, “Any damn fool can be spontaneous.”
From the interview with E.B. White:
Do you have any warm-up exercises to get going?
Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional trick. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.
Does the finished product need a gestation period—that is, do you put a finished work away and look at it a month hence?
It depends on what kind of product it is. Many a poem could well use more than nine months. On the other hand, a newspaper report of a fire in a warehouse can’t be expected to enjoy a gestation period. When I finished Charlotte’s Web, I put it away, feeling that something was wrong. The story had taken me two years to write, working on and off, but I was in no particular hurry. I took another year to rewrite it, and it was a year well spent. If I write something and feel doubtful about it, I soak it away. The passage of time can be a help in evaluating it. But in general, I tend to rush into print, riding a wave of emotion.
Do you revise endlessly? How do you know when something is right? Is perhaps this critical ability the necessary equipment for the writer?
I revise a great deal. I know when something is right because bells begin ringing and lights flash. I’m not all sure what the “necessary equipment” is for a writer—it seems to vary greatly with the individual. Some writers are equipped with extrasensory perception. Some have a good ear, like O’Hara. Some are equipped with humor—although not nearly as many as those who think they are. Some are equipped with massive intellect, like Wilson. Some are prodigious. I do think the ability to evaluate one’s own stuff with reasonable accuracy is a helpful piece of equipment. I’ve known good writers who’ve had it, and I’ve known good writers who’ve not. I’ve known writers who were utterly convinced that anything at all, if it came from their pen, was the work of genius and as close to being right as anything can be.
Is there any shifting of gears in writing such children’s books as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little? Do you write to a particular age group?
Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears. But I don’t want to evade your question. There is difference writing for children and for adults. I am lucky though, as I seldom seem to have my audience in mind when I am at work. It is as though they don’t exist.
Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything your present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.
Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again—my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use short words. So, it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.
From the interview with P.G. Wodehouse:
What is your working schedule these days?
I still start the day off at seven-thirty. I do my daily dozen exercises, have breakfast, and then go into my study. When I am between books, as I am now, I sit in an armchair and think and make notes. Before I start a book I’ve usually got four hundred pages of notes. Most of them are almost incoherent. But there’s always a moment when you feel you’ve got a novel started. You can more or less see how it’s going to work out. After that it’s just a question of detail.
How many words do you usually turn out on a good day?
Well, I’ve slowed up a good deal now. I used to write about two thousand words. Now I suppose I about one thousand.
Do you do seven days a week?
Oh, yes, rather. Always.
[Note: Wodehouse was ninety-one and a half when he gave this interview.]
If you were asked to give advice to somebody who wanted to write humorous fiction, what would you tell him?
I’d give him practical advice, and that is always get the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a slab of prose at the start. I think the success of every novel—if it’s a novel of action—depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, Which are my big scenes? and then get every drop of juice of out of them. The principle I always go on in writing a novel is to think of the characters in terms of actors in a play. I say to myself, if a big name were playing this part, and if he found that after a strong first act he had practically nothing to do in the second act, he would walk out. Now, then, can I twist the story so as to give him plenty to do all the way through? I believe the only way a writer can keep himself up to the mark is by examining each story quite coldly before he starts writing it and asking himself if it is all right as a story. I mean, once you go saying to yourself, This is a pretty weak plot as it stands, but I’m such a hell of a writer that my magic touch will make it easy—you’re sunk. If they aren’t in interesting situations, characters can’t be major characters, not even if you have the rest of the troop talk their heads off about them.
What do you think makes a story funny?
I think character mostly. You know instinctively what’s funny and what isn’t if you’re a humorous writer. I don’t think a man can deliberately sit down to write a funny story unless he has got a sort of slant on life that leads to funny stories. If you take life fairly easily, then take a humorous view of things. It’s probably because you were born that way. Lord Emsworth and his pig—I know they’re funny.
From the interview with Philip Roth:
How do you get started on a new book?
Beginning a book is unpleasant. I’m entirely uncertain about the character and the predicament, and a character in his predicament is what I have to begin with. Worse than not knowing your subject is not knowing how to treat it, because that’s finally everything. I type out beginnings and they’re awful, more of an unconscious parody of my previous book than the breakaway from it that I want. I need something driving down the center of a book, a magnet to draw everything to it—that’s what I look for during the first months of writing something new. I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive. OK, I say to myself, that’s your beginning, start there; that’s the first paragraph of the book. I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page. Usually it doesn’t come to more than one page, but if I’m lucky, that’s the start of page one. I look for the liveliness to set the tone. After the awful beginning come the months of freewheeling play, and after the play comes the crises, turning against your material and hating the book.
How much of a book is in your mind before you start?
What matters most isn’t there at all. I don’t mean the solutions to problems, I mean the problems themselves. You’re looking, as you begin, for what’s going to resist you. You’re looking for trouble. Sometimes in the beginning uncertainty arises not because the writing is difficult, but because it isn’t difficult enough. Fluency can be a sign that nothing is happening. Fluency can actually be my signal to stop, while being in the dark from sentence to sentence is what convinces me to go on.
Must you have a beginning? Would you ever begin with an ending?
For all I know I am beginning with the ending. My page one can wind up a year later as page two hundred, if it’s still even around.
Do you work best at any particular time of day?
I work all day, morning and afternoon, just about every day. If I sit there like that for two or three years, at the end I have a book.
You spoke of the last phase of writing a novel being a “crisis” in which you turn against the material and hate the work. Is there always this crisis, with every book?
Always. Months of looking at the manuscript and saying, This is wrong—but what’s wrong? I ask myself, If this book were a dream, it would be a dream of what? But then I’m asking this I’m also trying to believe in what I’ve written, to forget that it’s writing and to say, This has taken place, even if it hasn’t. The idea is to perceive your invention as a reality that can be understood as a dream. This idea is to turn flesh and blood into literary characters and literary characters into flesh and blood.
How conscious are you as you are writing of whether you are moving from a third- to a first-person narrative?
It’s not conscious –the movement is spontaneous.
But how does it feel, to be writing in the third person as opposed to the first person?
How does it feel looking through a microscope, when you adjust the focus? Everything depends upon how close you want to bring the naked object to the naked eye. And vice versa. Depends on what you want to magnify, and to what to power.
For complete interviews with these and other literary luminaries, buy Paris Review Interviews, IV at Barnes & Noble.com, Amazon, or your favorite book store. Copyright © 2009 The Paris Review.
See also Paris Review Interviews, I; Paris Review Interviews, II; and Paris Review Interviews, III
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