Andromeda: Writers, delight and beware — Paris Review interviews

DAVID MITCHELL, author of The Cloud Atlas : The novelist is more like a pregnant woman who delivers her own child unaided. A messy procedure, with lots of groaning.

That’s just one quote among thousands you’ll find at the Paris Review writer interview archives, recently made available online. I heard about it via an email from Nancy Lord, decided to check out while eating lunch next to my laptop, and emerged from my trance some 60 to 90 minutes later, wishing I could take a week off my life and simply read author interviews.

As Dwight Garner of the New York Times explained last week: Editor Lorin Stein’s “most radical act since taking over from Philip Gourevitch is visible only on the 57-year-old magazine’s crisply redesigned Web site, He’s made the entire run of The Paris Review’s storied interview series, previously almost impossible to find in electronic form, available there, free for the browsing. If there’s a better place to lose yourself online right now, I don’t know what it is. The interviews in The Paris Review — the magazine founded in 1953 by a group of writers and editors that included George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen — are about as canonical, in our literary universe, as spoken words can be. They long ago set the standard, for better and occasionally worse, for what well-brewed conversation should sound like on the page.”

Garner admitted to spending a full day roaming around. (Should I feel less sheepish for my own “lost” hour or so? Or simply envious that Garner got a full day to spend in such a luxurious pursuit?)

Needing to justify the time I’ve spent already, I’ll share a few random items I came across, which happen to relate to writers I’ve been talking about at this blog lately. (But I assure you — or rather warn you — just about every notable writer is in the archives. That’s why you’re bound to lose track of the time.

Are there any trends in contemporary fiction that worry you? Any that particularly interest you?

I have no idea where it will go, except that narrative—story— will carry it. From time to time writers will feel the demands of narrative as a tyranny and refuse them, even mock them. Sterne did it, Tolstoy himself did it as a young man. Literary postmodernism is actually pretty old hat. It’s recurrent, and usually passes like a mild fever.

And here’s a choice bit from an interview with Nabokov, proving yet again that the genuis would have been one heck of a difficult teacher to endure.

INTERVIEWER Did you learn from your students at Cornell? Was the experience purely a financial one? Did teaching teach you anything valuable?

NABOKOV My method of teaching precluded genuine contact with my students. At best, they regurgitated a few bits of my brain during examinations. Every lecture I delivered had been carefully, lovingly handwritten and typed out, and I leisurely read it out in class, sometimes stopping to rewrite a sentence and sometimes repeating a paragraph—a mnemonic prod which, however, seldom provoked any change in the rhythm of wrists taking it down. I welcomed the few shorthand experts in my audience, hoping they would communicate the information they stored to their less fortunate comrades. Vainly I tried to replace my appearances at the lectern by taped records to be played over the college radio.

And then, simply because it’s fun to follow one author to the next, here is David Mitchell on Nabokov.

Ghostwritten contains an invaluable piece of advice for writers: If you’re trying to finish a book, steer clear of Nabokov—he’ll make you feel like a clodhopper. Was this from bitter experience?

Yes, his combination of barbed intelligence and incandescent imagination is pretty humbling. And what a vocabulary! I used to read Nabokov with an X-ray on, trying to map the circuitry of what he was doing and how he was doing it.

Lolita is an act of seduction. This is a lovable rogue, you think, this Humbert Humbert. How interesting life is in his company! Then there’s a place where, toward the end—and this is one of the most chilling scenes in English literature—he realizes that Lolita has lost her magic. She’s not the pliant young fairy she once was. But it’ll be OK, he thinks, because I can have a daughter through her and start all over again. That’s when you know you’ve really been had here—this Humbert figure is a damaged, dangerous piece of work, and you’ve been riding along happily in his car for a hundred and fifty pages. Somebody call the cops!

Thanks, Nancy — I think. If I go missing in cyberspace for days at a time, you’ll know where I’ve gotten lost.

1 thought on “Andromeda: Writers, delight and beware — Paris Review interviews”

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top