The Paris Review Interviews

It is now two decades ago that I got my first job after college: as assistant to the manager of Access Services of Gelman Library, George Washington University. I had come to Washington, D.C. with hopes–no, expectations–of landing a well-paying job in editing or some other aspect of publishing. After several months of rejections (it was not as bad a time to come out of college as it is now, but the class of 1990 graduated only a three years after Black Monday, the day on which the Dow plunged over 22% and bankers jumped out of windows) I fell back on the only relevant work experience I had and applied for jobs at the library.

I wore a suit (I had two) to my job every day. I had a variety of ties. I was half convinced the job would be a steppingstone to some other management position and half in utter denial of the fact that I had put my shoulders in the harness of a 9-5, 40 hour per week job. I wanted to be a writer.

It was there, in the Gelman stacks, that I discovered the collected Paris Review interviews–an impressive row of hardbound volumes, featuring the famed quarterly’s interviews with some of the greatest writers in the English language, probably bound in some dim library bindings.

I was enthralled.

The interviews, and the works of Henry Miller (particularly Tropic of Capricorn) became the arrows I used to ward off the idea of spending the rest of my life in a 9-5 job. Had I known what I now know (happy marriage and son aside), I might have put my suit and ties in a bag with a rock in it, tossed them into the Potomac and striven for a minimum of five years to become a writer. But such is hindsight.

The memory of the pleasure those interviews gave me has never been dulled. I would just  disappear into the stacks on the upper floors (while I was supposed to be checking on the Access Services staff to make sure they were maintaining smooth access to the building, busting people for chewing gum, drinking soda, looking up skirts with mirrors, etc..) to read what William Faulkner, William Carlos Williams, or Robert Frost had said about their craft.

When internet sites, like Alibris, for buying rare books came into being, I remember thinking that what I would one day buy the collection for my library.

Well, it turns out I didn’t have to wait  until I had a library to put it in. Last year I read that Picador was releasing the complete interviews in paperback. And, thanks to my parents, and Hopkin’s Bookshop, I am now the owner of it; it being the only thing I wanted for Christmas.

It stands there in front of me right now, in its black slipcase with an open quotation mark on one side and a closing quotation mark on the other, and its list of 64 authors down the spine or the back, depending on which way you like to display your slipcases. Volume one is bright yellow, volume two is azure, volume three is a muted red and volume four a royal purple. The outer edge of the pages is deckled. The pages themselves are quite thin. I do not like slipcased paperback collections. From the moment you open the shrinkwrap, the cardboard slipcase is already dented and the white of the paper underneath is visible. Chances are that at least one of the books is a bit crunched or dinged as well, and the covers often look shopworn and scuffed from whatever was done in the bindery before they went into their own box.

That said, as soon as I opened volume two and started reading the interview with Graham Greene, I was thrown, I would almost say violently, back to those days in Gelman Library, when each word of those interviews was like water on parched ground. I had forgotten that one of the keys to the greatness of the Paris Review interviews was the brief scene the interviewers set before the interview itself. For instance:

The Kerouacs have no telephone. Ted Berrigan had contacted Jack Kerouac some months earlier and had persuaded him to do the interview. When he felt the time had come for their meeting to take place, Berrigan simply showed up at the Kerouacs’ house….Kerouac welcomed the poets, but before he could show them in, his wife, a very determined woman, seized him from behind and told the group to leave at once….It seems that people still show up constantly at the Kerouacs’ looking for the author of On the Road and stay for days, drinking all the liquor and diverting Jack from his serious occupations.”

The other thing that must be said for the interviews is the obvious dedication of the interviewers and the openness of the interviewees (what the Seattle Times called the “unguarded moment…the holy grail for any interviewer.” After reading some of these interviews, who wouldn’t want to join that fraternity of amusing and acutely intelligent scribblers?

Needless to say, in the past twenty years, the interviews have progressed beyond those classic great writers I was reading back then. (Incidentally, I used a fondly-remembered fragment of the Frost interview–about how he got jiu-jitsu flipped by Ezra Pound–in A Journey Through Literary America.) Maya Angelou’s in there now, and Orhan Pamuk, Stephen King, Alice Munro, and Paul Auster. I have only read the Graham Greene interview and the beginning of Kerouac’s. I am skipping around randomly, at this point. Savoring the collection.

Every time, when I explain why I would write a book about the places that inspired great Americans, I begin by saying that I have always been fascinated by authors, and what makes them tick. And every time I say those words, my mind flashes back to the Paris Review interviews.

So, here’s to Picador, for putting them out in paperback. For the masses.


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