Tag Archives: paris review

Happy Birthday, Toni Morrison

Photo by west_point

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned getting permission to write. Who gave it to you?

MORRISON

No one. What I needed permission to do was to succeed at it. I never signed a contract until the book was finished because I didn’t want it to be homework. A contract meant somebody was waiting for it, that I had to do it, and they could ask me about it. They could get up in my face and I don’t like that. By not signing a contract, I do it, and if I want you to see it, I’ll let you see it. It has to do with self-esteem. I am sure for years you have heard writers constructing illusions of freedom, anything in order to have the illusion that it is all mine and only I can do it.

-Toni Morrison, in a 1993 conversation with Elissa Schappell at The Paris Review. Morrison turns 86 on February 18.

Here’s Morrison with Charlie Rose in 2015:

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Marilynne Robinson on Writing and Discipline

INTERVIEWER

Do you keep to a schedule?

ROBINSON

I really am incapable of discipline. I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to live through the time it takes for it to go up the chimney. Maybe it’s a question of discipline, maybe temperament, who knows? I wish I could have made myself do more. I wouldn’t mind having written fifteen books.

INTERVIEWER

Even if many of them were mediocre?

ROBINSON

Well, no.

-From novelist Marilynne Robinson’s 2008 Paris Review conversation with Sarah Fay.

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E. B. White on the Secret of Writing for Children

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 a difference between 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 didn’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 you 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 the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.

E. B. White, in the Paris Review (1969).

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Six Stories About the Swimming Pool

I don’t know where you live, but where I live, it’s 97 degrees on a Friday in June. After a brutal winter, I try to remember this is what I longed for. My commute home liquidates. Drips slide down my spine, disappearing into the waist of my government-approved pencil skirt. Yesterday, I couldn’t take it: I wore shorts. I’m yearning for my grandparents’ swimming pool; its strange shape and dense vegetation are different from the community pools I frequented as a child. Theirs is utterly private, difficult to maintain, and very, very cold. Ready to grab your towel? Take a dip in these six stories about swimming pools.

1. “Who Gets to Go to the Pool?” (Brit Bennett, New York Times, June 2015)

Oasis or battleground? Swimming pools have long been sites of racial tension in the United States–this month, a police officer pulled a gun on a black, unarmed, bikini-clad young woman after she was attacked (physically and verbally) by white poolgoers.

2. “Woman Overboard: How Swimming in a Rooftop Pool Saved Me From Addiction.” (Susan Shapiro, The Observer, July 2014)

Susan Shapiro traded unhealthy habits for a new obsession: swimming laps atop her apartment building. Her fondness for exercise accidentally landed her in physical therapy, where she learned the importance of pacing herself.

3. “Size.” (Leanne Shapton, The Paris Review, July 2012)

Two summers ago, I read and loved Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton’s memoir of her life in pools. Beautiful meditations on training for the Olympic trials as a teen and descriptions of swimming pools all over the world accompany photos of bathing suits and miniature paintings. What better to read poolside? Here, the Paris Review excerpts Shapton’s book.

4. “The Wet Stuff: Jeff Henry, Verrückt, and the Men Who Built the Great American Water Park.” (Bryan Curtis, Grantland, September 2014)

A water park is a swimming pool on steroids, right? Grantland introduces you to Jeff Henry, the Steve Jobs of water parks. (Henry’s latest ride is called “Verrückt”–that’s “insane,” in German. It’s over 17 stories tall; it’s the tallest water slide in the world.)

5. “The Purest Form of Play.” (Miranda Ward, Vela, April 2013)

This award-winning essay is a favorite of Vela editor Sarah Menkedick: “[It’s] one of those pieces I return to when I start to feel cynical and burnt out.” Maybe the summer heat is getting to you, too. Maybe someone pooped in your metaphorical (or literal) pool. Ward’s essay moved and encouraged me, too. It’s about perseverance and acceptance, in or out of the pool.

6. “Too Fat to Swim.” (Ragini Nag Rao, Rookie, October 2014)

I was 18 the first time I swam. I took a step into a sectioned-off part of Calcutta’s biggest lake, and I was scared. Ragini dreamed of performing daring athletic feats and reveled in basketball and cricket. But her size, self-consciousness and the taunts of her family held her back from embracing her true self. After years of struggling with an eating disorder, she shakes off the haters and plunges into the depths of self-love.

James Salter on Writing and the Open Road

INTERVIEWER

Does the travel help your writing?

SALTER

It’s essential for me. There is no situation like the open road, and seeing things completely afresh. I’m used to traveling. It’s not a question of meeting or seeing new faces particularly, or hearing new stories, but of looking at life in a different way. It’s the curtain coming up on another act.

I’m not the first person who feels that it’s the writer’s true occupation to travel. In a certain sense, a writer is an exile, an outsider, always reporting on things, and it is part of his life to keep on the move. Travel is natural. Furthermore, many men of ancient times died on the road, and the image is a strong one. Kings of Arabia, when they are buried, are not given great tombs. They are buried on the side of the road beneath ordinary stones. One thing I saw in England long ago struck me and has always stayed with me. I was going to visit someone in a little village, walking from the railway station across the fields, and I saw an old man, perhaps in his seventies, with a pack on his back. He looked to be a vagabond, dignified, somewhat threadbare, marching along with his staff. A dog trotted at his heels. It was an image I thought should be the final one of a life. Traveling on.

James Salter, in an interview with poet Edward Hirsch from The Paris Review. Hirsch interviewed Salter in late summer 1992 and the interview appeared in the Review’s Summer 1993 issue. Salter died June 19, 2015, at the age of 90.

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The Secret to Honesty in Writing

“It didn’t occur to me that my books would be widely read at all, and that enabled me to write anything I wanted to. And even once I realized that they were being read, I still wrote as if I were writing in secret.”

Author Louise Erdrich, in the Paris Review.

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Is W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ the Most Pillaged Piece of Literature in the English Language?

W.B. Yeats. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

[W.B. Yeats’s 1919 poem] The Second Coming” may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English. (Perhaps Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” monologue is a distant second.) Since Chinua Achebe cribbed Yeats’s lines for Things Fall Apart in 1958 and Joan Didion for Slouching Towards Bethlehem a decade later, dozens if not hundreds of others have followed suit, in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography. These references have created a feedback loop, leading ever more writers to draw from the poem for inspiration. But how many of them get it right?

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In the wake of Didion’s success, publishers have come to realize they can apply Yeats’s lines to pretty much any book that documents confusion and disarray. Thus Elyn Saks’s 2008 memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, concerning her bout with schizophrenia. Though these four words from Yeats surely resonate with Saks’s feelings, the “center” in question here isn’t the moral authority of the Western world, it’s one person’s sense of stability. The trend has held for art books (David Gulden’s photography collection The Centre Cannot Hold), politics (The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies), alternate history (American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold), popular history (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: The Battle of the Bulge by the Men Who Fought It), reportage (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East), religion (The Second Coming: A Pre-Mortem on Western Civilization), international affairs (Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa), right-wing moral hectoring (Slouching Toward Gomorrah), memoir (Slouching Toward Adulthood), and even humor (Slouching Towards Kalamazoo; Woody Allen’s Mere Anarchy). It seems that for every cogent allusion (Northrop Frye’s Spiritus Mundi, anyone?) there are a dozen falcons that truly can’t hear the falconer.

Nick Tabor, writing in The Paris Review about the “widening gyre of heavy-handed allusions” to W.B. Yeats’s famous 1919 poem “The Second Coming”.

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William S. Burroughs on Why He Stopped Taking Drugs

Photo from Wikimedia Commons From left, Carl Solomon, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs

INTERVIEWER

Why did you stop taking drugs?

BURROUGHS

I was living in Tangier in 1957, and I had spent a month in a tiny room in the Casbah staring at the toe of my foot. The room had filled up with empty Eukodol cartons; I suddenly realized I was not doing anything. I was dying. I was just apt to be finished. So I flew to London and turned myself over to Dr. John Yerbury Dent for treatment. I’d heard of his success with the apomorphine treatment. Apomorphine is simply morphine boiled in hydrochloric acid; it’s nonaddictive. What the apomorphine did was to regulate my metabolism. It’s a metabolic regulator. It cured me physiologically. I’d already taken the cure once at Lexington, and although I was off drugs when I got out, there was a physiological residue. Apomorphine eliminated that. I’ve been trying to get people in this country interested in it, but without much luck. The vast majority—social workers, doctors—have the cop’s mentality toward addiction. A probation officer in California wrote me recently to inquire about the apomorphine treatment. I’ll answer him at length. I always answer letters like that.

William S. Burroughs, interviewed by Conrad Knickerbocker in The Paris Review, “The Art of Fiction No. 36” (Fall 1965).

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Gabriel García Márquez on the Solitude of Writers and Dictators

AP Photo/Prensa Latina via AP Images/Celso Rodriguez

In the winter of 1981 Peter H. Stone interviewed Gabriel García Márquez for The Paris Review. The interview took place over three afternoons in the studio behind García Márquez’s home in Mexico. Although García Márquez’s English is “quite good,” he spoke mostly in Spanish:

INTERVIEWER

You often use the theme of the solitude of power.

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

The more power you have, the harder it is to know who is lying to you and who is not. When you reach absolute power, there is no contact with reality, and that’s the worst kind of solitude there can be. A very powerful person, a dictator, is surrounded by interests and people whose final aim is to isolate him from reality; everything is in concert to isolate him.

INTERVIEWER

What about the solitude of the writer? Is this different?

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

It has a lot to do with the solitude of power. The writer’s very attempt to portray reality often leads him to a distorted view of it. In trying to transpose reality he can end up losing contact with it, in an ivory tower, as they say. Journalism is a very good guard against that. That’s why I have always tried to keep on doing journalism, because it keeps me in contact with the real world, particularly political journalism and politics. The solitude that threatened me after One Hundred Years of Solitude wasn’t the solitude of the writer; it was the solitude of fame, which resembles the solitude of power much more. My friends defended me from that one, my friends who are always there.

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Eudora Welty on Moving from Writer to Reader

Eudora Welty
Eudora Welty in 1955. Photo: AP Images

At the time of writing, I don’t write for my friends or myself, either; I write for it, for the pleasure of it. I believe if I stopped to wonder what So-and-so would think, or what I’d feel like if this were read by a stranger, I would be paralyzed. I care what my friends think, very deeply—and it’s only after they’ve read the finished thing that I really can rest, deep down. But in the writing, I have to just keep going straight through with only the thing in mind and what it dictates.

It’s so much an inward thing that reading the proofs later can be a real shock. When I received them for my first book—no, I guess it was for Delta Wedding—I thought, I didn’t write this. It was a page of dialogue—I might as well have never seen it before. I wrote to my editor, John Woodburn, and told him something had happened to that page in the typesetting. He was kind, not even surprised—maybe this happens to all writers. He called me up and read me from the manuscript—word for word what the proofs said. Proofs don’t shock me any longer, yet there’s still a strange moment with every book when I move from the position of writer to the position of reader, and I suddenly see my words with the eyes of the cold public. It gives me a terrible sense of exposure, as if I’d gotten sunburned.

Eudora Welty, in her 1972 Paris Review interview with Linda Kuehl.

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