Here are some funny moments from Paris Review interviews with writers. You can actually download most of the interviews before 1990 as PDFs.
I describe. I write. Now as for the color yellow, there is a physical explanation of that. When I began to lose my sight, the last color I saw was yellow, because it is the most vivid of colors. That’s why you have the Yellow Cab Company in the United States. At first they thought of making the cars scarlet. Then somebody found out that at night or when there was a fog that yellow stood out in a more vivid way. . . . Now when I began to lose my eyesight, when the world began to fade away from me, there was a time among my friends . . . well, they poked fun at me because I was always wearing yellow neckties. Then they thought I really liked yellow although it really was too glaring. I said, “Yes, to you, but not to me, because it is the only color I can see, practically!” I live in a grey world, rather like the silver screen world. But yellow stands out.
You regard addiction as an illness, but also a central human fact, a drama?
Both, absolutely. It’s as simple as the way in which anyone happens to become an alcoholic. They start drinking, that’s all. They like it, and they drink, and then they become alcoholic. . . . Remember that if it can be readily obtained, you will have any number of addicts. The idea that addiction is somehow a psychological illness is, I think, totally ridiculous. It’s as psychological as malaria. It’s a matter of exposure.
What do you think is the effect of hallucinatory drugs on the creative process?
Terrific! That’s at least what I’d like to say. I think a lot, and at times I can box myself in with all the rationale of army logistics. It can get to be a hopeless log jam. So anyhow the LSD just wiped that out—and fears and tentativenesses and senses of getting lost or of being endlessly separated from the world, all that just went. I can’t claim perhaps so simply that writing was thereby opened but I do know the past year has felt a very active one in consequence. The thing is, it’s information—extraordinary and deeply relieving
You said that most of the writers you’ve known have been against the grain. What did you mean?
When I began writing most of the great writers were quite unpopular. They hadn’t reached the universities yet, and their circulation was small. Even Eliot wasn’t very popular then. But life seemed to be there. It seemed to be one of those periods when the lid was still being blown. The great period of blowing the lid was the time of Schöenberg and Picasso and Joyce and the early Eliot, where a power came into the arts which we perhaps haven’t bad since. These people were all rather traditional, yet they were stifled by what was being done, and they almost wrecked things to do their great works—even rather minor but very good writers such as Williams or Marianne Moore. Their kind of protest and queerness has hardly been repeated. They’re wonderful writers. You wouldn’t see anyone as strange as Marianne Moore again, not for a long while.
Didn’t you say somewhere, "I am for obscenity and against pornography"?
Well, it’s very simple. The obscene would be the forthright, and pornography would be the roundabout. I believe in saying the truth, coming out with it cold, shocking if necessary, not disguising it. In other words, obscenity is a cleansing process, whereas pornography only adds to the murk.
What was it about the twenties that inspired people like yourself and Broun?
Gertrude Stein did us the most harm when she said, “You’re all a lost generation.” That got around to certain people and we all said, “Whee! We’re lost.” Perhaps it suddenly brought to us the sense of change. Or irresponsibility. But don’t forget that, though the people in the twenties seemed like flops, they weren’t. Fitzgerald, the rest of them, reckless as they were, drinkers as they were, they worked damn hard and all the time.
Did the “lost generation” attitude you speak of have a detrimental effect on your own work?
Silly of me to blame it on dates, but so it happened to be. Dammit, it was the twenties and we had to be smarty—I wanted to be cute. That’s the terrible thing. I should have had more sense.
Some artists put such an emphasis on their work, on creating something that will last, that they put it before everything else. That line by Faulkner–“The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
I hate when art becomes a religion. I feel the opposite. When you start putting a higher value on works of art than people, you’re forfeiting your humanity. There’s a tendency to feel the artist has special privileges, and that anything’s okay if it’s in the service of art. I tried to get into that in Interiors. I always feel the artist is much too revered: it’s not fair and it’s cruel. It’s a nice but fortuitous gift—like a nice voice or being left-handed. That you can create is a kind of nice accident. It happens to have high value in society, but it’s not as noble an attribute as courage. I find funny and silly the pompous kind of self-important talk about the artist who takes risks. Artistic risks are like show-business risks—laughable.
Are you worried about the future of the written word?
Not really. I get moments of alarm. Not long ago I received in the mail a doctoral thesis entitled: “Sophie’s Choice: A Jungian Perspective,” which I sat down to read. It was quite a long document. In the first paragraph it said, “In this thesis my point of reference throughout will be the Alan J. Pakula movie of Sophie’s Choice.” There was a footnote, which I swear to you said, “Where the movie is obscure I will refer to William Styron’s novel for clarification.” This idiocy laid a pall over my life for a dark brief time because it brought back all these bugaboos we have about the written word.
Let us move from the sublime to the wonderfully ridiculous. You once thought to ask in words, I believe, not unlike these: “What was Madame Bovary like in bed, and should we care?” I’ve always meant to ask you about this. You were raising other issues, larger issues. Please talk about that for a minute.
I wish I’d invented that question. In the seventies Esquire asked me to write an article about new sexual freedoms in fiction. It was really the time in American fiction when suddenly we began to realize, My God, I can say anything I want to, and even Jesse Helms can’t stop me! I can portray any sexual act. I can indulge any private peculiarity in prose. . . . [Ultimately,] I said that Flaubert probably would have benefited had he been able to tell us more about what Emma’s actual adulterous unions are like for her, because the whole subject of the novel is Emma’s romantic and romantically poisonous delusions about sexual love. It was Esquire who gave it the title, “What Did Madame Bovary Do in Bed?” I think I called it something really dull like “Uses for Freedoms."
What was she like in bed? Boring? Selfish?
Rather stunned and frantic, I would think. And I don’t say it to be comic. I suspect stunned and frantic, breathless and shockingly cold to the touch.
Does it bother you that there are true stories that you’ll never put down?
It depends on what you call a true story. A journalism student in Germany once told me she was bothered by the fact that the most plain and simple and ordinary news stories could conceal an important falsehood. She gave me an example, say, a couple celebrating their seventieth wedding anniversary. They will sit holding hands for the photographer and they’ve had their ups and downs over the years, but the marriage has been a happy one. The reporter can only repeat what they say. But what if the truth is that they positively hate each other? In that case, the whole interview is a lie. I told her that if she wanted to publish the lie perceived behind the interview, she had to write fiction. (She became a critic, by the way.)