A Great Gift for Writers

The next time you feel the urge to switch away from your manuscript to check the latest online news headlines, sports scores, stock market averages or celebrity gossip, do yourself a favor. Disable your modem connection instead.

Then, after you have finished your uninterrupted writing, reconnect and reward yourself by browsing in The Paris Review Interviews. Earlier this autumn, the editors of The Paris Review gave all of us aspiring writers a wonderful gift. The entire archive of the magazine’s nonpareil question-and-answer series with great writers was made available online. There are hundreds, beginning with E. M. Forster in the Spring 1953 inaugural issue of the literary quarterly.

Perusing just one of these long interviews is sure to inform you, inspire you, instruct you and entertain you. Full of engaging life stories and literary commentary, the interviews are a fabulous repository of information and advice about how great writers work. You’ll be reminded, time and again, that you are not alone in your struggles. Even the giants deal with the nuts-and-bolts difficulties of formulating a story and putting words on the page. But they never give up.

Whoever the writer and whatever his or her principal form, you’ll find good stuff.

Here’s a miniscule sampling of the roster: Arthur Miller, and Harold Pinter on writing drama; Billy Collins on poetry; Mary Karr on memoir; William Faulkner, John Updike, Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth and Stephen King on fiction; Gay Talese and John McPhee on nonfiction; Woody Allen and Garrison Keillor on humor; David McCullough on biography; and Hunter S. Thompson on journalism.

And here’s a tiny taste of what you can find in the Interviews: P. G. Wodehouse sometimes made 400 pages of notes before writing one of his comic novels. He began by developing a scenario, but, he said, “It’s curious how a scenario gets lost as you go along. I don’t think I’ve ever actually kept completely to one. . . .It’s the plots that I find so hard to work out.” Sound familiar?

Wodehouse also said this: “Nothing puts the reader off more than a great 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 out of them.”

Even in his later years, Gonzo journalist Thompson wrote on an IBM Selectric typewriter rather than on a computer, with the m.o.  “. . .to write fast and get through it.” He didn’t like the quiet sound of computer keys, and was leery of the impermanence of words on the screen: “I haven’t got past the second paragraph on a word processor. Never go back and rewrite while you’re working. Keep on it as if it were final.”

Then, of course, there is this famous passage, from Paris Review co-founder George Plimpton’s 1958 interview with Ernest Hemingway. Declared Papa, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, s–t detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”

There are a million more gems waiting for you in The Paris Review Interviews. Enjoy them, then employ them in your own writing.—Alex McNab


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