May 26, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Alan Hollinghurst is sixty today.
I was rather a goody-goody as a child. I hated the idea of being in the wrong and dreaded being punished. Everyone at my prep school was being beaten by the headmaster with the back of a hairbrush round the clock, and I was keen to avoid that. It was only later on I discovered that you could be naughty and get away with it.
What were you reading at that age?
There was a bizarre library at the school that had a lot of old-fashioned children’s adventure books by G. A. Henty and R. M. Ballantyne. I got very involved with Rider Haggard—I still have the tie-in paperback for the film of She with a picture of Ursula Andress on the front, “the most beautiful woman in the world.” I also became an avid collector of a series called The Pan Book of Horror Stories, edited by Herbert Van Thal. I still have these as well, and the gruesome covers take me back—the whole atmosphere of the school suddenly closes in on me when I look at them.
In my school reports, one of the masters was worried about this “macabre reading,” but by the following year, I had discovered Tolkien, with whom I became totally obsessed. I read The Lord of the Rings over and over. I made charts of the kings of Rohan and so on. I used to write letters to my friends in dwarfish runes. The English master took a dim view of this and made me read Barchester Towers as an antidote, when all I wanted to do was to get back to Bilbo Baggins’s eleventy-first birthday party for the seventh time. I’ve never been able to read Trollope since.
—Alan Hollinghurst, the Art of Fiction No. 214
March 26, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Robert Frost was born on this day in 1874.
Among other things, what [Ezra] Pound did was show me bohemia.
Was there much bohemia to see at that time?
More than I had ever seen. I’d never had any. He’d take me to restaurants and things. Showed me jujitsu in a restaurant. Threw me over his head.
Did he do that?
Wasn’t ready for him at all. I was just as strong as he was. He said, “I’ll show you, I’ll show you. Stand up.” So I stood up, gave him my hand. He grabbed my wrist, tipped over backwards and threw me over his head.
How did you like that?
Oh, it was all right.
—Robert Frost, the Art of Poetry No. 2, 1960
March 25, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Flannery O’Connor was born today in 1925.
Flannery O’Connor was probably the biggest influence in my mature writing life. I didn’t discover her until I was at Arkansas, and I didn’t read her until I was around twenty-five, twenty-six. She was so powerful, she just knocked me down. I still read Flannery and teach her.
What was it that got you? Was there something specific?
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and then I read everything.
I thought the author was a guy. I thought it was a guy for three years until someone clued me in very quietly at Arkansas. “It’s a woman, Barry.” Her work is so mean. The women are treated so harshly. The misogyny and religion. It was so foreign and Southern to me. She certainly was amazing.
—Barry Hannah, the Art of Fiction No. 184, 2004
March 13, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
You know, the strange thing about imagery is that a great deal of it is subconscious, and sometimes it appears in a poem, and nobody knows wherefrom this emerged. But it is rooted, I am certain, in the poet’s subconscious life, often of his childhood, and that’s why I think it is decisive for a poet: the childhood that he has lived … When I was a child I discovered somewhere in a corner of a sort of bungalow we had in my grandmother’s garden—at the place where we used to spend our summers—I discovered a compass from a ship which, as I learned afterwards, belonged to my grandfather. And that strange instrument—I think I destroyed it in the end by examining and re-examining it, taking it apart and putting it back together and then taking it apart again—became something mythical for me.
—George Seferis, the Art of Poetry No. 13
March 6, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Gabriel García Márquez is eighty-seven today.
You describe seemingly fantastic events in such minute detail that it gives them their own reality. Is this something you have picked up from journalism?
That’s a journalistic trick which you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you. One Hundred Years of Solitude is full of that sort of thing. That’s exactly the technique my grandmother used. I remember particularly the story about the character who is surrounded by yellow butterflies. When I was very small there was an electrician who came to the house. I became very curious because he carried a belt with which he used to suspend himself from the electrical posts. My grandmother used to say that every time this man came around, he would leave the house full of butterflies. But when I was writing this, I discovered that if I didn’t say the butterflies were yellow, people would not believe it.
—Gabriel García Márquez, the Art of Fiction No. 69
February 26, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Michel Houellebecq is fifty-eight today.
You’ve said that you are “an old Calvinist pain-in-the-ass.” What do you mean?
I tend to think that good and evil exist and that the quantity in each of us is unchangeable. The moral character of people is set, fixed until death. This resembles the Calvinist notion of predestination, in which people are born saved or damned, without being able to do a thing about it. And I am a curmudgeonly pain in the ass because I refuse to diverge from the scientific method or to believe there is a truth beyond science.
—Michel Houllebecq, the Art of Fiction No. 206