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Posts Tagged ‘interview’

Peter Matthiessen, 1927–2014

April 5, 2014 | by

Linda Gavin/Courtesy of Riverhead Books

Linda Gavin/Courtesy of Riverhead Books

We have received word that Peter Matthiessen, a founding editor of The Paris Review, died today after a long battle with leukemia. A Zen priest, novelist, environmentalist, and two-time winner of the National Book Award, Peter was a heroic figure to generations of readers, including our own. He lived a life of adventure but was, even in public, the first to admit his vulnerabilities and flaws. As a writer, he held himself to the highest standards—his own—even in the face of incomprehension or disregard. As the most senior member of our board, and the last living founder of the Review, he was unfailing in his encouragement and love of this magazine; we have lost a progenitor, a guiding spirit, and a cherished friend. 

INTERVIEWER

You are one of the few writers ever nominated for the National Book Award in both fiction and nonfiction. Define yourself.

PETER MATTHIESSEN

I am a writer. A fiction writer who also writes nonfiction on behalf of social and environmental causes or journals about expeditions to wild places. I have written more books of nonfiction because my fiction is an exploratory process—not laborious, merely long and slow and getting slower. In reverse order, Far Tortuga took eight years, At Play in the Fields of the Lord perhaps four, and the early novels no doubt longer than they deserved. Anyway, I have been a fiction writer from the start. For many years I wrote nothing but fiction. My first published story appeared in The Atlantic the year I graduated from college and won the Atlantic firsts prize that year; and on the wings of a second story sale to the same magazine, I acquired a noted literary agent, Bernice Baumgarten, wife of James Gould Cozzens, the author of a best-selling blockbuster called By Love Possessed, whose considerable repute went to the grave with him.

INTERVIEWER

And when did you start your first novel?

MATTHIESSEN

Almost at once. It was situated on an island off the New England coast. I had scarcely begun when I realized that what I had here at the very least was the Great American Novel. I sent off the first 150 pages to Bernice and hung around the post office for the next two weeks. At last an answer came. It read as follows: “Dear Peter, James Fenimore Cooper wrote this 150 years ago, only he wrote it better, Yours, Bernice.” On a later occasion, when as a courtesy I sent her the commission on a short story sold in England, she responded unforgettably: “Dear Peter, I’m awfully glad you were able to get rid of this story in Europe, as I don’t think we’d have had much luck with it here. Yours, Bernice.” Both these communications, quoted in their entirety, are burned into my brain forever—doubtless a salutary experience for a brash young writer. I never heard an encouraging word until the day Bernice retired, when she called me in and barked like a Zen master, “I’ve been tough on you because you’re very, very good.” I wanted to sink down and embrace her knees.

Read Matthiessen’s Art of Fiction interview and his story “A Replacement,” and listen to him on the art of travel writing.

 

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Interviewing Dame Iris

December 13, 2013 | by

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Photography credit Nancy Crampton.

The other day we shared recordings of Garrison Keillor, William Styron, and Iris Murdoch as part of an ongoing collaboration with 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center. Since 1985, the Poetry Center and The Paris Review have copresented an occasional series of onstage conversations—many of which have ended up as part of our published Writers-at-Work interviews—and we’ll be sharing more of these recordings in the months to come. Meanwhile, here is James Atlas on what it was like to interview Iris Murdoch on February 22, 1990. This essay is also part of 75 at 75, a special project for the Poetry Center’s seventy-fifth anniversary that invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response.

I have known three charismatic writers in my life: Philip Roth, Robert Lowell, and Iris Murdoch. (A fourth, Saul Bellow, was what might be called anticharismatic, by his own choice; he didn’t mind attention, but he liked to keep his self to himself.) And there is one venue that I would describe as charismatic if an auditorium can be defined that way: the 92nd Street Y. Every major writer in the English-speaking (or I should say -writing) world has spoken there. I myself have seen—and, more importantly, heard—Joseph Brodsky, Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving, Gore Vidal, Bellow (on several occasions), and many others I can’t remember. So when I was invited to interview Dame Iris on the occasion of a visit in the winter of 1990, it wasn’t exactly a hard sell. In fact, it would turn out to be one of the great literary experiences of my own life.

I use her title with great reluctance because I did know Iris Murdoch, having spent time with her in Oxford a few years earlier for a Vanity Fair profile. This was no doubt the reason why the Y had thought of me in the first place for a live Writers-at-Work interview cosponsored by The Paris Review. As famous as she was, Murdoch did not have a large following in America, and there may have been a limited pool of interlocutors capable of introducing her before the kind of sophisticated New York audience that tended to show up at the Y.

She was a gentle soul, soft-spoken, and almost willfully self-effacing. When I first met her at Oxford, at a friend’s Sunday brunch, she had grilled me about my own life—my family, my children, my education, books written, books not written, before she had even figured out that I was the man from America who had come all that way to interview her. I was nervous about the very public forum of the Y anyway; how was I supposed to sit there on stage in front of nine hundred people and ask—for instance—about her forbidding work of philosophy, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals? I hit upon a rather craven solution: “I’m just going to ask you one question, Iris, and then you speak for an hour.”

As I listen to this recording now, I discover with relief that she was anything but forbidding. She was modest. When I asked her what she thought she had achieved—remember, she was over seventy at this point and had long been considered one of the most important writers in England—she answered, with complete sincerity, “I haven’t achieved anything yet.” She was profound without sounding that way, or, I suspect, even knowing that she was: “Live in the present. It’s what you think you can do next that matters.” And she was funny: “The thing about the theater is, why do people stay there? Why don’t they just get up and go?” But the most valuable thing I learned from Dame Iris Murdoch that evening was about the relationship between art and humility. “One is always discontented with what one has done,” she said. “One always hopes to do better.” To be satisfied with one’s work was to misunderstand the very nature of creativity.

Toward the end of our hour, she gave the audience—or was it just me this was intended for?—a piece of advice: “It’s a good idea to know about something.” “I’ll keep that I mind,” I quipped. There was laughter in the auditorium, and I realize now that knowing about Iris Murdoch—even the little I knew—had been a good idea.

James Atlas is the founding editor of the Lipper/Viking Penguin Lives Series. A longtime contributor to The New Yorker, he was an editor at The New York Times Magazine for many years. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, Vanity Fair, and many other journals. He is the author of Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, which was nominated for the National Book Award.

 

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It Was Too Strong: An Interview with Todd Hido

November 19, 2013 | by

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She had a black mohawk, edged in green. Sometimes red. I believe there was a brief blue phase. She wore Doc Martens long before they were cool, and she only ever wore baggy, black clothing. I never once saw her smile. When she hung out with the other punks in the unofficial outdoor smoking section of our neighborhood, she inhaled her cigarettes slowly, gently. She wasn’t pretty or even conventionally attractive, but boys always surrounded her. Perhaps it was the heavy eyeliner, speaking of a life populated with interesting and equally enigmatic people and filled with rarefied events that neither I nor her admirers would ever experience, couldn’t even fathom. Part of her mystique, of course, was that she didn’t seem to engage with her entourage, but, eyes down, quietly murmur something once in a while that would galvanize everyone.

She lived just ten houses down from me, but in an older, separate subdivision. On my nightly walks with Maggie, our Rastafarian family dog, I’d hope for a glimpse inside her rundown house. Though lights often flickered through the drawn curtains, that entire winter I never saw a thing. Her home was as inscrutable as was she. Invariably Maggie would pull at the leash to go back home where it was warm and she could go to sleep and where my life, boring and uneventful, waited.

Many years later, I came across this photograph on Todd Hido’s Web site.

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For a brief moment, I thought it was her house. Then I saw the dissimilarities; it wasn’t. But the effect on me was profound: my emotional response to the photo, the swoosh of nostalgia, became a portal. Suddenly I was once again in the midst of painful adolescence, projecting a narrative onto a girl I had never met. Read More »

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Weapons of Mass Instruction

November 11, 2013 | by

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VONNEGUT

I took my basic training on the 240-millimeter howitzer.

INTERVIEWER

A rather large weapon.

VONNEGUT

The largest mobile fieldpiece in the army at that time. This weapon came in six pieces, each piece dragged wallowingly by a Caterpillar tractor. Whenever we were told to fire it, we had to build it first. We practically had to invent it. We lowered one piece on top of another, using cranes and jacks. The shell itself was about nine and a half inches in diameter and weighed three hundred pounds. We constructed a miniature railway which would allow us to deliver the shell from the ground to the breech, which was about eight feet above grade. The breechblock was like the door on the vault of a savings and loan association in Peru, Indiana, say.

INTERVIEWER

It must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.

VONNEGUT

Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “Fuck Hitler” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.

INTERVIEWER

The ultimate terror weapon.

VONNEGUT

Of the Franco-Prussian War.

—Kurt Vonnegut, the Art of Fiction No. 64

 

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History Boys

October 17, 2013 | by

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“Being a playwright was always the maximum idea. I’d always felt that the theater was the most exciting and the most demanding form one could try to master. When I began to write, one assumed inevitably that one was in the mainstream that began with Aeschylus and went through about twenty-five hundred years of playwriting. There are so few masterpieces in the theater, as opposed to the other arts, that one can pretty well encompass all of them by the age of nineteen. Today, I don’t think playwrights care about history. I think they feel that it has no relevance.” —Arthur Miller, the Art of Theater No. 2

 

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Away from Her

October 10, 2013 | by

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“Often, in about three quarters of what I do, I reach a point somewhere, fairly early on, when I think I’m going to abandon this story. I get myself through a day or two of bad depression, grouching around. And I think of something else I can write. It’s sort of like a love affair: you’re getting out of all the disappointment and misery by going out with some new man you don’t really like at all, but you haven’t noticed that yet. Then, I will suddenly come up with something about the story that I abandoned; I will see how to do it.” —Alice Munro, the Art of Fiction No. 137

 

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