Interviews

All Interviews

John Ashbery

1983

“I often wonder if I am suffering from some mental dysfunction because of how weird and baffling my poetry seems to so many people and sometimes to me too.”

James Baldwin

1984

“After my best friend jumped off the bridge, I knew that I was next. So—Paris. With forty dollars and a one-way ticket.”

J. G. Ballard

1984

On the dangers of writing too much: “By the eighteenth book, one has a sense of having bricked oneself into a niche, a roosting place for other people's pigeons. I wouldn't recommend it.”

John Barth

1985

On teaching creative writing: “Finally you begin to make your mistakes on the highest level—let's say the upper slopes of slippery Parnassus—and it's at that point you need coaching.”

Donald Barthelme

1981

On the difficulty of writing about sex: “Faint equivalents can sometimes be found. . . . Or it can be rendered obliquely—an adolescent’s mental image of his or her parents making love, which must be something on the order of crocodiles mating.”

Elizabeth Bishop

1981

On winning the Pulitzer Prize while living in Brazil: “There was one vegetable man we always went to. And he said, “You know, it's amazing! Last week Señora (Somebody) took a chance on a bicycle and she won! My customers are so lucky!”

Heinrich Böll

1983

“Behind every word a whole world is hidden that must be imagined.”

Paul Bowles

1981

“I wanted to meet [other artists]. I suppose I simply felt that I was taking pot shots at clay pipes. Pop! Down goes Gertrude, down goes Jean Cocteau, down goes André Gide.”

Joseph Brodsky

1982

“[Persecution mania] is still around. In your writing, in your exchanges with people, meeting people who are in Russian affairs, Russian literature, etcetera.”

Anita Brookner

1987

“The self-fulfilled woman is far from reality.”

Erskine Caldwell

1982

“Southern writers must have learned the art of storytelling from listening to oral tales. I did. It gave me the knowledge that the simplest incident can make a story.”

Hortense Calisher

1987

“. . . I used to think I lacked confidence. Now I think I knew I had nothing much yet to write about. Or not perspective enough to know what was there.”

Raymond Carver

1983

On teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Conference: “The entire time [John Cheever and I] were there . . . I don't think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters. We made trips to a liquor store twice a week in my car.”

Julio Cortázar

1984

“Literature is . . . a game, but it's a game one can put one's life into.”

Malcolm Cowley

1982

On Hemingway: “He always had trouble with plots because he wasn't so much filling out a plot as he was making a journey or progression, day by day.”

Robertson Davies

1989

On a “favorable” review in the Times of London: “[It] began with these chilling words: ‘To speak of a good novel from a Canadian writer sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.’”

E. L. Doctorow

1986

On fiddling with scenes from history: “Well, it's nothing new, you know. When President Reagan says the Nazi S.S. were as much victims as the Jews they murdered—wouldn't you call that fiddling?”

Francine du Plessix Gray

1987

“Being forced at the age of twenty-two to sit at a typewriter on the night shift of United Press and turn out trade stories in a manner of minutes—this took some of the fear [of writing] away. Like five percent.”

Leon Edel

1985

On biographers: “James invited his future biographers to seek him out in what he called the ‘invulnerable granite’ of his art. That's so Jamesian—the ‘invulnerable granite.’”

Robert Fitzgerald

1984

On slang: “The test of a given phrase would be: Is it worthy to be immortal? . . . ‘I guess I’ll split’ is not going to be immortal and is excludable, therefore excluded.”

John Fowles

1989

“Oxford in the late 1940s was ... a happy dream, an alternate world ... in a sense a novel we had heard of, but never actually read until then.”

Max Frisch

1989

“[There’s] the idea that by birth you are born a sinner. Why? I didn't ask to be born. Why do I have to be born on a blacklist?”

Carlos Fuentes

1981

“I remember going [in 1939] to see ... a film in which Richard Dix played Sam Houston. When the Alamo came around, I jumped up in my seat shouting ‘Death to the gringos! Viva México!’”

Athol Fugard

1989

On how art effects social change: “I like that image of art dropping down through the various layers of the individual’s psyche, into dreams, stirring around there and then surfacing later in action.”

William Gaddis

1987

“In the past I've resisted [interviews]
. . . because of the threat of questions from someone unfamiliar with the work itself—‘Do you work on a fixed schedule every day?’ ‘On which side of the paper do you write?’”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

1981

“The laws of gravity can be figured out much more easily with intuition than anything else. It's a way of having experience without having to struggle through it.”

Nadine Gordimer

1983

“When I was twelve

. . . I'd write little book reviews. There was a review of . . . Pepys's Diary . . . and I didn’t see that there was any difference between [the kids’ books I read at the time] and . . . Pepys's Diary.”

Elizabeth Hardwick

1985

Explaining her remark that Henry James was “the greatest American female novelist”: ”Sometimes I try to lighten the gloom of discussions but I notice that no one laughs. Instead you see a few people writing down the name.”

Jim Harrison

1988

“You don't write—an artist doesn't create, or very rarely creates—good art in support of different causes.”

Anthony Hecht

1988

On being called for congratulations by Jack Kerouac after beating him out for the Prix de Rome: “I was abroad at the time, but he was, my parents wrote me, genial and sincere and a little high.”

John Hersey

1986

“I think that what has kept the world safe from the bomb since 1945 has not been deterrence . . . so much as it's been
. . . the memory of what happened at Hiroshima.”

John Hollander

1985

“Literature is not different from life, it is part of life. And for someone like myself, The Odyssey is as much a part of nature as the Aegean.”

Guillermo Cabrera Infante

1983

“Man, to put it in Swiftian terms Swift could never utter, is the cancer of the planet!”

Eugene Ionesco

1984

“I detest and despise success, yet I cannot do without it. I am like a drug addict if nobody talks about me for a couple of months I have withdrawal symptoms.”

John Irving

1986

“Writing a novel is actually searching for victims. As I write I keep looking for casualties. The stories uncover the casualties.”

William Kennedy

1989

“You have to beat your own problematic imagination to discover what it is you're saying and how to say it and move forward into the unknown.”

Arthur Koestler

1984

“I believe that the evidence for telepathy is overwhelming and that it is a part of reality that is above science. Science allows us to glimpse [only] fragments of reality.”

Milan Kundera

1984

“The great European novel started out as entertainment, and every true novelist is nostalgic for it. In fact, the themes of those great entertainments are terribly serious—think of Cervantes!”

Stanley Kunitz

1982

“One critic wrote . . . that my poems sounded as though they had been translated from the Hungarian. I don’t know why, but somehow that made me feel quite lighthearted.”

Philip Larkin

1982

“A writer once said to me, If you ever go to America, go either to the East Coast or the West Coast: The rest is a desert full of bigots. That's what I think I'd like . . . a version of pastoral.”

James Laughlin

1983

On his father: “If I asked him for money, he'd say, ‘Are you going to publish some more of those books that I can't understand?’ And I'd say, ‘Yes.’ And he'd give it to me.”

James Laughlin

1983

“[Gertrude Stein] really needed someone like Virgil Thomson, whom she respected, to sit on her a bit and make her devise some plot.”

Rosamond Lehmann

1985

“The novel will never die, but it will keep changing and evolving and taking different shapes . . . Nowadays, there are too many books and not enough good ones.”

Doris Lessing

1988

“[Some people think] that storytelling is telling jokes. So they have to be discouraged! Then others think that storytelling—is like an encounter group . . . ”

Philip Levine

1988

On having his testimony discounted in court: “How can a poet or fiction writer tell the truth in court if he or she can't present the events in a meaningful sequence, which is what a story is? The message is, Stay out of court.”

William Maxwell

1982

“My younger daughter told me recently that when she was a child she thought the typewriter was a toy that I went into my room and closed the door and played with.”

Thomas McGuane

1985

“You either make a little nation and solve its historical and personnel problems within the format of your own household . . . and you win that one, or you lose the only war worth fighting.”

William Meredith

1985

“In the navy, when we were flying, instead of saying, ‘Take care of yourself,’ people would say, ‘Don't crash and burn.’ I don't know how funny it was, but we thought it was hilarious.”

James Merrill

1982

“I like . . . those pockets of genuine strangeness within nations. Yet those are being emptied, turned inside out, made to conform—in the interest of what?”

W. S. Merwin

1987

“[As a child] I was so fascinated by these watercolors in a book about Indians that I began teaching myself to read the captions . . . So I associate learning to read English . . . with wanting to know about Indians. I'm still growing into it.

John Mortimer

1988

“Nothing equips you more for a life in letters than a career in the divorce court.”

Cynthia Ozick

1987

“To imagine the unimaginable is the highest use of the imagination.”

Edna O’Brien

1984

On art and masochism: “I was reading van Gogh's letters. My God! I'm surprised he cut off only one ear, that he wasn't altogether shredded in pieces!”

Walker Percy

1987

“I reincarnated [Thomas Moore] again in my new novel and I'm sorry to say he has fallen upon hard times; he is a far cry from the saint, drinks too much, and watches reruns of M*A*S*H on TV.”

Manuel Puig

1989

“Latin American countries, in their instability, give writers and intellectuals the hope that they are needed. In Latin America there's the illusion that a writer can change something; of course, it's not that simple.”

Alain Robbe-Grillet

1986

On the difference between eroticism and poetry: “When the crudity of the sexual act goes through the imagination it becomes eroticism, and when it doesn't, it is pornography.”

Philip Roth

1984

“The idea is to turn flesh and blood into literary characters and literary characters into flesh and blood.”

May Sarton

1983

“[In old age] there is a childlike innocence, often, that has nothing to do with the childishness of senility. The moments become precious . . . ”

Karl Shapiro

1986

“I always had this feeling—I've heard other Jews say—that when you can't find any other explanation for Jews, you say, ‘Well, they are poets.’”

Josef Skvorecky

1989

“When the Communist Party comes to power, it acts a lot like the mafia: If you are a loyal member in good standing, everything is yours. You're protected, even if you commit a crime.”

Elizabeth Spencer

1989

“[My father] had brought in some large pieces of petrified wood . . . He said, “I reckon those things have been there since the Flood.” That Flood, of course, covered the whole earth, involved Noah’s ark, and presumably left petrified wood outside of Carrollton, Mississippi!”

Stephen Spender

1980

“An English poet writes, I think, just for people who are interested in poetry. An American poet writes, and feels that everyone ought to appreciate this. Then he has a deep sense of grievance . . . ”

Robert Stone

1985

“God is this huge creature who we must know, love, and serve, though actually you feel like you want to kick the son of a bitch.”

Tom Stoppard

1988

“On Broadway, only the fire doors separate you from the sidewalk and you're lucky if the sound of a police car doesn't rip the envelope twice a night.”

Peter Taylor

1987

“I think trying to write is a religious exercise . . . When I create, when I put my own mark on something and form it, I begin to know the whole truth about it, how it was put together.”

P. L. Travers

1982

On lending Mary Poppins to a friend who hated children’s books: “I got a letter back saying: ‘Why didn't you tell me? Mary Poppins with her cool green core of sex has me enthralled forever.’”

William Trevor

1989

“English eccentricity has a suburban quality—it's like a very neatly trimmed garden in which you suddenly realize that the flower beds aren't what they seem to be.”

Andrei Voznesensky

1980

“In Russia I don't need advertising . . . But here, for example, if you stop somebody's car and say, ‘A Russian poet wants to read,’ you hear, ‘What? A Russian poet? Read a book? What?’”

Derek Walcott

1986

“A Calypsonian performer is equivalent to a bullfighter in the ring.”

Rebecca West

1981

“[The difference between women and men is the difference between] idiots and lunatics.”

Edmund White

1988

“Thoreau [was] a man of some humor along with his bile.”

Elie Wiesel

1984

“When I say I don't speak about God, it means theologically, the whole theological art, which is a way of reaching the attributes of God: What is He doing? Who is He?”

Tennessee Williams

1981

On being single: “You know what happened to poor Norman Mailer. One wife after another, and all that alimony. I've been spared all that.”

Charles Wright

1989

“If one has to write poorly before one can write well . . . and if that can be extended to read that one has to write deplorably before one can write extraordinarily well, then I definitely started in the right place for the latter.”

Marguerite Yourcenar

1988

On her refusal to publish with Virago Press: “I did not want to be published by them because they publish only women. It reminds one of ladies' compartments in nineteenth-century trains . . .