Interviews

All Interviews

Chinua Achebe

1994

On art and politics: “I think writers are not only writers, they are also citizens.”

Woody Allen

1995

“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.”

Yehuda Amichai

1992

“The phrase I like to use to describe my sense of time—a play on comparative literature—is comparative time.”

Martin Amis

1998

“During signing sessions my queue is always full of, you know, wild-eyed sleazebags and people who stare at me very intensely, as if I have some particular message for them.”

A. R. Ammons

1996

On readings: “It's not a love of poetry readings that attracts those who do come to them but theater: to see what the beast looks like in person.”

Maya Angelou

1990

“If you are going to write autobiography, don't expect that it will clear anything up. It makes it more clear to you, but it doesn't alleviate anything.”

Margaret Atwood

1990

On foreignness: “In the center of an empire, you can think of your experience as universal. Outside the empire, or on the fringes of the empire, you cannot.”

Louis Auchincloss

1994

“I think Shakespeare got drunk after he finished King Lear. That he had a ball writing it.”

Russell Banks

1998

“It was pretty easy to picture myself at his [Castro’s] side. He was, in some ways, the good father.”

Sybille Bedford

1993

“I write because I’m a writer. It is rather like cooking: to make something out of the raw material at hand.”

Harold Bloom

1991

On therapy patients: “Perhaps they become better people, but they also become stale and uninteresting people with very few exceptions. Like dried-out cheese, or wilted flowers.”

Yves Bonnefoy

1994

“Since thanks to poetry the world is closer, and its unity more perceptible, we feel more part of that unity: like the leaf of a tree, even if it falls off the branch, in an instant that is eternal. So what is death?”

Harold Brodkey

1991

“Being an object of curiosity (and rivalry) is very peculiar when you’re no longer young. You really spend an awful lot of your time in New York just being confused about how to act.”

William F. Buckley Jr.

1996

“I hate to use the word in this context, but I must . . . my novels celebrate the cold war, and therefore the passions awakened by this titanic struggle are really a narrative obligation.”

Italo Calvino

1992

On starting a new novel: “Every time I must find something to do that will look like a novelty, something a little beyond my capabilities.”

Camilo José Cela

1996

Interviewer: “You [think] that not only should a writer have enemies but that he should actually cultivate them?” Cela: “Yes, so that they help him move up the ladder.”

Amy Clampitt

1993

On the Sexual Revolution:
“ . . . some very plausible stuff is being written by women in a way that most men are not doing . . . ”

Don DeLillo

1993

“There's the shattering randomness of [the Kennedy assassination]: the missing motive, the violence that people seem to watch simultaneously from a disinterested distance.”

John Gregory Dunne

1996

“When I did Dutch Shea, Jr., I knew the last line was going to be, ‘I believe in God.’”

Robert Fagles

1999

On assembling a Homeric football team: "I know who'd be thrown off the team as captain. Agamemnon. He's a disaster as a leader!"

Shelby Foote

1999

“The institution of slavery is a stain on this nation's soul which will never be cleansed . . . There's a second sin that's almost as great, and that's emancipation.”

Richard Ford

1996

“Once Tobias Wolff and I gave a reading out in North Dakota, and a man came up to tell us he read our books during his lunch breaks, sitting on his tractor out in the wheat fields.”

Mavis Gallant

1999

“. . . If [you] want to publish the lie perceived behind the interview, [you have] to write fiction.”

Robert Gottlieb

1994

Michael Crichton on Gottlieb: “He . . . was not above saying, I don't know if you can do it this way . . . which of course would drive me into a fury of effort . . . And it was only years later that I thought, You know, I think he probably said that on purpose.”

Günter Grass

1991

On the extinction of dinosaurs: “When they died, they died in a very clean way
. . . This will not happen with human beings. When we die there will be a terrible breath of poison.”

John Guare

1992

“Novelists [are] only a couple of hundreds of years old. Playwrights [are] a couple of thousands of years old.”

Thom Gunn

1995

“All young men are unhappy. That's why they identify so strongly with Hamlet. They're unhappy in a formless kind of way . . . [they’re] undefined, and being undefined is rather painful.”

Donald Hall

1991

“At lunch Robert [Bly] said, ‘Well, Mr. Hall, what do you think of having a poet for a son?’ As I feared, my father didn't know what to say; poetry was embarrassing, somehow. So I said, ‘Too bad your father doesn't have the same problem . . . ’”

Seamus Heaney

1997

On poetry’s power to suspend violence: "It can entrance you for a moment above the pool of your own consciousness and your own possibilities."

Mark Helprin

1993

On writer’s block: “If an electrician said, I have electrician's block. . . . He would be committed. One thing would be certain, and that is that his paralysis in the face of his work would have only to do with him, and not with his craft.”

Ted Hughes

1995

“The poetry shock that hit the U.K. in the sixties started before the Beatles. Sylvia responded to the first ripples of it. In a sense, Ariel is a response to those first signs, and she never heard the Beatles.”

P. D. James

1995

“I believe that political correctness can be a form of linguistic fascism . . . The only way to react is to get up in the morning and start the day by saying four or five vastly politically incorrect things before breakfast!”

Tahar Ben Jelloun

1999

“There is an important erotic element in A Thousand and One Nights, which is one of the keys to understanding the Orient.”

Ismail Kadare

1998

“I had three choices: to conform to my own beliefs, which meant death; complete silence, which meant another kind of death; to pay a tribute, a bribe. I chose the third solution by writing The Long Winter.”

Garrison Keillor

1995

“Humor needs to come in under cover of darkness, in disguise, and surprise people.”

Ken Kesey

1994

On a true fool natural: “He never stops being a fool to save himself; he never tries to do anything but anger his master . . . Hunter Thompson is a fool natural. Neal Cassady was a fool natural, the best one we knew.”

John le Carré

1997

“The one thing you can bet is that spying is never over. Spying is like the wiring in this building: It's just a question of who takes it over and switches on the lights. It will go on and on and on.”

Fran Lebowitz

1993

“I wouldn’t say that I dislike the young. I’m simply not a fan of naïveté.”

Primo Levi

1995

“I have many times been praised for my lack of animosity towards the Germans. It's not a philosophical virtue. It's a habit of having my second reactions before the first.”

Mario Vargas Llosa

1990

Quoting Neruda: “I have a chest full of all the insults, villainies, and infamies a man is capable of withstanding. . . . If you become famous, you will have to go through that.”

Christopher Logue

1993

On American English: “It seems to me that the contrast between adjacent syllables has lessened and the result is an over-reliance on enjambment. Now enjambment is a fine, intellectually strong aid, but like all such things it becomes tiresome and calls too much attention to itself.”

Naguib Mahfouz

1992

“Sufism . . . it gives relief in the midst of battle . . . ”

David Mamet

1997

On his play Bobby Gould in Hell: “The Devil says [to Bobby], ‘Nothing's black and white; nothing's black and white—what about a panda? What about a panda, you dumb fuck!’”

Peter Matthiessen

1999

“[The zoologist George Schaller and I] had walked away from civilization through mythic mountains and ancient villages in clear October light—but what a pity to say that to each other!”

David McCullough

1999

“Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what's been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new.”

Arthur Miller

1999

On his writing process:
“Occasionally, something sticks. And then I follow that. The only image I can think of is a man walking around with an iron rod in his hand during a lightning storm.”

Czeslaw Milosz

1994

“A book is finished and appears and I feel, Well, next time I will unveil myself. And when the next book appears, I have the same feeling. And then your life ends, and that's it.”

Wright Morris

1991

“My guess would be that our folly lies not in what threatens us, or even what eludes us, but in our inability to adapt to it.”

Jan Morris

1997

“[Imperialism] allowed people to break away from shackling old traditions and heritages. It introduced the world to fresh ideas and new opportunities. These are the contributions that matter for the redemption and the unity of us all.”

Toni Morrison

1993

On female friendships:
“Hating, fighting one another, and joining men in their condemnation of ourselves [is] a typical example of what dominated people do.”

Alice Munro

1994

“You can write about your parents when they're gone, but your children are still going to be here, and you're going to want them to come and visit you in the nursing home.”

Iris Murdoch

1990

“Plato remarks in The Republic that bad characters are volatile and interesting, whereas good characters are dull and always the same. This certainly indicates a literary problem.”

V. S. Naipaul

1998

“Something in late life I have come to understand [is the connection between] hysteria and the sense of the absurd.”

Amos Oz

1996

“You know, if you write in a troubled part of the world, everything is interpreted allegorically. If I wrote a story about a mother, a father, and their daughter, a critic would say that the father represents the government, the mother, the old values, and the daughter the shattered economy!”

Patrick O’Brian

1995

“The sensation of falling into the past is not unlike that of coming home for the holidays from a new, strenuous, unpleasant school and finding
oneself back in wholly familiar surroundings. . . .”

Grace Paley

1992

On being criticized for narrating a black person’s point of view: “The whole point [of writing] is to put yourself into other lives, other heads . . . If you screw up, so someone will tell you, that's all.”

Octavio Paz

1991

“If a society without social justice is not a good society, a society without poetry is a society without dreams, without words . . . and without that bridge between one person and another that poetry is. If society abolishes poetry it commits spiritual suicide.”

Robert Pinsky

1997

“Advice and instruction have always fascinated me, partly because of their pathos—so little is transmitted in any given instance of advice or pedagogy.”

Reynolds Price

1991

Imagining Emma Bovary in bed: “[She’d be] 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.”

Richard Price

1996

On the dangers of researching his books in the field: “I could never be left alone. I had to run when they ran. It can be pretty scary to get lost in a building. You're with the cops. Everybody hates the cops.”

V. S. Pritchett

1990

“I was having tea with [Yeats] one day, and I remember he picked up a pot of tea and, finding that it was already full of old tea, he opened the window of his Georgian house and flung the contents into the square! Rhetoric poured out of him all the while.”

Ned Rorem

1999

All art is a lie, insofar as truth is defined by the Supreme Court. After all, Picasso's goat isn't a goat. Is the artist a liar, or simply one for whom even a fact is not a fact?”

Barney Rosset

1997

“[The idea of] ‘free love’ . . . was implicit in communism, because Lenin said ‘Sex should be like having a glass of water.’”

James Salter

1993

“The real event of the 1980s was . . . the emergence of great looting fortunes . . . which made us revise the value of everything—not to the benefit of society . . . ”

José Saramago

1998

“That is the dream of all novelists—that one of their characters will become ‘somebody.’”

Nathalie Sarraute

1990

“I don't for a minute think that Hitler is like Joan of Arc. But I think that at that deep level of tropisms, Hitler or Stalin must have experienced the same tropisms as anyone else.”

Mary Lee Settle

1990

“[The inspiration that comes to authors of fiction] is not an act of intelligence.”

Sam Shepard

1997

“I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster.”

John Simon

1997

“I don't like uniforms. I don't like people abdicating their identity to become part of some group, and then becoming obsessed with this and making capital of it . . . ”

Claude Simon

1992

“In general, I distrust philosophy. Plato recommended chasing poets from the city; the ‘great’ Heidegger was a Nazi; Lukacs was a communist; and J. P. Sartre wrote: ‘Any anti-communist is a dog.’”

Neil Simon

1992

“[When you write a play] you walk into a forest without a knife, without a compass. But . . . if you have a sense of geography, you find that you’re clearing a path and getting to the right place.”

W. D. Snodgrass

1994

“I've been accused of humanizing the Nazis, to which I can only say, you can't blame me for that. God did that. Go talk to him. It's a strange thing for an atheist to say.”

Gary Snyder

1996

“Doom scenarios, even though they might be true, are not politically or psychologically effective. The first step . . . is to make us love the world rather than to make us fear for the end of the world.”

Stephen Sondheim

1997

“[My fairy tale] is about moral responsibility—the responsibility you have in getting your wish not to cheat and step on other people's toes, because it rebounds.”

Susan Sontag

1995

On Yeats’s assertion that one must choose between the life and the work: “Of course, if by life you mean life with other people, Yeats's dictum is true. Writing requires huge amounts of solitude.”

William Stafford

1993

“What you have to do as a writer is
. . . write day in and day out no matter what happens.”

Wallace Stegner

1990

On his family: “Instead of expecting to make a big strike somewhere, which is a very American notion . . . I would have liked to see a little more just plain stick-to-itiveness at times. The longest journey begins with a single step . . . ”

George Steiner

1995

“Bookishness, highest literacy, every technique of cultural propaganda and training not only can accompany bestiality and oppression and despotism but at certain points foster it.”

Mark Strand

1998

“I don't really think it will make much difference to me when I'm dead whether I'm read or not . . . just as whether I'm dead or not won't mean much to me when I'm dead.”

William Styron

1999

Describing a doctoral thesis on 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.’”

Charles Tomlinson

1998

“Any critic of Cezanne who described him as a painter of country scenes would be moving in the wrong direction. You must begin with the question of style . . . ”

Calvin Trillin

1995

On first discovering his sense of humor: “I stood up with my right hand gradually becoming noticeably weird and said: ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning and my tongue cleave to duh woof of my mout.’”

Helen Vendler

1996

“A female who expresses herself decisively seems to this world someone armed with ammunition.”

Wendy Wasserstein

1997

“I think there is real anger in life to be expressed, there is great injustice, but I also think there is dignity.”

Billy Wilder

1996

On fighting against didactic intentions: “I've spent a large part of my life trying to sit on it, to keep it down . . . I think the struggle with it may have brought a certain kind of objectivity into my work.”

August Wilson

1999

“I don’t write particularly to effect social change. I believe writing can do that, but that’s not why I write. I work as an artist. All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics."

Jeanette Winterson

1997

“I can't find a model, a female literary model who did the work she wanted to do and led an ordinary heterosexual life and had children. Where is she?”

Tom Wolfe

1991

“It is folly to believe that you can bring the psychology of an individual successfully to life without putting him very firmly in a social setting.”