Paris Review Interviews

The remaining passages I recorded from the third volume of Paris Review Interviews are posted below. The writers interviewed were Isak Dinesen, Harold Pinter, John Cheever, Jean Rhys, Joyce Carol Oats and Ralph Ellison. The responses of Jean Rhys were unusually personal.

She comments: What came first with most of them [her books] was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down. I found when I was a child that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go. It leaves a sort of melancholy behind and then it goes.

It is widely believed that writing about emotional trauma and long standing conflicts is an effective way to eliminate them. James Pennybaker, one of the most prominent investigators of this purported effect writes: The degree to which writing or talking about basic thoughts and feelings can produce such profound physical and psychological changes is nothing short of amazing.

On the basis of his research he reports, for example, that it leads to fewer illnesses and physician visits, improvements in immune function, and decreasing stress as measured by autonomic function. Students show an improvement in their grade point average. Employees report a decline in work absenteeism and an increased likelihood of reemployment following job loss. And the majority of research participants he has studied indicate they experience less stress, negative affect and symptoms of depression.

Can it be this simple? Were that it was so. There is much to be skeptical about in the many studies of writing therapy. Readers who wish to know more about this issue might read the third essay at www.the-essayist.com/on-writing. The remaining passages from the Rhys interview are cited below and those of the other writers follow, in turn.

Jean Rhys
They had told me when I left Dominica that I would not feel the cold for the first year—that my blood would still be warm from the tropic sun. Quite wrong!

I’ve never written when I was happy.

Some books can really take you away. It’s marvelous.

…I don’t quite know why I should go on writing so much about myself…I guess I write about myself because that’s all I really know.

Isak Dinesen
We absorb so much without being aware.

I discovered Shakespeare very early in life and now I feel that life would be nothing without him.

Harold Pinter
I don’t know what kind of characters my plays will have until they…well, until they are.

Good writing excites me, and makes life worth living.

John Cheever
As for lying, it seems to me that falsehood is a critical element in fiction.

The telling of lies is a sort of sleight of hand that displays our deepest feelings about life.

This table seems real, the fruit basket belonged to my grandmother, but a madwoman could come in the door any moment.

In no way does it [academic papers on fiction] help those who write fiction or those who love to read fiction.

If you cannot write a story that is equal to a factual account of battle in the streets or demonstrations, then you can’t write a story. You might as well give up.

…what he [Fitzgerald] could do best…which was to try to give a sense of what a very particular world was like.

Joyce Carol Oates
I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.

I am strongly in favor of intelligent, even fastidious revision, which is, or certainly should be, an art in itself.

Anyone who teaches knows that you don’t really experience a text until you’ve taught it, in loving detail, with an intelligent and responsive class.

I would have liked, I think, to have established an easygoing relationship with some other writers, but somehow that never came about.

There are some stories (I won’t say which ones) that evolved almost entirely out of their settings, usually rural.

I have no idea why he’s so angry with me. But does a disturbed person really need a reason…?

Ralph Ellison
I suspect that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance—but it must be acceptance on his own terms.

The major flaw in the hero’s character is his unquestioning willingness to do what is required of him by others as a way to success.

What is important is not the scene but his failure to question their decision.

Action is the thing. We are what we do and do not do.