What Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, and R. Crumb Have in Common

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by Lorin Stein

It is rare to invent something completely new and get it right on the first try. In 1953, in the very first issue of The Paris Review, my predecessor George Plimpton did just that.

George was a great distruster of critics. Instead of reading somebody's article about what an author was trying to do, he said, why not go straight to the source? For issue one he tracked down one of his favorite novelists, E.M. Forster, and asked him a simple question—how Forster wrote his books. Thus was born The Art of Fiction (and The Art of Poetry, The Art of Directing, The Art of Editing, etc.), a regular feature of the magazine ever since.

What made these interviews radical was their method.

In the first place, the method is slow. My interview with Jonathan Lethem took a couple of weeks, with reading assignments before each session. Joshua Pashman's interview with Norman Rush, coming out in the September issue, took three years, eight sessions, and 500 pages of transcript. (Later boiled down to 33 pages in print.)

In the second place, the interviews are collaborative. After our interns type up the transcripts, the interviewer and subject sit down and edit them—together. Often they rewrite the questions and answers completely. When Frederick Seidel interviewed Robert Lowell, the tape recorder didn't work: Fred wrote up the whole thing from memory, then gave it to Lowell to revise.

When writers have total control, George realized, they feel safe. And when they feel safe they open up.

This is important, because most writers are understandably cagey when it comes to discussing their work. Especially in public. Hemingway spent every session refusing to answer George's questions—and in the process, gave the most revealing interview of his career. Faulkner did the same. The interviews are full of revelations. Henry Green, explaining how he came up with the character Raunce in Loving, cited a butler he once knew who said his idea of heaven was "buttered toast in bed with cunty fingers." At least, the quote was something along those lines.

(I am writing from home and don't have the issue handy, but I will vouch for the last two words. Who could forget them? Who could doubt the force of their inspiration?)

Although the main focus is supposed to be writing, the interviews always—necessarily—get very personal. When Norman Rush explains why he didn't publish his first book until the age of 53, that means talking about his politics, his time in prison, and the extraordinarily long and happy, argumentative marriage that has inspired so much of his astonishing fiction. Among other things, the interview is an essay about marriage.

That's what happens in these interviews. You see writers talking through the obsessions that drive their work—but the conversations are distilled into something like a platonic dialogue. They are pieces of writing in themselves.

To take another example from this next issue, Susannah Hunnewell's interview with Michel Houellebecq is a meditation on loneliness. Houellebecq is France's most famous living writer and its most controversial. His novels have been charged variously with racism, misogyny, misanthropy, and Islamophobia. (Not just his novels—Houellebecq himself was recently sued for hate speech, an actionable offense under French law, because of his characters' views.)

Talking to Susannah, Houellebecq doesn't shy away from the topics that get him into trouble, but what strikes me—and reminds me why I fell for his novels—is the compassion behind his provocations:

I am persuaded that feminism is not at the root of political correctness. The actual source is much nastier and dares not speak its name, which is simply hatred for old people ... The thing we value most of all is youth, which means that life automatically becomes depressing, because life consists, on the whole, of getting old.

In the same interview Houellebecq talks about having been abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandmother. He remembers his years with her as the happiest time of his life. In most contexts, this mix of opinion and personal information would rub me the wrong way. (I would rather stare at sheet rock than read a celebrity profile.) But in a Paris Review interview, because both people have given it so much thought, the connections tend to be interesting. At least, they fascinate me.

Yesterday the printer sent us our "blue lines"—final proofs, the last chance to make corrections. We had just a few hours to look them over. But instead of proofreading, I found myself actually reading the issue. (Any proofreader will tell you there's a big difference.) And found myself moved, all over again, by the two life-stories contained in its pages—one defined by abundance, the other by scarcity, each concerned by the problem of love.

For the interested, upcoming interviews will include Dave Eggers, Ann Beattie, Samuel Delaney, Louise Erdrich—and, yes, Jonathan Franzen. And we're making our archive searchable online. Soon you'll be able to read the aforementioned Morrison, Crumb, Hemingway, Faulkner, plus Stephen King and James Baldwin and the rest of the gang. And I'll be able to check my quotes.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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