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.