When did what writers say in interviews become at least as important as what they actually write? If readers once pried at their paragraphs looking for revelations, they are now more likely to graze their quips in some magazine—"Twenty Questions" in the New York Times Magazine. Gertrude Stein—herself no mean quipster—rebuked Ernest Hemingway by saying, "Remarks are not literature," but like many such bons mots, hers doesn't quite hold up. The author interview, which has truly come into its own in the last century (in antebellum America, newspaper interviews were reserved chiefly for convicted criminals), might be best thought of as a literary genre, with its tone, rhythm, and themes all as intentionally crafted as a poem's or essay's. Ironically, it was Stein who managed to suggest that the question-and-answer game could conjure poetic complexity. Upon arriving in America for a lecture tour in 1934, she impressed reporters with her verbal lucidity. "Why don't you speak the way you write?" one asked. Her riposte: "Why don't you read the way I write?" The sizable disquisition on cognition, language, and aesthetics that might be unpacked from that breezy reply suggests at least one reason why, these days, the talk writers talk lives on after them.
The question comes in the wake of the proliferation over the past several years of writer interviews in almost every journalistic venue, but especially in literary publications (Bookforum included). There's barely a literary quarterly or arts magazine that doesn't publish one or more interviews per issue. As the talkfests pile up, publishers eagerly issue collections of these conversational efforts. (Over the last twenty years, for example, the University Press of Mississippi has published more than 120 volumes in its Literary Conversations series.) The phenomenon becomes particularly notable when one considers the number of publications—intellectual digests, general-interest magazines, book reviews—that at one time included fiction or poetry but no longer do. The recent publication of four compilations of interviews, each representing a different era in American literary history—Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews (University of Alabama Press, $75), Theodore Dreiser: Interviews (University of Illinois Press, $50), Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac (Thunder's Mouth, $18), and The Paris Review: Interviews, Volume I (Picador, $16)—offers an opportunity not only to reflect on whether the author interview constitutes an actual genre of literary performance but also to experience (in three of these books) immersion in a single writer's oral tradition.
While generally considered to be the first great literary biography, James Boswell's Life of Johnson can also be thought of as the template of the modern author interview. Boswell filled a good deal of his book's twelve hundred odd pages with lengthy stretches of more or less verbatim conversations he and others had had with the voluble poet and lexicographer. The format is recognizable to contemporary readers—Boswell, in the manner of, say, Dick Cavett, prods his all too opinionated subject with deliberately leading questions about matters literary, moral, and philosophical. A typical exchange proceeds thus: "I attempted to argue for the superiour happiness of the savage life, upon the usual fanciful topicks. JOHNSON. 'Sir, there can be nothing more false. The savages have no bodily advantages beyond those of civilized men. . . . No, Sir; you are not to talk such paradox: Let me have no more on't. It cannot entertain, far less can it instruct.' BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, does not Rousseau talk such nonsense?' JOHNSON. 'True, Sir, but Rousseau knows he is talking nonsense, and laughs at the world for staring at him.' BOSWELL. 'How so, Sir?' JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, a man who talks nonsense so well, must know that he is talking nonsense.'"
While there is an eighty-year span between the last of the conversations recorded by Boswell and the first of the interviews included in the Twain volume, neither style nor substance changes much. Not unlike Johnson, Twain was every inch the public performer. Indeed, many of the interviews from the book's thirty-nine-year period were given while he was on national or international speaking tours. Twain exhibited a slyly iconoclastic verbal style that meshed neatly with the persona his audiences had come to know through his writing. In full Johnsonian mode, the author deigned to micturate from a great height upon the very process of interrogation: "You don't love the interviewer, I see, Mr. Clemens," a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter said during Twain's visit to that city in 1882. "No; I don't," he replied. "I have never yet met a man who attempted to interview me whose report of the process did not try very hard to make me out an idiot, and did not amply succeed, in my mind, in making him a thorough one."
The oracular tone and curmudgeonly wit were the author's conversational mainstays over his long career. Reporters from Boston to Bombay, from Cincinnati to Sydney, could count on this patented display of Authorial Presence to fill the pages of their newspapers and weekly magazines. A reading of these reports from distant and familiar quarters, decade after decade, evinces just how rote Twain's responses, as well as the questions, became. The interviews take on something of the ritualized aspect of a minstrel show, with the great man playing comic end man while the reporter serves as Mr. Interlocutor. Invariably, each profile introduces Twain with extravagant honorifics ("the most refined humorist that America, and probably the world, has ever known"), a quick tour of the famous visage ("his long untidy hair, and ferocious mustache; and the grey eyes that are not ferocious, but kind, and gentle, and pathetic"), and some characterization of his voice, which almost always is said to "drawl." The interviewers confronted a known quantity—Twain was easily the most famous author, perhaps the most famous public figure, of his time. "To the present writer," one Australian scribe noted, "the real Mark Twain was in every sense the Mark Twain of imagination."
Given his canny, even prescient grasp of the monetary value of celebrity, Twain understood the value of giving interviews in spite of the disdain he felt for them. (His financial straits often necessitated lecture tours and the consequent encounters with journalists.) In fact, he often required them to paraphrase his words rather than quote him directly—he preferred, editor Gary Scharnhorst notes, "to sell his words rather than give them away." Still, what Twain had to say—over and over, in these 258 interviews—was somewhat limited; he expatiated broadly on the characteristics of different nations' humor, palmistry, his writing regimen, the joys of cigar smoking ("I never smoke to excess—that is, I smoke in moderation, only one cigar at a time"), the nature of lecturing, and the viability of international copyright laws. He was especially obsessed with the last topic—always at the ready to delve into the economic minutiae of an author's remuneration. He was, by turns, bombastic, pedantic, droll, and charming—his showmanship never flagging. It's a daunting example, one that even the most charismatic contemporary writer might be hard-pressed to match. Twain enthusiastically initiated his commodification unburdened by self-consciousness; he saw no contradiction in hustling his wares while remaining a member in good standing of what Jonathan Franzen, in the midst of his recent brush with celebrity, called the "high-art literary tradition."
If Twain often impersonated a dyspeptic curmudgeon, Theodore Dreiser didn't need to dig too deeply for his performance. He shared a barbed disposition with his friend H. L. Mencken and was rarely reluctant to complain—about small-minded Americans, censorious publishers, Hollywood moguls, plutocrats, the Soviet Union, labor unrest, and the general stupidity (and cupidity) of mankind. He did all this while shrewdly ensuring that his numerous interviews (this volume includes 74 out of what editors Donald Pizer and Frederic E. Rusch estimate to be a total of 165) promoted his publications. For instance, when many major literary houses decided in 1930 to reduce the price of novels to $1.50, Dreiser was not shy about promoting his own limited editions of minor works—"Thus does the Indianan," a helpful reporter commended, "who now dwells in New York beat the publishers."
In what might be thought of as obligatory invocations of the muse before their inquisitions, many authors dismiss or challenge the very legitimacy of the interview process. Dreiser was characteristically direct on this score: Speaking to a reporter from the New York Herald Tribune in 1930, he announced, "I will bet you $10 that you cannot get into your paper the things I am going to say." The combativeness is evident from the outset of his career. His first novel, Sister Carrie (1900), was withdrawn from publication by one firm and bowdlerized by its eventual publisher, and for decades afterward, the author bore a vigorous grudge. In 1902, he aired the untrue claim that Frank Doubleday had backed out of publishing the novel because the businessman's wife objected to its subject matter. (Doubleday did refuse to produce the book, but there's no evidence he did so because of his wife.) Nearly forty years later, in 1941, the novelist continued to flog the poor lady: "After Mrs. Doubleday had Sister Carrie scrapped, kept out of circulation. Why, you'd have thought I was the devil. Nobody would have anything to do with me—none of the people in power." Whenever he recounted the tale, he did so with indignation that could easily be mistaken for relish; Dreiser viewed Sister Carrie's reception as a career-defining moment, and he never tired of making reporters—some of whom, in his later years, hadn't even been born when the book first appeared—understand that he, however currently famous and esteemed, had once been an abject outsider.
Interviewers accommodated Dreiser's debate-team demeanor, sometimes casting their encounters as fraught. In a 1930 interview with the Jewish Journal—Dreiser was in San Francisco to visit jailed labor activist Tom Mooney—the author uncorked a series of deliberately trenchant pronouncements: "Jews are marked by a strong feeling for the conservation and use of power. They've always yelled about Justice, but with the thought of making things easier for themselves. Reform Judaism is the only tolerable kind of Judaism." The reporter, Raymond Dannenbaum, smartly led off with these shockers and then set the scene: "He paused for a moment. I had an opportunity to carefully inspect his bronzed face. I noticed that although he spoke vehemently but quietly, and seemed to possess great repose, nevertheless his mind and body were taut. . . . He returned with a jerk to [the subject of] intermarriage."
When Dreiser was in spirited form, his meetings were hardly tête-à-têtes—in fact, one suspects some reporters felt a bit like Moses questioning the burning bush. Certainly, they all approached the "Literary Mastodon" with an awe and deference that can barely be imagined in our present moment, when writers more often are the objects of derision or stand as the accused in some ethical scandal. Substitute the name of any contemporary figure for Dreiser's in the following sentence and try not to chuckle: "There is something revelatory in listening to Dreiser talk, and in watching him. You see a tall man, lithely put together; you see a sculptural head, massive of structure, and with features formed on a large scale and ruggedly, as if hewn laboriously out of rock." No doubt, even as it is, it's hard not to laugh a bit. The seriousness that attended these interviews—mostly done in the '20s and '30s—reflects their historical moment. Dreiser was queried about all the momentous issues of the day—Freud, the Depression, isolationism—and never took refuge in the feint of merely being an artist. Barreling ahead, he handily threw off what would become provocative headlines—"Noted Novelist Expresses Contempt for Critics in Visit Here"—to grateful newspapermen. When, in September 1942, the seventy-one-year-old author denounced Churchill and the English (the interviewer for the Toronto Evening Telegram was at pains to note his German parentage), his lecture in that city was canceled, and he was advised to leave Canada. A good deal more than Twain's badinage, this was outright provocation of the sort that Dreiser always played to the hilt.
By the '50s, author interviews had migrated from newspapers to literary quarterlies and, increasingly, radio and television. A collection of the Paris Review's interviews, introduced by the magazine's current editor, Philip Gourevitch, and a hefty volume edited by Paul Maher Jr. of Jack Kerouac's, ably represent a time when a talkative author could be found either on TV (Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote were mainstays of various late-night shows) or in low-circulation literary digests—but rarely anywhere in between. Also, interviewers, who had previously been mere ink-stained wretches, were now often well-known authors or journalists. Kerouac was quizzed by Ben Hecht, Mike Wallace, Steve Allen, and Dan Wakefield; at the Paris Review, a young poet like Donald Hall was sent to interview another poet, T. S. Eliot; Spanish translator and critic Ronald Christ met with Jorge Luis Borges. Absent from these matchups is the great gulf in intellectual disposition and knowledge that often characterizes those conducted for newspapers. More like peer-to-peer encounters, these interviews tend to come off as real conversations rather than as staged performances in which the lowly supplicant seeks wisdom from on high. There's a strong whiff of shop talk around, say, Hall's curiosity about the elder poet's decision to abandon vers libre for quatrains or how Ezra Pound's edits of The Waste Land affected the poem's structure. Such lines of inquiry don't afford interviewees much opportunity for grandiloquence; instead, we learn that Eliot's free verse was modeled after Jules Laforgue's, and "this meant merely rhyming lines of irregular length, with the rhymes coming in irregular places." This exchange, from 1959, reflects the fact that, increasingly, the audience for the author interview was made up of academics and aspiring writers—all the tech talk being of keen interest to these specialized readers.
To be sure, Big Questions were still lobbed at certain literary figures—chief among them Jack Kerouac. Repeatedly called upon to answer for an entire generation's cultural predilections, he proved to be an awkward if endearing spokesman for the Beat movement. Unlike Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac was too shy to perform in public with abandoned élan. Instead, he managed to sound cryptic and naive at once, avoid- ing direct responses and sounding embarrassing notes of sincerity. While weathering the first wave of fame in the wake of On the Road, Kerouac tried gamely to field searching queries about politics and society. When Ben Hecht asked in 1958 whether Eisenhower was a great man, Kerouac said, "I don't know, we'll figure it out in fifty years." Or when pressed about his Buddhist beliefs, he declared, "I worship Christ. I worship Allah, and I worship Yahweh who is the father. I worship 'em all." Years later, Kerouac took to drinking before interviews, in part to cope with the pressure to be some kind of sage—a development all too evident in his 1968 televised face-to-face with conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. The Firing Line transcript is a comedy of errors, rife with farcical misunderstandings (Buckley asked if the Beats were an Adamite movement, and Kerouac replied, "Adamite? You mean Adam and Eve or atom"), rambling (he announced that the Greek version of Spiro Agnew's last name means "son of the reader" and then started in about ancient Greece), and dadaist non sequiturs (as poet Ed Sanders, another interview participant, tried to explain guerilla theater, Kerouac piped up, "Do they crucify chickens?"). The tape of the program shows the gravel-voiced, flush-faced King of the Beats gesticulating with his cigar and looking more like a neighborhood blowhard holding court at a tavern than some eminent author dispensing epigrams. Clearly, the genre of the literary conversation had evolved (devolved?) from Boswell and Johnson's day.
In 1958, George Plimpton, the founding editor of the Paris Review, interviewed Hemingway, a writer arguably as famous then as Twain was in his time. Hemingway, too, was known as a cagey performer: an author who treated interviews as battles of wits in which someone—himself or the interviewer—had to come out on top. Early in their colloquy, Plimpton took a provocative tack: "Is emotional stability necessary to write well? You told me once that you could only write well when you were in love." Rearing up, Hemingway snorted, "What a question." Yet then, in the spirit of manly competition, he added, "But full marks for trying." If Hemingway's realpolitik view is reductionist, it does catch more than a glint of truth: Interrogating writers for publication is indeed an adversarial experience (Twain thought it a kind of "torture"). Authors, as they are wont to do, wish to control their words—something easily done on the page, not so much so in conversation—while the interviewer strives to elicit something newsworthy or at least fresh. It is this tension between desire for control and the spontaneity integral to the situation that constitutes the literary interview's chief draw. Interviews with filmmakers, composers, and painters may be of great interest, but since their jobs aren't deploying just the right word in just the right place, there's less at stake. The interview is a particularly high-wire act for writers—sentences they might otherwise rewrite a dozen times turn up in print they way they fell from their tongues. And even though writers seek to impose intentionality on their spoken text, to craft their self-presentation as a director might stage a play, nevertheless there's always the possibility of a misstep, maybe even a tumble. Remarks may not be literature, but they are often a prelude to amusement or distress; daily life makes this all too plain to us. Perhaps this is why authors' utterances have elbowed aside authors' texts—conversation can democratize their linguistic dexterity. That extempore genre—the interview—affords us a delightful discovery: When writers talk their talk, even they sometimes don't mean what they say or can't say what they mean.
Albert Mobilio is the fiction editor of Bookforum.