[Part I]Q: How would you describe the form you work in? You've called it "the sportive essay" in a previous interview.
A: I classify myself as a writer of what the French call feuilletons --- that is, a writer of little leaves. They're comic essays of a particular type.Q: Are there any devices you use to get yourself going on them?A: No, I don't think so. Just anguish. Just sitting and staring at the typewriter and avoiding the issue as long as possible. Raymond Chandler and I discussed this once, and he admitted to the most bitter reluctance to commit anything to paper. He evolved the following scheme: he had a tape recorder into which he spoke the utmost nonsense --- a stream of consciousness which was then transcribed by a secretary and which he then used as a basis for his first rough draft. Very laborious. He strongly advised me to do the same ... in fact became so excited that he kept plying me with information for months about the machine that helped him.Q: Hervey Allen, the author of Anthony Adverse, apparently had the voices of his ancestors to help him. All he had to do was lie on a bed, close his eyes, and they went to work for him.A: I fully believe it, judging from my memory of his work.
Q: How many drafts of a story do you do?
A: Thirty-seven. I once tried doing thirty-three, but something was lacking, a certain --- how shall I say? --- je ne sais quoi. On another occasion, I tried forty-two versions, but the final effect was too lapidary --- you know what I mean, Jack? What the hell are you trying to extort --- my trade secrets?
Q: ...merely to get some clue to the way you work.
A: With the grocer sitting on my shoulder. The only thing that matters is the end product, which must have brio --- or, as you Italians put it, vivacity.
Q: Speaking of vivacity, you have been quoted as saying that the Walpurgisnacht scene in Ulysses is the greatest single comic achievement in the language.
A: I was quoted accurately. And here's something else to quote. Joyce was probably one of the most careful writers who ever lived. I have been studying the work you mentioned for nigh on thirty-five years, and I still choke up with respect.
Q: Your writing --- like Joyce's, in fact --- presupposes a great deal of arcane knowledge on the part of your reader. There are references to cultural figures and styles long past, obsolete words, architectural oddities --- reverberations that not everybody will catch. Do you agree that you're writing for a particularly cultured audience?
A: Well, I don' t know if that grocer on my shoulder digs all the references, but other than him, I write pretty much for myself. If, at the close of business each evening, I myself can understand what I've written, I feel the day hasn't been totally wasted.
Q: Perhaps you would talk about the incongruity that turns up so often in your use of language.
A: And then perhaps I would not. Writers who pontificate about their own use of language drive me right up the wall. I've discovered that this is an occupational disease of those ladies with three-barreled names one meets at the Authors' League, the PEN Club, and so forth. In what spare time I have, I read the expert opinions of V. S. Pritchett and Edmund Wilson, who are to my mind the best-qualified authorities on the written English language. Vaporizing about one's own stylistic intricacies strikes me as being visceral, and, to be blunt, inexcusable.
Q: In your own writing, when you're at work, thinking hard, and a particularly felicitous expression or phrase comes to mind, do you laugh?
A: When I was young I used to literally roll over and over on the floor with delight, marveling at the intricacy of the mind that had wrought such gems. I've become much less supple in late middle age.
Q: It's often said --- or taught, anyway --- that what seems at first blush funny is usually not. Would that be a good maxim in writing humor?
A: In writing anything, sweetie. The old apothegm that easy writing makes hard reading is as succinct as ever. I used to know several eminent writers who were given to boasting of the speed with which they created. It's not a lovable attribute, to put it mildly, and I'm afraid our acquaintanceship has languished...
Q: I'd like to ask about the frequent use of Yiddish references and expressions throughout your writing. Words like "nudnick" and "schlep" and "tzimmes" come in frequently enough.
A: Your pronunciation of "nudnick," by the way, is appalling. It's "nudnick," not "noodnick." As to why I occasionally use the words you indicate, I like them for their invective content. There are nineteen words in Yiddish that convey gradations of disparagement, from a mild, fluttery helplessness to a state of downright, irreconcilable brutishness. All of them can be usefully employed to pinpoint the kind of individuals I write about.