Eight More Interviews
The chance to reacquaint ourselves with
the Ten Original Interviews inspired us
to dig up a few more from the
pages of RALPH from
the recent past.

Philip Larkin
The only interview here worth your time --- and it is well worth your time --- is the one with that notorious iconoclast and crank, Philip Larkin. He didn't like literary snoops any more than Nabokov did, and the only reason he let Phillips in his door is that (1) he knew his time was nigh (he died three years after the interview), and (2) he didn't let Phillips in his door: the interview was conducted entirely "by post."

"Personally," Larkin wrote him, "I think I have been interviewed far too much already; I always say the same things, and it must be getting very boring by now." When Phillips, ever the groupie, asks Larkin to sign a book for him, Larkin trenchantly responds, "Every book that I sign for a stranger devalues those I have signed for friends."

Those of us who care for poetry think of Larkin as one of the gods, and his insights are a wonder. Here are some of our favorites:

    Larkin. I've never been much interested in other people's poetry --- one reason for writing, of course, is that no one's written what you want to read.

    Phillips. Davison sees your favorite subject as failure and weakness.

    Larkin. I think a poet should be judged by what he does with his subjects, not what his subjects are. Otherwise you're getting near the totalitarian attitude of wanting poems about steel-production figures rather than Mais où sont les neiges d'antan? Poetry isn't a kind of paint spray you use to cover selected objects with. A good poem about failure is a success.

    Phillips. How did you arrive upon the image of a toad for work or labor.

    Larkin. Sheer genius.

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American Library
Ask any librarian what his or her greatest problem is at this moment, a vast problem that is not even mentioned in this star-studded book. It is the new clientele. Old and disabled and looney (and often smelly) characters repair to the local branch the moment it opens its doors in the morning; often, too, they are last to leave at night. Librarian Chip Ward writes,

    A dirty little secret about America is that public libraries have become de facto daytime shelters for the nation's street people while librarians are increasingly our unofficial social workers for the homeless and mentally disturbed.

We suggest that instead of massaging doubtful "stars" with lame questions, Kniffel could have done a real service for those of us in the industry by exploring the truth ... and helping directly or indirectly those of us who are forced to put up with those who don't come in the door to read and learn and expand their minds but to get the hell away from not only the rain but a society that no longer cares for them.

Or, apparently, for us.

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Founders of
One of the best interviews here is with Harvey Wasserman. He helped start LNS and here he nails down for all of us the ethos of the times. It was about building a community, about suddenly finding others who felt that America was on the wrong track ... feeling that we had a chance to get things back on course again.

In the process, we built communities, communities of like-minded people, who we could hang out with, get stoned with, work with: "You start off with a small core and people are on each other's wavelength, personally and politically, you think the same way ... and there is no decision-making problem. It's a family situation, really."

    We never had editorial meetings. Anybody in our little group who wanted to put out an article put it out. We all loved each other's stuff ... we really were just all on the same page.

And then, sigh, inevitably, "The group in New York wanted to have editorial meetings to decide what was going to go in the news service. Our feeling was: we're not a newspaper, we're a news service, we're putting stuff out there and if the editors want to run it that's up to them."

    It was a magical time for us. And that word "magic" was used because somehow everything was impossible, all the situations we confronted were impossible, and somehow we got through them.

And then ... "they wanted to throw us out ... We started having these meetings to work things out. It's like a marriage, when you start having meetings you know you're in trouble."

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Karen Joy Fowler

Q: The Pelican Bar is pretty scary. Where'd that idea come from? Quantánamo?

A: Definitely Quantánamo. Also Abu Ghraib. But even more directly, from the chain of overseas schools run by the World Wide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools ... I read online a statement that we shouldn't be surprised that Americans are OK with torturing foreign prisoners, because apparently we are OK with the torturing of American children, as long as it happens overseas. That statement was the seed of my story.

Q: If you weren't a writer what would you be, as in do?

A: I would go on anthropological digs and find amazing pottery shards. I would study cave paintings and also elephants in the wild. I would restore old books, damaged by weather and fire. I would sail around the world. I would be such a valuable member of society that you would hardly recognize me.

(The questioner here, Terry Bisson, should get a few points for her inventive questions.)

Q. Who do you think would win in a fight, Dr. Johnson or Jane Austen? A footrace?

A. Austen would refuse to compete. Johnson would win, but he would look such a fool for having done so.

And then there's this response to "Is it true that Sarah Canary was originally titled Sister from Another Planet?

A. Something should be titled Sister from Another Planet. It would be nice if I didn't have to write it myself, but I am here, waiting and eager to read it. Doesn't this seem like a job for Eleanor Aranson? I think she might be just the woman for it. I would read Sister from Another Planet by Eleanor Aranson in a heartbeat.

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Paris Review Interviews
Kurt Vonnegut talks the talk and walks the walk better, far better than he writes. Him in civics class, in high school, each student asked to tell what they did after school. And his friend J. T. Alburger gave him $5 to tell the truth, so he did: "I make model airplanes and jerk off." Then there comes his shaggy-dog story about life in the army, life with the infamous 240-millimeter howitzer:

    We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussive cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp.

And finally, there is his woeful tale of Dresden, the death of 135,000 people, and "only one person on the entire planet benefitted from the raid, which must have cost tens of millions of dollars."

    The raid didn't shorten the war by half a second, didn't weaken a German defense of attack anywhere, didn't free a single person from a death camp. Only one person benefitted .... Me.

His reward was Slaughterhouse Five. It made him rich. "I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that."

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Thomas Metzinger
To give you an example, I recently became aware that I was in a dream, and I realized that by the fact that the transition from one dream scene to the other looked exactly like the way I click from one website to another. So, working with all these computers and new technologies does something to the brain itself.

And another thing, drugs: we're going to have terrific biological psychiatry, terrific medicines, in 50-100 years' time, to get rid of things that have plagued mankind for millennia. On the other hand we will also probably have recreational drugs that mankind has never dreamt of.

So if, for instance, we could have something that is non-addictive and has no major side-effects and puts a nice smile and a sexy flirt on to our faces, and you can take it for three decades And if your doctor says, 'What you have is only a common sub-clinical deep depression; you're not getting this,' people will say 'I am a free citizen. This is my brain. Why does the medical profession have the right to tell me how I am going to design my conscious life?'

I want to be an autonomous person in that open future society Making these things illegal will not help because wherever there is a market there will be an illegal industry which serves that market. So the times where we were wondering about the neurotoxicity of Ecstasy and things like that may actually look like an Easter Sunday walk to us in ten or 100 years when children and adolescents are coming to psychiatric emergency wards under the influence of substances the doctors never heard of when they studied medicine at the university, because everything is flooded with ever newer molecules and more and more efficient ways of changing consciousness. The old strategy --- laws, disinformation, and repression --- will not do in such a situation: either we find a sane way to use all these new tools in a mature and intelligent way or we will be in big trouble.

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Southern Potters
For those of us with a lingering affection for the Old South, the transcripts and the CD are a treasure. The language of the backwoods and mountain folk of Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina is pure music: "My husband could make a heap better pottery than I could...

When you drink tea that's been in a stoneware, it has got a taste that nothing else has. Like these mugs that we are drinking this tea out of now, it just gives it a taste that you just can't get out of a glassware or a plastic.

Casey liked whiskey, like a lot of potters. That seems to be ... I guess they were bored to death with their work and faced with starvation to death, the rest of them like they eased their woes with alcohol.

"When we'd open the kiln, you know, my daddy'd throw one of those big doors back when it was about 450 degrees, and my mother would have a big pan of homemade biscuits, and he'd stick them in there right quick, and in just a few minutes they'd brown all over and, boy, were they good. That was old fashioned, Italian, oven-baked biscuits."

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Oscar Wilde

  • When asked about his "private life," he said, "I wished I had one."
  • On being questioned about what he would speak about when he gave his lecture on "The Decoration of Houses," he replied, "Well, it wouldn't be fair to tell you before I delivered my lecture. The subject covers an immense amount of ground, and I shall begin with the door-knocker and go to the attic. Beyond that is Heaven, and I shall leave that to the Church."
  • On the Mississippi: "I think no well-behaved river would overflow as it has done, though I am quite willing to admit its beauty."
  • When he received a telegram asking to lecture on aesthetics in Griggsville, Illinois, he responded, "Begin by changing the name of your town."
  • When asked about his visit to Colorado, he said, "I spent a night in a silver mine. I dined with the men down there. They were great, strong, well-formed men, of graceful attitude and free motion. Poems everyone one of them. A complete democracy underground. I find people less rough and coarse in such places. There is no chance for roughness. The revolver is their book of etiquette.
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