Paris Review
Interviews, I

Introduction by
Philip Gourevitch

Poet Jack Gilbert fell ninety feet, from the top of a tree, on his head, and, apparently, survived. Billy Wilder was addicted to something called "meet-cutes" --- defined as "boy-meets-girl in a special way." Robert Stone was stoned on a chemical drug invented by the U. S. government and handed out to the Kesey gang. It was called IT-290 and Stone was walking through the fields and "suddenly encountered this huge locomotive, a green locomotive with gold trim."

Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner in Dresden on 13 February 1945 when the city was bombed by the Allies creating the firestorm: "The death penalty was applied to absolutely anybody who happened to be in the undefended city --- babies, old people, the zoo animals, and thousands and thousands of rabid Nazis." Joan Didion's most favorite novel of all times is Conrad's Victory. Rebecca West was born in 1892.

Fourteen writers, one movie hack, and one editor appear here. And what a silly project it is! To interview writers about writing. As if they knew anything about their authorial voice; as if they could tell us squat about being a creator. As if the tricks they cultivate could be revealed, much less understood.

The surprise here is that the truly great --- Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Jorge Luis Borges --- would submit themselves to such sophistry. What is not surprising is that most of those interviewed come off as little better than idiots. This not to say that their words are not revealing, if, for instance, you want to know the chill factor in the life and words of T. S. Eliot, or that James M. Cain was a blither (he was over eighty when they got to him), that Billy Wilder was an arrogant fool: he worked with the great Raymond Chandler on a script, and "I had to explain a lot to him as we went along ... he was very helpful to me."

Most sad are those writers who are not given the gift of blab: Saul Bellow struggling with "the change in writing" between Augie March and Herzog, Elizabeth Bishop and her ceremonial pots from Brazil, and Ernest Hemingway, who notes that "work destroyers" are the telephone and, pointedly, "visitors."

The exceptions to this purring are those who know how to tug the listener's ear to tell a story. Dorothy Parker once shared offices with Robert Benchley: "He and I had an office so tiny that an inch smaller and it would have been adultery." Borges going to the movies, watching "Chicago gangsters dying bravely ... well, I felt that my eyes were full of tears."

And Kurt Vonnegut. He 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."

--- Lolita Lark
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH