Nonfiction Mash-Up: The Paris Review Archives

Jessica Wilbanks

For the past year or so, The Paris Review Interviews has been hanging out in my Amazon shpping cart, but at $40, the price of the four-volume boxed set was a little too steep for my graduate school budget. So I was delighted to read in a recent New York Times article that in addition to causing a minor scandal in the poetry world, new Paris Review editor Lorin Stein has decided to make the journal's entire archive of interviews available to the public via The Paris Review's website. Last weekend I took a break from essay writing and spent a few hours scrolling through the archives and putting together a mash-up of some of the best Paris Review moments in nonfiction over the years. You can link to the full-text of each interview by clicking on the name of the writer.

Gay Talese: Q: Do you feel competitive with novelists? A: "Yes, I do. Journalism is not given much respect. Journalists themselves, particularly in my generation, didn't take their jobs very seriously. I take it very seriously. This is a craft. This is an art form. I'm writing stories, just like fiction writers, only I use real names. If you chopped my books into single chapters, each one could be a stand-alone short story. You could take the chapter about McCandlish Phillips in The Kingdom and the Power, Garibaldi in Unto the Sons, and Harold Rubin in Thy Neighbor's Wife, and they would work together as a short-story collection. Nonfiction writers are second-class citizens, the Ellis Island of literature. We just can't quite get in. And yes, it pisses me off."

Joan Didion: Q: What's the main difference between the process of fiction and the process of nonfiction? A: "The element of discovery takes place, in nonfiction, not during the writing but during the research. This makes writing a piece very tedious. You already know what it's about."

Peter Matthiessen: "A good essay or article can and should have all the attributes of a good short story, including structure and design, pacing and effective placement of its parts--almost all the attributes of fiction except the creative imagination, which can never be permitted to enliven fact. The writer of nonfiction is stuck with objective reality, or should be; how his facts are arranged and presented is where his craft appears, and it can be dazzling when the writer is a good one."

John McPhee: Q: What do you call the type of writing you do? Your course at Princeton has sometimes been called The Literature of Fact and sometimes Creative Nonfiction. A: "I prefer to call it factual writing. Those other titles all have flaws. But so does fiction. Fiction is a weird name to use. It doesn't mean anything--it just means "made" or "to make." Facere is the root. There's no real way to lay brackets around something and say, This is what it is. The novelists that write terrible, trashy, horrible stuff; the people that write things that change the world by their loftiness: fiction. Well, it's a name, and it means "to make." Since you can't define it in a single word, why not use a word that's as simple as that? Whereas nonfiction--what the hell, that just says, this is nongrapefruit we're having this morning. It doesn't mean anything. You had nongrapefruit for breakfast; think how much you know about that breakfast. I don't object to any of these things because it's so hard to pick--it's like naming your kid. You know, the child carries that label all through life."

Mary Karr: "It pissed me off when I saw James Frey on Larry King saying, You know, there's a lot of argument about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. You know what? There isn't. If it didn't happen, it's fiction. If it did happen, it's nonfiction. If you see the memoir as constructing a false self to sell to some chump audience, then you'll never know the truth, because the truth is derived from what actually happened. Using novelistic devices, like reconstructed dialogue or telescoping time, isn't the same as ginning up fake episodes."

Marilynne Robinson: Q: Most people know you as a novelist, but you spend a lot of your time writing nonfiction. What led you to start writing essays? A: "To change my own mind. I try to create a new vocabulary or terrain for myself, so that I open out--I always think of the Dutch claiming land from the sea--or open up something that would have been closed to me before. That's the point and the pleasure of it. I continuously scrutinize my own thinking. I write something and think, How do I know that that's true? If I wrote what I thought I knew from the outset, then I wouldn't be learning anything new. In this culture, essays are often written for the sake of writing the essay. Someone finds a quibble of potential interest and quibbles about it. This doesn't mean the writer isn't capable of doing something of greater interest, but we generate a lot of prose that's not vital. The best essays come from the moment in which people really need to work something out."

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