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Friday, August 13, 2010

The Art of the Interview: Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Henry James

In a recent blog post for The American Scholar Bob Thompson shares the rules he developed—and the insights they unlocked—over his four years of writing about writers for The Washington Post. The most important rule he discovered when he interviewed Joan Didion in 2005:
Didion had just published The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir of the sudden death of her husband and the simultaneous, life-threatening illness of their only child. I had read the book in galleys and found it remarkable. “Are you going to talk to her?” an editor asked, and I quickly said yes. But I had not thought the assignment through. The real question, I soon realized, was what we were going to talk about. Here was a writer, after all, who had just put everything she knew about death and grief into print.
He formulated a plan to stick to questions about writing. “Talking about writing, we both managed to keep our composure for an hour and a half.” This became his Didion Rule: “When in doubt, ask writers about writing.” Thompson goes on to describe what applying this rule revealed in his discussions with Chinua Achebe, Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, Junot Diaz, Dave Eggers, Marilynne Robinson, Art Spiegelman, and, in the category of “toughest interviews,” Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Roth.
Roth started things off by imposing the Didion Rule preemptively: he said he would discuss only his writing and would answer no questions about his personal life. Fine. Yet in Roth’s case, this created a major hurdle, because, as his readers know, he is an exceptionally brazen alchemist of the personal into the fictional.
Thompson dramatized the hurdles Roth threw in his path in his account of the interview—and it worked. When he called Roth months later to interview him about winning the PEN/Faulkner award, Roth surprised him by saying, “I liked what you wrote.”

But the Didion Rule may sometimes yield more than an interviewer bargained for. Henry James notoriously gave only three interviews during his lifetime. The New York Times headlined his third and last interview in 1915, “Henry James’s First Interview,” perhaps because it was the only interview over which James exerted complete control. Having recently been made honorary chairman of the American Volunteer Motor-Ambulance Corps, James, at 71, had been busily writing impassioned letters, articles, and essays on behalf of the war effort. As part of this campaign he agreed to be interviewed in February by Preston Lockwood, a young Times correspondent. But he wasn’t happy with the result. As James’s secretary, Theodora Bosanquet, wrote in her Diary Notes:
H. J., finding that it wouldn’t do at all from his point of view, has spent the last four days re-dictating the interview to the young man, who is fortunately a good typist. . . . I think the idea of H.J. interviewing himself for four whole days is quite delightful. [from Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking, 1880–1920, by Pamela Thurschwell]
Knowing how closely James managed the account of the interview makes the following passage all the more remarkable:
Mr. James has a mobile mouth, a straight nose, a forehead which has thrust back the hair from the top of his commanding head, although it is thick at the sides over the ears, and repeats in its soft gray the color of his kindly eyes. Before taking in these physical facts one receives an impression of benignity and amenity not often conveyed, even by the most distinguished. And, taking advantage of this amiability, I asked if certain words just used should be followed by a dash, and even boldly added: “Are you not famous, Mr. James, for the use of dashes?”

“Dash my fame!” he impatiently replied. “And remember, please, that dogmatizing about punctuation is exactly as foolish as dogmatizing about any other form of communication with the reader. All such forms depend on the kind of thing one is doing and the kind of effect one intends to produce. Dashes, it seems almost platitudinous to say, have their particular representative virtue, their quickening force, and, to put it roughly, strike both the familiar and the emphatic note, when those are the notes required, with a felicity beyond either the comma or the semicolon; though indeed a fine sense for the semicolon, like any sort of sense at all for the pluperfect tense and the subjunctive mood, on which the whole perspective in a sentence may depend, seems anything but common. Does nobody ever notice the calculated use by French writers of a short series of suggestive points in the current of their prose? I confess to a certain shame for my not employing frankly that shade of indication, a finer shade still than the dash. * * * But what on earth are we talking about?”
To be fair, James agreed to the interview, which was conducted almost exactly a year before he died, because of his deep feelings about the important service the ambulance corps was providing in France as the German front moved closer to England. He anticipated the impact the war would have:
“. . . such things may any day begin to occur at the front as will make what we have up to now been able to do mere child’s play, though some of our help has been rendered when casualties were occurring at the rate, say, of 5,000 in twenty minutes, which ought, on the whole, to satisfy us. In face of such enormous facts of destruction—”

Here Mr. James broke off as if these facts were, in their horror, too many and too much for him. But after another moment he explained his pause.

“One finds it in the midst of all this as hard to apply one’s words as to endure one’s thoughts. The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated like motor car tires; they have, like millions of other things, been more overstrained and knocked about and voided of the happy semblance during the last six months than in all the long ages before, and we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms, or, otherwise speaking, with a loss of expression through increase of limpness, that may well make us wonder what ghosts will be left to walk.”
For the past four years The Library of America has been conducting its own exclusive interviews with the editors and authors of each new LOA collection. You can find interviews with John Ashbery on his Collected Poems 1956–1987, Jonathan Lethem on Philip K. Dick (one for each volume), Pete Hamill on A. J. Liebling (one for each volume), J. D. McClatchy on Thornton Wilder, Joyce Carol Oates on Shirley Jackson, and many more in our interviews archive.

Related LOA works: Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (includes four pieces by Joan Didion); Philip Roth: Collected Works 1959–1995 (six volumes); Henry James: Literary Criticism: Essays on Literature, American Writers & English Writers

1 comment:

  1. I am a talk show host coach and so not directly related to print interviews. That said I totally understand what must have gone on during this interview process. Many times the interviewer has to agree to strict terms for the interview in order for it to go ahead. If you can agree to those terms fine. Sometimes you can agree to those terms and occasionally show how the interview would look better for all concerned if certain things were brought in. I take my hat off to the work done here, it was quite a balancing act. Thanks.


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