Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews

Overview

Sixteen of the world's great women writers speak about their work, their colleagues, and their lives.

For More Than Forty Years, the acclaimed Paris Review interviews have been collected in the Writers at Work series. The Modern Library relaunches the series with the first of its specialized collections -- interviews with sixteen women novelists, poets, and playwrights, all offering rich commentary on the art of writing and on the opportunities...

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Overview

Sixteen of the world's great women writers speak about their work, their colleagues, and their lives.

For More Than Forty Years, the acclaimed Paris Review interviews have been collected in the Writers at Work series. The Modern Library relaunches the series with the first of its specialized collections -- interviews with sixteen women novelists, poets, and playwrights, all offering rich commentary on the art of writing and on the opportunities and challenges a woman writer faces in contemporary society.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The editors and interviewers of the Writers at Work series have become curators of live genius, marvelous literary taxidermists who have discovered a way to mount the great minds of their day without the usual killing and stuffing, to preserve them for all time. Surely this is now one of the single most persistent acts of cultural conservation in the history of the world, and one of our great national resources."-- Joe David Bellamy, Writing at the End of the Millennium

"Aspiring writers should read the entire canon of literature that precedes them, back to the Greeks, up to the current issue of The Paris Review."-- William Kennedy

"It is a safe bet that thirty and even three hundred years from now these conversations will be invaluable to students of twentieth-century literature."-- Time

Michael Wood
Of course, there are plenty of particular things for writers to be, apart from profesionally gendered or just writers, and the Paris Review volume is full of fine details.
London Review of Books
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Sixteen women writersDorothy Parker, Marianne Moore, Maya Angelou, Susan Sontag and Anne Sexton among themdiscuss the art and craft of writing both fiction and nonfiction in this captivating, instructive compendium of interviews conducted by Donald Hall, Elisabeth Sifton and others for Plimpton's Paris Review. Offhand remarks frequently furnish unexpected new slants on the life and work of these writers. For example, Katherine Anne Porter illumines the autobiographical component behind Ship of Fools and the sense of history that pervades her fiction she claims descent from a colonel who was a member of George Washington's circle during the Revolution. Simone de Beauvoir takes stock of the divided, conflicted women portrayed in her novels. Nadine Gordimer describes growing up in a South African gold mining town with a neurotic, suffocating mother and an unhappy Jewish-Lithuanian immigrant father. A revised update of a 1988 volume, this attractively designed collection includes interviews published between 1960 and 1994. Each is accompanied by a brief biographical-critical profile, a photograph of the subject and a facsimile manuscript page. Also here are Toni Morrison on the challenges facing black writers in a world dominated by white culture; Joyce Carol Oates on her working methods; and talks with Joan Didion, P.L. Travers, Eudora Welty, Rebecca West, Elizabeth Bishop and Mary McCarthy. May
Library Journal
A revised version of the 1988 collection of the Paris Review's series of interviews with writers, Women Writers at Work contains reports of interviews with 15 women writers prominent over the past 40 years. Arranged chronologically, the collection begins with Marianne Moore, whose first poetry collection was published in 1921, and ends with the prolific Joyce Carol Oates. Each interview is preceded by a brief, up-to-date biographical sketch, a brief introduction that includes context for the interview, a photograph of the writer, and a sample manuscript page from one of the writer's works. Each interview attempts to get at the relationship between the writer, her art, and the creative process. With the background and clarity of the interviews, readers will find themselves hearing the voices of the writers, imagined or real, enjoying the wit of Dorothy Parker, the self-assuredness of Toni Morrison, the directness of Simone de Beauvoir, the unassuming nature of P.L. Travers, the wide-ranging interests of Susan Sontag, and much more.Jeris Cassel, Rutgers Univ. Libs., New Brunswick, NJ
Michael Wood
Of course, there are plenty of particular things for writers to be, apart from profesionally gendered or just writers, and the Paris Review volume is full of fine details.
London Review of Books
Kirkus Reviews
This updated collection offers comforting yet intense views of 16 modern female literary icons from Mary McCarthy to Joyce Carol Oates. This revision of the 1988 collection contains new pieces on Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, and Maya Angelou, plus many entries familiar to veteran Paris Review readers, like those on Dorothy Parker and Katherine Anne Porter. All together, it makes for a sweet gathering of many of the finest female writers of the century. Margaret Atwood is reliably erudite in her introduction exploring her subjects' views of what makes a "woman writer," which is epitomized by Mary McCarthy: "I think they become interested in decor." The writers themselves are a largely precise, self-effacing bunch, many noting late literary starts and unrelated career intentions. Nadine Gordimer wanted to be a dancer, Joan Didion an actress, Elizabeth Bishop a composer. In addition to digressions on the writing process, there are amusing, endearing asides that draw the writer closer to the reader: Brooklynite Marianne Moore misses the Dodgers ("and I am told that they miss us," she adds). They are also women who know themselves pretty well; their insights span more than writing. A good collection to have around on principle, and genuinely inspiring.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679771296
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/28/2003
  • Edition description: Revised Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 1,441,160
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

George Plimpton
One of the 20th century's most beloved literary figures, Manhattan blueblood George Plimpton was the cofounder and longtime editor of The Paris Review and the originator of "participatory journalism," a literary style that plunged the writer into Walter Mitty-like arenas and translated those experiences into literature. Among his bestselling books are Out of My League, Paper Lion, and Edie: An American Biography.

Biography

The scion of New England bluebloods who traced their ancestry back to the Mayflower, affable WASP George Plimpton was one of the 20th century's most beloved literary figures. Raised in Manhattan and educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard University, and King's College, Cambridge, Plimpton co-founded The Paris Review in 1953 and served as its editor and guiding light for the next half century. Under his stewardship, the journal became a showcase for serious fiction and poetry by new and emerging writers. It also introduced a new style of author interview emphasizing the creative process and the writer's craft. Called by Salman Rushdie "the finest available inquiry into the 'how' of literature," the Paris Review interview remains an integral part of the magazine.

In addition to these highbrow pursuits, Plimpton is also responsible for originating a popular literary genre. Gregarious and adventurous by nature, he followed his intellectual curiosity into Walter Mitty-like arenas, then chronicled his exploits—most of them noble failures—in works that came to be categorized as "participatory journalism." He sparred with heavyweight champ Archie Moore, pitched in an all-star exhibition baseball game, played percussion for the New York Philharmonic, and tried out for the circus. And although he was famous for lighthearted reportage (most notably Paper Lion, his sidesplitting 1966 account of training with the Detroit Lions football team), he proved his literary chops with well-received oral biographies of Edie Sedgwick and Truman Capote.

Instantly recognizable for his tall, lanky frame and upper-crust Brahmin accent, Plimpton was a popular fixture of the Manhattan literary and social scene. Upon his death in September, 2003, The New York Times recalled his "boundless energy and perpetual bonhomie." Five years later, Random House published George, Being George, an affectionate oral biography composed of anecdotes from more than 200 people who knew Plimpton in his many capacities. Editor and longtime Paris Review colleague Nelson Aldrich described the book as a "kind of literary party, George's last."

Good To Know

Like his grandfather and father before him, Plimpton enrolled in the prestigious New Hampshire prep school, Phillips Exeter Academy. He spent most of his time either in detention or on probation, and was finally expelled several months shy of graduation. The family was chagrinned, and Plimpton spent many years trying to atone for his failure. By the way, he graduated right on schedule from Daytona Beach High School!

Plimpton loved athletics, and much of the "participatory journalism" for which he's famous revolves around sports. He wrote books about his less-than-successful exploits in professional baseball (Out of My League), football (Paper Lion; Mad Ducks and Bears), golf (The Bogey Man), and hockey (Open Net).

He also loved fireworks and spent a lot of time with the Grucci family, whose Long Island-based company produced spectacular displays. He chronicled his longtime passion in the 1984 book Fireworks, and Mayor John Lindsay appointed him Fireworks Commissioner of New York, an unofficial title totally unrelated to government.

Plimpton made occasional forays into film, usually as an extra or in cameo appearances as himself.

A longtime friend of the Kennedy clan, Plimpton was with Bobby Kennedy in 1968 when the presidential candidate was assassinated. He also was in Norman Mailer's apartment the night the writer stabbed his wife.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      March 18, 1927
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, NY
    1. Date of Death:
      September 25, 2003
    2. Place of Death:
      New York, NY
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English Literature, Harvard University, 1950; Master's degree, Cambridge University, 1952

Read an Excerpt

Introduction

MARGARET ATWOOD

What is it about interviews that attracts us? Specifically, what is it about interviews with writers? Why should we pry? If a writer is august enough to be subject to interviews, we already have the books to read; shouldn't that be enough for us? (And the books must have been books we liked, because if we didn't, we presumably wouldn't be much interested in knowing anything about the person who has written them.)

Some of us are wary; even if we admire a book, we avoid an interview with its author. The writer is just the raw material, after all, and we prefer things cooked. Or perhaps we have a superstition about peeking: why ruin the memory of a night of magic by sneaking a look backstage, where the magician is wiping off the grimy makeup and the rabbits are born in hutches instead of, miraculously, out of silk hats? As Dorothy discovered in The Wizard of 0z, the fire that burns yet is not consumed may turn out to be-much to our disappointment-just a trick pulled by some wizened old fraud from Kansas. Some people may not be able to tell the dancer from the dance, but we think we can, and we prefer the dance.

Sometimes, on the other hand, we're greedy to know more. More of what? More of everything; more of anything; more of how and why, more of how-to. We would like to stand behind the interviewer and dictate the questions: what road did you travel on, and whom did you meet on the way, and who helped you across the river where the water was deepest? What other writers did you learn from, and does it matter what age, color, gender or nationality they were? (P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins as an avatar of the Great Mother in her Kali incarnation? Alarming, but just barely possible. Simone de Beauvoir influenced by The Mill on the Floss? After the first shock, it fits.... ) Once upon a time YOU, too, were young, untried, unpublished; so how did you manage, against all odds-or against some odds, at least-to accomplish as much as you have? Do you think that what you do makes any difference, to your individual readers or to the world in general? Where did the books come from-what part of your life? Does the writing always flow, or do you struggle? Do you have to suffer to be an artist, and if so, how much, and what kind of suffering would you recommend? Should you use-do you use-a pencil, or a pen, or your finger dipped in blood? Are there any special foods? What kind of chair?

It is our illusion that by knowing the answers to these questions we will know the central, the hidden, the necessary thing; that a writer's power is to be found in the sum of such answers. It isn't , of course. An interview is also a performance, and although a performance can reveal much, its revelations are selective, and its omissions and concealments are often as instructive as its grand pronouncements. (In this collection, for instance, it's an education to watch Elizabeth Bishop evading the issues.) Sometimes a writer doesn't want to tell; sometimes a writer doesn't know; sometimes a writer has forgotten. But why should a writer tell all? Why should anyone? How can anyone? All is a giant subject. In the interview, we must largely settle for conversation instead.

Your next-door neighbor might give you some of the very same answers as the ones you'll find in this collection-with a pencil, on a bed, with a glass of sherry, and yes to the suffering--but that is the mystery; or, if you prefer, the lack of mystery. Writers are human beings; they too inhabit bodies, had childhoods, get through the day somehow, experience JOY and fear and boredom, confront death. The rabbits they produce are only common rabbits, after all; it's the hat that's magic. And yet it is only a hat. This is what fuels our curiosity: the mix of the familiar, even the banal, and the radically inexplicable.

This volume is a revised version of the 1988 collection, Women Writers at Work, which was part of the Paris Review's highly praised series of interviews with writers. Both that book and this one are a departure from the norm. Previous Paris Review collections mixed men and women, but Women Writers at Work, as its tide suggests, is unisexual. That the editors have chosen to bring together fifteen writers as diverse as Dorothy Parker and Nadine Gordimer, P. L. Travers and Maya Angelou, Marianne Moore and Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison and Katherine Anne Porter, over what, in some cases, would be their dead bodies, merely because they share a double-X chromosome, was the result of readers' requests. Why not a gathering of women writers? the editors were asked. Which is not quite the same thing as why.

To some the answer is self-evident: women writers belong together because they are different from men, and the writing they do is different as well and cannot be read with the same eyeglasses as those used for the reading of male writers. Nor can writing by women be read in the same way by men as it can by women, and vice versa. For many women, Heathcliff is a romantic hero; for many men, he's a posturing oaf they'd like to punch in the nose. Paradise Lost reads differently when viewed by the daughters of Eve, and with Milton's browbeaten secretarial daughters in mind; and so on down through the canon.

Such gender-polarized interpretations can reach beyond subject matter and point of view to encompass matters of structure and style: are women really more subjective? do their novels really end with questions? Gender-linked analysis may seek to explore attitudes toward language itself. Is there a distinct female ecriture? Does the mother tongue really belong to mothers, or is it yet one more male-shaped institution bent, like foot-binding, on the deformation and hobbling of women? I have had it suggested to me, in all seriousness, that women ought not to write at all, since to do so is to dip one's hand, like Shakespeare's dyer, into a medium both sullied and sullying. (This suggestion was not made telepathically, but in spoken sentences, since, for polemicists as for writers themselves, the alternative to language is silence.)

Some years ago I was on a panel-that polygonal form of discourse so beloved of the democratic twentieth century-consisting entirely of women, including Jan Morris, who used to be James Morris, and Nayantara Saligal of India. From the audience came the question "How do you feel about being on a panel of women?" We all prevaricated. Some of us protested that we had been on lots of panels that included men; others said that most panels were male, with a woman dotted here and there for decorative effect, like parsley. Jan Morris said that she was in the process of transcending gender and was aiming at becoming a horse, to which Nayantara Sahgal replied that she hoped it was an English horse, since in some other, poorer countries, horses were not treated very well. Which underlined, for all of us, that there are categories other than male or female worth considering.

I suppose we all should have said, "Why not?" Still, I was intrigued by our collective uneasiness. No woman writer wants to be overlooked and undervalued for being a woman; but few, it seems, wish to be defined solely by gender, or constrained by loyalties to it alone-an attitude that may puzzle, hurt or enrage those whose political priorities cause them to view writing as a tool, a means to an end, rather than as a vocation subject to a Muse who will desert you if you break trust with your calling. In the interview that begins this collection, Dorothy Parker articulates the dilemma:

I'm a feminist and God knows I'm loyal to my sex, and you must remember that from my very early days, when this city was scarcely safe from buffaloes, I was in the struggle for equal rights for women. But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lamp posts to try to get our equality--dear child, we didn't foresee those female writers.

Male writers may suffer strains on their single-minded dedication to their art for reasons of class or race or nationality, but so far no male writer is likely to be asked to sit on a panel addressing itself to the special problems of a male writer, or be expected to support another writer simply because he happens to be a man. Such things are asked of women writers all the time, and it makes them JUMPY.

Virginia Woolf may have been right about the androgynous nature of the artist, but she was right also about the differences in social situation these androgynous artists are certain to encounter. We may agree with Nadine Gordimer when she says, "By and large, I don't think it matters a damn what sex a writer is, so long as the work is that of a real writer," if what she means is that it shouldn't matter, in any true assessment of talent or accomplishment; but unfortunately it often has mattered, to other people. When Joyce Carol Oates is asked the "woman" question, phrased in her case as "What are the advantages of being a woman writer?" she makes a virtue of necessity:

Advantages! Too many to enumerate, probably. Since, being a woman, I can't be taken altogether seriously by the sort of male critics who rank writers 1, 2, 3 in the public press, I am free, I suppose, to do as I like.

Joan Didion is asked the same question in its negative form-"disadvantages" instead of "advantages"-and also focuses on social differences, social acceptance and role:

When I was starting to write-in the late fifties, early sixties-there was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts. A man who wrote novels had a role in the world, and be could play that role and do whatever be wanted behind it. A woman who wrote novels bad no particular role. Women who wrote novels were quite often perceived as invalids. Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles. Flannery O'Connor of course. Novels by women tended to be described, even by their publishers, as sensitive. I'm not sure this is so true anymore, but it certainly was at the time, and I didn't much like it. I dealt with it the same way I deal with everything. I just tended my own garden, didn't pay much attention, behaved I suppose-deviously.

I think of Marianne Moore, living decorously with her mother and her "dark" furniture, her height of social rebellion the courageous ignoring of the need for chaperons at Greenwich Village literary parties, and wonder how many male writers could have lived such a circumscribed life and survived the image.

Not least among perceived social differences is the difficulty women writers have experienced in being taken "altogether seriously" as legitimate artists. Ezra Pound, writing in the second decade of this century, spoke for many male authors and critics before and since: I distrust the 'female artist' . . . Not wildly anti-feminist we are yet to be convinced that any woman ever invented anything in the arts." Cognate with this view of writing as a male preserve has been the image of women writers as lightweight puffballs, neurotic freaks suffering from what Edna O'Brien has called "a double dose of masochism: the masochism of the woman and that of the artist," or, if approved of, as honorary men. Femininity and excellence, it seemed, were mutually exclusive. Thus Katherine Anne Porter:

If there is such a thing as a man's mind and a woman's mind-and I'm sure there is-it isn't what most critics mean when they talk about the two. If I show wisdom, they say I have a masculine mind. If I am silly and irrelevant--and Edmund Wilson says I often am-why then, they say I have a typically feminine mind! ... But I haven't ever found it unnatural to be a woman.

The interviewer responds with a question that is asked, in one form or another, not only of almost every woman included in this book, but of almost every woman writer ever interviewed: "But haven't you found that being a woman presented to you, as an artist, certain special problems?"

Katherine Anne Porter's reply-"I think that's very true and very right"-is by no means the only one possible. Some, such as Mary McCarthy, are clearly impatient with the question itself. McCarthy accepts some version of the "masculine" versus the "feminine" sensibility, but aligns herself firmly with the former.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think of women writers, or do you think the category "woman writer"should not be made?

MCCARTHY: Some women writers make it. I mean, there's a certain kind woman writer who's a capital W, capital W. Virginia Woolf certainly was one, and Katherine Mansfield was one, and Elizabeth Bowen is one. Katherine Anne Porter? Don't think she really is-I mean, her writing is certainly very feminine, but I would say that there wasn't this "WW" business in Katherine Anne Porter. Who else? There's Eudora Welty, who's certainly not a "Woman Writer," though she's become one lately.

INTERVIEWER: What is it that happens to make this change?

MCCARTHY: I think they become interested in decor. You notice the change in Elizabeth Bowen. Her early work is much more masculine. Her later work has much more drapery in it.... I was going to write a piece at some point about this called "Sense and Sensibility," dividing women writers into these two. I am for the ones who represent sense....

There is, still, a sort of trained-dog fascination with the idea of women writers-not that the thing is done well, but that it is done at all, by a creature that is not supposed to possess such capabilities. And so a biographer may well focus on the woman, on gossip and sexual detail and domestic arrangements and political involvement, to the exclusion of the artist. However, what these writers have in common is not their diverse responses to the category "woman writer," but their shared passion toward the category "writer."

This is true as well when that other "special" category, race, is tacked on. Neither the white women writers nor the black women writers in this book feel that they have to deny anything about themselves to gain entry into the category of writer; but none of them feel, either, that their other attributes should be allowed to obscure what it is they are focused on, what it is they have been called to do. For them, writing is not an offshoot; it is the one thing that includes all the other aspects of their lives. Thus Maya Angelou:

When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we're capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I'm trying for that. But I'm also trying for the language. I'm trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and the delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.

Reading through these interviews, I was struck again by the intensity of the writers' dedication: their commitment to craft, the informed admiration for the work of other writers from whom they have learned, the insistence on the importance of what has been done, and what can be done, through the art itself. Thus Toni Morrison:

It is not possible for me to be unaware of the incredible violence, the willful ignorance, the hunger for other people's pain.... What makes me feel I belong here, out in this world, is not the teacher, not the mother, not the lover but what goes on in my mind when I am writing. Then I belong here, and then all of the things that are disparate and irreconcilable can be useful. I can do the traditional things that writers always say they do, which is to make order out of chaos....

In no other art is the relationship of creation to creator so complex and personal and thus so potentially damaging to self-esteem: if you fail, you fail alone. The dancer realizes someone else's dance, the writer her own. The relationship of any writer toward a vocation so exacting in its specificity, so demanding of love and energy and time, so resistant to all efforts to define its essence or to categorize its best effects, is bound to be an edgy one, and in these conversations the edginess shows through. Some disclaim ego, remarkable in a collection of such strong, assertive, individual voices; others keep secrets; others fence with their considerable intelligence; others have recourse to mysticism; others protect themselves with wit. It would be a brave person who would try to stuff these wonderful and various talents into one tidy box labeled "WW," and accept that designation to be definitive. Despite the title of this book, the label should probably read, "WWAAW," Writers Who Are Also Women.

To write is a solitary and singular act; to do it superbly, as all of these writers have done, is a blessing. Despite everything that gets said about the suffering and panic and horror of being a writer, the final impression left by these remarkable voices is one of thankfulness, of humility in the face of what has been given. From Joyce Carol Oates, one of the youngest writers in this group:

I take seriously Flaubert's statement that we must love one another in our art as the mystics love one another in God. By honoring one another's creation we honor something that deeply connects us all, and goes beyond us.

And from Dorothy Parker, one of the oldest:

I want so much to write well, though I know I don't.... But during and at the end of my life, I will adore those who have.

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