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 ) Once upon a time YOU, too, were young, untried, unpublished; so how did you manage, against all odds-or against some odds, at least-to accomplish as much as you have?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.
Excerpted from Women Writers at Work by George Plimpton, editor. Copyright © 1998 by George Plimpton, editor. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.