If there’s a writer of any stripe on your holiday gift list, you could do worse than to buy The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4, a new boxed set that collects the journal’s fifty years of interviews with famous and emerging writers. (Take note, Claire and Tom!)
E.B. White (1899–1985), gifted essayist and author of immortal children’s books, sat down for his interview with The Paris Review in 1969. The New Yorker’s great stylist, candid to the point of self-effacement, revealed that he didn’t usually consume classic literature; in fact he wasn’t much of a reader at all.
Seven years later, despite this heresy, John Updike—a writer at the opposite pole of erudition—gave an affectionate review in his book Hugging the Shore to White’s collected letters. Updike was a fan of the wordsmith and seemed charmed by White’s modesty and originality. While noting White’s lack of bookishness, Updike called him “a diffident-appearing but at heart highly determined literary pilgrim.” He placed White’s colloquial and aphoristic style “in the manner of the eighteenth-century journalist-philosophers and of Thoreau.”
White’s One Man’s Meat is a classic work of nonfiction, funny and keen, yet comforting as a pot-bellied stove. His tales of raising livestock on his Maine farm, written originally for Harper’s, were charming but underneath lay a rigor because White was really producing food, not just doing a little something to wax philosophic. He was passionate about farming, and at the same time saw its ridiculous difficulty and his own efforts as comedic. One of the funniest things I’ve ever read is his account of catching himself wandering around his barnyard clutching a paper napkin and imitating cockerels learning to crow.
An excerpt of White’s Paris Review remarks:
“I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read. In my youth I read animal stories—William J. Long and Ernest Seton Thompson. I have read a great many books about small boat voyages—they fascinate me even though they usually have no merit. In the twenties, I read the newspaper columns . . . In order to read, one must sit down, usually indoors. I am restless and would rather sail a boat than crack a book. I’ve never had a very lively literary curiosity, and it has sometimes seemed to me that I am not really a literary fellow at all. Except that I write for a living.”
“It is a matter of some embarrassment to me that I have never read Joyce and a dozen other writers who have changed the face of literature. But there you are. I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book. . . . I enjoyed Speak, Memory by Nabokov when I read it—a fine example of remembering. . . . I have no special interest in any of the other arts. I know nothing of music or of painting or of sculpture or of the dance. I would rather watch the circus or a ball game than ballet.”
“There are two faces to discipline. If a man (who writes) feels like going to a zoo, he should by all means go to a zoo. . . . The other face of discipline is that zoo or no zoo, diversion or no diversion, in the end a man must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds. This takes stamina and resolution. Having got them on paper, he must still have the discipline to discard them if they fail to measure up; he must view them with a jaundiced eye and do the whole thing over as many times as is necessary to achieve excellence, or as close to excellence as he can get. This varies from one time to maybe twenty. . . . I do think the ability to evaluate one’s own stuff with reasonable accuracy is a helpful piece of equipment. I’ve known good writers who had it, and I’ve known good writers who’ve not.”
“Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.”
The Paris Review website has the full interview available for download as a pdf. (Thanks to Elizabeth at Fog City Writer for pointing this out.)