There was a time when writers mainly wrote books. Now they spend half their time talking about their books to bloggers, people from Ceefax or on phone-in radio-shows. The luckiest authors - those with big advances, a salacious life story, a background in stand-up comedy - might even get on to the BBC or the culture pages of one of the broadsheets. They hope to be asked serious, well-articulated questions, but they know they themselves shouldn't make the mistake of seeming too serious or articulate. A few minutes of banter with Richard and Judy are more likely to sell copies.
Writers were once seen, often rightly, as diffident sorts, social maladepts who communicated best with sheaves of paper or computer screens. These days, promotion and publicity are taken more seriously. Novelists and poets (especially the former - the latter expect little to no public interest in their work) are expected to be skilled in the arts of rhetorically slicing and dicing their magnum opus, spieling off a quick chronology of its conception and production, and offering a few light-hearted gags about its contents. So eager are they to publicise their work, and not to piss off their agents and editors, that they will even consent to do email interviews with lazy journalists who do little more than cut and paste the text they have been sent.
Those who bemoan this state of affairs look longingly across the Atlantic, where artists are habitually given more time and space to reflect on the creative process. Even upstart or counter-cultural magazines such as The Believer and Arthur spurn the personality profile so beloved of English editors, in favour of Q&A pieces in which the artist is allowed to speak for him- or herself. Most famous of all is the quarterly journal the Paris Review. Since 1953, it has run lengthy interviews with writers which include the kinds of questions - What time do you get up? Do you use a pencil or a pen? - that would provoke giggles or weary sighs if they were raised by a member of the public at a book reading.
The Paris Review Interviews (volume one), introduced by the journal's new editor Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (1998), is a collection of 16 of these interviews. They span half a century, cover mostly American writers from Dorothy Parker in 1956 to Joan Didion in 2006, and are illustrated with reprints of a single manuscript page by each author. They aim, if not to be definitive, then at least to be substantial and lasting records of creative endeavour; the interviews take place over several sessions, sometimes over the course of weeks, with the typescripts being handed over to the subjects for revision. The chapter devoted to Kurt Vonnegut comprises four interviews conducted over a decade and then artfully stitched together. The Paris Review believes in collaboration as much as interrogation.
Gourevitch, in his brief introduction, doesn't explain his editorial selections. Nevertheless, and in spite of the fact that a number of the interviews have been reprinted before, they are mostly enlightening and entertaining.
The interviewers' prefatory remarks are often telling; Donald Hall, on meeting T S Eliot in 1959, observed that the poet "frequently glanced at Mrs Eliot during the interview, as if he were sharing with her an answer which he was not making". Saul Bellow's interlocutor notes how "he took obvious pleasure in the amusing turn of thought with which he often concluded an answer".
The most informative chapter is that which includes interviews with both Robert Gottlieb and some of the authors he has edited - Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton, Doris Lessing, and a rather testy Robert Caro. What makes the others so readable are not the details of desktop organisation, but the writers' eloquence or snippiness. Dorothy Parker observes: "There's a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply callisthenics with words." Asked if he finds it easy to shift from one literary project to another, Hemingway retorts: "The fact that I am interrupting serious work to answer these questions proves that I am so stupid I should be penalised severely."
T S Eliot talks about how he found Ezra Pound's early verse "touchingly incompetent"; Jorge Luis Borges dismisses Eliot with the comment that "intelligence has little to do with poetry"; Rebecca West claims Somerset Maugham "couldn't write for toffee" and that Yeats "boomed at you like a foghorn". Other interviewees - among them James M Cain, Elizabeth Bishop and Richard Price - are less catty, but generous and insightful, and make the reader explore or rediscover their work. Which, in the end, is probably just as important as coming up with a waspish put-down or wisecrack.