Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews

Interviews from the 1950s-1980s with Isak Dinesen, Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, Rebecca West, Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Eudora Welty, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Nadine Gordimer, Anne Sexton, Cynthia Ozick, Joan Didion, Edna O’Brien, and Joyce Carol Oates. An introduction by Margaret Atwood does a tepid job of explaining why they collected these Paris Review essays by gender (“Why not?”). Much advice. Katherine Anne Porter always started with the ending, until the end is known there is no story. “That is where the artist begins to work: With the consequences of acts, not the acts themselves. Or the events. The event is important only as it affects your life and the lives of those around you. The reverberations, you might say, the overtones: that is where the artist works. It has sometimes taken me ten years to understand even a little of some important event that had happened to me. Oh, I could have given a perfectly factual account of what had happened, but I didn’t know what it meant until I knew the consequences. If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it.”

I loved Dorothy Parker’s summation about what Hollywood meant to her. “‘Out there,’ I called it. You want to know what ‘out there’ means to me? Once I was coming down a street in Beverly Hills and I saw a Cadillac about a block long, and out of the side window was a wonderfully slinky mink, and an arm, and at the end of the arm a hand in a white suede glove wrinkled around the wrist, and in the hand was a bagel with a bite out of it.”

The intro paragraph for Nadine Gordimer’s interview was shockingly rude, describing how Gordimer started the interview the moment she walked in the door and ended it exactly an hour later. So what?! Some moments in the interview I liked, when Gordimer pointed out that living at home as an adult was something no kid does nowadays (1980 interview, how times have changed!) and how also people don’t use the library anymore.

Anne Sexton’s brief but burning life as a poet began after she cracked up at 28 from having a baby and just being a wife; her doctor recommended that she watch Boston’s educational tv programming, which is where she learned about sonnets, and tried her hand. Then she took a poetry class, ended up apprenticing with Robert Lowell, palling around with Sylvia Plath where they’d take Sexton’s car after Lowell’s class and park in a Loading Zone only spot at the Ritz which was ok because “we’re only going to get loaded.” When she felt a poem coming on, she’d put Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras on as her “magic tune.”