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The Story Teller's Story

I have lately reread the interviews with novelists and short-story writers that have appeared four times a year in The Paris Review. By now there are more than twenty of these, including two or three unpublished ones that I have seen in manuscript. Some are decidedly better or worse than others, but as a group they are about the most interesting series of the kind to be read in English.

The statement isn’t quite so eulogistic as it sounds. Compared with Continental Europeans, the English since Boswell, who was Scottish, and the Americans from the beginning have seldom been good at literary interviews. Almost everything in our background has been against the development of the form. Editors haven’t been willing to give it much space because of a probably justified feeling that their public had no interest in literary problems. Authors have been embarrassed or reticent, often at the wrong places, and interviewers by and large have been incompetent. I can think of recent exceptions, but most of the interviewers either have had no serious concern with literature or else have been too serious about themselves. Either they have been reporters with little knowledge of the author’s work and a desire to entrap him into making scandalous remarks about sex, politics and God, or else they have been ambitious writers trying to display their own sophistication, usually at the expense of the author, and listening chiefly to their own voices.

Perhaps because of the changing times, the literary conversations in the Paris Review have been of a different order. The interviewers belong to a new generation that has been called silent, though a better word for it would be waiting or listening or inquiring. They have done their assigned reading, they have asked the right questions, or most of them, and have listened carefully to the answers. The authors, more conscious of their craft than authors used to be, have talked about it with an engaging lack of pomposity. The editors of the review have been generous with their time and space, and the result is a series that seems to me livelier and more revealing than others of the same kind.

One thing it reveals is an extreme diversity of characters and talents. The authors presented have come from the ruling class, the middle class or the working class of six different countries. They are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or agnostic; old or young; married, permanently single or divorced; and they have had all sorts of education, from those who never finished secondary school (Simenon, Faulkner) to those who are university professors or fellows (Warren and Forster). Frank O’Connor started life as a gunman, Nelson Algren as a bindle stiff, Joyce Cary as a colonial official, while some of the others went straight into professional writing. All have strongly marked personalities which are revealed—asserted, one might say—in their simplest remarks, and no personality resembles any other. Yet in spite of their diversity, what emerges from the interviews is a composite picture of the fiction writer. He has no face, no nationality, no particular background, and I say “he” by grammatical convention, since three of the authors are women; but they all have something in common, some attitude toward life and art, some fund of common experience. Let me try to sketch in a few details of the faceless portrait.

The writer—any writer—is someone who believes in the magic efficacy of words. That belief is central to his personality, and it goes back to very early childhood. “All children,” Thornton Wilder says to his interviewer, Richard Goldstone, “emerge from the egocentric monster of infancy—“Gimme! Gimme!” cries the Nero in the bassinet—are out to win their way; from their parents, playmates, from ‘life,’ from all that is bewildering and inexplicable in themselves… The future author is one who discovers that language, the exploration and manipulation of the resources of language, will serve him in winning through to his way.”

But language won’t serve him unless the words are right. Apparently the true writer believes that every construction in words is a sort of incantation in which the proper words must be used in exactly the proper order; otherwise it will fail to produce its effect on the reader, fail to express the writer as an individual, and fail to win him his way. Those without this belief are not writers, Truman Capote says: “They’re typists—sweaty typists blacking up pounds of bond paper with formless, eyeless, earless messages.” “Call it precious and go to hell,” he says in another connection, “but I believe that a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence—especially if it occurs toward the end—or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation.” Not a few of the interviewed authors would agree with him.

Among those who believe in the strict magic of words, fiction writers are a special type, distinct from the essayists and poets. They are those for whom the words, to be efficacious, must tell stories. That is, the words must tell how people did things, or had things done to them, as a result of which something was changed; without the change there is no story. I believe that fiction writers start by telling stories to themselves, although there is no mention in the interviews of that preliminary step; then, at an early age, they start telling stories to others. “I always tell stories,” the late Joyce Cary says. “…I told them to other children when I was a child. I told them at school. I told them to my own children, and I tell them now to the children of a friend.”

For a born fiction writer like Cary, the world is composed not of natural objects and forces, as for the scientist; not of social and psychological principles, as for the essayist; and not of moods, as for the lyric poet; it is composed of people having interesting experiences that change their lives (as our own lives may be changed when we read about them). But the change in ourselves is one of heart and not, or not primarily, of social institutions. Instead of reforming the world, a fiction writer tries to present the world in its diversity, while imposing a form on it that makes it, in a sense, his own possession. Instead of enouncing laws, principles, and messages, he gives us human examples. When Nelson Algren became a writer, he answers not with a general observation but with a story—and a good one too—about a bankrupt gasoline station in the Rio Grande Valley. When Frank O’Connor is asked, “What is the greatest essential of a story?” he starts to explain principles as a professor might do, but gets entangled in his explanation. Then suddenly he says, “I’ll tell you what I mean. We were down on the south coast of Ireland…” With a feeling of relief he launches into a story of his own that embodies the principles, that in fact is the principles as revealed in human actions.

The stories that compose a fiction-writer’s world are true stories that may or may not have happened. Facts have to be manipulated to reveal the truth behind them. “I should never be able to write a real autobiography,” says Alberto Moravia; “I always end by falsifying and fictionalizing—I’m a liar, in fact. That means I’m a novelist, after all.” But when a fiction writer lies, it is not usually as a means for obtaining advantages for himself. More often it is for the love of art, which is also, in a fashion, the love of truth.

One more characteristic of the fiction writer is that he has a remarkable memory. In some cases it may be as tenacious as that of Thomas Wolfe, who boasted in a letter to his mother, “I never forget; I have never forgotten.” James Thurber says, and without boasting, “You know it’s a nuisance—as well as an advantage—to have a memory like mine. It’s…well…like a whore’s top drawer. There’s so much in there that’s junk—costume jewelry, telephone numbers whose exchanges no longer exist. For instance, I can remember the birthday of anyone who’s ever told me his birthday.” Thurber now composes his stories in his head, and he sometimes remembers, word for word, three successive drafts of the same story. The memories of other fiction writers are less dependable. They forget names, faces and errands, much as the rest of us do, but when they come to present a scene they find themselves remembering details of many sorts that others would scarcely have noticed, much less preserved for years. Literary creation is, in large measure, the art of using one’s memories.

Rereading the interviews as a group, I was confirmed in an old belief that the novel and the short story are two separate forms and that mere length is not their distinguishing feature. A long short story—say of forty thousand words—is not the same as a novel of forty thousand words, nor is it likely to be written by the same person. Among the authors interviewed, the division that goes deepest is not between older and younger writers, or men and women writers, or French and English writers; it is the division between those who think in short story and those who are essentially novelists.

Truman Capote might stand for those who think in terms of the short story, since he tells us that his “more unswerving ambitions still revolve around this form.” A moment later he says, “I invariably have the illusion that the whole plan of a story, its start and middle and finish, occur in my mind simultaneously—that I’m seeing it in one flash.” He likes to know the end of a story before writing the first word of it. Indeed, he doesn’t start writing until he has brooded over the story long enough to exhaust his first emotional responses to the material. “I seem to remember reading,” he says, “that Dickens, as he wrote, choked with laughter over his own humor and dripped tears all over the page when one of his characters died. My own theory is that the author should have considered his wit and dried his tears long, long before setting out to evoke similar reactions in a reader.” The reactions of the reader, not of the writer, are Capote’s principal concern.

For contrast take the interview with Georges Simenon, who is a true novelist even if his separate works, each written and revised in about two weeks, are not much longer than some short stories. Each of his novels starts in the same fashion. “It is almost a geometrical problem,” he says. “I have such a man, such a woman, in such surroundings. What can happen to them to oblige them to go to their limit? That’s the question. It will sometimes be a very simple incident, anything which will change their lives. Then I write my novel chapter by chapter.” Before setting to work Simenon has scrawled a few notes on a big manila envelope. The interviewer asks whether these are an outline of the action. “No, no,” Simenon answers. “…On the envelope I put only the names of the characters, their ages, their families. I know nothing whatever about the events which will occur later. Otherwise”—and I can’t help putting the statement in italics—“it would not be interesting to me.”

Unlike Capote, who says that he is physically incapable of writing anything he doesn’t think will be paid for (though I take it that payment is to him merely a necessary token of public admiration), Simenon would “certainly,” he says, continue writing novels if they were never published. But he wouldn’t bother to write them if he knew what the end of each novel would be, for then it would not be interesting. He discovers his fable not in one flash, but chapter by chapter, as if he were telling a continued story to himself.

“On the eve of the first day,” he says, “I know what will happen in the first chapter. Then day after day, chapter after chapter, I find what comes later. After I have started a novel I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day. Because it is a strain, I have to keep pace with the novel. If, for example, I am ill for forty-eight hours I have to throw away the previous chapters. And I never return to that novel.” Like Dickens he lets himself be moved, even shattered, by what he is writing. “All the day,” he says, “I am one of my characters”—always the one who is driven to his limit. “I feel what he feels—and it’s almost unbearable after five or six days. That is one of the reasons why my novels are so short; after eleven days I can’t—it’s impossible. I have to—it’s physical. I am too tired.”

Nobody else writes in quite the same fashion as Simenon. He carries a certain attitude toward fiction to the furthest point that it can be carried by anyone who writes books to be published and read. But the attitude in itself is not unusual, and in fact is shared to some extent by all the true novelists who explain their methods in these interviews. None of these starts by making a scene-by-scene outline, as Henry James did before writing each of his later novels. James had discovered what he called the “divine principle of the Scenario,” after writing several unsuccessful plays, and in essence the principle or method, seems to be dramatistic rather than novelistic. The dramatist, like the short story writer, has to know where he is going and how he will get there, scene by scene, whereas all the novelists interviewed by the Paris Review are accustomed to making voyages of exploration with only the roughest of maps.

François Mauriac says, “There is a point of departure, and there are some characters. It often happens that the first characters don’t go any further and, on the other hand, vaguer, more inconsistent characters show new possibilities as the story goes on and assume a place we hadn’t foreseen.” Françoise Sagan says that she has to start to write to have ideas. In the beginning she has “a character, or a few characters, and perhaps an idea for a few of the scenes up to the middle of the book, but it all changes in the writing. For me writing is a question of finding a certain rhythm.” “My work,” says Moravia, “…is not prepared beforehand in any way. I might add, too, that when I’m not working I don’t think of my work at all.”

Forster does lay plans for his work, but they are subject to change. “The novelist,” he says, “should I think always settle when he starts what is going to happen, what his major event is going to be. He may alter the event as he approaches it, indeed he probably will, indeed he probably had better, or the novel becomes tied up and tight. But the sense of a solid mass ahead, a mountain round or over which or through which the story must go, is most valuable and, for the novels I’ve tried to write, essential….When I began A Passage to India I knew that something important happened in Malabar Caves, and that it would have a central place in the novel—but I didn’t know what it would be.” William Faulkner says, “With me there is always a point in the book where the characters themselves rise up and take charge and finish the job.”

Most novelists, one might generalize, are like the chiefs of exploring expeditions. They know who their companions are (and keep learning more about them); they know what sort of territory they will have to traverse on the following day or week; they know the general object of the expedition, the mountain they are trying to reach, the river of which they are hoping to discover the source. But they don’t know exactly what their route will be, or what adventures they will meet along the way, or how their companions will act when pushed to the limit. They don’t even know whether the continent they are trying to map exists in space or only within themselves. “I think if a man has the urge to be an artist,” Simenon says, “it is because he needs to find himself. Every writer tries to find himself through his characters, through all of his writing.” He is speaking for the novelists in particular. Short-story writers come back from their briefer expeditions to brood over the meaning of their discoveries; then they perfect the stories for an audience. The short story is an exposition; the novel is often and perhaps at its best an inquisition into the unknown depths of the novelist’s mind.