Frankly speaking

A reading list

“Interview” once meant, simply, a face-to-face encounter between two persons. In the roughly five centuries since the word entered the English language, it’s come to suggest a rather more formal kind of meeting; and the now-common concept of an interview as a conversation in which one person (the interviewer) elicits information or opinions from the other (the interviewee) is a product of nineteenth-century journalism.

The literary interview — in which a writer of whatever degree of celebrity agrees to answer questions about his or her life and work, the conversation then being edited for publication — is an even more recent invention. Historians agree the genre was largely conceived by the French journalist Jules Huret, who in 1891 began a series of interviews he called Enquête sur l’évolution littéraire — “Enquiry on Literary Evolution” — published in various Paris newspapers over the next fifteen or so years, in which he employed the question-and-answer format to record his conversations with most of the major French writers of the day. No one had done anything quite like this before. Oddly enough, Huret had no significant contemporary imitators, at least not in literary circles, and in the decades after he completed his Enquête the Q&A interview was regarded as a tool used by scandal-rag reporters to extract Hollywood gossip.

Appropriately, it was also in Paris that the genre of the literary interview was revived — by the circle of smart young American dilettantes who launched The Paris Review in 1953. The first issue of that magazine included a now-famous interview with E.M. Forster; luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, William Faulker, and Ralph Ellison soon followed. These Paris Review interviews — collected over the years in a series of Writers at Work volumes — quickly became one of the magazine’s hallmarks. Erudite, elegant, urbane to a fault, they were soon imitated by literary publications of every slant and stripe, and today the literary interview is so ubiquitous a species, so familiar, that it’s hard to imagine there was a time they were considered déclassé.

Only the most reclusive writers refuse to sit for them; only the stodgiest of journals decline to publish them. We recognise them at once on the page: the interviewer’s questions alternating with long chunks of the subject’s answers, with italics or bold type or initials distinguishing the two. Perhaps the actual interview is an intimate tête-à-tête, perhaps it is conducted on the phone, or by letter (or, these days, email). The tone is determined by the interviewee writer’s mood — candid, cautious, crotchety? — but also by the interviewer’s approach — deferential, antagonistic? The best interviews naturally have an element of surprise. They are autobiography and self-delusion, literary criticism and highbrow entertainment, hero worship and exposé, journalism and creative writing, all at the same time. We expect they will offer valuable insights into a writer’s artistic process, and we hope they will also offer gossip. We want to know how our favourite books came to be — inspirations, influences, intentions — but also what our favourite writers have for breakfast, and why their marriages collapse.

Experienced interview subjects (and readers) know there is an elusive relation “between authorial character, as manifested in literary works, and the personae and personalities of writers,” as the scholar John Rodden puts it in Performing the Literary Interview: How Writers Craft Their Public Selves (2001). As his title makes clear, Rodden argues that the literary interview is best understood as a kind of performance art. What better example than our own V.S. Naipaul? Accounts by people who have met him suggest that in private he can be charmingly mild-mannered, but only introduce a journalist with a tape recorder and his most outrageous opinions spout forth. Conversations with V.S. Naipaul (1997), edited by Feroza Jussawalla, serves up numerous tasty samples. This book is part of an extensive “Literary Conversations” series, covering dozens of contemporary writers; another is Conversations with Derek Walcott (1996), edited by William Baer. Walcott is, on the whole, a far more gracious interviewee than his fellow Nobelist, far more generous to his fellow West Indian writers. It’s impossible to imagine Naipaul saying, as Walcott does in a 1983 interview included here, that he is “lucky to have been born in the Caribbean at such a time.”

Walcott turns up again in New World Adams: Interviews with West Indian Writers (1992), compiled by the writer and scholar Daryl Cumber Dance. Her twenty-two interviews, conducted in the early 1980s, focus on the Caribbean Voices–independence-era generation of writers who emerged in the 1950s — George Lamming, Samuel Selvon, Louise Bennett, Martin Carter, John Hearne, Wilson Harris, among others — alongside a few key voices from the following generation — Tony McNeill, Mervyn Morris, Pamela Mordecai. Frank Birbalsingh’s interviews in Frontiers of Caribbean Literature (1996) have a similar range. “While the best critical essays may stimulate more objective or intellectual excitement,” Birbalsingh writes, “it is unlikely that a critical essay can reproduce the combative vigour of some of the more personal comments and reactions expressed in these interviews.” He is not a withdrawing interviewer, content to ask quiet questions and step out of the way while his subjects opine; many of these pieces are more like conversations between two equal (and equally outspoken) parties.

Funso Aiyejina’s Self-Portraits: Interviews with Ten West Indian Writers and Two Critics (2003) — originally published as a series in the Trinidad and Tobago Review — takes a gentler approach. Aiyejina explains: “The intention was always to give the subject the necessary freedom and latitude to articulate his/her views, with minimal intrusions from an interviewer who functioned more as a witness to the self-revelations than as an interrogator.” He chooses “established but underexposed” writers, like Olive Senior, Anson Gonzalez, and Cecil Gray, and younger figures like Jane King, Kendel Hippolyte, and Lawrence Scott — as well as, valuably, the pioneering literary critics Kenneth Ramchand and Gordon Rohlehr. Talk Yuh Talk: Interviews with Anglophone Caribbean Poets (2001), edited by Kwame Dawes, another product of a sole interviewer, aims to trace the evolution of a Caribbean literary tradition:

If these interviews had been done with Caribbean writers in the 1950s or the 1940s, the question “who were your influences” would have elicited largely European and American names . . . I felt a strong need to talk to writers who are working today to see if, in fact, something has changed since that period.

He wants to “tackle the difficult questions around the issues of aesthetic paradigms with which future generations of Caribbean writers will have to grapple.” To better glimpse generational changes, he arranges his interviewees in chronological order, starting with James Berry (born 1924) and ending with Fred D’Aguiar (born 1960), via poets such as Edward Baugh, Cyril Dabydeen, Lorna Goodison, and Grace Nichols.

Books like these are tremendously useful, but of course the huge majority of interviews with Caribbean writers — by now, hundreds — remain uncollected from the periodicals where they first appeared. And, inevitably, the proliferation of web-based journals and weblogs means that interviews with emerging Caribbean writers don’t necessarily — won’t necessarily — ever appear in print, in the old-fashioned paper-and-ink sense. Multimedia tools now permit an interviewer to enrich the standard Q&A text with video and audio footage. And somewhere someone is already conducting a literary interview via an online chat program — emoticons not excluded. ; )


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2008