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George Plimpton

(Page 3 of 7)

"Most of the magazines at that time were concentrating on scholarly essays and were pretty gray in terms of makeup," Plimpton says. "They were really academic or political journals. The big struggles in the Partisan Review was between the Trotskyites and the Stalinists. Our intent was to have none of that. If we were going to do scholarly work on an author, we would go straight to the horse's mouth, so to speak, and ask him the questions ourselves."

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Over the years, The Paris Review's probing interview series with famous writers has become its raison d'etre.m The interviews have been collected in a five-volume series, the most recent of which was just published by Viking. It started out with a resounding literary bang, and interview in its first issue with E.M. Forster, then considered the greatest living novelist in the English language ("Passage to India" and "Howard's End"). It just so happened that Forster was a don at King's College, Cambridge, where Plimpton was reading English literature after World War II.

"Everybody called him Morgan, and I knew him as well as anybody. He used to have these terrible parties. Oh, they were awful. He always invited representatives from the different factions of the college. There was the head of the Communist Party, a fellow called Bunny Leff, and for balancing he invited Adrian Cadbury, the young heir to the chocolate fortune who rowed in the college's first boat. There was a South African who owned 60,000 acres of Botswana. He would balance with a scholar from Soweto. Everybody would stand around and glare at each other, and Morgan would stand in the corner and eat cake.

"He was very shy, and had that wonderful Oxford and Cambridge way of asking youm questions. I remember going and having tea with him once, and he said, 'George, what do you know about opera?' It was one of those big sort of questions, and I said, 'I've always been fond of Wagner.' He would then say, 'The reason I ask is, that I'm writing an opera with Benjamin Britten, and thought I would ask your advice.'

"When he agreed to do the interview, we were all very excited because here was this great novelist telling us why he hadn't written a novel since 1926. It made the first issue and was grabbed up by scholars everywhere. He told us he hadn't finished more novels because he couldn't control his characters. There was a novel he was writing called 'Arctic Summer.' The characters all set off from King's Cross and were to go out into the countryside and come back. They got into trains and went whistling off and he couldn't get them back."

Since the Forster interview, the Paris Review has interrogated such luminaries as William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Dorthy Parker, Truman Capote , Lillian Hellman, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, T.S. Elliot, Boris Pasternak, Eudora Welty, Allen Ginsberg, and Vladimir Nabokov. How did the Review lure all these authors into their graceful inquisitions?

"The interviews are about the craft of writing, therefore the subject is not being bushhacked," Plimpton says. "He gets the best opportunity we can give him. We send the thing back to him, and often the novelist revises his own interview and gives it the flavor he would give his books.

"Some of them talk rmarkably about the creative process. Joe Heller, for example, talks about how novels come into his mind a one brief leap. They always start with the first sentence, which leads to a second, to a third, a fourth, and then a whole novel unrolls like a gigantic roll of toilet paper.

"In his bed one night over on the West Side, suddenly this line came into his head: 'Wehn Yossarian met the chaplain, it was love at first sight.' That's the first line in 'Catch-22.' Five years ago on a bench on a Sunday on Fire Island, this line came into his head: 'In the office where I work there are four people scared of me and I am scared of five.' And into his mind came all of 'Something Happened.'"

Samuel Beckett and John O'Hara have consistently refused to submit to an interview, though most authors have been willing subjects. "The series has gone on now for 25 years, or whatever it is, and is really sort of a pantheon of writers. There they all are, Faulkner, Hemingway, Miller, and Jones. I think that's the only reason I'm invited to parties by writers. They want to be interviewed."