American writers talk about their craft

Conversations with American Writers, by Charles Ruas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 324 pp. $17.95. Here is a lively collection of interviews with 14 writers whose work spans the years from the end of World War II up through the present. Interviewer-editor Ruas almost spoils it, though, overloading the book with an introduction dominated by awkward pseudo-critical language and with vague, abstracted summaries of his writers' careers; even in mid-conversation he is apt to say things like ``the metasubject, then, is the area of synthesis with your own concern.'' We feel lectured.

But Ruas also asks sharp questions and keeps the focus on literary intention and technique, while eliciting interesting personal revelations. The only real duds are William Burroughs and the late Truman Capote (whose prattle about the beneficial effects of cocaine seems especially hard to take).

Paul Theroux states the case for getting away from your home territory to gain perspective. Toni Morrison speaks forthrightly about the special pressures black writers are subjected to, and compellingly offers the justification for ``animism or anthropomorphism'' (or, as some would say, ``magical realism'') in her fiction. Robert Stone recounts his adventures with the Kerouac-Neal Cassady-Ken Kesey gang, and he shows how his harshly topical novels express a distrust of power (of all kinds, at all levels), and even a nihilist's ``skepticism . . . about history as a positive force.''

Norman Mailer, Eudora Welty, and Gore Vidal all offer eloquent perspectives on their careers. Tennessee Williams explains the change in his writing produced by a long-lasting ``clinical depression.'' And, in the wildest and finest interview of all, that world-class bohemian eccentric Marguerite Young rattles off one-of-a-kind tales of her unique mental travels and the extravagant companions she has cultivated. Young is a character whom Dickens would be proud to have invented, and this dismayingly vivid picture of her is, as the saying goes, by itself worth the price of admission.

Bruce Allen reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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