Archives for posts with tag: The Paris Review


Excerpt from a 1958 interview George Plimpton conducted with Ernest Hemingway, published in The Paris Review.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends, I rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

Illustration: Page from Hemingway’s first draft of A Farewell to Arms (1929).


I hear via a couple of attractive grapevines, that you are having trouble writing. God! I know this feeling so well. I think it is never coming back—but it does—one morning, there it is again.

About a year ago, Bob Anderson [the playwright] asked me for help in the same problem. I told him to write poetry—not for selling—not even for seeing—poetry to throw away. For poetry is the mathematics of writing and closely kin to music. And it is also the best therapy because sometimes the troubles come tumbling out.

Well, he did. For six months he did. And I have three joyous letters from him saying it worked. Just poetry—anything and not designed for a reader. It’s a great and valuable privacy.

I only offer this if your dryness goes on too long and makes you too miserable. You may come out of it any day. I have. The words are fighting each other to get out.

Source: The Paris Review (Fall 1975)

Photo: John Steinbeck at work. Prints available at



Source: The Paris Review (Fall 1975)

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

PAINTING: Portrait of John Steinbeck by Martiros Saryan (1963)

Novelist and short story writer T.C. Boyle (formerly known as T. Coraghessan Boyle) offered insights into his writing process in The Art of Fiction No. 161, featured in The Paris Review (Summer 2000), where he was interviewed by Elizabeth E. Adams. Excerpts from the interview are included below. (Read the entire interview at

INTERVIEWER: What is the difference in the composing of a short story and a novel? Is there a shifting of gears?

BOYLE: Yes, sure. But I do see everything I’m doing as a story, whether it’s five pages or five hundred. The essential difference is that with stories, or during a period of story writing, you’re never sure if you’re going to come up with the next one. Oh, you feel great on bringing a story to completion—what a rush!—but then, speaking of blocks, you go through a period of a week or so when you’ve become an utter failure, a bankrupt, a fraud. You’ll never work again. Of course, if you’re very, very lucky—and I have been lucky—the first stirrings of the next story come. With a novel, you’re locked-in, committed, and you sure do know what you’re going to be doing tomorrow morning.

INTERVIEWER: With a novel, do you see the thing as a whole when you start?

BOYLE: No, it’s an organic process. I have an idea and a first line—and that suggests the rest of it. I have little concept of what I’m going to say, or where it’s going. I have some idea of how long it’s going to be—but not what will happen or what the themes will be. That’s the intrigue of doing it—it’s a process of discovery. You get to discover what you’re going to say and what it’s going to mean.

INTERVIEWER: That’s interesting . . . the first line. Joe Heller [author of Catch-22] couldn’t write a word unless the first line popped into his mind, which unleashed a whole series of characters, scenes . . . Is that the way it works with you? What are some of the first lines?

BOYLE: Yes, I feel that too, but maybe not so thoroughly as Heller did. The first line isn’t unleashing much, but there’s certainly been a lot of thought and preparation for it, and certainly it suggests what’s to come—again, in the way of the first piece of a jigsaw puzzle. But you’re putting me on the spot with regard to first lines. World’s End starts like this: “On the day he lost his right foot, Walter Van Brunt had been haunted, however haphazardly, by ghosts of the past.” A Friend of the Earth begins: “I’m out feeding the hyena her kibble and chicken backs when the call comes through.” And, most famously, I suppose, the opening line of “Descent of Man”: “I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” The first lines are provocative, I suppose, because they are meant not simply to provoke the reader but to provoke the writer—in this instance, me—to forge on.

INTERVIEWER: When you say that you have no idea where it is going to go, does that literally mean that you have no idea what is going to happen to the people about whom you’re writing?

BOYLE: You discover all this as you go along—of course, you may make leaps ahead, and discover where it’s going. Hemingway said that he never stopped a day’s work until he knew what was going to happen in tomorrow’s installment. I feel the same way. When I’m done for the day—dragged out, dumbed down, exhausted, beat, and depleted—I look over what I’ve done and make a mental leap into the immediate future of the work if I can. Sometimes, though, it’s just a mystery until you get there. In The Road to Wellville, for instance, I had no idea there would be a murder occurring at the end of that book—not that I mean to spoil it for you if you haven’t read it—but when I got there it seemed very logical (or maybe I mean “right”) that that was what was going to happen. I remember feeling great about that. I was up in the mountains at the time, trying to extract the juice from my brain. I remember walking around the lake, humping through the woods, exhilarated. I think I put off going to the bar till 4:05 that day. It was wonderful.


INTERVIEWER: So plot is more important than character. Would that be a safe thing to say?

BOYLE: The early stories were mainly idea stories that didn’t have much to do with character—I was much more interested in design then. I think I’ve learned to handle character through writing novels. My first novel, Water Music, was five hundred pages long and you just can’t go five hundred pages without inventing some characters. What I hope is that I’m now better able to integrate all the elements of a successful and original story without relying on one effect only.

Photo: T.C. Boyle photographed by Spencer Boyle.


“A good novel begins with a small question and ends with a bigger one.” PAULA FOX

April 22, 2013 marks the 90th birthday of novelist Paula Fox, author of DESPERATE CHARACTERS, originally published by W.W. Norton in 1970. The novel fell out of print and was championed by Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections and Freedom) — who stumbled upon it in a library — but has been available since 1999 in a new edition with an introduction by Franzen.

Frazen is passionate about DESPERATE CHARACTERS and states in his introduction:  “The first time I read Desperate Characters in 1991, I fell in love with it. It seemed to me obviously superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow. It seemed inarguably great.” 


Paula Fox is recipient of the 2013 Hadada Prize from THE PARIS REVIEW. The prize is presented each year to “a distinguished member of the writing community who has made a strong and unique contribution to literature.” Previous recipients include Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton, Philip Roth, and William Styron.

Like Franzen, I stumbled upon DESPERATE CHARACTERS over a decade ago (in my case, the encounter occurred at a Salvation Army thrift shop in Chicago) and was immediately captivated by the novel. If you love literary novels — and, at 176 pages, this is a relatively short one — don’t miss DESPERATE CHARACTERS. At, used copies of the novel are available for as low as 24 cents plus shipping — and you can probably find it at your local library. Enjoy.

Happy 90th birthday, Paula Fox! You are an inspiration to all novelists! 


January 12 marks the 64th birthday of Haruki Murakami, a novelist whose work I enjoy because it’s original, funny, surreal, and surprising.

Who else could write a detective story featuring an elderly (and rather simpleminded) private investigator that people pay a per diem to locate their lost cats? How does the detective get his clues? By interviewing cats! (That’s his special skill.)

Read an excerpt from the brilliant, charming, funny “Heigh Ho” at The Paris Review here.

To give you a feel for the story, here’s a passage from “Heigh Ho” by Haruki Murakami:

Being able to converse with cats was Nakata’s little secret. Only he and the cats knew about it. People would think he was crazy if he mentioned it, so he never did. Everybody knew he wasn’t very bright, but being dumb and being crazy were different matters altogether.

It wasn’t so unusual, after all, to see old folks talking to animals as if they were people. But if anyone did happen to comment on his abilities with cats and say something like, “Mr. Nakata, how are you able to know cats’ habits so well?” he’d just smile and let it pass. 

“Heigh Ho” by Haruki Murakami is also found in his novel Kafka on the Shore, available at

Wishing you many more happy birthdays, Mr. Murakami! 


Excerpt from a 1958 interview George Plimpton conducted with Ernest Hemingway, published in The Paris Review.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends, I rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

Illustration: Page from Hemingway’s first draft of A Farewell to Arms (1929).


Excerpt from a 1958 interview George Plimpton conducted with Ernest Hemingway, published in The Paris Review.

Interviewer: Who would you say are your literary forebears, those you have learned the most from?

Hemingway: Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgeniev, Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart, Quevedo, Dante, Virgil, Tintoretto…Goya, Giotto, Cezanne, Van Gogh…I put in painters, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers…I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.

Photo: Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.