1. Education

Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews

"Anyone who . . . is trying to write will want to read 'Writers at Work'"


Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews

The Paris Review, Spring 2011

Here's some good news for serious readers and writers. The complete run of "Writers at Work"--over 300 thoughtful conversations with some of the finest authors of our time--is now available, subscription free, at The Paris Review Interviews.

Since 1953, The Paris Review magazine has hosted this legendary series of interviews, in which novelists, poets, biographers, and essayists offer their insights into the creative process and the craft of writing. As a reviewer once said, "Anyone who has written, or is trying to write, will want to read 'Writers at Work.'"

In the following excerpts from The Paris Review interviews, ten notable authors discuss their writing habits and the writing process. (Follow the links to read the complete interviews.)

  • Graham Greene
    I set myself a number of words. Five hundred, stepped up to seven fifty as the book gets on. I re-read the same day, again the next morning and again and again until the passage has got too far behind to matter to the bit that I am writing. Correct in type, final correction in proof.
    (Interviewed by Simon Raven and Martin Shuttleworth in The Paris Review, Autumn 1953)

  • Rick Moody
    I'm against schedules. Write when you feel excited by the prospect. Otherwise, don't bother. . . .

    I like to correct drafts on the subway. It's peaceful and there is no phone there and no e-mail. I always write with music on, I often write with the phone turned off, I often write and drink seltzer water, I often write with the blinds down, I sometimes write in bed, like Proust did, I sometimes nap in the middle of working, I sometimes have to meditate before starting work, to make sure there is the potential for calm.
    (Interviewed by David Ryan in The Paris Review, Spring/Summer 2001)

  • Francine du Plessix Gray
    I work very slowly. It's mostly pacing, researching, brewing endless cups of herb tea while I think of how to annotate these terrible earlier drafts. Hours are spent figuring how to rewrite one single sentence--I've never managed to write anything, even a book review, in fewer than three or four drafts. . . .

    [W]e must all struggle against all that is cautious, already seen, fatigued, shopworn. I battle against what my admirable colleague William Gass calls pissless prose, prose that lacks the muscle, the physicality, the gait of a good horse, for pissless prose is bodiless and has no soul.
    (Interviewed by Regina Weinreich in The Paris Review, Summer 1987)

  • William Gass
    It's essential that I be in the midst of something, so I try to quit work with new material that now needs revision in the typewriter. In the morning I can start right off working on those revisions and hope that by the end of the day the process of revising will have sent me forward into some new material. . . .
    (Interviewed by Thomas LeClair in The Paris Review, Summer 1977)

  • Elizabeth Hardwick
    I'm not sure I understand the process of writing. There is, I'm sure, something strange about imaginative concentration. The brain slowly begins to function in a different way, to make mysterious connections. Say, it is Monday, and you write a very bad draft, but if you keep trying, on Friday, words, phrases, appear almost unexpectedly. I don't know why you can't do it on Monday, or why I can't. I'm the same person, no smarter, I have nothing more at hand. . . .

    It's one of the things writing students don't understand. They write a first draft and are quite disappointed, or often should be disappointed. They don't understand that they have merely begun, and that they may be merely beginning even in the second or third draft.
    (Interviewed by Darryl Pinckney in The Paris Review, Summer 1985)

  • John McPhee
    [T]he aural part of writing is a big, big thing to me. I can't stand a sentence until it sounds right, and I'll go over it again and again. Once the sentence rolls along in a certain way, that's sentence A. Sentence B may work out well, but then its effect on sentence A may spoil the rhythm of the two together. One of the long-term things about knitting a piece of writing together is making all this stuff fit.

    I always read the second draft aloud, as a way of moving forward. . . . I read aloud so I can hear if it's fitting together or not. It's just as much a part of the composition as going out and buying a ream of paper.
    (Interviewed by Peter Hessler in The Paris Review, Spring 2010)

  • Martin Amis
    A lot of the time seems to be spent making coffee or trolling around, or throwing darts, or playing pinball, or picking your nose, trimming your fingernails, or staring at the ceiling.

    You know that foreign correspondent's ruse; in the days when you had your profession on the passport, you put writer; and then when you were in some trouble spot, in order to conceal your identity you simply changed the r in writer to an a and became a waiter. I always thought there was a great truth there. Writing is waiting, for me certainly. It wouldn't bother me a bit if I didn't write one word in the morning. I'd just think, you know, not yet.
    (Interviewed by Francesca Riviere in The Paris Review, Spring 1998)

  • Joan Didion
    When I'm working on a book, I constantly retype my own sentences. Every day I go back to page one and just retype what I have. It gets me into a rhythm. . . . At the end of the day, I mark up the pages I've done--pages or page--all the way back to page one. I mark them up so that I can retype them in the morning. It gets me past that blank terror.
    (Interviewed by Hilton Als in The Paris Review, Spring 2006)

  • Julian Barnes
    I tend to write quickly when I'm on the first draft, and then just revise and revise. . . . The pleasure of the first draft lies in deceiving yourself that it is quite close to the real thing. The pleasure of the subsequent drafts lies partly in realizing that you haven't been gulled by the first draft. Also in realizing that quite substantial things can be changed, changed even quite late in the day, that the book can always be improved.
    (Interviewed by Shusha Guppy in The Paris Review, Winter 2000)

  • Ray Bradbury
    I type my first draft quickly, impulsively even. A few days later I retype the whole thing and my subconscious, as I retype, gives me new words. Maybe it'll take retyping it many times until it is done. Sometimes it takes very little revision. . . .

    [Writing is] the exquisite joy and madness of my life, and I don't understand writers who have to work at it. I like to play. I'm interested in having fun with ideas, throwing them up in the air like confetti and then running under them. If I had to work at it I would give it up. I don't like working.
    (Interviewed by Sam Weller in The Paris Review, Spring 2010)

To learn more about what Joyce Carol Oates has called "the writerly predicament," visit The Paris Review Interviews.

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Grammar & Composition
  4. Writing Tips
  5. Writers on Writing
  6. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews - Quotations on writing from contemporary authors - Writers on Writing

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.