Writer-talk | Daily News



As far back as the mid-sixties, I had the chance of buying a compilation of interviews with 60 or more writers. They include poets, novelists and playwrights of varying types. For several years, I had the added chance of reading and rereading the book for several reasons. The book of brief interviews is given an appropriate title: The Writer Observed. The compiler is Harvey Breit.

The compiler introduces himself in the following manner:

“During a period of about four years, my job on the editorial staff of The New York Times Book Review gave precedence for a day or two days of each week to writing an interview with an author. The assignment as a regular thing came about in an unpremeditated way.”

The reader is made to meet most writers who lived at the time creating new literary trends. Among them are Conrad Arken, Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, TS Eliot, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Christopher Isherwood, Arthur Koestler, Carl Sandburg, Arnold Toynbee, William Carlos Williams and Edmond Wilson.

Though ‘The Writer Observed’ had initially appeared in 1961, it is indicative that the compilation has gone to several more editions later. The compilation, as I observe, comes closer to the volume of interviews as one finds in The Paris Review. Some of the questions posed by Breit are packed with the verve of sensitive literary insights, a modernist today would examine.

Eliot was asked if he had heard any advance rumours about his getting the Nobel Award. The reader gets to know that he had, but he had ignored them. But in 1947, the whispers of immortality had reached him. Swedish reporters, he had said, mysteriously turned up and kept hanging about. Then Breit states that “when the official cable from the Nobel Prize Committee in Stockholm reached him he was immensely pleased.” The questioning ensues and Eliot says: Andre Gide, the Nobel winner for literature, deserved the award.

In 1949, Breit had interviewed EM Forster at the peak of his success as a critic and a novelist. He says about Forster that it was the well-known book of criticism ‘Aspects of the Novel that drew attention. Forster claims that “there are some judgments in the book I would revise,” and adds: “the more I read Joyce, the more I am compelled to recognise his genius. (But) I never can appreciate him; I suppose I should never try. But reading him, I become more humble.”

One of the most fascinating comments that emerge via the interviews is the one with Robert Frost. The interview was sent to print in November 1949. The compiler poses the question: “What did Mr Frost have to say to the young poet today?” In a contemplative mood, Frost responds: “One thing I care about and I wish young people could care about it is taking poetry as the first form of understanding. Say it: my favourite form of understanding. If poetry is not understanding all, the whole world, then, is not worth anything.” On further inquiry, Frost says: “Young poets forget that poetry must include the mind as well as the emotions. Too many poets delude themselves by thinking the mind is dangerous and must be left out. Well, the mind is dangerous and must be left in.”

In this manner, the comments that transpire via the series of interviews happen to be thought-provoking and insightful.

One of the visionary interviews comes through the well known short story writer and novelist, Ernest Hemingway. The interview appeared in 1952 towards the most successful periods in the writing career of Hemingway. The interview looks more like a question and answer form.

“How do you feel Mr H?”

“Very well, thank you.”

“What are your plans?”

“To take a vacation, if I have any money left after taxes, and then go back to work.”

“Where would you like to take your vacation?”

“Either at the west or in Europe.”

“Do you enjoy writing, Mr H?”

“Very much. But if you do it as well as you can each day, it is tiring.”

“Do you mind talking about it?”

“I do not believe in talking about it and try to avoid talking about it. If I have to talk about a book that I have written it destroys the pleasure I have from writing it. If the writing is any good, everything there is to say has been conveyed to the reader.”

In this manner, the interviews, without much haste and agony, take the reader to a sensitive inner layer of a serious-minded creative process expressed in the best possible mode.

Aldous Huxley is known to the English reading world both in the capacity of a creative writer and philosopher par excellence. In the interview that has come to light in 1950, Breit comments that Huxley happens to be a silent person. On questioning what he intends to do right at the moment, Huxley said: “For a long time, I have been thinking of doing the impossible job of writing a historical novel and I have been thinking of collecting any material on the spot. It would be the 14th century Italy.”

“Why Italy?”

The response: “It fascinates me. Why? Well, it has the fascination of the impossible task. I still don’t know how it’s to be done – of indicating that people are always the same and artfully different.”

The reading of these interviews enables us to find not only the methods of interviewing but also the latent creative flux embedded in varying types of creators. The reader gets the feeling that the preparation on the part of the interviewer is a hallmark that needs more attention to unravel the hidden entities Harvey Breit leaves behind a whole world of word pictures of creativity.

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