Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 111

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Last year, the Paris Review celebrated its 55th anniversary. Despite its name, the famed literary magazine was founded by an American, George Plimpton, and has published most of the major American writers of our time. One of its most distinctive features has been its series of in-depth interviews with A-list novelists, poets and playwrights. Two collections of these interviews have been published previously, and now Picador has released Vol. III, a paperback original packed with fascinating and informative talks with the likes of Ralph Ellison, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Pinter, Norman Mailer and Salman Rushdie, to name but a few.

The Bombay-born Rushdie had to go into hiding two decades ago when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him for his novel The Satanic Verses. The death sentence was later revoked, but Rushdie still lives a largely underground life.

When the Paris Review interviewer, Jack Livings, asked him if the fatwa had shaken his confidence as a writer, Rushdie replied: "It made me wobble a lot. Then, it made me take a very deep breath, and in a way rededicate myself to the art, to think, Well, to hell with that. But at first what I felt was: That book took me more than five years to write. That's five years of my life giving my absolute best effort to make a thing as good as I can possibly make it...I spent five years like this, and what I got for it was worldwide vilification and my life being threatened. It wasn't even so much to do with physical danger as with intellectual contempt, the denigration of the seriousness of the work, the idea that I was a worthless individual who had done a worthless thing, and that, unfortunately, there were a certain number of Western fellow travelers who agreed. Then you think, What the fuck am I doing it for? It's not worth it. Just to spend five years of your life being as serious as you can be, and then to be accused of being frivolous and self-seeking, opportunistic. He did it on purpose. Of course I did it on purpose! How do you spend five years of your life doing something accidentally?"

There are many memorable quotes like that to be found in the 528-page book, which is edited by Philip Gourevitch and has an introduction by Margaret Atwood, who calls the interviews "real conversations between imperfect individuals, during which both participants might eat or drink, get testy, misunderstand each other, stonewall, gossip, pull the legs off their fellow writers, rage against fate. Insofar as words on a page can re-create the flavor of a personality, these interviews do it."