When The Paris Review appeared in 1953, its format was familiar to aficionados of literary periodicals: the first issue featured poems, short fiction and a pair of essays on trends in French and Italian literature. But there was one surprise: a thirteen-page Q&A with E.M. Forster, headed by an image of a manuscript page of thirty-three dense lines of spidery script, beginning with the words "Gentlemen. Gentlemen," culled from an unfinished novel. The interview itself, conducted in Forster’s high-ceilinged rooms at King’s College, Cambridge, was refreshingly blunt. "interviewers: [We] have also never felt comfortable about Leonard Bast’s seduction of Helen in Howards End…it came off allegorically but not realistically. Forster: I think you may be right." Subsequent Q&As with Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, James Thurber, Nelson Algren and Truman Capote helped to establish The Paris Review as a vibrant new literary periodical, and Ernest Hemingway remarked, "I have all the copies of The Paris Review and like the interviews very much. They will make a good book when collected."
The first collection of those interviews, titled Writers at Work, was published by Viking Press in 1958. A second volume, featuring Q&As with Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Mary McCarthy, appeared in 1963. More than a dozen other volumes would follow, and the editors eventually expanded the series to include discussions with playwrights, biographers, nonfiction luminaries, editors and the occasional literary critic; but novelists would always remain at the heart of the enterprise. Nearly all of the interviews were overseen by George Plimpton, who, until his death in 2003, edited the transcripts (and the published collections, most of which are now out of print) with devotion and dramatic flair.
In the decades that followed the journal’s debut, perhaps only the Q&As in Playboy equaled its own in quality and reputation. But the two publications adhered to very different editorial practices and procedures. The Playboy interviews were often combative and controversial, and Playboy‘s editors were not generally inclined to defer to the needs and whims of the subject during the editing process. (Playboy, moreover, did not limit its Q&As to literary figures: the magazine published interviews, up to 25,000 words in length, with Malcolm X, Jimmy Hoffa, Bertrand Russell, Fidel Castro, Albert Speer and John Lennon.)
The Paris Review settled on a more conciliatory approach. As Philip Gourevitch explains in his introduction to a new edition of Paris Review interviews, a four-volume compilation of greatest hits, "A Paris Review interview is always a collaboration, not a confrontation…. The purpose is not to catch writers off guard, but to elicit from them the fullest possible reckoning of what interests them most." To guarantee that outcome, editors have always granted the subject final approval of the transcript. Gourevitch, a distinguished reporter who recently completed a five-year stint as PR‘s editor, admits that its protocols are "unapologetically at odds with journalistic practice."
The logistics of a PR interview varied widely. Herbert Gold mailed questions to Vladimir Nabokov at the Montreux-Palace Hotel in Switzerland. When Gold arrived at the hotel, he found an envelope waiting for him: "the questions had been shaken up and transformed into an interview." Saul Bellow polished the transcript in hamburger joints and on park benches near the University of Chicago. Don DeLillo answered questions at an Anselm Kiefer exhibition in Manhattan and in "a comically posh bar." Cynthia Ozick sat at her dining room table with a typewriter and spontaneously typed out answers to questions posed by an interviewer seated a few feet away. Jorge Luis Borges met PR in a "large, ornate, high-ceilinged chamber" at the National Library in Buenos Aires, surrounded by Piranesi’s etchings. Pablo Neruda was interviewed on a stone bench facing the sea at his home in Isla Negra, Chile.