The publication of the anthology The Paris Review (Editorial Acantilado) leads us to wonder about the roots of the genre of the literary interview among us. Two veteran journalists who have cultivated it often exchange their experiences here, based on questions prepared by the Culture / s editorial staff.
How do you prepare a literary interview?
SERGIO VILA-SANJUÁN. The first thing, of course, is to read the author, not only the book he has just published but as much as possible of his production. I emphasize a lot and then I pass on key ideas that I have been remarking. I usually bring a fairly elaborate long questionnaire to the interviews but I give myself room to cross-examine and introduce new questions. The ones that work best for me as a reader, and therefore I try to carry out in my turn, both with novelists and with essayists or historians, are those in which the interviewer makes it easy for the author to show himself. Another theme: one can focus exclusively on literary issues or try, from the text, to illuminate the author’s personal trajectory and his vision of the world. But the dialogue must always emerge from the work,
XAVI AYÉN. The interview is not only one more genre of journalism but it is also a component of others: we do them for the news, reports, chronicles … In the latter cases, if one goes wrong, nothing happens, you ignore it and include others. But when you meet an important writer to discuss their books, you better be prepared. Most likely, in the newsroom, generous space is waiting for you to be filled in. And the best way to flatter an author is not to tell him that he writes well, but to show him that you know his work, nothing stimulates his talkativeness more than that. You have to prepare it by reading his books, essentially. Of course, also consulting the Internet, reading other interviews you have given, reviews … And, if you can, talk to people who have treated you. To interview the Nobel laureates,
What references have you had in this field?
Always attentive to what he was doing, it was like being a student in a workshop that never ended, I remember an interview between Moix and Antoni Tàpies about the project of installing a giant sock at the MNAC or at the same time that you got together to talk to the two Pániker brothers, so different. In that environment, many things were instilled in me that I still apply, such as that amenity does not mean insulting the intelligence of the reader. I also learned a lot of technique and tricks from Carles Sentís, whom I helped, now in his nineties but with a very clear head, with the first volume of his memoirs. He had lived through all the great journalism of the Republic, the turbulence of the civil war, a time when journalists if they had to disguise themselves to reach someone, did it without problems. I have read many books of interviews, those of the Paris Review, but I also keep those of Elena Poniatowska, Federico Campbell, Luis Harss, Inés Martín Rodrigo, or those of the Hay Festival. There is a masterpiece, Close Up Nobody Is Normal, by Peruvian Julio Villanueva Chang, an anthology of profiles based on interviews and in-depth follow-ups of characters. Interviews that you remember? In the written press.
SV I think there are two main models of literary interviews, which we could define as Goya and Velazqueñas. In the Goyescas the interviewer leaves a mark of strong personality and seeks that the encounter comes out with a text with expressive value in itself; in the Velazqueñas he places himself at the service of the interviewee so that he can expose in the clearest possible way the most relevant of his work and his figure. In the field of Goya interviews, those of Baltasar Porcel in Serra d´Or and Destino was exemplary, it was common in them that Porcel argued with the interviewee, sometimes harshly. In the field of Velazqueñas, I was greatly impacted in my adolescence by the magnificent series “24 hours of the life of”, published by Ana Maria Moix in Tele / express, with the author accompanying her character throughout a day and combining her background ideas with everyday life. Both series are the product of the Barcelona of the sixties that each time appears more vindicable as a cultural golden age. Those collected by The Paris Review, in its different Spanish versions since 1979, are mandatory. I really liked the ones that the French Guy Sorman put together in The True Thinkers of Our Time, as well as so many profiles published in The New Yorker. In democratic Spain, Juan Cruz has done a great job interviewing the staff of the literary world. Also Antón Castro from Zaragoza, on television and in the press. In recent years, yours are indispensable, Xavi, with scoops like García Márquez’s. And I would also highlight those of Inés Martín Rodrigo, Jordi Nope, and Karina Sainz Borgo.
Belarusian Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich talks with Xavi Ayén in the kitchen of her home in Minsk, in front of the Russian-Spanish interpreter, the journalist Catarina Andreeva, currently in prison.
To what extent do you have to count on the subsequent collaboration of the interviewer, reviewing and redoing it, as The Paris Review often does?
In general, it is a system that I avoid but in some cases, I have practiced it. With Stephen Vizinczey, the author of In the Arms of a Mature Woman, who was spending some time near Sitges, we spent several weeks exchanging pages by fax. He was a perfectionist who modified, expanded, and nuanced at will. Tireless! In the end, an almost programmatic text remained. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, with whom we became good friends and whom I interviewed on several occasions, from the second or third time asked me to review and correct them. This is how some of the interviews came out in which, I think, he has revealed the most about himself, especially about his childhood and adolescence.
FOR. Those are very specific cases, of course, and it benefits the content. As a rule, I don’t like doing it either because I’m afraid it will happen the other way around, that the interviewee will eliminate juicy opinions to avoid getting into trouble. When asked, I pretend to be clueless. Sometimes you can’t refuse: Gabriel García Márquez put it as a condition for me, and I remember the fear with which I sent a fax to Los Angeles with the text. But I didn’t get a comma, the fax came back with the word ‘ok’.
What are the best, weirdest, and worst you’ve ever made?
FOR. The one that has had the most impact, that of García Márquez, because he announced to the world that he had stopped writing, and The New York Times, Le Monde, CNN, Al Jazeera … The most exciting, perhaps with the poet Tomas Tranströmer at his home in Stockholm, because knowing that I was Catalan, I had rehearsed some songs by Mompou on the piano, which he played with my left hand, the only one that worked for him. Due to his illness, he only made what to me were guttural sounds, which his wife was ‘translating’ for me. Fernando Arrabal, in a hotel on Rambla Catalunya, stood up indignant to the first question: “You would never have asked Cervantes about this!” He left with fuss and the interview ended. I told him that if he did not think the day appear out of his book on the missing program Who knows whereof Paco Lobatón could be seen as a publicity stunt, since his father’s disappearance dated back to nothing less than the civil war.
Perhaps the worst is the one I did in the early 1980s to Shere Hite, author of the famous Hite Report on sexuality. Something similar to what happened to you with Arrabal happened to me. We were in the cafeteria of her hotel in Barcelona and she already started crossed, in a bad mood about something that I did not know. He was answering me with great reluctance and on the third or fourth question he got offended (and it was not offensive), he started yelling, got up and left me there astonished. The strangest was with Milan Kundera, at the Colón hotel. We spoke in French, mine not very good; he was not yet famous and had just published The Book of Laughter and Oblivion here. I asked my first question, minutes passed and he did not answer. I thought you hadn’t understood me. When he was about to launch the second, he began to answer the first. And so it continued the whole hour we were together, always responding late while I sweated with nervousness. Kundera thought a lot about what he said, it was clear that he did not like interviews and I was not surprised at all when years later he announced that he was not going to grant anymore. Of course, his thoughtful responses, once transcribed, were very brilliant.
Any particularly striking anecdote?
I decided to bring together the Salvador and Raimon Panikkar brothers in a debate, because I was very interested in their thoughts, with some points in common and others radically contrary. It was difficult because they had not spoken for years. I carried out intense diplomatic work for several months with the help of Agustín, Salvador’s son. They finally agreed, but were to gather them? Neither wanted to go to the other’s house (residences in Pedralbes and Tavertet, respectively). We set a point midway, a functional chain hotel in Vic. In this soulless space the only public exchange of ideas took place that both referents of spirituality maintained. Another: I went to see Alison Lurie at Cornell University, Ithaca, one April; I left New York in good weather and I was wearing a summer dress.
García Márquez did not give interviews, so I entered his home in Mexico as a messenger, bringing him Christmas gifts from his agent Carmen Balcells, in a suitcase that weighed 45 kilos and that I never opened. To convince him that, once there, he would receive me, his wife told him that, if he did not speak to me, would be fired for not being able to justify the trip. Another: a few days after Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel, I rang her doorbell in London (I got the address thanks to Marta Pessarrodona, who must not have suspected that she wanted it for that), and she opened the door for me in a robe, so the photos of Kim Manresa were great. Lessing ushered me into the living room because she wanted to finish watching the horse racing, she slept right there on the couch, because her back pain didn’t allow her to climb the stairs to the bedroom, and then we chatted in the kitchen.
What difference is there between interviewing for the newspaper and doing it in public for forums like the Hay Festival or presentations?
The public interview cannot be edited and, therefore, it has to be more perfect: no great silences, inconsequential conversation, off-the-records, hesitations … The wit, the spark, the anecdotes charge greater importance. It is a show, with an applauding audience. When the interviewee responds well, they leave you indelible memories, and I think of Elena Poniatowska, Cees Nooteboom or Etgar Keret.
Editors and authors began to realize, I believe that in the nineties, that to present books the interview was more dynamic and entertaining than the friendly speeches that were usual until then. One that I will not forget was Vikram Seth’s in 1995. Jorge Herralde asked me to chat with the author at the British Institute about his just-out novel A Good Match. I accepted without taking into account that the work had more than 1,300 pages. The date was approaching and I was carrying the book in the middle, but at that time my wife had to be admitted for hyperemia of pregnancy, and I slept with her in the clinic. I finished the reading marathon locked in the bedroom sink at night so as not to wake her up. I have enjoyed publicly interviewing Maria Kodama, Paul Auster, Mario Vargas Llosa, brilliantly, or Arturo Pérez Reverte,
How has the covid modified the literary interview?
FOR. It has imposed videoconferencing as a hegemonic system. If we are optimistic, we will say that it is better than by phone, because you can see the house and the mood of the author. But it is always better for the journalist to be displaced to the place, the text is impregnated with many more things.
It has led to the apotheosis of e-mail, zoom, and other ancillary systems. And it has worked remarkably well under the circumstances. The e-mail helped me in March to talk with Noah Gordon, the author of The Doctor, who at the age of 90 was confined with his wife in their apartment-residence near Boston. He sent me a strong message: “This pandemic is trying to kill me and the people I love. Please stay safe. Wash your hands and help each other. We all deserve to survive. “
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