Category Archives: Books

Maya Angelou: An Interview. The Paris Review, 1990

A fascinating interview conducted on the stage of the YMHA on Manhattan’s upper East Side, with George Plimpton.

Maya Angelou

“This interview was conducted on the stage of the YMHA on Manhattan’s upper East Side. A large audience, predominantly women, was on hand, filling indeed every seat, with standees in the back . . . a testament to Maya Angelou’s drawing power. Close to the stage was a small contingent of black women dressed in the white robes of the Black Muslim order. Her presence dominated the proceedings. Many of her remarks drew fervid applause, especially those which reflected her views on racial problems, the need to persevere, and “courage.” She is an extraordinary performer and has a powerful stage presence. Many of the answers seemed as much directed to the audience as to the interviewer so that when Maya Angelou concluded the evening by reading aloud from her work—again to a rapt audience—it seemed a logical extension of a planned entertainment.

INTERVIEWER

You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. What’s the function of the Bible?

MAYA ANGELOU

The language of all the interpretations, the translations, of the Judaic Bible and the Christian Bible, is musical, just wonderful. I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is. Though I do manage to mumble around in about seven or eight languages, English remains the most beautiful of languages. It will do anything.

INTERVIEWER

Do you read it to get inspired to pick up your own pen?

ANGELOU

For melody. For content also. I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad. I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.

INTERVIEWER

Do you transfer that melody to your own prose? Do you think your prose has that particular ring that one associates with the King James version?

ANGELOU

I want to hear how English sounds; how Edna St. Vincent Millay heard English. I want to hear it, so I read it aloud. It is not so that I can then imitate it. It is to remind me what a glorious language it is. Then, I try to be particular and even original. It’s a little like reading Gerard Manley Hopkins or Paul Laurence Dunbar or James Weldon Johnson.

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Eudora Welty Writes to The New Yorker

Via the brilliant Letters of Note.

“In March of 1933, in an attempt to secure some work, 23-year-old Eudora Welty wrote the following charming letter to the offices of The New Yorker. Incredibly, they turned her down.

Eudora went on to write numerous pieces for The New Yorker and later won multiple awards for her work, including, in 1973, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter. Seven years later, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

March 15, 1933

Gentlemen,

I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930-31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A. (’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase [sic] you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

Truly yours, 

Eudora Welty

Hemingway Wrote Standing Up (Paris Review, 1958)

As did, apparently, Winston Churchill, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, Otto von Bismarck, Henry Clay, Thomas Jefferson, John Dos Passos, and Virginia Woolf.

Here is a interesting interview with Hemingway, in the Art of Fiction series,  from the 1958 Paris Review. The introduction alone (the article is by George Plimpton) is a fascinating look at Hemingway’s writing methods.

“Ernest Hemingway writes in the bedroom of his house in the Havana suburb of San Francisco de Paula. He has a special workroom prepared for him in a square tower at the southwest corner of the house, but prefers to work in his bedroom, climbing to the tower room only when “characters” drive him up there.

The bedroom is on the ground floor and connects with the main room of the house. The door between the two is kept ajar by a heavy volume listing and describing The World’s Aircraft Engines. The bedroom is large, sunny, the windows facing east and south letting in the day’s light on white walls and a yellow-tinged tile floor.

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Speaking in Tongues (Zadie Smith, 2009)

“…many thousands of [British] men and women…have sloughed off their native dialects and acquired a new tongue.” – George Bernard Shaw

In the opening line of Big Changes in Black America, his brilliant appraisal of Toure’s Who’s Afraid of Blackness: What it Means to be Black Now, for the New York Review of Books, Darryl Pinckney references an essay by Zadie Smith that had appeared in the same journal in 2009 (based on a lecture given at the New York Public Library in December 2008.) Entitled Speaking in Tongues, he refers to it as “stunning”.

So, I read it. And yes, it is. It is a wonderful, rare piece of writing. One that explores connections between speech, voice, class, race and language; the “complicated back stories, messy histories [and] multiple narratives” that most of us carry; the generational, public and private conflicts over language within societies, and especially black society; pride, shame, diversified race and cultural heritage; pragmatism and “ideological heroism”; the flexibility of the voice.

Smith draws on Shakespeare, Shaw, Keats, even Cary Grant, but pivots around the extraordinary figure of Barack Obama, of whom she writes “seems just the man to demonstrate that between [those] two voices there exists no contradiction and no equivocation but rather a proper and decent human harmony.”

It is a colossal, brilliant, emotional piece of writing.

It is here. Read it.

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