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Alive and Writing: INTERVIEWS WITH AMERICAN AUTHORS OF THE 1980s; conducted and edited by Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory (University of Illinois : $22.50; 287 pp.)

August 09, 1987|Jim Gustafson | Gustafson lives in Michigan. His fifth book of poetry, "Virtue and Annihilation," will be published in the fall by The Allternative Press

An interview with a writer can be pleasant voyeuristic excursion into the mysterious realm or the creative process, or a turgid oral examination, testing the author's knowledge of his or her own work. It can be a forum for critic-bashing, or an opportunity to correct misconceptions about one's work. Ideally, an interview will result in some tangible insight into how the subject came to be the writer he or she is.

"Alive and Writing: Interviews With American Authors of the 1980s" is an esoteric collection of 13 interviews with writers who have, in one way or the other, assimilated aspects of the breakthroughs in fiction made in the '60s and '70s; assumed the license to alter structure, abandon linear plot, or invent new presentations of theme and/or language.

In their introduction, Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory state, "For every interview there was a specific issue, a central kernel, that we felt was fundamental to our sense of what made the writer unique."

William Kennedy, the author of "Legs," "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game" and "Ironweed" is quizzed at some length about his choice of his hometown Albany, N. Y., as the location of the greater part of his work. He speaks of how he became immersed in Albany after a period of absence and taping conversations with his family; "my father talking about his life, his random, senile craziness--wonderful conversations." How these conversations, and his journalistic research into the gangster and nightclub world of Albany "all fertilized my imagination to the point where there were no dimensions of Albany I didn't want to understand."

"Alive and Writing" includes interviews with two prominent science fiction writers, Samuel Delany and Ursula Le Guin. In many literary circles, science fiction is considered a lesser cousin to "real" writing, but for Delany, writing science fiction is a form of liberation. Asked if he'd been tempted to write "mundane fiction," he replies: "It's asking you to give up half your vocabulary. There's little you can do in mundane fiction that you can't also do in SF. But you can do a whole lot of things in SF that are unavailable to the writer of mundane fiction."

These 13 interviews all stand up reasonably well on their own. The more difficult writers such as Walter Abish and Ron Silliman fair well in their explanations of the structures they have elected to attach their words to, but not to the extent where one feels a sudden visceral response to their work. Silliman can explain the joys of "arbitrary structuring devices" at great length, and still leave the reader trying to locate the work's soul.

One of the things this reviewer likes to look for in writer interviews are the slip-ups and unguarded remarks. I like it when Ann Beattie says, "Complexity fouls me up." Or that "I always liked to work in my husband's clothes. He's not my husband any longer, but I still occasionally put on the essential plaid shirt." Does this tell me more about the writer than what they read in Graduate School?

Perhaps not. But I do sometimes crave more details of the writer's life and less about their theories of writing. A writer's work is an attempt to establish a modicum of order to shadow a life. Literary theory is the shadow of the shadow.

This collection is fairly strong on the why-did-you-do-that? and how-did-that-effect-this? kind of questioning. It probes methodically and should prove to be an excellent starting point for someone interested in exploring the careers of these 13 very different writers. It will be compared to The Paris Review "Writers at Work" series, but McCaffery and Gregory have taken bigger risks in their selection of writers than The Paris Review has. The interviewers are a thorough yet unintrusive team, and having 13 interviews conducted by the same inquisitors, you come to grips with their prejudices and idiosyncrasies, which in turn aids in trusting or distrusting the given interview.

The interviews themselves aren't extraordinarily revealing. They are tightly edited to remove "irrelevancies," and one is hard put to find a fey or terse or angry response. Barry Hannah may have been steadily drinking bourbon and water throughout the interview, but the clues are not immediately obvious in the text.

The final strength of this volume is that it allows the reader a glimpse into comparative attitudes of a wide range of writers. You can compare McGuane's, Hannah's, and Carver's opinions on the effects of alcohol on their work, or Walter Abish's and Russell Hoban's concern with the visual.

"Alive and Writing" is an instructional and informative crash course in dissimilar sensibilities. It may be a bit skimpy in biographical gossip for some readers, but it does succeed in what its editors set out to do.

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