Book Review: The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers Edited by Vendela Vida

I’m always on the lookout for books in which writers talk about writing. Not because I need tips or suggestions on how to do it; I think I have that figured out after all this time. My interest is more in the experiences you might find in memoirs: when they first realized they were writers, what obstacles they had to overcome to put words on paper, where they’ve traveled, where they like to work, any particular habits that light their fires, and so on. So when I found mention of this particular book in an online article, I decided to give it a try.

When I opened the book and perused the table of contents, I felt a bit of trepidation. I had read something by only about half a dozen of the forty-two names of interviewers and interviewees, and I recognized less than half of them. Some might say that speaks to my lack of literary awareness, not to any defect of the book. Well, okay, so what? Admittedly the book is fifteen years old and so it contains no recent rising stars. It also avoids like the plague any writers having anything to do with science fiction, fantasy, and other so-called genre writing, with the exception of George Saunders and Haruki Murakami, who, incidentally or not, turned out to have some of the best interviews in the book.

Parts of this book I found entertaining. Let’s get into those first to start off on a bright note. As mentioned above, the interview with George Saunders was the highlight of the book. He is kind, considerate, and thoughtful as well as erudite and lucid. He makes writing and the teaching of writing sound like great fun. The tone of his comments is similar to that in his more recent book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. In that book he gives the ultimate writing advice: “The closest thing to a method I have to offer is this: go forth and do what you please.”

Haruki Murakami’s interview also works well perhaps in part because it was conducted via email with the interviewer posing questions in English, Murakami replying in Japanese, and then a translator converting his answer into English. This method gave Murakami the opportunity to provide thoughtful, nuanced answers to the interviewer’s queries.

This brings me to one of the major problems with numerous interviews in the book. They are conducted person to person or by phone, recorded by the interviewers, and then read as if they are transcribed unedited, apart from eliminating the pauses and mumbles. Some writers and interviewers ramble on and on, repeating the same obscure literary arguments over and over. In one interview, the interviewer and interviewee talk for several pages about a cricket match they are watching. That certainly could have been clipped from the text without significant loss. Another writer’s interview is almost entirely taken up with how much she hates her own writing. That one was particularly hard to get through, much less comprehend. If she hates what she is doing so much, she should do something else. Ridiculous. Why inflict what she considers trash upon the reading public? It made no sense to me at all, unless her petulance springs from some overwhelming sense of self-righteousness. Even then…

There were other interesting interviews: for instance, Janet Malcolm’s thoughts on writing nonfiction, Edward P. Jones’s explanation of why he chose to address the issue of slavery with a narrative about black slave owners, and August Wilson on the blues as an inspiration and on the importance of finding a truthful voice as an African American writer. All in all, though, I would say that less than half of these interviews were actively interesting to me, some were so-so, and the rest were boring. I can’t say that everyone would have the same reaction. I’m just not one to put up with highbrow highfalutin’ literary pretenses. I’m much rather simply enjoy a good story.

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