“Writers see you in a way you don’t always see yourself,” Joan Didion told Vendela Vida in a 2011 interview that’s reprinted in Always Apprentices: The Believer Magazine Presents Twenty-Two Conversations Between Writers. Didion’s proposition highlights the complex nature of a writer interviewing another writer, since both are presumably hyperaware of the other’s proclivity for studying the person before them.
Always Apprentices is the third volume of writer interviews from The Believer. The collection features intimate exchanges between fiction writers that took place in the past six years, some through letters or email, others in person. “Sometimes the writers would arrange something between themselves, and shake up the format or the location,” says Vida, one of the book’s three editors (along with Sheila Heti and Ross Simonini). “Mark Leyner and Brian Joseph Davis’ conversation took place at a bar, and Aleksandar Hemon and Colum McCann’s conversation led them to one.”
Most of the dialogues read as though they genuinely occurred without a larger audience in mind. (Name-dropping entails literary references rather than acquaintances.) All of them reveal one established author’s fixation with another’s creative process. The questions that reappear are surprisingly collegiate. Tom Barbash wants to know where Michael Ondaatje likes to write (in other people’s houses) and whether he revises as he goes (yes and no). Sheila Heti wants to know more about Mary Gaitskill’s affinity for longhand. (It allows you to get “heavily immersed in your own being,” Gaitskill says.)
Aleksander Hemon waxes dramatic about how and why he writes. It’s “my main means of engagement with the world and I want the scars of that engagement to be left in the language. I write and read with the assumption that literature contains knowledge of human experience that is not available otherwise.”
The various windows into writers’ lives—their processes, their creative maxims, their maxims about creativity—have a slight Annie Dillard quality. Vida doesn’t take umbrage at the comparison. “I think it’s natural to want to know about a writer’s process, both because they’re sometimes so strange, and sometimes so mundane….I want to know that [other writers] struggle, too. I want to know what they do when a book is giving them trouble, how they know they’re finished with a book, how they know they’ve arrived at the ending. Writing is such a private art in so many ways—I just want the curtain pulled back a little. I want to know I’m not alone.”
Always Apprentices succeeds not since it provides an array of colorful, writerly insights—which it does—but since it doesn’t alienate the general reader while trying to make the readers who are writers feel less alienated. The collection in and of itself is highly entertaining. The conversations read like scenes in a play that, at one point or another, will appeal either stylistically, thematically or both, to almost everyone. One side of each conversation introduces the scene and the interview subject. The tone and content of these overtures are notably, at times comically, distinct. Some are lyrical and personal, while others are pithy and biographical. There are interviewees who exhibit measured adulation for their subjects, and there is Wells Tower, whose introduction begins: “Barry Hannah is America’s greatest living writer.” (The interview took place prior to Barry’s death in July 2008.) The introduction ends with, “Hannah wasn’t satisfied with just the right word, it had to be the fiery, ecstatic word, too, a Molotov cocktail against syntactic dreariness.” Literary flattery doesn’t get much better than that.
Fiction writers become factually animated characters in these not-exactly-linear narratives that are often broken up into numbered parts that function like dialogue intertitles. Part III in the conversation between Geoff Nicholson and Will Self is entitled “Sex-Walking.” In the dialogue between Brian Joseph Davis and Mark Leyner, Part I is titled “Papa Was an Infinitely Hot and Intense Dot.” At the outset of Paula Fox’s talks with Nick Poppy, we’re given a taste of what’s ahead: “Appropriate elements for children’s fiction: sentiment, racial things, sexual things, death.”
There is humor throughout each discourse. Some of it comes from the inherently nervous spectacle that is proudly erudite wordsmiths conversing. It’s too easy to interpret words as peacock feathers and verbose interviewers as star-struck. The personalities and repartee are worth the read even if some of the talking points are occupation-specific. The writers certainly don’t limit their discussions to all things craft. Don DeLillo talks to Bret Easton Elis about the movie Psycho. Mary Gaitskill tells Sheila Heti why all writers need wives. Sedentary drinking, drinking while walking, vampires, deer hunting and armchair travel (in order to write) are all covered. But so are semantics, the (bleak) futures of the novel and publishing, the perks of having an “airport book” and the perils of success.
If anything is noticeably absent in the collection, it’s much intradisciplinary bite. Sarah Schulman provides acerbity in her discussion of sexual politics in publishing. Joy Williams voices her disdain of one of George Saunders’ stories. And Hemon says, “I am itching to criticize some well-regarded writers’ works, but I am not doing it because I am perfectly aware that my critique could easily be reduced to envy or just plain meanness.” Hemon also declares that, when it comes to writers, “There is no ‘we.’ There is no inherent solidarity—of purpose, of ethics or aesthetics—among writers. There may be some shared experience of irrelevance, but that just makes people pissy and lonely.”
The general theme of the collection, however, is cohesion and mutual admiration. The initial conversation between Ellis and DeLillo features a moderator who begins by encouraging the writers to avoid “excessive back patting,” and, soon after, Ellis has to remind himself not to go “into the whole lovefest aspect” of DeLillo’s Americana.
The interviews in the book occurred since the editors either paired writers who they thought would have a good conversation or a writer told them whom they’d like to interview. The likelihood that the Believer would consider a collection pairing writers who seem allergic to one another is slim to none, though they’re not opposed to pairing authors for whom the disparity in stylistic inclinations is more pronounced.
“Well, that could be interesting if they’re very different, but mutually respectful,” Vida says. “I would imagine Hemingway and Nabokov would have been interesting to pair, the butterfly collector with the elephant hunter. But ideally they would have found common ground, at least in their pursuit of mastery.”
Tobin Levy is a writer living in Austin, Texas.