words follow me


archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

seventh letter

My dear aburo,

I wrote something recently extolling the virtues of libraries. Some of their territory is now being taken over for the Internet, though it will never be a total replacement. I’m thinking specifically of literature. Of course, I’d rather turn pages in bed on a rainy afternoon, or read under the shade of a tree on a warm day, than stare at a computer screen. But sometimes what you’re after isn’t a book. It’s something shorter, something with a different kind of potency. Sometimes you want some insight into how other authors do their thing. So much of that is online now.

We’re lucky to live in these times. For most of the history of writing, all readers saw was the finished work. There were no book tours, few images of the author, and certainly no radio or television appearances. The author was merely a name, and that name was attached to a body of work. But these days, authors are more available to us, more willing and able to take us into the work in a way that is different from the work itself. Interviews abound, and while they are diverting for the general reader, they represent a much greater boon for young writers: a privileged and educative view of literary alchemy.

Let me confess something to you, my friend: I have spent hours and hours reading interviews with authors. There’s hardly an author who interests me, however faintly, that I haven’t read an interview by. I shudder to think of the total amount of time that I’ve sunk into this quixotic quest.

I am certainly more likely to have read an interview by a given author than a book. I simply love the form. It’s a free world, and this is one slightly irresponsible way I have chosen to use my freedom: luxuriating in the formalized chat that is the interview. For instance, I have a deep appreciation for the novelist Zadie Smith, though I haven’t read a lot of her fiction. It’s the interviews that draw me to her. I think I’ve read a dozen of them: what an agile, funny, self-interrogating mind she has. Another author who gives really interesting and extremely smart interviews is Amitava Kumar. His thoughts, and the way he expresses them, have taught me a great deal both about the style and ethics of writing at the border between fiction and nonfiction.

That isn’t to say all interviews are good or interesting. Some interviewers are interested primarily in gossip. They ask how much money the author makes or how many times he has been divorced. Who cares! Others focus on issues that are tangential to a particular author’s writing practice. When Orhan Pamuk is asked for the umpteenth time what he thinks of Islamic headscarves in Turkey, one can sense his barely contained impatience, his eagerness to get back to discussing literature which, after all, is his métier.

In newspapers, space restrictions and the need to catch the attention of the general reader go a little against the grain of an in-depth interview. Still, for quantity and variety, newspaper interviews can’t be beaten. To find them, either do a Google search for the author’s name and “interview,” or search for the author’s name under Google News.

Journals and magazines offer a different experience. For proprietary reasons, most of them still keep a lot of their material offline. But what is already available is rich and wonderful. For sheer depth, my favorite online destination is The Paris Review’s two long-running series, “The Art of Fiction” and “The Art of Poetry.” These are detailed, intricate conversations with almost all the best writers in English (and many who write in other languages) of the past sixty years.

The Paris Review’s interviews are usually conducted over a period of days or weeks, usually in the author’s home or writing space, and more often than not by someone who is a longtime reader and appreciator of the author’s work. These digressive conversations give one the sense of listening in on a great mind grappling with the mysteries of creativity, as well as with its mundane aspects.

In his interview, Chinua Achebe says, “Writers are not only writers, they are also citizens.” I want to argue with him, because I sense a certain restrictiveness in what he’s saying, and I tend to be wary of narrow conceptions of literature (unless, of course, they are narrow in the way I prefer). But he adds, “Some people think, well, what he’s saying is we must praise his people. For God’s sake! Go and read my books. I don’t praise my people. I am their greatest critic.” It’s true, and I find myself in full, humble agreement with Papa Chinua.

Doris Lessing talks about her childhood in Africa, when she wasn’t permitted to sit outside in the evening and listen to African storytellers. Years later, as a successful author, she joined a storyteller’s group. There’s a wistfulness in that detail that resonates with me: the long-desired thing grasped only much later: countless books written as a way to become an oral storyteller.

In Ralph Ellison’s interview, given in 1955, he’s asked whether someone without a knowledge of African American folklore can understand his work. He replies: “Yes, I think so. It’s like jazz; there’s no inherent problem which prohibits understanding but the assumptions brought to it. We don’t all dig Shakespeare uniformly, or even ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ The understanding of art depends finally upon one’s willingness to extend one’s humanity and one’s knowledge of human life.”

Thirty-five years later, in 1990, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa addresses a different aspect of the writing life: fame. He recounts something Pablo Neruda once told him: “An article at the time—I can’t remember what it was about—had upset and irritated me because it insulted me and told lies about me. I showed it to Neruda. In the middle of his birthday party, he prophesied: ‘You are becoming famous. I want you to know what awaits you: the more famous you are, the more you will be attacked like this. For every praise, there will be two or three insults. I myself have a chest full of all the insults, villainies, and infamies a man is capable of withstanding. I wasn’t spared a single one: thief, pervert, traitor, thug, cuckold, everything! If you become famous, you will have to go through that.’ Neruda told the truth; his prognosis came absolutely true. I not only have a chest, but several suitcases full of articles that contain every insult known to man.”

Hmm. Good to know what we have awaiting us, if the fates favor (or punish) us with fame. In the interim, before we get that chest full of insults, I urge you to Google “Paris Review Interviews.” I’ve learnt as much from the well-known writers as I have from those who are less famous. Take a gamble on an unfamiliar name. At times, you can read something in one of those conversations that feels like it is a secret code passed from the author directly to you, in the guise of a public utterance. Rather like these letters of mine to you, don’t you think?

Well, here comes the New Year loping shyly into view. It will be sweet.




Filed under: letters to a young writer, literature

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