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The Curious Case of George

An interview with the longtime editor of Paris Review


The Paris Review's editor and cofounder George Plimpton, 76, hasn't slowed much after 50 years running a literary quarterly and, on the side, writing about every conceivable topic for every conceivable publication. Just back from a trek to Antarctica, Plimpton recently spoke, from his New York office, about Hemingway, baseball and an interview request interrupted by death. Following are excerpts:

CL: How sobering is the realization that you've been running this little publication for a half-century?

Plimpton: I've been giving it thought, increasingly. It's very sobering. It's a terribly long time. Fifty. On the other hand, it's sort of exhilarating to see it come this far and see it still survive. . .Of course, funding is the big thing. Then identity and elan. I think what kept it going was the infusion of younger editors, people who came onboard with as much excitement and energy as I had back in 1953 and 1954. . .And then of course people coming up and saying, "I read The Review last week." I've only seen one person actually buy a copy of it in 50 years. Guess who that was?

Who was it?

It was Ernest Hemingway. It was in a bookstore in the Ritz Hotel in Paris. I was fairly drunk at the time, I was coming back from a wedding and I saw this big man buying the second issue, with a blue cover. Reaching in his pocket, pulling out his wallet and buying the damn thing. And I met him that evening in the bar of the Ritz. There he was with my magazine and we got talking. That's when he agreed to be interviewed (by The Paris Review). A lot came from seeing that fella buy that copy.

How do you think The Review has changed over the years?

It's gotten larger in bulk and now we often have two interviews. The interviews, I think, were what gave it a big stir at the beginning. We decided that, rather than get people to do critical articles, we would concentrate almost entirely on fiction and poetry. And if we did any critiques, we would do it differently. Rather than going to Critic A and getting Critic A to write about Novelist B, we would go straight to Novelist B and get him or her to talk about their craft.

The first person we talked to was E.M. Forster, you know, Passage to India, Room With a View. Probably the most famous writer then, at the time. He was interesting because he told us why he had stopped writing novels. He hadn't written a novel since, I think, 1926, and he told us about how he couldn't control his characters, which was an extraordinary disclosure. So when he was in the first issue it made people take interest.

Now there are 260 writers who have been interviewed. There are only a few who haven't done it. One is Salinger, of course, and Thomas Pynchon hasn't pulled in yet, but you never can tell.

Has The Review ever turned a profit?

Well, one year we did, because we put out a set of posters. They were done by all the Pop artists who admired the magazine. So we had, for awhile, (Richard) Anuszkiewicz and (Roy) Lichtenstein and (David) Hockney and (Andy) Warhol. They were numbered 1 through 100 or 1 through 200 [Editor's note: Each artist had 150 signed and numbered editions]. That collection, if I had it today, would be worth millions. Those days, we used to sell these things at the World's Fair for, you know, 25 bucks. Then they got very popular and we sold them for a lot more. We used to make a lot of money off that, which kept the magazine going.

Then we had galas, various parties which we tried to raise money. It's always been service in the support of arts.

The list of luminaries interviewed in the quarterly over the years -- Faulkner, Garcia Marquez, Nabokov -- is incredible. Who haven't you gotten that you really wanted?

There were people that died before we got to them (chuckles). We should have had Gertrude Stein, we should've had others. Thomas Mann actually died as someone was knocking on his door, saying, "We're here from The Paris Review." They were probably the last words he heard. There have been people who have passed away or foreign writers we should have had. There are many more than 250 worthy writers in the world. We got a lot of them, though.

In making choices for the anthology, did you take much of an interest in going back through these old issues yourself?

Well, I recommended a lot of them, since I remembered many of them. But I was amazed at what they came up with, particularly when they came up and said, "Gee, what a great magazine this one was. Look at this poem!" I'd forgotten it. Or maybe it was a short story or a sketch or something. It was very flattering to hear things like that.

How would you compare the literary scene when you started with the contemporary literary world?

Well, it's very hard to do that. There were great titans when we started off. Philip Roth and John Updike and William Styron, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal. Truman Capote. It may be because there was great public knowledge of those writers -- everybody knew who those people were -- that it was different. Who would that quartet be today? Would it be Rick Moody? Richard Powers? I'm not sure it's their fault. There was a lot more discussion about great writers. People used to appear on television. And people could hardly wait for (William Styron's) Sophie's Choice to come out, or Mailer's new book or what have you.

Do you have an opinion on some of the younger literary publications, such as McSweeney's?

I met McSweeney (founder Dave Eggers) at a book fair. I thought he was terrific. And he spoke very warmly about The Paris Review, which pleased me no end. I admire what he does out there in California, which is to run these programs for young writers. I think that's very impressive. That's more than we've done.

Now that you're firmly in the anthology business, any plans for a Plimpton anthology?

Yeah. I'm supposed to put together a boxing anthology. It's coming out in April. There's an anthology of sports pieces, as well, and an anthology of non-sports things. So there are three of them I am working on.

Are you still active?

I'm 76, but I feel younger. I haven't slowed down. I have a leg that doesn't work quite the way it should -- it's got cartilage loss -- but other than that, I still play tennis. We have the Paris Review baseball team. I pitch for it. We beat The New Yorker earlier this year, a great triumph.

You mentioned those heavyweight writers from when you started. They used to engage in a fair number of delicious literary feuds, more than today, it seems. You don't see as many of those feuds, do you?

No. Well there were these extraordinarily flamboyant people around. Vidal and Capote and Mailer and they were also involved in the political issues. Of course, there were shows like Dick Cavett and Jack Paar where guests would go on (and discuss controversial topics). I don't think David Letterman has ever had a writer on, much as I admire his show. Certainly not Mr. Leno. Charlie Rose is about the only place writers can go on anymore.

The anthology includes T.C. Boyle's brilliant baseball tale, "The Hector Quesadilla Story." How does that compare with your unforgettable diamond hoax, "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch?"

I've never compared the two. I admire T.C. Boyle and that story. Finch was, you know, trained by (fictional Tibetan poet-saint) Lama Milaraspa. Hector was still mortal, where Finch immortal. I had great fun writing that piece. My God, I was asked originally to do a story on hijinks in sports for Sports Illustrated's April 1 issue (in 1985). I did some research and came back to see the editor and I said, "I haven't got much material." And he said, "Well, do your own." And I said, wow. I walked out into a sleet storm and it all came to mind. A super pitcher with Zen and science and all this. It poured into my head. The result was staggering. One fellow in Chicago said he had actually met Sidd Finch, if you can believe that.

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