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The strange experience of interviewing V.S. Naipaul

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 3, 2013 10:08 AM

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Naipaul2.jpegI don’t envy Isaac Chotiner. Somehow the 30-year-old senior editor at The New Republic secured an interview with the eminent V.S. Naipaul. But apparently just because Naipaul invites you into his London home doesn’t mean he’s willing to talk. The interview, which ran in early December, reads as a bizarro Stoppard-esque comedy. Chotiner has done his homework, but the prickly 80-year-old Naipaul disputes the premises of most of Chotiner’s questions, at one point tsk-tsking the journalist, “You are bringing very fixed ideas and applying them to me instead of seeing what is and how I am reacting.”

But where the conversation does get going, the results are interesting.

IC: As a writer, what are the external rewards for you

VSN: The thing about writing, I am speaking for myself here, what gives me great pleasure when I am starting on a big and difficult work—shall we say something like Among the Believers, which is a big work—quite early on, I begin to feel when I am working on it that I know where it’s going, that I am getting somewhere. That gives me great pleasure. I am suffused with pleasure. It is all to do with writing that is connected with the writer seeing his way to the end of the work he is engaged on. The things of people coming up to one, it doesn’t mean anything, does it? It usually doesn’t mean anything.


IC: Do you look back at your own books

VSN: Recently, I did a lot of short prefaces for the new Picador paperback editions and that made me think about the work. When I have looked back at the work, it is with—my heart is in my mouth. The reason being, I am always waiting for the writer—as I read—to stumble, to say something foolish. And I hope it never comes. I still think it’s really quite wonderful when I read a sentence of mine and it has that quality of lastingness.

Throughout the interview Naipaul distances himself from the present-tense world: He doesn't read contemporary novels, he's disinterested in Barack Obama, knows nothing of modern-day India, thinks the Arab Spring was empty noise, says he's done writing fiction. And his dodges to Chotiner's questions suggest that after eight decades on earth, he's lost interest in his own character, too. It's a perspective that holds up, except for the one niggling fact that he agreed to the interview in the first place.

Photo courtesy of Vintage Anchor Publicity

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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