You are an amazing, wonderful, intelligent,...

James Baldwin, The Art of Fiction No. 78

Fantastic amazing interview with James Baldwin from The Paris Review, Issue 91, Spring 1984. Some highlights...

On doing the right thing.

...I knew I had to go back to America. And I went. Once I was in the civil-rights milieu, once I’d met Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and Medgar Evers and all those other people, the role I had to play was confirmed. I didn’t think of myself as a public speaker, or as a spokesman, but I knew I could get a story past the editor’s desk. And once you realize that you can do something, it would be difficult to live with yourself if you didn’t do it.

On writing.

It’s a terrible way to make a living. I find writing gets harder as time goes on. I’m speaking of the working process, which demands a certain amount of energy and courage (though I dislike using the word), and a certain amount of recklessness. I don’t know, I doubt whether anyone—myself at least—knows how to talk about writing. Perhaps I’m afraid to.

On writing fiction vs. non-fiction.

Every form is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass. None of it comes easy.

When he writes.

I start working when everyone has gone to bed. I’ve had to do that ever since I was young—I had to wait until the kids were asleep. And then I was working at various jobs during the day. I’ve always had to write at night. But now that I’m established I do it because I’m alone at night.

On where he gets his ideas.

Probably that way for everybody: something that irritates you and won’t let you go. That’s the anguish of it. Do this book, or die. You have to go through that.

On white supremacy.

Now, though, a kid now . . . well, you see, something has happened which no one has really noticed, but it’s very important: Europe is no longer a frame of reference, a standard-bearer, the classic model for literature and for civilization. It’s not the measuring stick. There are other standards in the world. It’s a fascinating time to be living. There’s a whole wide world which isn’t now as it was when I was younger. When I was a kid the world was white, for all intents and purposes, and now it is struggling to remain white—a very different thing.

On minor characters.

Well, minor characters are the subtext, illustrations of whatever it is you’re trying to convey. I was always struck by the minor characters in Dostoyevsky and Dickens. The minor characters have a certain freedom which the major ones don’t. They can make comments, they can move, yet they haven’t got the same weight, or intensity...if you fuck up a minor character you fuck up a major one. They are more a part of the decor—a kind of Greek chorus. They carry the tension in a much more explicit way than the majors.

On white America.

At any rate, few novelists interest me—which has nothing to do with their values. I find most of them too remote for me. The world of John Updike, for instance, does not impinge on my world. On the other hand, the world of John Cheever did engage me. Obviously, I’m not making a very significant judgment about Updike. It’s entirely subjective, what I’m saying. In the main, the concerns of most white Americans (to use that phrase) are boring, and terribly, terribly self-centered. In the worst sense. Everything is contingent, of course, on what you take yourself to be.

On how to become a writer.

Write. Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say. If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.

On talent.

Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.

...and all together groovy individual. Truth.

Curiosity. Tenacity. Empathy. Love.

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