“Every morning I tell myself, Today has to be productive…” – Italo Calvino in the Paris Review

The Paris Review has put its entire archive of interviews, dating back to the 1960s, on its website. This gem of an archive is free.  I came across an interview given by Italo Calvino, a favorite author of mine.  It appears Calvino recorded his thoughts (presented below) before the interview began.

Thoughts Before an Interview

Every morning I tell myself, Today has to be productive—and then something happens that prevents me from writing. Today . . . what is there that I have to do today? Oh yes, they are supposed to come interview me. I am afraid my novel will not move one single step forward. Something always happens. Each morning I already know I will be able to waste the whole day. There is always something to do: go to the bank, the post office, pay some bills . . . always some bureaucratic tangle I have to deal with. While I am out I also do errands such as the daily shopping: buying bread, meat, or fruit. First thing, I buy newspapers. Once one has bought them, one starts reading as soon as one is back home—or at least looking at the headlines to persuade oneself that there is nothing worth reading. Every day I tell myself that reading newspapers is a waste of time, but then . . . I cannot do without them. They are like a drug. In short, only in the afternoon do I sit at my desk, which is always submerged in letters that have been awaiting answers for I do not even know how long, and that is another obstacle to be overcome.

Eventually I get down to writing and then the real problems begin. If I start something from scratch, that is the most difficult moment, but even if it is something I started the day before, I always reach an impasse where a new obstacle needs to be overcome. And it is only in the late afternoon that I finally begin to write sentences, correct them, cover them with erasures, fill them with incidental clauses, and rewrite. At that very moment the telephone or doorbell usually rings and a friend, translator, or interviewer arrives. Speaking of which . . . this afternoon . . . the interviewers . . . I do not know if I will have the time to prepare. I could try to improvise but I believe an interview needs to be prepared ahead of time to sound spontaneous. Rarely does an interviewer ask questions you did not expect. I have given a lot of interviews and I have concluded that the questions always look alike. I could always give the same answers. But I believe I have to change my answers because with each interview something has changed either inside myself or in the world. An answer that was right the first time may not be right again the second. This could be the basis of a book. I am given a list of questions, always the same; every chapter would contain the answers I would give at different times. The changes would contain the answers I would give at different times. The changes would then become the itinerary, the story that the protagonist lives. Perhaps in this way I could discover some truths about myself.

But I must go home—the time approaches for the interviewers to arrive.

God help me!

—Italo Calvino

The interview begins with:

INTERVIEWER

What place, if any at all, does delirium have in your working life?

ITALO CALVINO

Delirium? . . . Let’s assume I answer, I am always rational. Whatever I say or write, everything is subject to reason, clarity, and logic. What would you think of me? You’d think I’m completely blind when it comes to myself, a sort of paranoiac. If on the other hand I were to answer, Oh, yes, I am really delirious; I always write as if I were in a trance, I don’t know how I write such crazy things, you’d think me a fake, playing a not-too-credible character. Maybe the question we should start from is what of myself do I put into what I write. My answer—I put my reason, my will, my taste, the culture I belong to, but at the same time I cannot control, shall we say, my neurosis or what we could call delirium.

– From Italo Calvino, The Art of Fiction No. 130, The Paris Review, 1992

It’s comforting to hear that even Calvino struggled with getting stuff done.  But, I also suspect that he exaggerated quite a bit given that he published a lot of books :).

Calvino’s works include If on a winter’s night a traveler, Invisible Cities and The Baron in the Trees.

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13 comments

  1. Thanks so much for highlighting these interviews. There are some real gems there which I’m looking forward to reading.

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    • Of his novels, I would recommend If one a winter’s night a traveler . I also recommend his Cosmicomics collection of short stories. Really, why stop at one novel? 🙂 You can then follow-up with Invisible Cities .

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  2. Perfect! I have yet to read Calvino, but plan to start with If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Didn’t realize archives of The Paris Review were available on the website – thanks.

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  3. The funny thing is once a work is done one feels that he’s done nothing and he’s now starting. That feeling could push him to write like this even though he got a lot done. I have not written anything worth writing this year. lol…

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  4. I needed this! Tomorrow morning I am now far less likely to reproach myself when I log on to the Internet, my newspaper surrogate.

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  5. I love that section of “Thoughts.” For some reason Calvino’s description of running errands triggered a memory of being in Italy, passing the newsstands. Funny how so few words can do that. I really need to read Calvino sometime, I’d meant to already, but this passage reinforces that thought. I’m not sure I needed to know about all those interviews, though–I could spend much too much time reading them!

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  6. I love this. How comforting to see such a great writer had the same time-management problems–though it probably helped that he wasn’t on facebook….

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