A must-read interview: Aldous Huxley on “The Art of Fiction”

I agree that the “great books “speak for themselves”…and do so with unique eloquence. However, there is no documentation to suggest that authors such as Homer, Sophocles, Chaucer, Cervantes, and Shakespeare were ever interviewed.

Aldous Huxley

Fortunately, The Paris Review has been interviewing great authors since being founded in Paris in 1953 by Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton. I have retrieved from its archives an excerpt from an interview of Aldous Huxley by Raymond Fraser, George Wickes in 1960. To read the complete interview, obtain subscription information, and/or check out other resources, please click here.

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Among serious novelists, Aldous Huxley is surely the wittiest and most irreverent. Ever since the early twenties, his name has been a byword for a particular kind of social satire; in fact, he has immortalized in satire a whole period and a way of life. In addition to his ten novels, Huxley has written, during the course of an extremely prolific career, poetry, drama, essays, travel, biography, and history.

Descended from two of the most eminent Victorian families, he inherited science and letters from his grandfather T. H. Huxley and his great-uncle Matthew Arnold respectively. He absorbed both strains in an erudition so unlikely that it has sometimes been regarded as a kind of literary gamesmanship. (In conversation his learning comes out spontaneously, without the slightest hint of premeditation; if someone raises the topic of Victorian gastronomy, for example, Huxley will recite a typical daily menu of Prince Edward, meal by meal, course by course, down to the last crumb.) The plain fact is that Aldous Huxley is one of the most prodigiously learned writers not merely of this century but of all time.

After Eton and Balliol, he became a member of the postwar intellectual upper crust, the society he set out to vivisect and anatomize. He first made his name with such brilliant satires as Antic Hay and Point Counter Point, writing in the process part of the social history of the twenties. In the thirties he wrote his most influential novel, Brave New World, combining satire and science fiction in the most successful of futuristic utopias. Since 1937, when he settled in Southern California, he has written fewer novels and turned his attention more to philosophy, history, and mysticism. Although remembered best for his early satires, he is still productive and provocative as ever.

It is rather odd to find Aldous Huxley in a suburb of Los Angeles called Hollywoodland. He lives in an unpretentious hilltop house that suggests the Tudor period of American real-estate history. On a clear day he can look out across miles of cluttered, sprawling city at a broad sweep of the Pacific. Behind him dry brown hills rise to a monstrous sign that dominates the horizon, proclaiming hollywoodland in aluminum letters twenty feet high.

Mr. Huxley is a very tall man—he must be six feet four—and, though lean, very broad across the shoulders. He carries his years lightly indeed; in fact he moves so quietly as to appear weightless, almost wraithlike. His eyesight is limited, but he seems to find his way about instinctively, without touching anything.

In manner and speech he is very gentle. Where one might have been led to expect the biting satirist or the vague mystic, one is impressed instead by how quiet and gentle he is on the one hand, how sensible and down-to-earth on the other. His manner is reflected in his lean, gray, emaciated face: attentive, reflective, and for the most part unsmiling. He listens patiently while others speak, then answers deliberately.

Would you tell us something first about the way you work?

I work regularly. I always work in the mornings, and then again a little bit before dinner. I’m not one of those who work at night. I prefer to read at night. I usually work four or five hours a day. I keep at it as long as I can, until I feel myself going stale. Sometimes, when I bog down, I start reading—fiction or psychology or history, it doesn’t much matter what—not to borrow ideas or materials, but simply to get started again. Almost anything will do the trick.

Do you do much rewriting?

Generally, I write everything many times over. All my thoughts are second thoughts. And I correct each page a great deal, or rewrite it several times as I go along.

Do you keep a notebook, like certain characters in your novels?

No, I don’t keep notebooks. I have occasionally kept diaries for short periods, but I’m very lazy, I mostly don’t. One should keep notebooks, I think, but I haven’t.

Do you block out chapters or plan the overall structure when you start out on a novel?

No, I work away a chapter at a time, finding my way as I go. I know very dimly when I start what’s going to happen. I just have a very general idea, and then the thing develops as I write. Sometimes—it’s happened to me more than once—I will write a great deal, then find it just doesn’t work, and have to throw the whole thing away. I like to have a chapter finished before I begin on the next one. But I’m never entirely certain what’s going to happen in the next chapter until I’ve worked it out. Things come to me in driblets, and when the driblets come I have to work hard to make them into something coherent.

Is the process pleasant or painful?

Oh, it’s not painful, though it is hard work. Writing is a very absorbing occupation and sometimes exhausting. But I’ve always considered myself very lucky to be able to make a living at something I enjoy doing. So few people can.

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To read the complete interview, obtain subscription information, and/or check out other resources, please click here.

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