Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Revisiting The 'Last Interview' Of Ernest Hemingway, Philip K. Dick And Nora Ephron

<em>The Last Interview </em>series features conversations with Ernest Hemingway, Nora Ephron and Philip K. Dick.
Melville House
The Last Interview series features conversations with Ernest Hemingway, Nora Ephron and Philip K. Dick.

There's so much to like about the classy Last Interview series, but one of the things I now like best about it is the heavenly trio who was recently added to the line-up: Ernest Hemingway, Philip K. Dick, and Nora Ephron.

Can you think of three writers who, on the face of it, would have had less to say to each other at a dinner party? Hemingway would have knocked back the booze and gone all moody and silent; the notoriously paranoid Dick would have been under the table checking for bugging devices and Ephron would've channeled what she called "the truly life-saving technique" taught to her by her Hollywood screenwriter parents to get through a rough time: the mantra, "Someday this will be a story!"

But, despite their differences, in their respective interviews, Hemingway, Dick and Ephron are in harmonious agreement about the writing life: namely that it's composed of one part inspiration and daily buckets of perspiration. Sure, you don't expect even the most narcissistic artist to go on and on about his or her own genius in an interview, but the degree to which Hemingway, Dick and Ephron — separated by time period and individual temperament — keep hammering home the same message about writing is striking.

They all stress that writing is hard and job security a joke, but, also, that there are few joys to rival that of writing a sentence that nails it — whatever "it" is. Anyone who writes or who knows an aspiring writer should pick up this paperback trio of Last Interviews, both for encouragement and as a collective cautionary tale.

In the interview with George Plimpton, for instance, that opens the Hemingway volume, Papa says he rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms 39 times. When Plimpton asks: "Was there some technical problem there?" Hemingway curtly replies, "Getting the words right."

The Hemingway interviews are the most simultaneously affecting and frustrating. All four were done in Cuba in the 1950s, and Hemingway seems old and lonely. He keeps the conversation going with his visitors, even as he's reluctant to reflect out loud about writing, instead repeating his familiar adage that "talking about writing kill[s] it."

No such problem with Dick. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Streitfeld says in his terrific introduction to Dick's interviews, Dick long felt neglected working "in the ghetto of science fiction"; consequently, he talked the ear off of interviewers when they eventually came knocking late in his career.

Dick wrote daily from noon to 2 a.m. — a routine that produced 45 novels in 30 years and five volumes of short stories. These days, of course, he's hailed as one of our most esteemed sci fi writers — a visionary who gave us tales like The Man in the High Castle, which was made into an Amazon series, and the novel that inspired the classic film Blade Runner. But here's Dick, in 1977, speaking about the economic realities of the writing life:

That last line would have gotten a laugh out of Nora Ephron, who's very open in her early interviews about the take-home pay of a freelance writer. She's also (no surprise) funny and smart, smoothly referencing the likes of Charles Lamb, Philip Roth and Lillian Hellman, and you just want her to keep on talking forever. The first interview here dates from 1974, when Ephron was 32; the last from March 2012, a few months before her death.

As I was reading the Ephron collection, I kept thinking back to something Hemingway said in one of his interviews about his legendary editor, Maxwell Perkins: "I cared so much for Max Perkins that I have never been able to accept that he is dead." Yeah. It's a little startling, still, to see Ephron's face on the cover of a Last Interview paperback; I half hope to hear her voice from the Beyond assuring us fans, "Someday, this, [too], will be a story!"

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.