I love a good interview. To me, there’s nothing so useful for demystifying the creative process as hearing an artist or entrepreneur speak from a very personal perspective about how, and why, they do what they do. This weekend, I combed through my archive of epic and inspiring interviews and came up with this shortlist. Straight talk from Ernest Hemingway, Dieter Rams, Patti Smith, Steve Jobs, Ansel Adams, Tina Brown, Chuck Close and more.
Conducted by the late Paris Review co-founder George Plimpton in Madrid, this interview with Ernest Hemingway is an absolute knockout. The excerpt comes from the intro, where Plimpton describes Hemingway’s workspace in detail.
A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.
When Hemingway starts on a project he always begins with a pencil, using the reading board to write on onionskin typewriter paper. He keeps a sheaf of the blank paper on a clipboard to the left of the typewriter, extracting the paper a sheet at a time from under a metal clip that reads “These Must Be Paid.” He places the paper slantwise on the reading board, leans against the board with his left arm, steadying the paper with his hand, and fills the paper with handwriting which through the years has become larger, more boyish, with a paucity of punctuation, very few capitals, and often the period marked with an X. The page completed, he clips it facedown on another clipboard that he places off to the right of the typewriter. Hemingway shifts to the typewriter, lifting off the reading board, only when the writing is going fast and well, or when the writing is, for him at least, simple: dialogue, for instance. He keeps track of his daily progress—“so as not to kid myself”—on a large chart made out of the side of a cardboard packing case and set up against the wall under the nose of a mounted gazelle head. The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the higher figures on days Hemingway puts in extra work so he won’t feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream.
In this interview with The Guardian, performance artist Marina Abramovic discusses her early development as an artist and the training she did for her 2010 performance The Artist Is Present – the hit MoMA show that required her to sit in a chair for 700 hours.
“Physically, mentally, I have to prepare myself for a feat of endurance. I became a vegetarian, I did deep meditation, I cleansed myself. I train the body and the mind. I learn to eat certain foods so that I don’t have to go to the toilet for seven hours. I learn to sleep in short bursts at night. This is very hard: sleep, wake, drink, pee, exercise, sleep, wake and on and on. So even the not-performing is intense.”
The sitting-still, she says, was the worst part and choosing a wooden chair without armrests her biggest mistake. “This one detail makes it hellish. The shoulders sag, the arms swell, the pain starts to increase. Then the ribs are going into the organs. I had an incredible amount of physical pain and even some out-of-body experiences where the pain just vanishes, but always it comes back. In the end, it comes down to pure dedication and discipline.”
In this vintage interview with Rolling Stone, you can see Steve Jobs’ brain at work. Seventeen years ago, he’s already thinking about the software strategy that will support the iPhone and the iPad.
Jobs: As you know, most of what I’ve done in my career has been software. The Apple II wasn’t much software, but the Mac was just software in a cool box. We had to build the box because the software wouldn’t run on any other box, but nonetheless, it was mainly software. I was involved in PostScript and the formation of Adobe, and that was all software. And what we’ve done with NEXTSTEP is really all software. We tried to sell it in a really cool box, but we learned a very important lesson. When you ask people to go outside of the mainstream, they take a risk. So there has to be some important reward for taking that risk or else they won’t take it. What we learned was that the reward can’t be one and a half times better or twice as good. That’s not enough. The reward has to be like three or four or five times better to take the risk to jump out of the mainstream. The problem is, in hardware you can’t build a computer that’s twice as good as anyone else’s anymore. Too many people know how to do it. You’re lucky if you can do one that’s one and a third times better or one and a half times better. And then it’s only six months before everybody else catches up. But you can do it in software. As a matter of fact, I think that the leap that we’ve made is at least five years ahead of anybody. … Interviewer: You can’t open the paper these days without reading about the Internet and the information superhighway. Where is this all going? Jobs: The Internet is nothing new. It has been happening for 10 years. Finally, now, the wave is cresting on the general computer user. And I love it. I think the den is far more interesting than the living room. Putting the Internet into people’s houses is going to be really what the information superhighway is all about, not digital convergence in the set-top box. All that’s going to do is put the video rental stores out of business and save me a trip to rent my movie. I’m not very excited about that. I’m not excited about home shopping. I’m very excited about having the Internet in my den.
In the last interview he ever gave, photographer Ansel Adams describes how he visualizes and then creates a photograph.
Interviewer: You have used the word “visualization” to describe the process of deciding in advance how a photo will look rather than just shooting away in the hope of getting something lucky. Would you say that’s the essence? Adams: I’d say that’s the essence. There are two approaches. One is the contrived approach-when you’re in the studio and you set up your backgrounds and your subject and you work with lights, or when you arrange things in nature and try to make that work. The other approach – which I think is the more productive in the end-is straight photography. You come across a phenomenon in nature that you can visualize as an image. Then, if you have the craft, you proceed to make it. Without failure. In theory, I have no excuse for ever making a mistake. I might not have an expressive picture, but at least I should capture everything I want – providing I don’t make some misjudgment or some stupid arithmetic error. I can be working on a close-up subject and forget to account for the extension of the limb. And I can put on a filter and not give the proper exposure factor and all that. Those things happen to everybody – to me, too – and it can be very embarrassing.I think of Stieglitz’s definition of photography – a paraphrase of what I heard him say many times. In the earlier days, when people were very scornful of what he called “creative photography” or “photography as art,” they would ask: “Mr. Stieglitz, how do you go about making the creative photograph?” He would answer, “When I have a desire to photograph, I go out in the world with my camera. I come across something that excites me emotionally and esthetically. I’m creatively excited. I see the picture in my mind’s eye and I make the exposure and I give you the print as the equivalent of what I saw and felt.” The word “equivalent” is very important. It’s two things – what is seen and what is felt about it. That’s why the naturalistic element in photography is very important. When you intentionally depart from the natural situation you can get into trouble. Unless you depart far enough.
Braun signal radio ABR 21. Designed by Dieter Rams.
5. Dieter Rams, Industrial Designer /// 2010
Famous for his “Ten Principles for Good Design,” Dieter Rams was the legendary design director at German electronics manufacturer Braun. This interview catches him just before a recent retrospective at the Design Museum in London called Less And More.
Interviewer: Your phrase “less but better” was initially read as an endorsement for purity in design. But it has been adopted as an environmental message about reduction and sustainability. What does the global community need to do to address that secondary message? Rams: We live today with a lot of chaos, and designers should concentrate on helping to lighten the chaos, including the noise. Nobody notices any more that we’re living with a lot of noise. We don’t register the chaos; sometimes, yes, when we are in the middle of traffic or running late, we discover that everything is chaotic around us. It’s London, it’s Frankfurt it’s Berlin—it’s what Corbusier used to say about New York in the ’30s: It’s a “wonderful catastrophe”. Now all our cities around the world are wonderful catastrophes. We have to think much more about what we really need: how often we need things and how many we need. If we want to stay on this planet 50 years from now then we have to take that more seriously. Interviewer: For many people the chaos in the environment is mirrored in their own personal spaces, in the jumble of belongings. Is clutter ever a positive thing? Rams: In your personal surroundings there should be places where you have some disorder, so that you find the other places that are in order. Order with disorder—the contrast—can be sometimes fascinating. You have to have the difference; otherwise, you forget the feeling for order, for the necessary things.
Two of the prime movers in the online publishing world, Arianna Huffington and Tina Brown, founders of the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, chat about coming of age as editors.
Interviewer: You’ve both been subjected to bad press along the way. How have you handled it? Huffington: I definitely consider it a barometer of my spiritual progress how I handle it. I don’t like the idea of a thick skin. I think we can be more childlike. Children get upset and they cry and it’s over; six seconds later, it’s like nothing happened. That is my aspiration. Brown: I much less care about it than I used to. I went through Talk magazine, and once you’ve been pilloried on the front page of the New York Post, you do go through a kind of liberation. I took a huge belly flop in a very public fashion. After that, it was like, “So what? It wasn’t so bad. I’m still here.” It was probably the happiest couple of years of my life after that, suddenly having permission to meet my daughter at school and go and see a friend in the hospital. When I did the Beast, it was really for fun, and I wasn’t sitting there worrying about it. [Bad press] can ruin an hour of your morning – but I haven’t had that experience for a while, actually. I don’t have a Google alert [for myself]; I don’t care enough [laughs]. Huffington: That’s probably the most important message that we can give to younger women. I constantly talk to my daughters about my failures. The other day, Christina was saying, Oh no, Mom, not again about your first book being rejected by 36 publishers. Because in the end, if you look at what makes people succeed, especially women, it’s about not giving up. Brown: You know, a friend of mine has a great saying: There’s nobody more boring than the undefeated [laughs]. Any big career will have bad times as well as good. I’m sure, Arianna, your blacker periods have really been a source of learning.
This recent interview with comic artist R. Crumb inaugurated the Paris Review‘s “art of comics” interview series. Here, Crumb talks about knocking on doors to get his start as a kid.
Interviewer: It must have been amazing to discover the mimeograph. Crumb: Well, I remember the first time I did a comic strip on it, I was in seventh grade and seeing that printed was really a thrill. There were fifty copies of it. Wow! The power of print! And then when I was fifteen my brother and I did kind of a Mad [magazine] imitation called Foo and we intended to print it, then sell it. We had jobs and we paid to have it printed on a Xerox machine where my father worked, and he ran off three hundred copies for us. It was very crudely printed, early Xerox where the blacks don’t fill in solid black. But even that was a thrill to see. But we couldn’t get people to buy it, it was devastating. We ended up going around door-to-door in this big tract-housing development in Dover, Delaware, near the Air Force base, and lying to the people, telling them it was an art project for school. That was the only way they would buy it. Interviewer: What were you charging? Crumb: Ten cents. We’d hand it to them or they would say, Let me see that, and they’d look at it and say, What is this? Well, it’s a comic book we drew ourselves. Foo, what does that mean? They didn’t get it, and they didn’t want to buy it. Some people would interrogate us, You sure this money’s going to the school, who’s your art teacher over there? We told them the name of the art teacher, we said yeah, it’s for school. Nobody ever called the school. But, it’s a fucking dime, come on! Two guys selling these comics they drew themselves, these people they didn’t give a shit, it didn’t impress them at all. It really traumatized us about the comic-book business. We could do the drawing fine, pretty good and professional for our age, but the business end of it, boy, that was rough. We ended up burning most of them in the backyard.
8. Patti Smith, Musician & Writer /// 2010
Interview magazine editor-at-large Christopher Bollen talks to rock icon Patti Smith upon the release of her incredible memoir, Just Kids, about her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe . Here, she discusses the habits we bind to our creative process:
Interviewer: I can drink an endless amount of coffee. I’m sure one day that will catch up with me.Smith: I used to drink like 14 cups a day. I was a pretty speedy person, but I never noticed. Then, when I was pregnant, I had to give up coffee. After that, I cut down to five or six cups. Ever since I hit 60, I drink only two. What I do is I get an Americano and a pot of water and I keep diluting it, because it’s not even the coffee, it’s the habit.Interviewer: That’s my problem. I really don’t smoke cigarettes that much except when I write. But when I write, I smoke. It’s bad, but I’m scared that if I break the habit, I won’t be able to write. Smith: It’s part of your process. It’s what you have to do. I’ll tell you how to break it. You don’t have to. Like, coffee was part of my process. Now, if I want to go to a café and write and drink coffee for two hours, I just order them. I don’t drink them. A lot is just aesthetic. So you light your cigarette and let it sit there and don’t smoke it. Interviewer: Do you think that would work? Smith: If you attach anything harmful to the creative process, you have to do that. If you learn nothing else from me, this is a really important lesson. I’ve seen a lot of people go down because they attach a substance to their creative process. A lot of it is purely habitual. They don’t need it, but they think they do, so it becomes entrenched. Like, I can’t go without my coffee. I can go without drinking it, but I can’t go without it nearby. It’s the feeling of how cool I feel with my coffee. Because I don’t feel cool with this tea. [Bollen laughs] You know, there are pictures of me with cigarettes in the ’70s, and everybody thought I smoked. I can’t smoke because I had TB when I was a kid. But I loved the look of smoking — like Bette Davis and Jeanne Moreau. So I would have cigarettes and just light ’em and take a couple puffs, but mostly hold them. Some people said that was hypocritical. But in my world, it wasn’t hypocritical at all. I wasn’t interested in actually smoking them. I just liked holding them to look cool. All right, was it a bad image to show people? I’m happy to let people know I wasn’t really smoking. Interviewer: I think it’s almost part of the romance of creating. As an artist, you kind of have to buy into your own romance a bit when you are making work. Smith: Yep. Except for me, I haven’t really changed at all since I was 11. I still dress the same. I still have the same manners of study. Like when I was a kid, I wanted to write a poem about Simon Bolivar. I went to the library and read everything I could. I wrote copious notes. I had 40 pages of notes just to write a small poem. So my process hasn’t changed much.
If you’re a regular reader of 99U, you’ve heard me quote the always-articulate Chuck Close here before. I recently stumbled on Esquire’s awesome “What I’ve Learned” archives in which Close bottomlines his wisdom for making art happen:
Inspiration is highly overrated.
If you sit around and wait for the clouds to part, it’s not liable to ever happen. More often than not, work is salvation. Virtually everything I’ve done has been a product of — or has been influenced by — my learning disabilities. I don’t recognize faces, and I don’t remember names, either. But I have almost perfect photographic memory for things that are two-dimensional.
The choice not to do something is almost always more interesting than the choice to do something.
I wasn’t a good student, I wasn’t an athlete, and I think that helped focus me early in my life. I distinguished myself by being more intensely engaged and more intensely focused because I knew if I blew this art thing, I’d be screwed.
Get yourself in trouble.
If you get yourself in trouble, you don’t have the answers. And if you don’t have the answers, your solution will more likely be personal because no one else’s solutions will seem appropriate. You’ll have to come up with your own. It’s always wrong before it’s right.
What Interviews Have Inspired You? I’d love to hear your take on other great, insightful interviews in the comments.