Unavailable for Interview; the Arts Nobel Prize-Winner JM Coetzee Is the Latest in a Line of Heroic Authors Who Have Resisted Attempts by Journalists to Question Them about Their Life and Works

The Evening Standard (London, England), November 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Unavailable for Interview; the Arts Nobel Prize-Winner JM Coetzee Is the Latest in a Line of Heroic Authors Who Have Resisted Attempts by Journalists to Question Them about Their Life and Works


Byline: DAVID SEXTON

WHEN Samuel Beckett's wife heard that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, she is said to have turned to him and pronounced simply: "Quelle catastrophe!" Beckett refused to go to Stockholm and despatched his publisher - "very kindly facing the turnips in my stead on that Nobloodybeldamday".

This year's winner, JM Coetzee, is being a little more obliging. Although he did not turn up to collect either of his Booker Prizes in 1993 and 1999, he will deliver this year's Nobel Lecture on 7 December and receive the prize itself three days later.

What Coetzee will not do is make himself available for interview. He belongs to that small band of heroic writers who - without being as reclusive as Pynchon or Salinger - have declined to make themselves available for publicity purposes.

Beckett, one of Coetzee's inspirations, stands at their head. He had "no views to inter", he would tell applicants; "not even for you" he said to friends. As John Fletcher, says in a new book, About Beckett: "Not once was his face seen on the front cover of a glossy magazine below a banner headline announcing: 'The publicityshy dramatist talks to us exclusively about the starstudded production of X, opening this week at the Y Theatre on Z Avenue ..."

Beckett's work is notoriously severe and "difficult", of course. But another heroic abstainer is the popular thriller writer Thomas Harris, creator of Hannibal Lecter.

Harris courteously refuses reporters in much the same words: "I really can't start giving interviews now. I never have and I never will. I thank you kindly for your interest.

But I wish to allow my work to speak for itself." His agent Mort Janklow put it thus: "If you delivered a cheque for a million dollars, he would not give you a three-cent interview.

I just want you to understand how ludicrous the request is."

IN Harris's novel Red Dragon there is an image of journalism that speaks for itself.

An intrusive reporter is captured by the killer and forced to conduct an interview on his terms: "You're a reporter. You're here to report.

When I turn around, open your eyes and look at me. If you won't open them yourself, I'll staple your eyelids to your forehead." After delivering this unwelcome exclusive, the Dragon bites the reporter's tongue off and burns him to death.

Other writers have dealt with their distaste by giving interviews that are not interviews but authorial exercises.

Vladimir Nabokov insisted: "The interviewer's questions have to be sent to me in writing, answered by me in writing, and reproduced verbatim."

"The interviewer wishes to visit me," Nabokov noted scornfully. "He wishes to see my pencil poised above the page, my painted lampshade, my bookshelves, my old white borzoi asleep at my feet, He feels he needs the background music of bogus informality, and as many colourful details as can be memorised, if not actually jotted down ('N gulped down his vodka and quipped with a grin -'). Have I the heart to cancel the cosiness? I have."

In a volume called Strong Opinions, Nabokov reprinted all these "interviews" as his own work - after he had further revised them, carefully eliminating "every element of spontaneity, all semblance of actual talk".

Coetzee did much the same in a collection of essays called Doubling the Point which includes nine "interviews" conducted by mail with an academic collaborator. …

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