The Paris Review was founded in part as a CIA front for co-founder Peter Matthiessen, and has sometimes been as known for its legendarily freewheeling editor George Plimpton as for its sterling content: a mélange of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and generously long-form author interviews. Still, the Review stands alongside The New Yorker and Conjunctions as a premier and essential venue for consistently good writing—it’s a downright sexy publication, if you don’t mind my saying so. WW sat down to talk with journalist and New Yorker contributor Philip Gourevitch, who in 2005 took over the Review’s editorial mantle from Plimpton. He’ll be at Powell’s Wednesday, Dec. 3, on the occasion of the magazine’s 55th birthday and its publishing of a third volume of Paris Review author interviews, which are at least as essential to aspiring writers as a laptop or a drinking problem.
WW: So, is George Plimpton a loud ghost or a quiet ghost?
Philip Gourevitch: I don’t think of him so much as a ghost, or feel haunted by him; I think of the legacy of the magazine that he created—that he built up for 50 years—as a great tailwind and a great inheritance. It’s not a burden on me so much, but an inspiration. I’ve never worked with him, and I’ve never thought of it as my job to replicate what he did, but rather to do what editors do: make the best of the magazine according to their own light and their own editorial spirit. I’ve always been drawn to the Review, and I took the job because I felt kinship to a lot of its purpose.
You’re publishing more nonfiction now.
That’s just an urban legend. Statistically, it’s not true. Sometimes it would be great if it were true. We publish one substantial piece of nonfiction per issue, which is the same amount or even less than under George Plimpton. This was not an essential change in the character of the Review. Some might think that I publish more nonfiction because I’m a nonfiction writer, but then so was George. But what interests me is exciting writing. When I read a book, what I care about is that it’s a good book. For me, nonfiction must meet the same literary standards as fiction, and I think that it’s only when those literary qualities are lacking that we really tend to notice that it’s nonfiction.
You had said in an interview recently that some of the problem you often find with current fiction is that it fails to live up to the outlandishness of actual people.
I’ll stand by that.
So is it just a failure of the writing, or—as Philip Roth once hypothesized—a function of the excess of the times?
I don’t think that we live in a more outlandish or outrageous time than Dickens did, or than Dostoevsky did. Nineteenth century French novelists had plenty of human theater and spectacle and circus around them. There were villains galore, characters galore, massive conflict and turmoil in society. It’s just that these two approaches to writing prose—fiction and nonfiction—have become more academically distinct in the last 30 years. Forty years ago nobody talked about nonfiction. They talked about writing. But more recently fiction has taken as its canvas the interior life, while nonfiction took as its canvas the exterior and to some degree also the interior life. I don’t know why the novel has given up so much territory.
In William Gaddis’ opus The Recognitions, his character Wyatt once said that if an author had more to say than was in the art, he would have put it in the art. So what’s the worth of an author interview?
That’s what William Gaddis said, but then he gave us a Paris Review interview. Talking about one’s art is irrelevant to the art; the art and the writing speak for themselves. But that doesn’t mean that the writing life and the question of craft—which are what’s essential to Paris Review interviews—aren’t a matter of interest. It’s not theorizing about the art, but relating how the writer goes about it, what they do physically, their daily routines, their annual routines, how characters come from you. This demystifies the creative process. When Wyatt says what he says, it’s a mystification and romanticization of the artist—not that I’m against that. Most writers know that writing is labor, craft and toil. Some things are learnable, and some things are unlearnable and have to be confronted again and again. These interviews are not biographical, and they are not literary criticism, but they do address what it is to be a living writer. There is quite a bit of humor in these interviews. They are essentially spoken essays about the nature of the undertaking. And obviously they do have value, interest, and merit, because generations of writers have used them as sort of a starter kit for how to be a writer.
Why stop at three volumes?
We’re not. It’s projected as a four-volume series. Perhaps we had originally planned on three, but when we put together the long short list of what to include we realized that this was at least four volumes worth of material. There’s an embarrassment of riches, and there are some interviews in here that are undeniable classics. But that’s a measure of the success of that particular interview, not of the writer. When putting these together we all found that the interviews that appealed to us most strongly—as opposed to a list of the writers whose interviews you might want to read—were all humorous. They might not even be writers you’d think of as humorists. I don’t think of Hemingway as being particularly funny, but his interview takes on a good comic energy, just a like a good conversation does. That’s where charm often resides.
We’ve got a great deal of these interviews available online, but not the ones that are in the books. We change around what’s online from time to time, so you can find different things at different times of the year. And maybe we’ll do a fifth or a sixth or a seventh volume. In the past, in the nineties, there were thematic books of interviews—Latin American writers, women writers. That’s good for a classroom syllabus, but we thought, let’s do what the magazine’s about. Let’s put together a mixture of things and include them simply because we think they are interesting.
On a different subject: What role did documentarian Erroll Morris have in the writing of your recent book about Abu Ghraib, Standard Operating Procedure?
I wrote the book, and he conducted a lot of the interviews. Some of those I was present for, some I was not. When I actually worked on the book I was in a cabin in upstate New York all on my own. I drew on his source material, and [Erroll and I] had conversations about the material. We decided it would not be the book of the movie or the movie of the book, but rather two different approaches to the same source material.
When you weren’t present, was it frustrating not being able to ask your own questions?
I was able to ask questions. I put forward follow up questions, usually through Erroll’s end, but they were good interviews so there was no need. I just went to lunch with Lawrence Schiller, who’d worked with Norman Mailer on The Executioner’s Song [about mass murderer Gary Gilmore], and I realized that this is really just a normal way to work: you mix what you see personally with what you reconstruct. When you write a book you read newspapers, history books, transcripts of unpublished speeches, and you mix in information about other events with accounts of those you were in the midst of. This is just the raw footage from which one constructs a story. So there are cases in which I might have asked different questions of an interview subject [than Morris did], but I’m absolutely satisfied with the material I had to work with because it’s great material. In some cases, my own line of questioning led me to different interview subjects.
Every project has its own constraints. Sometimes one must explain more because the audience doesn’t know the material, and you need to add a lot of historical explanation and background. Sometimes the events have happened in the distant past. In this case, the constraint was that the place I was writing about—Abu Ghraib and the culture that was created there—was no longer visitable. It was all already unreachable, and had to be rebuilt in prose out of the voices of the people who were there. The place no longer existed. I was working from voices that had never been heard in order to build a substantial public record of this period. This was both a strength and a limitation, from a formal point of view.
Thanks for talking with us.
ATTEND: Philip Gourevitch reads at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 7:30 pm Wednesday Dec. 3. Free.