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Editors at Work: Behind the Scenes of the Paris Review Interviews

I'm a shameless dork about a number of literary things, but perhaps the first of them were the Paris Review interviews. Plenty of other folks might have been doing more interesting things on their study breaks in my college library, but I wore a path in the linoleum between my desk and the shelf in the stacks where they kept all the old Writers at Work collections, and by the end of four years I had worked my way through all of them, from E.M. Forster through Rebecca West and S.J. Perelman and James Jones and Lillian Hellman and all those other mid-century giants canonized by the magazine's editors, and if I hadn't graduated I'd probably have started over at the beginning and gone through again.

Why are they special? Well, because they were first (author interviews were nowhere near as ubiquitous then as now), but, as the newish editor of the Paris Review, Lorin Stein, pointed out during his guest stint on Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog last week, because they treat these interviews like no one else does. This isn't some guy (like me) calling up an author for 20 minutes and calling it a podcast. As the writers I've talked to who have worked on these have confirmed, they are a major, collaborative project:

In the first place, the method is slow. My interview with Jonathan Lethem took a couple of weeks, with reading assignments before each session. Joshua Pashman's interview with Norman Rush, coming out in the September issue, took three years, eight sessions, and 500 pages of transcript. (Later boiled down to 33 pages in print.)

In the second place, the interviews are collaborative. After our interns type up the transcripts, the interviewer and subject sit down and edit them—together. Often they rewrite the questions and answers completely. When Frederick Seidel interviewed Robert Lowell, the tape recorder didn't work: Fred wrote up the whole thing from memory, then gave it to Lowell to revise.

When writers have total control, George realized, they feel safe. And when they feel safe they open up.

Stein's post is of course quite rah-rah for his own magazine, but I'd no doubt feel the same if I had been bequeathed a legacy like that. And as a dork, I loved the glimpse behind the curtain, including a preview of the interviews in the pipeline for coming issues, starting with Norman Rush and Michel Houellebecq in the September issue, and after that "Dave Eggers, Ann Beattie, Samuel Delaney, Louise Erdrich—and, yes, Jonathan Franzen." And, perhaps best news of all, they are in the process of putting the full archive online and searchable. You can also find some of them in the newly curated collections Picador has put out in the past few years: volumes I, II, III, and IV. --Tom

P.S. Coates, one of my favorite bloggers, had a couple of editors as guests while he was off writing in the woods this past month, and I had meant to point to them earlier, since it's relatively rare that book editors step out from behind their desks to speak for themselves. Along with Stein's posts, I liked what Chris Jackson, who edited Coates's Beautiful Struggle at Spiegel & Grau as well as folks like Victor LaValle and Matt Taibbi, had to say about his approach:

Part of the fun of being an editor is the occasional fantasy that you're calling together a league of literary superheroes to take on the forces of evil in the world.  Put your art to work, I say.  I've always been drawn to stylistic outliers, polemicists, and revisionists--I'm a firm believer that the greatest need in our age is for writers to move readers from whatever comfortable positioned they've fallen into.  I'm a fan of vulgarity.  In part its a function of my upbringing: growing up in Harlem in the 70s and 80s taught me a lot about the irrepressible power of a true thing told in the most resonant possible language.

Jackson and Stein also each had responses to the Weiner/Picoult/Franzen hoo-ha that managed to get them heaped with more hoo-ha, about which more later.

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