Philip Gourevitch, the new face of The Paris Review
By Annie Karni
When George Plimpton, founding editor of The Paris Review, passed away in 2003, some feared that without his charismatic public persona to carry it, his literary magazine would become like a body without a soul. Author Philip Gourevitch, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the bestselling We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda (1998), put an end to the magazines existential doubts when he was named editor in March 2005, and moved the journals offices from Plimptons basement on the Upper East Side to a sunlit Tribeca loft.
Gourevitchs appointment had skeptics grumbling about how a journalist might change the content of a magazine known for publishing top-quality fiction, poetry, and interviews with writers discussing their craft. Gourevitch, who shares with Plimpton a literary presence that extends beyond his role at the magazine, said from the get-go that he had no desire to clomp around in his predecessors well-worn shoes. But they shared a common bottom line: to find and publish good writing.
Now with four issues under his belt, and with subscriptions up 50% since he was appointed editor, Gourevitch hasnt been forced to defend his editorial decisions. I caught up with Gourevitch in the magazines year-old Tribeca office on White Street as the summer issue hit bookstore shelves.
How has such a little magazine like The Paris Review become so well known?
Well, first of all, its just a really good name. It was named by the young Americans living in Paris who founded itH.L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton. They were living over there in the early 50s, and there was a kind of glamour to living in Paris. The dollar was strong, you could live this bohemian life for almost nothing.
And from the beginning, they managed to publish early work by authors who later, when they get to be famous, come to be known as emerging writers. Philip Roth, V.S. Naipul, Jeffrey Eugenides, Mona Simpson, Rick Moody Im going to forget someone and its going to seem like Im dissing them, but Im not. There were always visual portfolios. The magazine was always cool to look at. And from the beginning they started interviewing the most famous writers of the time.
Youve changed a lot about the magazine this past year, including the look.
It looks the same! People keep saying to me oh, you changed the look. I changed the size of the paper. Thats about it. I like to think that in that respect, the look of the magazine kind of reflects the attitude that Ive brought to its contents, too that it appears to be a departure from what was going on, but its actually highly tied into and kind of a tribute to its own traditions.
Is there a stronger focus on nonfiction now?
There was always nonfiction diaries, correspondence, memoirs, travelogues, and narrative accounts. That was a recurrent thing. The standard remains what it has always beenthat we should publish really interesting, exciting writing.
The first piece in the summer issue is an interview with Serbian terrorist Nikola Kavaja, which sounds like it would be very grave, but it was funny.
Its very funny. I suppose if Ive had difficulty with fiction in recent times, its the sense that fiction fails in its imagination to be anywhere near competitive with the outlandishness of actual people and eventsthe kind of raw scale of how people can actually be blunt about themselves, so this was a wonderful find. The guys a terrorist, hes an assassin, hes completely unapologetic. Hes something of what I guess people would call a sociopath. On the other hand, hes very direct. Hes blunt, hes funny, hes coarse, hes astute, and hes a good narrator.
In your own writing, it seems that you have a tendency to make readers examine what is naturally unpleasant to contemplate. Is that what you seek to publish?
I guess Im definitely interested in unlikely ways of seeing. Or ways that make you think, to put it simply. Looking at things that require you to think afresh or anew rather than simply confirming or restating your expectations or conventional wisdom.
Do you discover that more often in fiction or nonfiction?
I kind of dont care much about those categories. Im interested in good writing. If it comes as fiction, hooray, Im delighted. Im really proud of some of the fiction weve published. A couple of the debutsLisa Halliday, who was a complete first time publication, and Ben Percy in particular.
So unsolicited submissions are actually read?
Oh yeah. The unsolicited stuff, the pure slush, as its called, all gets read twice actually. But other times its us going out and asking writers what theyre up to, going to people whom we admire, or projects weve heard about.
Do you miss the foreign correspondents life?
Sure I do. But I was not into traveling incessantly. I really loved going out into the field, going out to report a story far away, but that can become kind of a habit, without every story itself being so interesting... I miss simply being intensely immersed in a story and figuring out how to write it. But I dont consider it something Ive set aside. I consider it something Ive added to.
Did you grow up in New York?
I was raised in Middletown, Connecticut, where my father taught philosophy at Wesleyan. My mother is a painter, who always exhibited in New York. She rented a loft on Duane Street. When we moved in there in 1978, the area had only recently been named Tribeca.
Although crime rates were quite high in the city back then, it was one of the safest neighborhoods in town because no mugger or burglar would think to find any victims down here after dark. Its been great to see the neighborhood evolve and to come back to it last year, bringing The Paris Review to its new digs.
You and your wife, New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar, had a baby just before you took over as editor of the magazine. How do you balance two new ventures at once?
My daughter is 20 months old. I balance it by not really sleeping you really cannot imagine! Then again, compared to the amounts of traveling Ive been used to as a foreign correspondent, Im around my baby and awake far more than I could otherwise be. Shes a delight and so is the magazine so that makes pretty much anything manageable.