Rumpus the Interviewer
From The Rumpus:
The Rumpus: I’ve read that, when you got to the Review, you wanted the poetry section to be for non-expert poetry readers. But the interviews are with writers who mean something to other American writers. Is there a disparity there?
Lorin Stein: We don’t choose our interview subjects because we think they have something special to say to American writers, though I guess that’s always true. They’re people who really fascinate us. Sometimes a favorite writer will suggest someone whose work I and the other editors don’t know. Then we’ll hunt down some books and take a look. I don’t think of the interviews particularly as being for writers. I just think of them as being for interested readers.
Rumpus: Is there a reason why the interviewer is just called “Interviewer” in The Paris Review in a very intentionally anonymous way?
Stein: I don’t know why it started, but notice the way that convention has been used. Not unlike the way The New Yorker uses the convention of the anonymous Talk of the Town persona. You can have fun with it, the fact that the person is wearing that mask of “interviewer.” The interviews are always signed, so you know who did it, but it kind of helps the person drop out. It’s fun when the interviews have the sound of a good psychoanalytic session, where the impression that you get is of a very tiny question that opens up paragraphs of reflection. And some subjects don’t like that. Sometimes they push back because they want it to sound more like an exchange. And sometimes they do sound more like an exchange, and that’s fine. But in general, the sound that I love is that sound of little questions unlocking big answers. That’s very much something that happens in the recording studio, not live. Here’s a good example of where the “interviewer” handle comes in handy: when [literary agent] Ira Silverberg interviewed [author] Dennis Cooper, a few issues ago. I asked Ira, because Ira had been his agent and his publisher and—more than anybody—had talked about the difficulties of bringing Dennis Cooper’s difficult, disturbing work across to a wide audience. I thought that that would lend itself very well to questioning Cooper. But then there’s the problem that they’ve known each other forever. And I loved the way Ira pared back his questions so that Dennis could go on for a very long time and gets very deep without there being a lot of chat between the two of them. The questions have a certain kind of priestly anonymity.
Rumpus: Picking the interview subjects for the “Writers at Work” series is pretty internal at the Review, right? You’re not necessarily advertising that you want people to come to you with ideas.
Stein: That’s right. For the most part it’s internal, though sometimes ideas come from other places. It can take us a year or more to decide. Recently, a couple of different writers proposed the same author, and I knew the person’s work a little bit. But then I was in a used bookstore and I picked up one of her novels and was flabbergasted by how good it was. So we assigned the interview to the first-comer, a year late. Sometimes people will come to us with an interview that’s already underway. In theory, that could work. I don’t think that that’s happened since I’ve been in the job.
Rumpus: I imagine that for the most part, everyone is really willing to submit to the process, but I read that Ira Glass was too busy to do one. Are there others who are still on your wish-list, people who maybe would be interested but just don’t have the schedules to do it?
Stein: I hope Ira finds time. I don’t pester him, but he would be so great for “The Art of Editing.” Because I think his editing style has really changed the way we tell stories. Lately I’d been hoping and hoping that we could get Bob Silvers to consent to an “Art of Editing” interview, but no soap. Cormac McCarthy we bother every nine months, through his agent. Charles Portis. J.K. Rowling. Not everyone wants to be interviewed. And I can understand that. I mean, Hemingway was terrible, it was so hard to get that interview. And George [Plimpton] really got the interview by having a not-very-revealing conversation with Hemingway, who clearly loved George in real life. But the first interview is a picture of someone being pestered by a gnat. And then George kept writing these follow-up letters like, “When you told me that such and such was an idiotic question, what exactly did you mean?” And Hemingway would write back a paragraph about why George was being foolish. And over the course of the correspondence, a real interview started to take shape.