Lorin Stein

The Rumpus Interview with Lorin Stein

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When Lorin Stein took the helm at The Paris Review in April 2010, he was just the third editor in the magazine’s storied history. Founded by the legendary George Plimpton in 1953, the Review has been responsible for launching the careers of some of America’s preeminent writers and publishing an endless array of experimental fiction and poetry, alongside long-form interviews and essays.

In his first issue as editor, Stein wrote:

Our generation grew up with the Review as a fact of life. It was America’s literary magazine. To our minds, it still is. It has launched our favorite writers. It has made a special claim for the quarterly as such, being both timely and lasting, free of the news of the day or the pressure to please a crowd. Most of all, the Review has shown, repeatedly, that works of imagination can be as stylish and urgent as the flashiest feature reporting, and can do more to refocus our picture of the world.

It was Stein’s job, however, to refocus the Review itself. His immediate predecessor had placed a heavy emphasis on nonfiction pieces and photography for the first time, but Stein—who came from a fiction background and a love of the form—wanted to get back to the Review‘s roots, publishing fiction that astonished him, he says.

Previously, Stein had worked for years as a fiction editor at publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where books he edited received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, among other honors, working alongside notable authors including Denis Johnson, Lydia Davis, and Jonathan Franzen.

Since assuming the post at the Review, Stein has succeeded in making the literary journal his own—although he balks at taking too much credit—from his decision to create an extensive online archive of Review interviews from its famous “Writers at Work” series, to penning his own advice column filled with book recommendations, and overseeing the Paris Review Daily blog.

But it’s his newest co-edited venture, Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story, an anthology curated by twenty contemporary authors, that Stein is (currently) most excited about. Authors were given instructions to choose a story from the Review archives that meant something to them and explain what, exactly, made those stories work. Curators include Dave Eggers, Ann Beattie, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Mona Simpson.

Stein was getting ready to go jogging when I called him at home in New York. He skipped that day’s exercise and spoke with me for more than two hours, rolling at least one cigarette in the process. We started with Object Lessons and the state of the short story, before transitioning into a discussion about interviews, themselves.

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The Rumpus: Object Lessons is structured a bit like a textbook. Is the goal to show people how to write a short story? Is it to re-inspire passion in the form? Would you like to see it taught? Or is it all of the above?

Lorin Stein: All of the above. I’d love to see it taught. I’d hope it would be useful that way. In general, short stories are less read than before, they’re less published than before and, not surprisingly, they’re less taught than before. If you look at the archive of Paris Review short stories, it’s very eclectic, but what you can say is that there is a tradition of experimentation and freedom. We’ve never had a giant circulation. And we’ve always been a magazine for writers and for sophisticated readers. We’ve never had to run stories that would appeal to a million people. And what you end up with is a kind of tradition that might have staying power—the cockroach after armageddon. I regret that there aren’t more short stories in other magazines. But in a certain way, I think the disappearance of the short-story template from everyone’s head can be freeing. Partly because there’s no mass market for stories, the form is up for grabs. It can be many, many things. So the anthology is very much intended for students, but I think we’re all in the position of writing students now. Very few people are going around with a day-to-day engagement with the short story.

Rumpus: Is there less of that day-to-day engagement because there’s a perception that short stories are not as satisfying as a novel, in that you either start to get to know the characters and all of a sudden it’s over, or the endings are deliberately vague. Will you touch on that?

Stein: That’s a complaint that you hear about, what is called—unfairly—the “New Yorker story.” The New Yorker, nowadays, publishes all kinds of things, wonderfully. But when there were more short stories out there, there was a sense—in the ’60s and the ’70s, especially—that New Yorker stories leaned too much on open endings. I, for one, like open endings. There are two basic defenses for an open ending: one is, If you read carefully enough, you’ll know what happened. And the other is, That’s how life is: things don’t come to neat endings, there isn’t a “happily ever after.” But if you take that second line of defense, then I think you have to make the point that the writer has shown the range of possibility. I listened to a lot of country songs when I was a kid and I would ask my mom or dad whether the woman was going to come back to the guy. Because the whole song would be asking her to come back. It’s a fair question, right? But it’s a childish question. Grownups understand the point isn’t the outcome, the point is defining the problem. And so that’s how I would defend an open ending. When it works, you get a sense of the dilemma.

Rumpus: Something I’ve seen you say is that The Paris Review is always going to publish things outside of one’s comfort zone. Is that just a matter of breaking new writers? Or is that more about trying to challenge readers?

Stein: For me the question that you have to ask, about any magazine, is whether it’s needed, whether it’s publishing things that no one else could publish, or publish equally well. So there’s that. When I was a book editor, I got used to being told that my tastes were dark or edgy. These are not words that would’ve occurred to me, but I was told that enough that I have to believe it’s true — that I like things that some other people find off-putting or upsetting. My job is to publish stuff that I really, really care about. That might mean that it doesn’t sit well with everybody.

Rumpus: So what was the assignment that you gave to the people who were assigned to select the pieces for Object Lessons?

Stein: We showed them a big printout of the archive and asked each of them to choose a favorite. We didn’t want more than one story by any one author. So, it was first come, first served. As soon as someone chose an author, that person’s stories were taken off the list. And then we asked each of these curators to try to say, in a few words, what kind of technical problem most obviously got solved in that story.

Rumpus: I would imagine that this easily could’ve been a completely different book. Did any selections blindside you? Or were any of the stories so vital that you couldn’t have done this book without them?

Stein: A lot of the stories were stories I didn’t know. It made me realize that with George [Plimpton] dead, there probably isn’t anyone around who knows the archive personally. It’s suddenly become slightly bigger than any one person’s brain. If you tried to read the back issues of The Paris Review, at this point, it would take years. So, some of the stories were a surprise, not in the sense that I thought, “What is he or she thinking?” More, “Ha! What is this?” There were a few omissions that I was surprised by. I would’ve loved for someone to pick one of the early Phillip Roth stories that we published. Or the David Foster Wallace novella Little Expressionless Animals. I love those stories, and I’m proud that The Paris Review had so much to do with their early careers.

Rumpus: Were all the selections in the book first choices by writers?

Stein: Most people got their first choice. And a lot of the writers had a selection in mind before we even showed them a list. Ann Beattie wanted to write about Craig Nova from the get-go. Norman Rush wanted to write about Guy Davenport from the get-go. We heard back within minutes, I think.

Rumpus: Were you happy with the balance in the tone of the anthology—the melancholy stories versus the humorous stories? And did you feel like it was balanced, gender-wise?

Stein: I hadn’t thought about the balance in mood. You see that we did it in alphabetical order, so if there’s any kind of shape, or any kind of flow, it’s random. Gender…we didn’t think much about it. It was sort of interesting to see that women often were choosing women and men often were choosing men. And sometimes they wouldn’t and that was fun. I didn’t know that I would be excited by that, until I saw it happen.

Rumpus: What about the authors’ interpretations of the stories? Were there any that got you to look at an old story in a different way? Or any that made connections that you hadn’t seen before? Or were there any that got you thinking, This isn’t my interpretation of this story at all?

Stein: None of the latter. But there were some really revealing ones. I thought Mona Simpson’s intro to the Norman Rush story was a neat picture of an editor at work, where she talked about that story coming in, knowing from the first sentence that it was a winner. This is something that editors don’t usually talk about, because it leaves you open to the charge of being hasty or overconfident or cocksure. But I think most editors have had some experience like that. You just know, “This person isn’t going to make terrible mistakes.” I thought Ann Beattie’s long, technical treatment of the story that she chose was a lot of fun to read next to the story. That’s exactly the sort of explanation that I was excited to see. Because only a writer would talk that way. But the same is true of many of those introductions, most of them.

Rumpus: It seems like some of the intros to the stories were more nuts and bolts, breaking down exactly what worked, whereas some of them seemed more like an artful piece of writing, but a little bit more vague in terms of describing what he thought worked.

Stein: Honestly, I like either way. We wanted that freedom to be part of the anthology. We wanted everyone to feel they could do it without undue strain.

Rumpus: Is that a goal of the Review: to give the writing life the appearance of undue strain? To make it look fun?

Stein: When it doesn’t look fun, what does it look like?

Rumpus: I think it would look dense, or show-offy, or something written for ten people that you have to wade through. Something that feels like work.

Stein: I’ve never thought that it made sense to put something out that I didn’t actually find really fun to read. Or, if not “fun,” engaging. My tastes are whatever they are, but I may be a little bit afraid of certain kinds of density. I may get turned off by certain kinds of show-offyness. I tend to think that the onus is on the writer to engage the reader, that the reader should not be expected to need the writer, that the writer has to prove it. All that stuff might add up to a kind of fun in the work. I like things that are about interesting subjects, which sounds self-evident. But I like fiction that deals with matters that are of burning importance to us in our private lives. And not all short stories are like that. In general, short stories—and maybe this is a little bit off-topic—but I think short stories have this bad association with, like, waiting rooms. You know?

Rumpus: Really?

Stein: Well, I was an editor for a long time at a publishing house called Farrar, Straus and Giroux. When I would sign up a book at F.S.G., I would sort of have a fantasy of when the book would be read by the average reader, or when I would want to read the book. And the times that I read most are over dinner, and then when I go to bed, so it was a sign to me, reading a novel, if it was a book that I wanted to take to bed. Maybe that says something about my taste in novels. Maybe there’s something kind of comforting or escapist about the novels that I like. Even if they’re very realistic, there’s something about the way they take you out of yourself. Maybe I like books that make you feel kind of cozy. But short stories are not things that, ordinarily, the average fiction reader takes to bed. They’re more like things that you might read on a commuter train.

A lot of people who want to see the short story have a renaissance of readership—they tend to think of short stories, and sometimes poems too, as being well-suited to the way we now live, with all of these broken-up bits of time. I hope they’re right, but my sense is that our fiction reading has become, if anything, more cherished as a kind of escape from fragmentation. So, short stories have an even harder time, because they tend to get read during the day, between other things. They’re interstitial. And yet the content of short stories tends to be very much “nighttime” content. I mean, Chekhov’s stories are about the moment that a life goes off the rails and the price that will be paid—forever. That’s a typical Chekhov story for you. Something that you’re used to lying in bed worrying about at four in the morning, before you have the psychic defenses to kid yourself and tell yourself to get up and shower and go to the office. Right? Or short stories are about adulterous passions, or kids having terrible accidents. You know, all of this stuff is nighttime, nightmare, dream stuff. And I like the idea of trying to take a piece of the night and trying to plunk it down in the middle of the day. But that’s the kind of fun that isn’t for everybody.

Rumpus: In a general sense, when you’re looking at a short story submitted to the Review, when a short story arrives on your desk, are you able to sum up what you’re considering, or is it just so different for every story? Can you say what connects a short story to The Paris Review or to you, personally?

Stein: It’s impossible to say. You can go back and try to generalize, but then you end up saying things that all editors say about everything that ever gets published. Something about voice, about urgency, about actually having a story to tell.

Rumpus: And being a “name” author—that doesn’t mean that you’re going to get into the Review, right? You’ve said in the past that one of the hardest things you’ve had to do as an editor is to turn down some of your favorite writers.

Stein: Names don’t matter, CVs don’t matter, previous publications don’t matter at all, because, in a certain way, the ideal is for someone to come completely out of left field. And still, of course, it is hard to say no to a writer who matters a lot to you and who you know matters to your readers.

Rumpus: It does seem like you, personally, could launch writers’ careers. That’s a big responsibility.

Stein: That’s part of the Review‘s job. If the Review publishes a short story by a writer who doesn’t have a publisher, or doesn’t have an agent, and if that writer’s career doesn’t change, then the Review is not fulfilling one of its main pragmatic functions: to be a sort of filter for the book business. You’ve got to take that stuff seriously, though there is no way of orchestrating it unless you are doing your job in other ways. It’s just sort of a side effect.

Rumpus: When you were a fiction editor at F.S.G., were you paying attention to the fiction in the Review?

Stein: I was. And to other magazines, too. To Noon [Annual], for example. Very different magazines, but I was always curious to see what they were up to.

Rumpus: The Paris Review has a long tradition of propelling new authors into the public eye. I know that in the first issue that you edited, you said that April Lawson’s story astonished you. Is that what you’re going for? Stories that just show up out of the blue and astonish you?

Stein: Absolutely. It’s fun when it’s a writer who’s been around for a long time. But there’s something especially exciting about finding a new writer who really turns you on.

Rumpus: Is that a rarity that something will show up like that, or have you had another astonishment since that piece?

Stein: Pretty much every issue that we’ve put out, there have been at least one or two things that really surprised me. It sounds like bullshit, but most of the stories that we’ve run had that effect on me. We get thousands and thousands of submissions and I don’t think we’ve published a story yet—very few, anyway—where there wasn’t something like what Mona Simpson described, where a first sentence or a first page didn’t just really command attention.

Rumpus: At this point, you’ve done a lot in terms of revitalizing the Review and adding new features and creating an online archive and personally penning an online advice column, among many other things. Do you feel like, at this point, you’ve done plenty to make the Review your own, or are you still feeling a pressure to assert and to prove yourself?

Stein: I don’t think the Review needs another strong personality for its editor. By now the Review has a job to do that is defined by the tradition of the Review. So I haven’t had to worry much about that. But if you’re asking whether I’m satisfied with where the Review is right now, I would say no. I want more people to be reading the fiction and the poetry and the essays and the interviews. And the strategies for finding the readers—who I think could use the Review, who could love the Review, and who don’t yet know about it—that’s a work in progress. It was a big step forward to relaunch the website. That made it a lot easier. And each of the three women who’ve edited the blog have taken it forward in ways that I could never have dreamed of. But that doesn’t have much to do with me, with putting my own stamp on it. If anything, the less my stamp is on the website, the better for the website.

Rumpus: In retrospect, it seems like an obvious decision to have a digital archive. Were you surprised at how little had been done online before you got there?

Stein: It wouldn’t have occurred to me, necessarily, that it was a big deal to get the interview archive on the Web. That was proposed by the former managing editor, Caitlin Roper. Naturally, as soon as she said it, it made sense. Two days before we put the archive online, I got a call from The New York Times, from a fact-checker, who introduced himself and said, “You don’t know me, but I was just working on a story and it was a real hassle trying to track down this Paris Review interview and we sent people to the New York Public Library and this one interview wasn’t there, for whatever reason. Would you consider making them more widely available?” And I said, “Well, sir, actually your timing is very good, we’re about to make them available for free by the end of the week.” And the guy said, “No! I wasn’t saying you should make them available for free.” Which is not a surprising response from someone on staff at The New York Times. But the deed was done and I’m actually very happy with the way it’s worked out.

Rumpus: How do you respect the fifty-year tradition of the magazine while making it contemporary at the same time? Is that a constant question that nags at you? Because I would imagine that in any decision that you make that’s new or different, there’s going to be people around you dragging their feet.

Stein: Oh, I don’t think so. To answer the first part of the question: at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one was always very aware of the backlist and of a kind of quality that the publishing house stood for. And that didn’t make it hard to sign books up. In fact, it was kind of a helpful guide, because in a certain way, each new book was kind of unfolding the meaning of the house. Maybe that’s a pretentious way of putting it. But there was this sense that the publishing house was always trying to become itself with each new book. Because again, just as in publishing a literary magazine, when you’re working at a literary publishing house, you don’t have that much control over what you’re going to sell next year. It depends a lot on what a bunch of writers do, what you can afford, whether someone else buys it instead of you…there are a million variables. So having the tradition of the house as a guide was really useful and it’s just the way I was taught to think. And I would say that the same thing is true at The Paris Review. And the board has been very supportive. The board would be the people who would—as you say—drag their feet or check new initiatives, but they’ve been very, very supportive. In fact they’ve pushed me to innovate online, and have given, not just financial support, but technical advice.

Rumpus: In your time there, do you have a checklist of things that you’d like to accomplish? For instance: discover however many great new writers, or publish a number of poems by unknown poets. Do you have a list like that, or is that always evolving?

Stein: No, I should probably make one of those lists. As I say, I have the feeling that the magazine can reach many more people than it reaches and has something to offer that not everyone knows who should know it. That’s why we’re starting an app, and that’s why we do the blog. But editorially, I think it’s mainly a matter of keeping your eyes peeled. You just really don’t know what’s going to come along. I just read this novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard, that James Wood reviewed a few weeks ago, and if I had known that that guy was around—it just kills me. I would’ve loved to serialize his book. Or Sam Savage, who gave us a reworked excerpt of his fourth novel. His fourth novel, and I’d never read him, never heard of him. If I’d had the novel three months earlier, I would have offered to make a special issue, or to run it as a serial. Either of those guys, I think would’ve been just a coup. I would’ve felt that the magazine was really doing its job by bringing them more readers than they’d had before. But I can’t help being hopeful that next year, I’ll see new things in manuscript, in time for us to help bring out their next books, whoever those writers might be.

Rumpus: The Paris Review is known for its in-depth interviews with writers. I’ve read your interview with Jonathan Lethem a couple of times. I know that the Review allows authors to go back over the interviews and refine them and I was wondering about the first draft of the interview with Lethem, if you could just talk about that process: how much of that interview was off the cuff and how much of that interview was revised?

Stein: I remember that we did it in three long sessions. I remember that I studied a lot, between sessions. I remember Jonathan sending me home with a lot of books that I didn’t know. When Jonathan proposed that I do it, we knew each other slightly, not well. I was of course very honored, but I pointed out that I wasn’t qualified. I could think of a lot of people who knew a lot more about where he was coming from. It turned out that was actually part of Jonathan’s thinking: he wanted someone who didn’t know that much about science fiction, for example. Or movies. Or baseball. Or…the list goes on. That was very interesting for me. I remember that we worked on the transcript together from the beginning. There were several moments in the transcript where I’d say something kind of silly and he would correct me rather sharply. I remember us agreeing to keep moments like that in the interview and even making one of them up. We thought it helped get the points across.

Rumpus: That was actually my next question. It’s not something I see in every interview, but there did seem to be hints of conflict while you talked. I liked it and I was wondering if that was important to you, to have that conflict? Do you feel like challenging the interview subject—or vice-versa—creates a dynamic interview?

Stein: I think it can be helpful in certain interviews. Not every interview needs it or should have it. My favorite example of that—I didn’t know about it at the time, but the interview with Henry Green by Terry Southern. Now, if you read that, the whole thing is adversarial, with Henry Green being very dry and Terry Southern sounding very pretentious. And Terry Southern will ask some half-page-long, involved, philosophical question and then Green will mishear him and dismiss the whole topic in one sentence. But really the two of them wrote every word of that interview together. Jonathan [Lethem] probably knew all about that. I didn’t. Of course, that sort of thing requires a certain amount of trust and affection between the subject and the interviewer.

Rumpus: There’s also just something about journalists where they don’t want to reveal things that they don’t know and they write like authorities on all subjects, no matter what that subject is. On your part, I thought it was a really confident approach to take, admitting that you were ignorant in certain areas. But it also struck me as an approach that someone who’s just starting out might not take.

Stein: It’s nice of you to say that. The truth is, I was just starting out. I’d never done a long interview before and I still haven’t done another one. And I don’t know how confident I was. I think I just took Jonathan’s lead. I’d done a few magazine profiles. Little ones, for Publisher’s Weekly and a couple of other places, and I had found it pretty bruising to be in the room—in one case with a writer who was a real hero to me, and in another case with a writer who I found impressive in a worldly way. And those two times, specifically, I remember finding it very bruising…you must’ve had this experience: you want the person to like you or to notice you. And yet it’s hard to do a good interview when that feeling is uppermost in your mind. I mean, in particular, when I went to interview David Foster Wallace, I kept trying to put him at ease by telling him how much his work meant to me. And of course every time I tried to talk about it, he became more uncomfortable. Now that makes perfect sense to me, but at the time, I didn’t realize that it was actually easier to go in and cop to your dumbest self. It actually feels better doing it that way.

Rumpus: Or challenging them instead of worshipping them. Make them defend their work.

Stein: Yeah. It’s probably easier for them to be on the defensive than to accept a lot of praise. Or a lot of smart observation, which is what I offered Wallace. I was trying to show him that I understood his work very well. But, you know, why on earth would he care if I understood his work? It only mattered to me.

Rumpus: Who else would you like to interview? Do you have anybody on your wish-list that you would like to get to, personally?

Stein: No, I love having people around who are better interviewers than I am and who can make the time to do a really great job. All of the interviews that we’ve published are with people who really interest me. When I took the job, Josh Pashman already had 500 pages of transcript with Norman Rush. Now, Norman Rush is one of the most fascinating writers alive, but I’d rather read Josh’s brilliant interview than try to do it myself. Or Robyn Creswell, our poetry editor, interviewed James Fenton for the new issue. I could never have known enough to get that interview out of Fenton. And yet I felt very spoken for, editorially. That’s partly because Robyn and I work very closely together, but mainly it’s because he knows so much and is such a talented interviewer. That sort of luck depends on having people around you who know much, much more than you do.

Rumpus: And what about the Terry Southern interview? I read that it was in the pipeline since 1967? [The interview was started in 1967 and published in 2012.]

Stein: Yeah!

Rumpus: How does that happen?

Stein: Well, you have to remember that there’s really no paper-trail that links us reliably with earlier incantations of the Review. I mean, we’ve managed to lose almost all of our contract files before 1980. So when I say “in the pipeline,” I mean something pretty notional. I probably couldn’t tell you at this very moment what’s in the pipeline now. We’re not like a normal magazine where you plot out what’s going to be in each issue. You just sort of wait for them to come in. And what happened was that Maggie interviewed Southern in ’67, sent him off with her version of the interview and he just kept working on it. And then he died in the ’90s and his widow said, “Well, at least now we’ll be able to publish the interview.” But then it disappeared and no one could find it. Then it surfaced, just last year. And it was really done. I mean, he really had worked on it. So it was ready to go.

Rumpus: That’s an amazing story. But it leads me to my question: this is truly an interesting way of doing interviews, allowing the author to help craft it and refine it, but also I imagine it can be frustrating because of that instance with Terry and others—people will want to labor over everything. And I wonder if sometimes in-the-moment comments from an author would be better than the stuff that they’ll want to take out later, or they’ll want to revise. Are there times where they’ve taken something out that could’ve been great?

Stein: Yeah, that happens. It happens a little less than I thought it would. I guess the writers that we’ve been interviewing have a nose for what is lively and what sounds spoken. After all, we are interviewing writers. When George [Plimpton] tried to explain to his parents in a letter what he wanted to do with the interview section, and he described the first interview, which he did with E.M. Forster, he told his parents that he was writing an “essay in dialogue on technique.” If you think about it that way—that you’re helping the writer to create an essay—it gives a feeling for why you wouldn’t mind giving up a good first-draft answer in exchange for a second-draft answer.

Rumpus: I would guess that it possibly gives the subject more freedom upfront to open up, because they can redact their words and make sure that what finally ends up in the archive, forever, is something they really wanted to say.

Stein: Exactly. I think the main advantage of this technique over standard interviewing technique is that it lets people who are very concerned with their words be very free. And whatever the drawbacks of doing it that way—and, of course, there are terrible drawbacks if you’re a news reporter dealing with The White House—but when you’re talking to writers and you want them to talk for hours, it’s really very freeing.

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?

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.

Rumpus: So it was just born out of an antagonistic push-and-pull.

Stein: I think antagonism, undergirded by hero-worship on one side and a lot of affection and respect on the other.

Rumpus: Is this job about what you thought it would be? Or have there been some surprises here and there?

Stein: That’s a good question. In some ways, it’s kind of what I imagined. I’m more thrilled by the short fiction than I expected to be. I’ve found more pleasure in reading short fiction than I used to. By seeing what kinds of thinking are going on in short fiction. I was also surprised by the panic I’ve felt, especially at first, when we’d put an issue to bed and then realized we had to put another one together.

Rumpus: Why’s that?

Stein: Well, we don’t commission very much. We almost never commission things. [Writer and editor] John Jeremiah Sullivan—he’s done a few commissions for us. It’s wonderful when you know that John Sullivan is at work on something for you. But it’s also nail-biting. Because John’s a perfectionist. And it goes with this thing that I’ve noticed in him that my family has always noticed in me, which is a not very realistic sense of time. You know how you can forget that time is marching by, even as you’re trying to plan how you’re going to use your time? We’re both a little bit like that. So we both depend heavily on the discipline of the managing editor, Nicole Rudick.

Rumpus: Do you do a lot of self-reflection, or are you much too busy to really analyze how much you think you’ve gotten right since you’ve been at the Review versus how much you’ve gotten wrong, or could’ve done better?

Stein: I guess I don’t think much about the issues after they come out. I like it when people like them. Often, when people have criticisms, I find myself agreeing with them. I think some issues are stronger than others. I hope we’re getting a little bit better, overall, issue by issue.

Rumpus: It seems like the Review is such a good fit for you because you take a lot of pleasure in personally recommending books and authors. And you’ve said that one of the main points of the Review is that it’s a gateway drug to other authors and other reading. Is that a love of yours—you see a person and you think immediately of something that you know they’ll love to read? Is recommending things a personal passion of yours?

Stein: Ha! No. I asked Sadie [Stein, Deputy Editor of The Paris Review and co-editor of Object Lessons] a few months ago if I could stop doing the advice column because I just can’t write funny. She ceded the point. Others do it so much better. Sadie, for example. Or Josh Cohen. And honestly, after a few months of recommending, I realized that I haven’t read enough, really, to recommend very many books. I recommend the same things over and over again. How many times can you tell people to read Rebecca or Remembrance of Things Past? There are people like [author and radio host] Kurt Andersen who seem to just be up on everything, and I am not that guy at all. I have such a thin knowledge of even the stuff that I do read. So I feel a little bit fraudulent offering reading advice. Not always, but sometimes.

Rumpus: Something refreshing that I thought was very funny was that column that you wrote about not needing to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I thought that was great.

Stein: I’m glad.

Rumpus: It’s very rare to hear to hear somebody say that.

Stein: Oh, do people not say that?

Rumpus: No one says that. You’re the only one, I think, in the history of letters.

Stein: That must be the difference between San Francisco and New York, right there.

Rumpus: You’re right. So when you got the job, I know that you had read the Review over the years, since age fourteen, but when you were applying and since you’ve gotten the job, have you really just immersed yourself in everything? I mean, do you feel pretty much like you’re caught up at this point?

Stein: I don’t feel at all caught up. I did a lot of studying when I was applying for that job, but as I say, it would take years, even if you gave hours a week to it, to know the archive. And some of it’s great, some of it’s not great. The sad fact is that, and it’s a strange fact—fiction, in general, ages less well than criticism. Which is counterintuitive. But I’ve found it to be true. So, a giant fiction archive—a giant poetry archive, too—you’ll find some things that you connect to. But time passes rather quickly in those art forms. That’s not a knock on the art form, it’s a difficulty of the art form. It’s always going to be more fun in general to read a page of advertisements from an early modernist journal than to read the editorial content. And in a certain way, it would be great if I just had the whole magazine in my head, but when you read, you have to exercise the critical faculties that you bring to bear on new stuff, too.

Rumpus: I know it’s early in your career at the Review, but do you think about your legacy? Do you think that you would like to have a run-time of what George Plimpton did? Or is it too early to tell? Could this potentially be your last job, in terms of where you’re going to end your career?

Stein: Unless I’m cycling in traffic, I don’t really think about that. I’m not looking to do anything else for a while, but I don’t really think about it. The question of legacy—George Plimpton invented the magazine and he laid down the basic parameters and you really couldn’t hope to be more than a good steward of what he started. But that’s plenty.


Jory John is the co-author of All my friends are dead, I Feel Relatively Neutral About New York, All my friends are STILL dead, Pirate’s Log: A Handbook For Aspiring Swashbucklers and the forthcoming K is for Knifeball: An Alphabet of Terrible Advice. He is also the editor of Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country: Kids’ Letters to President Obama. Jory has written for the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Believer and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His comic panel, Open Letters appears in a dozen alt weeklies. His website is www.bigstonehead.net and he’s on Twitter @joryjohn. More from this author →