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April 3, 2014 By Karl Henkell

We Visit The Paris Review

Earlier this week we visited The Paris Review, the esteemed literary journal that was started in 1953 by Americans in Paris with the goal of breaking talented new writers; a mission that has remained to the present day. We spoke to the man most passionate about everything concerning the Review—their editor, Lorin Stein.

Each issue is comprised of fiction, poetry and long-form interviews. Released quarterly since its inception, it's now up to its 208th issue. Jack Kerouac’s "The Mexican Girl", Jim Carroll's "The Basketball Diaries", Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Virgin Suicides" and David Foster Wallace’s "Little Expressionless Animals" are among those the Review were first to publish. Needless to say we were very pleased to have them as collaborators on our V8: Classics parcel. 
 
Their interview archive is a huge bank of knowledge of the most important names in modern writing. Hemingway, Faulkner, Ezra Pound and Truman Capote to mention a few. These interviews offer the subjects a rare opportunity to discuss their art and life at length; more essays that read as conversation, distilled from hours of dialogue often spanning years. 
 
The Review celebrates their history, but their pages are filled only with what's current. The latest issue includes a story from a Brooklyn writer who takes a placement in Marfa, and another of a writer spending time in Athens. Both rooted in specific locations, the exploration of their own inner world is just as interesting as what's happening around them. Also the interview with Mad Men creator Matt Weiner is the most insightful piece about his life as a screenwriter and the show's creation that we’ve read to date. 
 
 
What's going on down at the Review at the moment?
 
We’re in the early stages of planning our next issue. We come out four times a year—so this is the part where I haven’t started to panic yet. I'm editing a couple of short stories, looking for new stuff, trying to work out what our interviews are going to be. We like our interviews to take as long as they need to take, which can sometimes be years. So for each issue we start to corral the ones that look close to completion. Sometimes it’s helpful for the interviewer and to the subject to have a soft deadline, but we try to avoid crashing things.
 
Do you think the spaces between conversations, and conducting an interview over several sessions leads to a richer interview?
 
Very much so. The spaces can sometimes do as much work as the sessions themselves. When I did one years ago with Jonathan Lethem we read the transcripts after each session, before we sat down again, just to see what we’d covered.
 
Are you looking to do the definitive interview with someone? To get exactly what they feel about writing or whatnot on paper?
 
That’s a good way of putting it. George Plimpton [founder of the Review] wrote a letter to his parents when they were putting the first issue together, in which he described the interview he was doing with E. M Forster as “an essay in dialogue on technique”. That’s how I think of them too. The odd thing is that they haven’t changed much in their methodology. If anything’s changed it’s that in 1953 when the Review started, the interview was fairly rare in print. It wasn’t as valorized as it became in the 60’s with Rolling Stone, Interview magazine, Bomb, and so on. In a time where you can’t pick up a newspaper without reading a Q&A, I think what makes our interviews distinctive is that they are written documents, more like essays; like the Heidegger Essay ’On The Way To Language’, which I believe is a completely fictionalized conversation between the western philosopher and a Japanese buddhist. That’s closer to the interview that we’d like to do—than those in the Sunday Times.  
 
Is it important to choose the right time to interview your subjects? Or is that less relevant to an interview like this. 
 
We tend to wait until writers are quite far along in their careers, so there can be a summing up, but sometimes present-day events are interesting and reveal something about the writer. It becomes clear when we’re editing it, how much of the situation to leave in. 
 
Is it important to have the right person interviewing the subject?
 
Yeah. Sometimes people don't click. Other times we might start with one interviewer and bring someone else in to do a follow-up. It can be interesting then, because there’ll be two different kinds of chemistry and sorts of relationships. 
 
I noticed that the interview with Matthew Weiner [creator of Mad Men] was done by someone who worked as a writer on the show.
 
It was interesting and, I think, useful to have someone who works so closely with the subject. When I started, there was a writer I really wanted us to interview named Dennis Cooper. He’s an underground writer who has had a long career. I wanted someone who knew his work very well; who wasn’t part of his cult, but who understood the cult. I asked Ira Silverberg to do it. He started off working for Cooper's publisher then became his agent and worked with him for almost 30 years. I think that closeness made the interview beautiful because there were long answers that we hardly had to touch. There was a real openness between them, because Ira had spent so much of his career trying to bring this very special writer to a larger public, and he was able to ask questions that brought the reader in, who wouldn’t have known much about his work to begin with. 
 
Would the old Paris Review have interviewed a TV writer like Matthew Weiner?
 
If TV was back then what it is now, then I think the Review would have done these interviews. Weiner is our first TV writer, but the Review has interviewed screenwriters, very occasionally, since the '60s. The first one was probably Terry Southern in 1967. That interview got lost until a couple of years ago. It turned up in Southern's papers after he died.
 
As Editor of the Review I picture you sitting back at a desk covered in books and manuscripts reading constantly. How real is that image?
 
The desk is certainly covered in manuscripts right now. I have a couple of stories covered in pencil—I tend to edit on paper. I’ve got some spoof interviews that we’ll publish online for April Fool’s day. On the left of my desk I have a big stack of manuscripts to read. The books are all sitting in front of me and behind me.
 
When do you usually get time to do reading?
 
Oh, in the evening. A few nights a week I like to have dinner alone with a book, then I read after dinner, and just like everyone else in New York I read on the subway. It fills up the corners of your day if you don’t let other things take over. 
 
Is the bulk of your work editing pieces for the magazine?
 
Well, it might have been if we were just a quarterly, but now we have three people on staff who are completely on the digital side. We get most of our subscriptions come to us through our website now, and our subscriptions are triple what they were 10 years ago. So the website requires day-to-day, hour-to-hour discussion and thought. 
 
The internet presence of the Review seems to have become much more important. How do you feel about reading the magazine on a tablet?
 
To be honest I've never read it on the tablet. A few months after an issue comes out there’s usually a night where I’m sitting at home having my second Scotch and I pick up the last issue and read it from cover to cover. And it’s the first time that I enjoy it, typically. The stories that we publish are all things that speak to me, and in the moment of putting the issue together I think about them a lot. Then they keep growing on me.
 
I think that’s one difference between editing a quarterly and putting out books, which is what I used to do. It would take nine months for a finished manuscript to turn into a published book. By the time it came out, it was out of your system. Here at the Review we’re publishing things that are snapshots of our own thinking and feeling, much closer to real time. 
 
The process does seem to have some similarity to book editing, in that you do receive work that isn’t necessarily in its finished form, but rather a manuscript that you then prepare for publishing. 
 
It’s closer to book publishing than to putting out a glossy magazine, because apart from the interviews we do almost no commissioning. On the other hand, our stories and poems are short, so we don’t tend to sign them up unless they seem very close to what they’re going to be. Sometimes there’s a lot of back-and-forth, but often not.
 
Do you rely on a gut level reaction to decide whether something is worth publishing?
 
It’s completely a matter of feeling, a visceral response. The Quakers have an expression: "This speaks to my condition." A lot of the writing that we publish in some way or another speaks to my condition. They’re things that I can’t get out of my head. That tends to be clear right away when you start reading something; it either speaks to you or it doesn’t.
 
Does that only happen with a small percentage of what comes across your desk?
 
Tiny. And we turn down plenty of excellent stuff. What the pieces we publish have in common is that they tend to have a high degree of sophistication. They are written by people who know their technique very well, who have read a lot, and who know a lot about fiction. It tends to be expert work. But that also describes many of the pieces we turn down.
 
Is the role of the Review to break new talent?
 
That’s our tradition. It's something we are peculiarly well set up to do. We don’t need to maintain a stable of writers, we don’t have a contract that turns a writer into one of ours, we can always take on new writers, and there’s no downside in only publishing them once. We don’t have pressure to publish anything, or to satisfy a million subscribers. We have the luxury of being able to follow our own sensibility, wherever it takes us, at whatever length, with whatever kind of content. We can publish things that are risqué, or would put some people off. 
 
Until recently a clothing chain was carrying the Review. They complained that there was too much nudity in our last issue; they said they trusted that it would never happen again. We sent them the proof for the next issue, which sure enough had some nude photos from Francesca Woodman and they cancelled their order forever. And no one shed a tear. That’s a luxury not every magazine has.
 
You can’t let that define the magazine I suppose. 
 
That’s right. The great luck is that we have generous donors who help fund us. It gives us this tremendous freedom, that’s been true for the whole 61 years that the magazine’s been around. It’s never turned a profit. 
 
Has the role of the Review changed in modern times?
 
Yes and no. The mission has stayed the same, but there are far fewer literary magazines than there used to be. In general there’s less attention paid in the culture to the development of new writers at the highest level. That gives us more work to do and a greater reason to do it. It just so happens that what we do looks very much the same.
 
The decision to put all of your archival interviews online is interesting. It’s a huge archive of knowledge on some of the biggest writers in history.
 
That seemed like an important thing to do, because those interviews were hard to find otherwise. In many cases that series contains the definitive interview by a given writer. So it’s a public service to make the interview available. 
 
Was putting them online free-of-charge ever a big discussion?
 
We don’t exist to make money, but to create readers. That’s the way to create readers and bring them in touch with the writers that matter the most to them. It’s the kind of decision that’s easy to make as a non-profit. Our mission is very clear—to discover writers and make a case for what we think is best in english language literature. 
 
Does the magazine still have a link to Paris?
 
The magazine was founded in Paris by Americans in 1953. By 1960 the main operations had moved to New York with a satellite office there that remained important. For many years our printing was done in Holland. In the 70’s, everything was moved stateside. The original cast of characters have always tied us back to France because of the time they spent there. As it happens I’ve done a fair amount of translating from French over the years. It’s probably co-incidental, but if there’s one foreign literature that we pay closest attention to, it's probably French.
 
How about the space you work in. How important is it to the functioning of the magazine?
 
Well, we try to keep it nice. We also try to keep it cheap. My brother-in-law, who’s a contractor, built the shelves and figured out where the walls should go. He gave us a good deal. It’s nice to have a space that feels like home. For a long time it was run out of [founder] George Plimpton’s apartment, which was extremely nice, though the office itself was cramped. We need a place where we can have people over comfortably.
 
What other magazines do you pay attention to?
 
There are a lot of quarterlies that I look at and pay attention to. None do quite the same thing as what we do. I read the New Yorker religiously, and the New York Review and London Review of Books. But that's all very different from what we do. The same is true of Harper’s magazine, McSweeney’s, Granta, the Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, Tin House. There are a lot of serious magazines out there, but we don’t feel particularly competitive with any of them.
 
The Review has its big event coming up, The Spring Revel—can you tell me what’s planned?
 
The Revel is the one night where we raise all the money we need for the year. It’s a dinner for five hundred people. We give several prizes -- the Plimpton Prize for an emerging writer of fiction, the Terry Southern Prize, for a writer who's funny, and the Hadada, our lifetime achievement prize. This year's honoree is the poet Frederick Seidel, who was actually one of our Paris editors in the 60’s. He is also one of our most frequent contributors, and a poet we all admire very much. Zadie Smith, Martin Amis, and Uma Thurman will all be reading Fred's poems. It should be a fun night.
 
 
 
 
Photography by Paul Barbera. See more photos at Where They Create.