You could argue that We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families doesn't make learning about the Rwandan genocide especially easy. There's no happy ending. As for the beginning, consider that 800,000 Rwandans lost their lives in just 100 days. Nonetheless, you'd be hard-pressed to overstate how good the 1998 National Book Critics Award winner really is.
For example, if you haven't read it, you might think Tom Engelhardt of the Philadelphia Inquirer had slipped into hyperbole when he claimed, "Gourevitch's beautiful writing drives you deep into Rwanda... He drives you, in fact, right up against the limits of what a book can do."
Philip Gourevitch's next effort, A Cold Case, told the true story of an unsolved double murder in New York City. The sophomore work was merely a "gripping, first rate...meditation on the very essence of crime" (New York Times), "vastly readable" (Denver Post), "page-turning film noir" (Wall Street Journal), and "a work of art" (San Francisco Chronicle).
Gourevitch, a long-time New Yorker staff writer, has served as editor of the venerable Paris Review for a year and a half now, and this holiday season, in that role, he's delivered a gift for the ages. The Paris Review Interviews, Volume I offers sixteen conversations mined from more than three hundred conducted since the Review's first issue appeared in 1953.
You know you want to read it. Heck, you're reading this interview, which itself owes a great deal to the Paris Review series. When George Plimpton and William Styron started the journal (with Peter Matthiessen and Harold L. Humes) and decided to publish question and answer exchanges with the finest authors of the day, Gourevitch explains in the introduction,
The interviews were conceived as the best way to discuss writing and the writing life in their own terms — by letting writers speak for themselves about their work.
Yes, the writers: Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot — are you sold yet? — Saul Bellow, Jorge Luis Borges, Kurt Vonnegut... all the way up to Joan Didion. And this is just Volume One.
But what was that about letting the writers speak for themselves? Enough preamble. On with the conversation.
Dave: My favorite interview in the collection is Hemingway's. As I read it the first time, he reminded me of Bob Dylan, circa Don't Look Back. One moment he could be entirely obtuse, and then a second later he says something so insightful you have to read it two or three times over to believe it. Right, he's brilliant. I almost forgot.
Philip Gourevitch: It's interesting to compare him to Dylan. The extreme guardedness by which he's protecting his own sensitive instrument — that does make sense.
You see Hemingway as a big, burly, manly man who's out shooting animals, but that's one of his masks. It's a Hemingway persona. But Hemingway the writer is an incredible craftsman. Those stories are amazing pieces of work, amazingly deliberate. Maybe he was a macho guy who was boxing and shooting lions, but, also, by the time he was twenty-five he was in Paris, one of the few writers Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound thought worth taking time for and hanging out with. He knew he was an artist, even though being an artist wasn't the image he most cultivated.
Some of that tension comes through in the interview. Hemingway was really a believer that if you talked about it, you blew some of the magic; you gave some of yourself away. It's a little like the aboriginal peoples who don't want to be photographed because they're afraid you're taking their soul. Yes, Dylan is actually a bit like that, too. He'll give you dodgy answers and create masks and personas just to throw you off the scent.
Dave: And it's so much more entertaining to think that George Plimpton was conducting the interview.
Gourevitch: A few days ago I was in L.A., and I was talking about the book with Stephen Gaghan, the guy who wrote Traffic and wrote and directed Syriana. A long time ago, Stephen was a Paris Review intern.
He remembered being with George Plimpton once, and he asked about the Hemingway interview. George had this kind of patrician accent. He told Stephen, "I remember one morning when we were down in Cuba, we were going out tarpon fishing. We went down to the pier in the morning, and he was putting all the gear in the boat to go out for the day. I was coming down the pier, and I said, 'Papa! I've been wanting to ask you about the white birds.'"
Hemingway turned around and said, "What's that?" So Plimpton explained, "The white birds. You know? In your stories, at a significant moment, the white birds appear."
Hemingway took two steps toward him and clocked him. He knocked him out cold.
Dave: Wow. Great story.
Gourevitch: I like it because it reminds you what a dangerous business literary interviewing is.
No. Because it speaks to something that the Paris Review has always been about. Starting out, the one rule the editors had was no literary criticism.
All the other journals were running lots of literary criticism. William Styron, when he was twenty-seven, wrote the manifesto in the first issue of the Paris Review, in 1952 — well, it came out in '53 — saying, "The literary magazines seem today on the verge of doing away with literature, not with any philistine bludgeon but by smothering it under the weight of learned chatter."
The interviews were invented, or devised, or struck upon, as a response to that challenge. How are we going to talk about writing without doing Lit Crit? So it's very funny that in the process of doing an interview Plimpton gets clocked by Hemingway for doing Lit Crit.
Dave: What quotes from the collection stick in your head?
Gourevitch: There are so many jockeying around in there. I love some of the Dorothy Parker lines. I haven't read a ton of Dorothy Parker, I'll admit, but she has a reputation as a great wit — the Algonquin Round Table, you think of someone who speaks like a screwball comedy. Sure enough, this thing is just choked with one-liners.
There's a moment when she's describing an office she had at the New Yorker with Robert Benchley. She says, "He and I shared an office so tiny that an inch smaller it would have been adultery."
All through the interview, she has these lines. She's cracking you up, and at the same time it's quite a poignant interview because she's also saying, "What's so interesting about me? I'm just a humorist. I took refuge in humor instead of going for the big game of serious literature. My poems are just doggerel." There's also a class element in there, where she's saying, "I'm a girl that had to make a living." That comes through.
Dave: I haven't read her stuff at all, but that interview made for a great opener. Rebecca West was another. I've never read anything of hers.
Gourevitch: There's an amazing moment in that interview. Rebecca West is just seething with opinions. Again, a lot of these, you don't have to have read a lot of their work. She just talks, and you realize you're in the presence of a terrific intelligence. Talking about all sorts of stuff.
At one point, the Vietnam War comes up, which either was in its final throes or just over. She of course is British, and sitting there she says,
|I can't help thinking... the Vietnam War was the blackest comedy that ever was, because it showed the way you can't teach humanity anything. We'd all learned in the rest of the world that you can't now go round and put out your hand and, across seas, exercise power; but the poor Americans had not learned that and they tried to do it.|
Dave: I marked that in my book, actually.
Gourevitch: It seems like a very powerful line again now. That's one of the things literature is about: You think the wisdom is in on human experience, and there we go again. It becomes relevant all over. It's an amazing passage.
I love the Jack Gilbert interview, too, which is one of the ones I worked on. He's a poet, much regarded by poets in the know, but he's not someone I had been aware of. He's written four or five books. He's eighty. He's an extremely compelling, wise person.
The way it starts — we edit these things a certain amount; this wasn't the way the conversation started but the way we ended up shaping it — he's talking about how he almost died once, falling out of a tree, trying to impress a girl, basically. Fifty feet out of a tree. It's a beautiful opening: You fall into the interview.
And I'm a great fan of the James M. Cain interview. He's known for writing The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce, but he started out working for H.L. Mencken as a newspaper guy in Baltimore, where he was from. He talks about going up to New York, where he got a job with Walter Lippman at The World.
The language he uses — it's a little like Dorothy Parker — this hardboiled language but perfectly clean. He says,
|I wanted to get this job on my own cheek; the guy respects you for that. Another thing, you get a much better job on your own cheek than if the guy gives you a job as a favor to whoever wrote the letter. Mencken gave me a letter of introduction that I never presented. But he loused me up. Without my knowing, he wrote Krock with the best intentions in the world, as he just loved me, and that crossed me up because I didn't get the job on my own after all.|
He goes on in this vein.
Dave: In the introduction, you mention that the Paris Review put together a collection of its interviews five years after the first issue, and already E.M. Forster and Graham Greene didn't make the cut.
Gourevitch: And Ralph Ellison. Five years into the magazine's history they had a greatest hits collection that didn't have room for those guys.
Dave: What is the organizing principle of this new collection, then? I know you have two more volumes coming, but where did you start? What was the goal?
Gourevitch: To make a really good book. You could have made a really good book in a lot of ways — and this is Volume One. We're going to have Volume Two in a year and Volume Three the year after that. We'll see where it stops. Right now we're committed to three, but you could have many that would all be good.
There's an arbitrary quality where I am the decider, as we say these days. I had to decide. It became about mix, just like it is when you edit an issue of the magazine. You save a story for the next time because you want one that does something quite different, or you don't want certain things going together.
I wanted to give a sense of the range, in terms of the types of writers, the tone of the interviews. Dorothy Parker and Jorge Luis Borges are not usually in the same volume. Billy Wilder and T.S. Eliot. James M. Cain and Joan Didion. But then you suddenly think, actually, James M. Cain and Joan Didion, they're working some of the same patches of Southern California, roughneck cinematic life. Suddenly you see these things pop out. Kurt Vonnegut's in there, but so is Elizabeth Bishop. It's a mix.
We made a long list of between eighty and a hundred. We were going to do twenty to a volume, but it simply became too big. We ended up with sixteen in this one.
With the long list, we started mixing them up. A large percentage of what didn't go in this volume will go in a later volume. This isn't a very satisfying answer, I know, but part of the idea was that if we made a book where everything is pleasurable, and because you like these two authors you take a shot on the ones you don't know and you get engrossed, we've succeeded. If that means we've also left out a great list, we'll get to them.
Also, some of them are on our web site. Maybe twenty or twenty-five percent of the interview archive is available. They're not as nice to read as in this beautiful book...
Dave: It is a nice book. The French flaps, the deckled edges...
Gourevitch: We wanted it to feel permanent.
Dave: At the New Yorker Festival this year, Zadie Smith talked about the book she's working on. In response to a question from the audience, she ended up talking about her father's ambivalence, how she admired his refusal to make judgments on all sorts of issues. Afterwards I talked to my friend about whether she was saying that apathy is okay. That's not how I interpreted it, but I had trouble articulating exactly what I thought she was getting at.
Then a couple days later on the subway I read this bit from the Saul Bellow interview:
|The volume of judgments one is called upon to make depends upon the receptivity of the observer, and if one is very receptive, one has a terrifying number of opinions to render — what do you think about this, about that, about Vietnam, about city planning, about expressways, or garbage disposal, or democracy, or Plato, or pop art, or welfare states, or literacy in a "mass society"....Often Herzog deals with ideas in negative fashion. He needs to dismiss a great mass of irrelevancy and nonsense in order to survive. Perhaps this was what I meant earlier when I said that we were called upon to make innumerable judgments. We can be consumed simply by the necessity to discriminate between multitudes of propositions. We have to dismiss a great number of thoughts if we are to have any creaturely or human life at all. It seems at times that we are on trial seven days a week answering the questions, giving a clear account of ourselves. But when does one live? How does one live if it is necessary to render ceaseless judgments.|
Which is exactly what I think Zadie Smith had been getting at. But Bellow said it forty years ago.
In We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, you write, "The piled up dead of political violence are a generic staple of our information diet these days." It made me wonder: With so much information at our disposal, how does a person stay informed and stay sane, and not simply live as a silent witness to the horror?
Gourevitch: There isn't a comfortable position. You are implicated.
The idea of a do-no-harm ethic has its virtue in a broad sense, but it's kind of an unattainable notion, especially if you would suggest that you ought to know about other people's suffering. I don't want to go so far as calling it "a moral obligation" because I don't feel that way necessarily, but depending where you're at... Even if you move to a hilltop and produce all your own consumables and are a completely unintrusive presence on the planet, maybe instead of doing no harm you could be doing some good, maybe you could be paying attention to things.
Maybe tuning out doesn't exempt you. It's inescapable. The fact is, you are gliding along while other people are suffering.
As a writer, the question is whether at times you can describe all of that. But there's a reason that one of the first scenes I have in the Rwanda book is where I visit a massacre site. One thing I set out to do in that book is to convey the magnitude of the atrocity without writing a book that is graphically oppressive. It should not be. The gore should be there exactly insofar as you need to be clear that this is what we're talking about, and in order to hear people's stories from there you need to at least periodically reconnect to the fact that it's not an abstraction; it's really saturated in blood.
I've read about political atrocities where the atrocity starts to become a little horror-filmish. There's a lot of drama to it, and it may even be riveting, but it's hard to get from there to meaning. I was more interested in trying to get toward the meanings of the thing.
But to reconnect: There's a reason that I start by visiting the massacre site. It's not really gory. It's post-gore. A year has passed, the bones are dry, the skin is shriveled, and as I'm walking through the grass I see a general from the group I'm with step on a skull. You hear this crunch. And he keeps walking. I sort of thought, The bastard. And a second later, I step on one, too.
Somebody in my family said to me, "I just don't understand why so early in the book you've got to bring yourself front and center, especially since the book isn't particularly first-person." And I said, "Because you can't deal with the subject without stepping in it. That's why." You're implicated. You want to get close enough to be able to see it? You're in it.
That's what I realized at that moment, and that's why I mentioned that a second earlier I'd been thinking, I can't believe that guy just stepped on a skull. Who does he think he is? Sorry, that's what happens here. So: Oops, me, too. I'm in. And in a way, it's like saying, You, the reader, are coming along. I don't labor the point. I don't expand on the metaphor. But that's why.
So in response to your question, there isn't a comfortable position, but there is a less uncomfortable position. For me, it bothered me more not to pay attention. I found it more uncomfortable to ignore it. I wanted to take a closer look, and the less uncomfortable position for me is not to simply say, "It's unspeakable, unthinkable, unimaginable, it's chaos," but to say, "I'm afraid it may be a darker conclusion, but it's clearer, it's truer, it has real, distinct shapes."
Rwandans speak of "the genocidal logic." They don't mean it's a logical thing to do; they mean that it's driven by a set of logical calculations. There is thinking that goes into it, not thoughtlessness only. It's a bad idea, but it's an idea.
Dave: And clearly it's an idea with practical applications. It happens.
Gourevitch: And it keeps happening.
Dave: Another way of looking at that scene, something you mention in the book: Your interest wasn't only about what drove Rwandans to genocide, but also how they can, if they can, move on from the experience.
Gourevitch: It's both.
I was not there during it. I started to visit Rwanda and report on it a year afterwards. The two questions go together. They're inextricable. In order to think about how you're going to move on you need some sense of how you got into it. You can't simply say — and this is a mistake that a lot of outsiders have made — "Well, that happened, now let's move along." As in, "C'mon, let's not dwell on it. Let's think about what makes sense moving forward." To not dwell on it is to not understand what's required to move forward. They're entangled.
To me that's the big question. We didn't all go through the genocide the way Rwandans did, but we all in some way have to live with it. If in fact we accept at all the notion of a crime against humanity, some however abstract concept of common humanity, then this is part of our heritage. Our human legacy. It's part of who we are.
One of the things I'm quietly getting at in the book, and perhaps less quietly as time has gone on, is that I'm struck by how much of what's written about the Holocaust or Rwanda or Darfur or Bosnia seeks to suggest that this is an anomaly, that this is not like us, that this is inhuman. Being inhumane is not inhuman. Alas! But in order to understand it, we have to get our nose right up to the glass and see that in fact it's something that does happen. If we keep saying, "Never again," we blind ourselves to what's going on.
Dave: What is Rwanda looking like these days?
Gourevitch: I haven't been back recently. I think it's pretty tough. In the very best of circumstances, living in a country where virtually everyone was either targeted or a targeter, or was either family of killer or killers, themselves — that's a pretty monumental thing to wrap your mind around.
Usually it's more segmented. Usually there's a soldier class or a military class or a large number of people who were bystanders but not flat-out implicated. It's pretty hard to get far away from it on your family tree in Rwanda. Just that alone: the fact that geographically, sociologically, and otherwise, perpetrator and victim were intermingled, are still living side by side. It's not like, "You go to Belgrade and I'll go to Sarajevo, and we'll snarl every time we see the other guy on TV but we won't have to see each other in the market each day." Oh, yes, you will.
I've never really bought the economic argument, that the Rwandan genocide was somehow an expression of resource competition — a lot of places have extreme resource competition without having quite this scale of political violence — but there was definitely what in medicine they'd call an accelerating factor. If you have AIDS and then you get TB, guess what? You're going to get it worse. If you have extreme poverty and then somebody comes along and starts committing genocide, guess what? People have a lot less to lose. And if you have very little to lose, "Me and Bobby McGee" notwithstanding, it doesn't seem like such a big deal just to tear the whole place to shreds.
It's a dangerous situation when you have generations of young men who have nothing to lose. And then you say, "Kill and take. It's yours." And you say, "It's not illegal to kill. It's kind of illegal not to."
Dave: In fact, you're doing a public service by killing.
Gourevitch: That's right. You must. That's why they call it a logic. It is a system of thought. Which is why, in the aftermath, one of the problems is whether people even feel guilty.
I had a guy explain to me that he'd killed a bunch of people, and he said, "I feel a little bit guilty." I was like, A little bit? He thought he was making a big confession — he'd used the words guilty and I feel in the same sentence. I wanted to say, "The three words in between are really interesting. What do you mean, a little bit?" A little bit murder? The guys are dead, all of them.
Before Rwanda, people sometimes talked about the Holocaust as a perverse expression of the Industrial Revolution and technology — all those Germans couldn't have killed all those Jews without all the technology, right? This was the logical extreme of human inventiveness, this antiseptic murder; nobody would ever do it if you couldn't just pop victims in a room, turn on the gas, and never see anything nasty. In a way, Rwanda is an answer to that. If you can swing the people who'll swing the machetes, you can do a lot of harm.
Dave: A quote from Hemingway in the collection: "The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector." How did your research for We Wish to Inform You or A Cold Case test your shit detector?
Gourevitch: To the limit. When I was in Rwanda, there were still a lot of people who had various forms of influence, particularly in the so-called refugee camps. There was a huge community of Rwandans in exile, who had fled after committing the genocide, and they were still a potent political force, and would try very hard to get their position across. Because they had fled and were living in squalid looking refugee camps and were obviously displaced from their homes, they won a lot of sympathy and they were being taken care of by international humanitarian aid organizations. There were a lot of false arguments floating around.
There was a lot of clever, Sophistic bullshit, as a shit detector is built for. It's a little like "short skirts invite rape."
"Well, the Tutsi over the years did such and such." "Oh, so let's exterminate them all?" "No, I never said that. We're talking about a civil war. We're not talking about one side exterminating the other." "Well, we are talking about that."
A constant attempt to shift the terms. There was a lot of that. There was a lot of meeting dodgy people who want to spin you, and will try very hard. There's a lot of not really knowing what you're being told.
In A Cold Case, it was a little less like that, but again I was writing about a killer, and the killer was, as killers tend to be, very self-forgiving. He felt that he needn't be punished by the law since he'd punished himself enough, fretting about the crime afterwards. That's a nice idea. This hurts me more than it hurts you. You get a lot of that.
But also, I would say that the built-in shit detector Hemingway is talking about, and that most writers probably experience, it's not only about outsiders trying to bullshit you; it's about detecting your own self-deceptions. A lot of fiction and a lot of nonfiction, a lot of stories in the world, are driven by elements of self-deception, by people who don't quite see themselves. The tragic flaw. The person who between some mixture of desire and sentiment and weakness fails to be honest with himself.
A writer can't be that way in the writing. I'm not saying writers are superior human beings — that would be an extremely indefensible statement — but I would say that in the writing they have to be their better selves, certainly their better intelligences.
With Hemingway, you can tell just by the way he writes. He means also that you can't get away with a bad sentence. You can't get away with a false word or a false note. You can't be clever; you've got to be true. You can't be almost, you have to be bang on.
Dave: Truman Capote says that specifically:
Call it precious and go to hell, but I believe a story can be wrecked by a faulty rhythm in a sentence — especially if it occurs toward the end — or a mistake in paragraphing, even punctuation.
Gourevitch: I think all of these writers, in very different ways, come to that sort of conclusion. Talk is fine and what you do in your life is either fine or causes you great misery — it's your life — but the bullshit detector is for your own shit, the ways you might try to cut a corner when you write a sentence. Or, thinking of the whole story, understanding your characters.
Writing nonfiction, that's just as true. It's trying to see what's there, rather than coming at it thinking you already know what's there. Then you can't see anything.
Dave: Melissa Fay Greene just published a book about AIDS orphans in Ethiopia.
Gourevitch: I haven't yet read it, but she's really good.
Dave: I noticed that you wrote a blurb for the new Dave Eggers novel.
Gourevitch: Since I've become an editor I have a strict no-blurb policy — it's just too awkward and too complicated otherwise — but he had talked to me about this project and told me that he'd wanted me to read it before I'd become an editor. When he got done with it, I read it and I thought it was really a remarkable book.
Gourevitch: Another cheerful read from Africa.
Dave: Happy, happy. But it's fascinating to learn this stuff.
What you wrote about What Is the What was interesting in the context of something Melissa Fay Greene talked about when she was here. You wrote, "By setting the story of African annihilation and survival as a story of American immigration, Eggers ensures that it belongs to us all, as it must."
Earlier you mentioned the process of implicating yourself, as the author, in the Rwanda narrative. Similarly, Melissa's publisher felt that her readers needed her to be in the story. She's not a major presence, but every now and then she breaks through the narrative to remind readers that she's actually in the room where the scene is playing out. She represents the reader, a white American among Africans.
Gourevitch: Look, the conventional way to tell a story about foreign places is you have some sort of American figure marauding around in it. If it's a movie, there's always going to be the journalist or the soldier — the white guy; there's always the white guy. At the very least, there's going to be a black American, but even that's not considered such a great idea — I'm talking now in Hollywood terms. But it's going to be Graham Greene or it's going to be Conrad, or, in Naipaul, it's an Indian trader — there's an outsider who sees this stuff, who draws the bridge between you and it.
That link is a conventional but logical strategy. Also, it's an imaginative thing: If you are writing about people who are so totally different from you, how can you pretend to have lost your own perspective? There's a not entirely convincing chutzpah in that kind of thing.
I think what Dave Eggers did really interestingly in that book is that he doesn't write it by inserting a ton of white people. He could have done that. It's a book about a Sudanese refugee who has a childhood in Sudan and is still an adolescent boy when he arrives at a refugee camp in Kenya, where — bang! — right there he makes contact with Westerners for the first time. It could easily be told with one of them at the core of the drama, but they aren't really.
It's told more in the tradition of the immigrant novel. America itself becomes a character, rather than an American. Being in this odd, suburban Atlanta apartment... You start to realize, Right, I probably see that guy. Like good immigrant literature often does, it makes something somewhat invisible visible. It suddenly makes you think about that guy with the accent that you're really not sure where he's from. He's driving a cab or filling your gas. He might actually be a guy with an unbelievable, earth shattering story, and putting himself through college, and from a princely tribe back home. God knows what. But it reminds you. It breaks that screen. And that's what I was referring to.
That's something I did not do in the Rwanda book. To me that wouldn't have been accurate. It is accurate in these stories.
Dave: You don't write at length about the rest of the world until later in the book, and then none of the international community comes off particularly well. France comes off looking the worst, but others are only better by degree. American diplomats refuse to use the word genocide because there will be immediate political implications from defining the situation that way. There's a willful ignorance, a conscious effort to deny reality.
Gourevitch: I really felt that the world has to be in the background because that's where the world was. This is a story about Rwandans. The subtitle is "Stories from Rwanda." You get to the international response rather late. Ideally, by the time readers get the answer, they will already be wondering, What about the rest of the world? Where were we?
I can't tell you how many people have told me, people under thirty particularly will say this: "Wait. 1994? This is history that was going on when I was starting to read the newspaper in high school." Or, "This was going on when I was watching the TV news with my parents in junior high school. How could something like this have happened in my lifetime? Not in the sixties or the forties, grandfather-time. And I totally didn't know."
That's a real jolt for them. I don't think of myself as uninformed, but I didn't know.
Dave: We Wish to Inform You and A Cold Case both revolve around what can be a long, arduous, and sometimes not entirely satisfactory search for justice. But how was it to transition between books? It's funny, in a very black way, that you lightened up for your second book, which is only about a double murder.
Gourevitch: When I started doing A Cold Case, reporting the story, Andy Rosenzweig, the police officer, went out and read the Rwanda book. He said at some point, "I just don't understand. You've done 800,000, and now you want to do a double?" I really hadn't thought of it that way. It wasn't like, "What's the body count in this book?"
Writing the Rwanda book, and a lot of the foreign corresponding that I'd done, involved a lot of translation — sometimes, in Rwanda, literal, verbal translation from French or, through interpreters, Kinyarwanda, to English, but always a kind of cultural and historical translation. Everything requires exposition. And I remember when I covered the 2004 Presidential campaign, the first stories from the primaries, I was amazed. You could simply write, "Howard Dean, the former governor from Vermont," and you didn't need to say "the front-runner this month." You could say, "Last week, John Kerry flew in," and you didn't have to say, "John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who has been nominated..." Which is the absurd thing you would have to do if it were Sri Lanka. You'd have to say, "And, of course, Massachusetts people are well known for being..." Or, "This is difficult in Texas because it means..."
We take for granted all the backstory in our heads. When you're a foreign correspondent, you have to set all that stuff up, so that the simplest expository sentence becomes this humungous challenge. Here, in A Cold Case, it was about the richness of American vernacular speech. It was these guys telling their story in their own voices.
They were all good storytellers. They're all, in different ways, self-dramatizing characters. They were all people who felt a kind of accomplishment and pride in who they were.
You have the cop, who really thinks of himself as the cop. This is who I am. I'm a lawman. You have a criminal defense lawyer whose favorite book is Camus's The Fall. He has this incredible sense of himself that way. The line he quotes from an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, "The only truth is there's no truth," he always attributes it to the author. It's his favorite line in literature, but in fact it's from a story in which it belongs to the devil. No fool, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Nor this guy. The murderer who's obsessed with Jimmy Cagney movies, and is really quite proud of being a successful criminal, and also a particularly successful fugitive.
I knew that story wasn't on the order of Rwanda, but as long as you didn't make claims... The story had a real sense of classical unities in that it covered the whole arc of people's lives: thirty years, and these three men aging.
Dave: Since you've taken over the Paris Review, what's been the biggest challenge?
Gourevitch: Raising money.
Gourevitch: I'm serious. The bottom line is that publishing a small magazine is as it always was: writing, or making music, or making any kind of art, you have to get the money sorted out. I had gotten to a point where I had figured out how to make my own work sustain me, so I had forgotten what a nightmare it can be to have to spend a lot of your time figuring out how to sustain the thing. Management.
But I enjoy it, and I think I'm reasonably good at it. Everything's going really well. There's a great esprit de corps there. The place is running really well. Circulation, as I like to say, is still under a million, but it's almost double what it was when I got there. And that's paid circulation. Ad sales are up. Everything is headed in the right direction and it continues to grow, so that's heartening. People are reading it and liking it, and we get response.
Also, the quality of the work that becomes available to us is steadily increasing. It's less of a beating-the-bushes operation. We've been putting the issues together pretty much hand to mouth since I got there, but now we're even beginning to have a little bit of inventory. All of those things are going as well as I could have hoped.
The challenge is simply the difference between sitting alone at my desk and now being responsible for other people's jobs as well, and other people's work. The only employee I had in the past was a driver I'd hire for a day on a foreign assignment. And I'd always feel bad. What am I supposed to do with this person? Having people around all the time instead of being isolated, that's the most unexpected challenge.
Philip Gourevitch visited Powell's City of Books on November 15. This conversation took place a week prior, on the telephone.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State