Elizabeth Gaffney, who still lives in the Brooklyn house she grew up in, worked for 16 years under George Plimpton at the Paris Review. She graduated from Vassar College with a bachelor’s in philosophy and holds a master’s in fine art in fiction from Brooklyn College; she also studied philosophy and German at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. Her short stories have appeared in many small publications, including North American Review, Colorado Review, Brooklyn Review, Mississippi Review, the Reading Room, and Epiphany, and she has translated three books from German (The Arbogast Case, Invisible Woman, The Pollen Room). Gaffney has been a resident artist at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Blue Mountain Center. She teaches writing at New York University. Her first novel, Metropolis, was recently published and she is now at work on her second novel, tentatively titled The War Effort, which is set in New York City between World War II and the Vietnam War.
Metropolis is a brawny, Dickensian novel of 19th-century New York in the post-Civil War era. The city is booming and, as Gaffney points out in our talk below, on the cusp of transmogrifying into the modern city that it is today. The Brooklyn Bridge is being built, skyscrapers have been envisioned, and you may learn more about a metropolitan sewer system than you ever imagined. Amidst this hurly-burly, the newcomers, immigrant Europeans, attach themselves to a surging tide of history. The well-told story naturally informs the dialogue that follows.
All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
Robert Birnbaum: How many writers live in Brooklyn?
Elizabeth Gaffney: More than I can count.
RB: Has anyone tried to do a census of writers?
EG: I don’t know about a census. I know there was a recent cocktail party at Brooklyn Borough Hall, which is an early attempt to get Brooklyn writers together to start a Brooklyn literary festival, which might launch next year. And I was taking to Mary Gannon, the editor of Poets & Writers [magazine], and I unfortunately had to miss it because I was out of town. But she told me, “I wouldn’t have even known if you had been there. It was so packed.” And Brooklyn Borough Hall is a big public civic space with a huge rotunda. Probably holds 400 people. It was swamped. I have heard per capita it [Brooklyn], definitely, is the highest in the nation. I am not sure what those numbers derive from.
EG: Well, there is the appeal of New York City. And then there is the appeal of Brooklyn, which is less establishment. And cheaper and cooler. And funkier.
RB: Still cheaper?
EG: Yeah, not all parts. But most parts of Brooklyn are cheaper than most parts of Manhattan are.
RB: Do I recall correctly that you live in the house that you were born in or grew up in?
EG: I wasn’t born at home. But I was brought back from the hospital to that house, yes.
RB: So all your life you have lived in Brooklyn?
EG: I lived in Germany for a while. I went away to college.
RB: I’m not fussy about those details.
EG: Yeah, that’s me. Where I live is really an expensive neighborhood now. When my parents bought it there was a strip club around the corner and a single room occupancy hotel and it wasn’t so expensive. So I am kind of grandfathered into that neighborhood. If it were just me I’d be living a little further out. In Williamsburg or Boerum Hill.
RB: No desire or itchiness to move elsewhere?
EG: I love Brooklyn. I am very loyal to Brooklyn. Patriotic, almost. It’s a wonderful place. There is nowhere as diverse or intimate.
RB: The Bronx?
EG: I think Queens actually has the most languages spoken. I may be a little hyperbolic there. It [Brooklyn] has got these wonderful intimate neighborhoods. I know the grocery store manger and clerks well. For years, I have known them. They are my friends.
RB: There’s something to be said for that.
EG: It’s a huge big city, and you can get lost there. You can reinvent yourself there.
RB: You haven’t had the typical metropolitan experience. Not many people stay rooted in a city and end up knowing the so-called little people in their lives—the newspaper vendor, the store clerks.
EG: That’s why Brooklyn is so great. I have no desire to move to Manhattan. I don’t want to leave New York, but I don’t want to leave Brooklyn either. I have no upward mobility toward a more expensive, whatever, Upper East Side something. Brooklyn is perfect. It’s got the small town and the big city and it’s right next to Manhattan, where culture is as big as it gets. And yet it’s quiet and it’s very intimate. I feel extremely at home there. I love to travel, too. It’s not that I am a total shut-in. But it’s a cool place. I am lucky to have been raised there.
RB: Is the burgeoning writing population a recent thing?
EG: Historically you can go back to Walt Whitman. To Truman Capote, and Carson McCullers lived in Brooklyn for a while. It’s always been cheaper than Manhattan. It’s always been in New York, the center of publishing ever since Boston was, early on. So I think it’s had a huge attraction. Right now, it seems to be in a big boom phase.
RB: I think of North Carolina as a comparable place with a high-density population of writers.
All I did was go to readings, and I would meet people sometimes and I would hear new work, and I didn’t know what I was in for—I was just soaking it up. You could do that seven nights a week in New York.
EG: Yeah, maybe so. I am not sure that there is a school of writing or anything like that. It’s more the intensity of the literary and arts community. It’s a stimulating place to be. Certainly a lot of people come to the city from the outside and reinvent themselves as New Yorkers. That’s a lot of what my book is about. My parents did that. They weren’t from New York. I am not an old Knickerbocker New Yorker. They wanted to be artists and they both came to New York to go to art school and stayed. And then my brother left and went to St. Louis—so some who are raised in New York go off to greener pastures and cheaper real estate or different kinds of—
EG: I’m very loyal to the Mets, too, not that they’re good.
RB: You’re un-American if you don’t like your hometown team. Any sense in which there is a perceptible writing community in Brooklyn?
EG: I think there is. I am friends with a lot of writers and a lot of them live in Brooklyn, and many of them I knew starting out working at the Paris Review, in the late ‘80s and [I’ve] known them for years, and some of them I came to meet more recently. But we tend to pool together—I have met a bunch of writers through living in Brooklyn and working in New York in publishing who have become really great friends of mine, whose writing I have a huge affinity with. And I don’t think many of those people necessarily influence each other. They landed together and found each other because when you have such a big density, there are more people and more people like you, [whom] you can get along with. More diversity, but in that you are going to find people who share your aesthetic. I’m great friends with Jonathan Lethem and David Grand—do you know his work?
RB: Should I?
EG: Yeah he’s amazing. He has two books out, The Disappearing Body and Louse, and he’s working on a new book. And another writer who I met not too long ago also but has a first book coming out, who I have total affinity for his work and we have become pretty fast friends, Wes Stace. [The novel is Misfortune.—eds.]
RB: Oh yeah, he’s also known as John Wesley Harding.
EG: Yeah, he’s sort of a rock star. He also got picked for the Barnes and Noble Discovery Shelf—I did, too. We’re going to do a couple of readings together.
RB: Does it make writing easier because you have friends who are writers—part of the reason people suggest that writing programs are helpful?
EG: The writing itself isn’t reliant on knowing those people. It’s on reading their books—which I hope I would have found even without having met them. The thing that people really get out of writing programs and writer’s conferences like Bread Loaf, I think, is connections. That is to say, help with the publishing side of being a writer. The writing part you have to do alone. And maybe people who have shared aesthetic from a school and read each other’s work and help each other—a small percentage of the time.
RB: You are not a believer in the workshop or workshopping of stories?
EG: I am not against it. I just don’t know how influential it really is in terms of what becomes a person’s style. I went to an MFA program, at Brooklyn College. I went there because it was an outsider place. I was already inside the New York literary scene and I didn’t want to be anymore inside with a bunch of people who were aspiring to get into it. I wanted to go somewhere where I could just have some structure. And a little feedback. For me being in New York provides the opportunity for those kinds of connections. One of the first things I did when I came back to New York after college: I was an intern for free at the Paris Review, turned down a paying job at another magazine because I just had this instinct, foolish, that this was a cool place. And all I did was go to readings, and I would meet people sometimes and I would hear new work, and I didn’t know what I was in for—I was just soaking it up. You could do that seven nights a week in New York. And that’s very inspiring and also creates a community in which you can meet people who will tell you how they did it, how they got an agent, what not to do—a little bit of advice and a little bit of learning by watching. That’s just helpful.
RB: Shall we talk about your first book?
EG: That would be nice. [laughs]
RB: As I was thinking about it, it occurred to me there might be a growing subcategory or shelf of novels that deal with New York in the latter half of the 19th century. I am thinking of Fred Busch’s The Night Inspector.
EG: I like that book a lot.
RB: Does it cover the same period as your book?
EG: A little earlier. I have a very bit character in my book who I wanted to be a nod toward that Melville inspector character in The Night Inspector and that phase of his life—the guy who gives my main character the name “Williams” and he hires him to shovel snow on a temporary basis—that guy.
RB: And Caleb Carr’s books are a little later, more Gilded Age. And dare I bring up Kevin Baker’s book?
EG: Don’t bring up his book. Why even talk about it?
RB: And Luc Sante’s Low Life.
EG: I love Luc Sante’s book. It was a resource and I read it with fascination when it first came out. It was always something I was interested in.
RB: I’m sure I am missing something.
EG: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. That’s a little later and spans a big swath of time—that’s probably one of the first New York novels I first read and was overwhelmed by and loved. There’s a million of them. I don’t really want to be on a historical novel shelf or a New York novel shelf. I know I will be; I don’t mind it, but a lot of other books I am extremely excited about don’t take place in New York or in this particular time period that I am writing about. I think writing about history is not unlike writing science fiction or certain other genre novels that are outside the present time and reality in that they actually sometimes serve as more effective metaphors for what’s going on in the present world. I am very interested in that. And the way that you can talk about a world that has a lot of structural similarities to the present but is very different—in some ways be more honest, be more probing, or simply because of the distance from people’s contemporary reality, push into certain corners that otherwise might be uncomfortable. So it is not just books of the exact same period and place that I have an affinity for in terms of that project. But I love New York literature as a genre. Years ago I was in a little book club with a bunch of friends of mine that was all about reading New York novels. I probably read 20 of them before we disbanded. And we certainly hadn’t tapped the resource.
RB: I’m thinking about the importance or weight of place in a novel. Not to mention that you are a die-hard New York type—putting aside whether Brooklynites are different from Manhattanites. As an outsider, it’s clear to me that you are a New Yorker—
EG: I don’t mind being a New Yorker—which is great. I am also a Brooklynite.
RB: Writing a so-called historical novel and citing historical references means that a claim is being made about historical credibility. Why bother if one is clearly writing a fiction?
EG: First of all, it’s fascinating—the historical research, looking into the past, the old saw that history repeats itself and that we need to learn more history—I believe those things. Knowing the history and writing about the way the past really was is important. I also didn’t undertake or write a history book, but a historical novel, because I wanted to have certain freedoms and not just chart the documented history. One of the things I am really interested in, maybe why I really never studied much history in school, after high school, is that I think what I am captivated by more is social history and not the history of wars, politics and governments, those kinds of things. That’s the history that we have best documented.
RB: We can agree that history is badly taught.
EG: It’s badly taught in many cases. It’s wonderful and important, but the ways that people lived their daily lives is extremely interesting to me and in particular I learned a lot socially, almost morally, I could almost say, from being surprised at what I found out about people’s everyday lives in the period I just wrote about. I didn’t realize that there would be an integrated medical school, which taught women doctors in that era. It was founded in 1868 and graduated its first doctors in 1870. I had no idea.
RB: Did you know that lemon slices were used as contraceptive devices?
EG: No, but I might have wondered. At one point I copy edited a book on Mary Ware Dennett, who was an early birth control and free love advocate, a rival of Margaret Sanger. I must have read about the lemons in that. All those details, these are things that are part of our lives. Birth control or the lack of it, or the failure of it or inadequacy of it. How you eat or get your food. What your opportunities are and what’s risky and what’s radical. And what’s the norm. Things about immigration and race relations and different kinds of bigotry against ethnic groups that we no longer even perceive. We barely know who is of German descent in our country now or Italian or Irish or English. We don’t see that stuff so readily. It’s become quite mixed.
RB: Apparently our biases and animosities currently have to do with products and drink consumption—those filthy iPod people or the latte or pinot grigio drinkers.
EG: [laughs] On a more serious level, newer immigrant groups, the most disenfranchised groups, black and Latinos and Hasidic Jews in certain parts of New York are terribly at odds—it’s an interesting lesson to see that it isn’t just ethnic groups who are stigmatized per se, in some objective way. It’s at a given time, they are in a place, which puts them competing for resources with some other group that’s also suffering or has scarce resources, and it’s a perfect setting for a conflict. And that evolves with history, exactly who those groups are—but to see that that’s the constant. It’s not just racism against blacks or whatever it might be, against Irish. Now I can’t think of any one who thinks of themselves being discriminated as an Irish person in America in this day.
RB: Edward P. Jones has talked about starting The Known World with a long list of books he intended to read to buttress his writing. He ended up not reading them.
EG: I’m floored and impressed by that, and I don’t mind it. I admire it. I couldn’t have done it that way myself. But I think it’s fantastic.
RB: I posed the question to Francisco Goldman about The Divine Husband, because he spent an untold amount if time in a musty library in Guatemala City and then in the stacks of the New York Public Library. He responded, “If I was writing about New England in the 19th century, I could have done it without any research.”
EG: Internal coherence is the most important factor for whether a book works. Any number of people have picked at little historical inventions that I have stuck into my book, and some people found the things that I made up the most interesting. It’s OK with me either way. What I tried to do was find out a lot about the history of the time, which I picked particularly because it seemed like an interesting cusp to me, between an old world and a modern world—which is continuous with the one we live in. Tall buildings were starting to be built. A certain kind of infrastructure, certain kinds of population density in the major metropolises in this country started then, and that’s the way we still live now. Even if the scale has grown. There was any number of things that started to happen then, including things like women beginning to get a tiny toehold on some greater civil rights. Post-Civil War blacks have at least a tiny advantage over where they had been a decade or 20 years before, still obviously not really equals, economically, socially, and in thousands of ways. But it’s started to become where we live and that excited me. That said, what I did was I looked for places that were lacunae in the historical record where I could go and have fun and not piss off too many people, too many nitpickers and historians, and I don’t mean to disparage in historical accuracy—it’s a complicated issue for historical novels—
RB: It does say “novel” on your book.
EG: It does. I didn’t really think it needed to say “a novel” on the cover but now I am glad it does. But you know novels are an escape from reality, and we also read them in order to understand reality and place ourselves in it more clearly by abstraction. That doesn’t mean that we learn rosters of facts in novels—sometimes we do. Not always.
RB: There are lots of warring and perhaps contradictory reasons for what’s presented in a book. You mentioned nitpickers—
RB: I have spoken to other writers of books nominally called historical novels, and they relay stories like, “You’ll be giving a reading and at the end somebody will get up and say, “On page 38 you mentioned armadillos in north Alabama. Armadillos didn’t cross the Mississippi until much later.”
RB: What do you do with those people? That’s why I ask if once you have allowed that you are using factual sources, aren’t you asking for people to run the fine-tooth comb through your text?
EG: Sure, some people are going to—what do you do? So say, “That’s amazing, I hadn’t come across that fact. Thank you for telling me. It wasn’t one of the main research topics of my novel—the migration of armadillos in such and such territory.” I don’t think it’s something that matters deeply.
RB: Why not say, “Thank you, but this is a work of fiction”?
EG: I am interested enough in the history—I put up this website, which has all these historical engravings and factoids and also in some cases talk about what I made up and fabricated whole.
EG: No, it’s not. Don’t go to that website. Go to ElizabethGaffney.net. Somebody is selling vibrators and small dogs and trying to blackmail me into buying my own domain name.
EG: Seriously, it’s kind of offensive. I am obviously interested enough in the history, I came across so many cool new stories in the old papers, I picked photographs of things that I was interested in, which stimulated me and gave me ideas for the story, that I almost wish the book could have been illustrated. And since it couldn’t be or wasn’t, I thought that it would be fun to make those available to other people. And I spent a lot of time tracking down historical facts and trying not to make any massive blunders. A lot of things that people, one or two reviewers, have complained about are things that don’t bother me at all. Because I planned to make that up. It didn’t seem outrageous to me to invent a little side scandal to the Tammany Hall ordeal that didn’t really happen. Of course the one in my book is totally fictional, but to me it’s conceivable a couple of gang members could have found out about a stash where money was hidden and managed to try to steal it. I don’t mind if somebody wants to freak out about that. Fine.
RB: Frankly, it was not an issue for me. The only thing that I thought was undeniably factual was the methodology of building the Brooklyn Bridge—there would be no reason to take license with those facts.
EG: I read all the books on the Brooklyn Bridge because I am fascinated with it. And something I made up in the book has to do with the accident.
RB: Can you see the Tombs from the Manhattan side of the bridge?
It’s almost like being in a jury trial. Some times you weigh certain evidence more heavily or believe certain witnesses more than others. When you are reading a novel, there are things which are credible and there are other things that happen or that characters say which you think are part of what they are saying but you don’t really believe they are telling the truth. I believe the exact same kind of thing can happen in a novel.
EG: Nah, it’s too far. [laughs] It’s a little too far. It’s a little bit of a stretch. Another thing that never happened was the blow-out that I described inside the caisson of the Brooklyn Bridge, in which a guy is killed and other people are injured. There is a great description of what did happen on a Sunday when no one was working in David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge, which I love. I had interviewed David McCullough for the Paris Review and talked to him about that book and think he’s great. I am delighted that there are historians that will write what really happened. What he talked about was what would have happened if this had taken place on a weekday. It has to do with the confluence of air pressure and an extreme low tide, and what I invented was an instance of a detonation to eliminate a boulder, which they did routinely. It was done at a low tide and air pressure was high. I just made that up. So some bridge history buff might be annoyed because he might feel like I am lying. But what I am doing is imagining things into the set of circumstances that existed.
RB: Someone reading our chat could probably surmise the answer to the question I am going to ask you. For people who have short attention spans, tell me why you wrote this book?
EG: I was obsessed with New York. Earlier you asked something about New York novels as a whole and of this period in particular and what sub-genre might be. So my interest in that world, in particular, the time in which the New York City we live in now was being built, was something I grew up with—looking out bus windows, going to the doctor’s office with my mother and seeing strange pipes being excavated. There were a lot of things I wanted to be as a kid, never a writer. I might have been a construction worker digging tunnels or secretary of state. I don’t think I had a strong sense of career.
RB: Which state?
EG: United States. If we had a secretary of state of Brooklyn, perhaps I would have had that ambition. I loved that stuff, peering into those mysterious caverns, wondering where the water and electricity came from and how it worked. And so in a weird way for me the city was the first character, not Frank Harris or Beatrice. And I wanted to write a coming-of-age novel of the city at a certain point and then I cast about for exactly which time and that helped me find some characters and some specific events and I just went from there. That’s a big interest of mine in this novel. I wanted there to be a sense of this little story ending at the end of the book but the thrill of the city goes on. It may just be a flourish at the end of the book but it’s a big point of the book—for me, personally.
RB: As long as you bring it up, is the story over for you? That is, the story of the people, the characters?
EG: There won’t be a sequel. Somebody accused me of writing a happy ending, which I guess I did, although I tried to ameliorate the typical happy ending of a romantic alliance being formed by setting it at a hanging, including several entailments—an undesired pregnancy by a rather bad character on the part of the girl. So I tried to complicate it.
RB: The paternity wasn’t clear.
EG: In my mind it was definitely Johnny Dolan’s baby.
EG: Oh yeah. But that’s not in the book. I once had a long argument with a guy whose novel I translated from German about whether the character was guilty or not. He was convinced that he wasn’t. And I was convinced that he was. The truth is—I am not a major post-modernist—but I do feel when you write the book, people can interpret it. You can have your own reading. But at some point you have written the book and the way you wrote it may be interpreted more than one way.
RB: In your translation is it possible your choice of words and phrases more likely pointed to a certain [your] conclusion?
EG: Almost inevitably.
RB: [laughs] And the author—
EG:—he liked the translation a lot. It was a good translation, and I didn’t skew it. It wasn’t as if every person who read the book came up with my interpretation. I didn’t change the story. But I had—it’s almost like being in a jury trial. Some times you weigh certain evidence more heavily or believe certain witnesses more than others. When you are reading a novel, there are things which are credible and there are other things that happen or that characters say which you think are part of what they are saying but you don’t really believe they are telling the truth. I believe the exact same kind of thing can happen in a novel.
RB: You can also read a book for the second time and get a different feeling and sense.
EG: Absolutely. That’s very true, and that’s a wonderful kind of rereading, when you get a whole different interpretation. The more complicated the book, not necessarily, but in many cases the better the book, the more you pick up the more carefully you read it.
RB Is the late 19th-century New York the source of a lot of novels? Have people been writing about New York all through its history? Has that been a constant?
EG: I think so. Certainly in the 19th century it was a huge setting.
RB: That would have been contemporaneous—
EG: I was talking with a friend of mine about—if you take, say the novels of Dickens, who I love and read, or James, a huge writer for me, some of them are historical and some of them are contemporary for them when they were writing them, set roughly in their period. We no longer see those differences very clearly because for us they are writers of the past. Probably my next novel will be set—the novel I’m writing now, hopefully it’s my next novel—will be set between WWII and Vietnam, coming up against that span of my life. It’s not that I plan to cover all the history; I came up with the story, and that’s when it takes place. I have also written a lot of contemporary short stories. I feel like I’m writing in the same voice. I know to readers a historical novel feels like a certain kind of entity.
RB: There are couple of places in Metropolis where you break away from straight narration—you assume omniscience and ask what if this or that.
EG: I used to do it a lot. I ended up cutting about 150 pages of the book, and a lot of what I cut had a much bigger presence of the omniscient narrator. What I tried to do when I was editing it—which it needed and I am not sorry I cut a lot of that stuff—I tried to scale the narrator back so that it didn’t obtrude too much, but I refused to eliminate it, much to some reviewers’ annoyance. It’s a weird break of the dream, the fictional dream, to go with John Gardner’s phrase. I know that I was risking that. Initially, I was all over the place with it and probably too much. But [that was] what I wanted, because I was so interested in not just the cusp of the modern city but also modernity, intellectually, scientifically—bacteriology was being born and that comes up in the book quite a number of times. For me it was very important to be able to talk about that in terms of x and y chromosomes and cell division and epidemiology—things that weren’t understood or fleshed out at that time. I wanted it to be a book that was not just a costume drama. And this was perhaps a risky way that I tried to make that happen. But for the fact that in New York today, drug-resistant tuberculosis and AIDS are epidemics that afflict poor indigent immigrant populations and certain sub-groups, whatever, gays, that’s a parallel to the kinds of epidemic diseases that were ravaging New Yorkers at that time. That was interesting to me I needed to make that noticeable in some way to some readers and I am sure it bugged some of the readers. I also have a bad attitude. I’m a loud mouth. I couldn’t keep myself out of it. [giggles]
RB: Are you happy with Metropolis?
EG: I am. I’m really happy with it.
RB: [flounders as he loses train of thought] Ah, signs of aging. Your first foray into literature was at the Paris Review as an intern. By doing that, were you marking your commitment to writing and literature?
EG: I was interested in writing. I was a philosophy major and when I went to the Paris Review I was actually deferring going to Germany for a year. I wanted to go to Germany to study language and philosophy because I was all set to go to grad school to become a philosophy professor. I applied. I got in and got fellowships, and I never went. It wasn’t the only thing I could imagine having done. And yet ever since I was a pretty young kid I liked writing a lot. My parents were both artists and I’m sure they encouraged drawing, but I was intimidated by them and my older brother—he was very gifted visually. So I didn’t do as much visually. But I would write stories about my dollhouse. Or write a little newspaper. I was into telling stories, I think. I was certainly a huge bookworm and a bit of a loner. And would read and read like crazy—the kind of kid who gets sent outside in the fresh air because all they want to do is sit in a corner and read. So I think it was always in me, but it wasn’t something that I set my sights on or believed would become my profession.
RB: So you were a translator and editor first? I wasn’t aware of your short stories.
EG: They haven’t been published in the New Yorker or Best American anthologies, but I probably have about six or eight stories in little magazines—Mississippi Review, North American Review, Colorado Review and I have lot more that I wrote—I stopped what I found the rather difficult labor of getting them published, once I got really cranking on this book. I kept writing stories. I have a bunch and actually I will soon have a contract for my next novel, which has a story collection attached to it. So they will eventually see some printer’s ink.
RB: Doesn’t the game usually go, if they want a yet unwritten novel they will take the already written story collection?
EG: Yes, somewhat reluctantly for an extra 50 cents. [laughs] But they were really nice about it, and they were willing to do the stories. Stories don’t sell—they are hard to market. And that’s too bad.
RB: Right. But why does it seem that there are a lot of them? And that more and more are being published?
EG: I think there are.
RB: As I organize my books, I find I have a large amount of story collections.
EG: I do, too. I have always been that kind of editor and reader particularly because of the Paris Review. But I don’t think they are starting to make more money for the publishing houses. There are a few places that focus attention on them in new ways—both review columns that focus mostly on short stories, and a few prizes. I am not exactly sure of the numbers in terms of publishing over all.
RB: Perhaps it’s that the print runs are tiny even if there are more being published.
EG: My story collection is going to be a trade paperback. Which is fine with me. It makes sense to be smaller print runs. And if it’s harder to market, a lower price point will help and there’s that whole side of marketing literature that is so foreign to writers.
RB: Maybe not.
EG: It’s a reality.
RB: It doesn’t seem alien to a younger generation.
EG: Less and less. I mean I certainly got a lot of lessons in it.
RB: When you began thinking about bringing your work to market, were there TV coaches for writers? Or phenomena like Oprah? Or celebrity photographers to make you look like a Madame Tussauds figurine?
EG: I don’t think so. I was wondering if I was going to get a media coach session out of Random House. Either they thought I could wing it on my own or they just decided not to put it into the budget. I know a lot of writers who have had them. And I think it makes a certain amount of sense if you are going to go on television.
RB: Has anyone written or could there be a definitive book about the Paris Review?
EG: Oh. [pause] The definitive book of the Paris Review at the moment is either this great anthology that we published about a year or two ago—we call it the Big Book at the office—I came up with the title, in part, but I still can’t remember it. The Paris Review of Heartbreak, Despair, Love…it goes on. [The full title is The Paris Review of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love Betrayal, Outsiders, Intoxication, War, Whimsy, Horrors, God, Death, Dinner, Baseball, Travels, the Art of Writing and Everything Else in the World Since 1953. Whew.—eds.]
RB: Hard to fit on the binding.
EG: We managed it, though. Or you know what really is the definitive Paris Review is the collected interviews which we are launching online, by decade. [parisreview.com/literature.php] Of course, I am not sure how much you followed it but the Paris Review is in a hideous disarray right now. As far as I am concerned it may well be over. I don’t trust the board that is running the magazine now, as far as I can throw them. And I can’t throw any of them.
RB: Are you still affiliated with the magazine?
EG: I was kicked off the board.
RB: I don’t think that’s what I meant, but OK.
EG: I am still an advisory editor. I will be resigning when the wonderful Brigid Hughes, when her contract ends. The board didn’t renew her contract—they haven’t hired a new editor. [Since this talk, Philip Gourevitch has been hired.] They seem to be engaged in fractious disputes with one another and not understand what they want for the magazine. And they seem to have happily and blithely sacrificed George [Plimpton’s] vision of the magazine for no reason. Not that the magazine was going broke. It’s not that the magazine wasn’t receiving critical acclaim and attention and as many submissions from great writers and hot new unknown writers as ever. The magazine was flourishing and the great thing about it was because George had always put twenty- and thirty-somethings to actually run the thing. He didn’t let it grow old with him.
RB: Neither did he.
EG: He didn’t grow old either. But he wasn’t a god. He was of his times and he recognized that, and he knew to be a literary magazine is about being a launching pad for new work. It’s not just about celebrating the biggies. And yeah, we published Philip Roth early on and the Hemingway interview in issue 18 but you can’t live on that forever. You have to keep doing that and providing that for the next generation and always be a good predictor and the reason the Paris Review continued to be a good predictor and the reason that we found Rick Moody and Jeffrey Eugenides and Joanna Scott and Lorrie Moore and any other fabulous important major writers is because of the structure. The people who were reading manuscripts for the magazine were young. George may not have been the first one to seize on Rick’s work if he read it in the slush pile. He absolutely was interested in engaging in a fractious debate with a bunch of kids about what a good story was. All the way until the bitter end. And that was the great thing about him. And this board is unimpressed by youth, they don’t see that young people have taste and intelligence. I was in the middle place. I am pushing 40 now, so I was an old lady on the staff. I was a huge advocate to the board—George put me on it. I was the only staff member on it. I was an advocate for this moral and said it was the secret of our ongoing success. Commercially, we could have sold more copies. We could have made more money but were able to do the fundraising to fill that gap. And we had enough money to finally hire a fundraiser who could in some ways fill the shoes of George, who by his very existence, checks came to him. That can be done. Non-profits know how to raise money. They don’t all have a literary sports celebrity running them. And the board is a bunch of fools in my opinion for what they have done.
RB: Does the board see the Review as a kind of calcified institution like the symphony or the opera or the museum? All institutions are in danger of stagnation.
EG: They are in danger of making it that. That may be the only kind of non-profit that they understand. And I still don’t understand them well enough.
RB: Were they all Plimpton appointments?
EG: A lot of them were friends of George’s—a lot were actually involved with the magazine in its earliest days. The ironic thing about that is that they didn’t remain involved and amazingly though they were twentysomething when they did it, they didn’t have that value which said, “It was our youth and where we were in our lives and the adventurousness and the willingness to take risks that made us able to do it.” It turns out that those guys aged and became conservative and were less eternally youthful than George. They weren’t involved in the magazine at all in that interim period. He pulled a bunch of them to be back on the board around 2000, when we formed a non-profit which we hadn’t been. We had just been losing money for all those years. On the books we had an accrued debt of hundreds of thousands of dollars. But we decided to reform as a non-profit, hoping that would enable us to bridge a gap if George ever died. And so here we are—the whole thing actually backfired.
RB: When I talked with Don Lee [of Ploughshares] he opined that there is a certain natural life span for literary magazine and that at times they go away when their founder or originator calls it quits.
EG: The thing about the Paris Review is that it didn’t have to. The current staff understood George, was taught by George how to edit an interview, how to edit stories. He really sat down with people and worked with them. He was a great editor-teacher. And they had been publishing the magazine for the last years. Not George. He was involved. He had final approval and read things and made little changes but he wasn’t reading the manuscripts or making the lineup or orchestrating the contents of it, on an issue-by-issue basis, at all. What I think is sad is that the Paris Review could have been an institution that had an ongoing life. But it has a dysfunctional and really, frankly, mean-spirited board, which is probably going to wreck it. There’s a chance—they have been hugely rebuked in the press and I hope that perhaps they turn around and do something smart.
RB: Who do you think would take the editor’s job now?
EG: I don’t know. Brigid was great at it, and I know certain people like Rick Moody sent in their resignations, contemporaneous with Brigid’s retirement or whatever, firing, how ever you want to characterize it. [Moody reportedly is pleased with Gourevitch’s hiring and has rejoined the Review.] Rick Moody has given money. He gave us one last novella, which we are so excited about. We published his long stories, a number of them over the years. We are the only place that will publish 90-, 100-page-long virtuoso crazy Rick Moody stories. It doesn’t fit into most magazines’ formats. He’s been a huge supporter and is disgusted with what’s going on—the whole desire to make it seemingly more commercial. Which seems to be one of the board’s ballyhoos. So I don’t know. People are backing away from it. I don’t know who would take it on. I would like them to get their act together—because of the legacy of the old interviews—and do something rational and for it to survive. Even though I am very angry with them all and not hopeful. I don’t know who would take it on. They talked about some silver-haired luminary and that is absolutely the wrong way to go—someone who is a kind of pseudo-George. It would never be such a person’s baby the way it was George’s.
RB: I agree about the need for a youthful fire in the belly—it’s a bottomless subject.
EG: [laughs] It is.
RB: So you are going out and talking about the book and when that calms down you are going to proceed to your next novel?
EG: Yup, I actually started it a number of years ago. I had an idea that I thought might be a story idea and then I wrote some notes and came back to it and started thinking it was a novel idea. And I just kept a file on it so I have pages here and there. I was at Yaddo last spring and spent about a month just working on it. Which was the biggest dent I have made into it in terms of actual writing. But I have thought a lot about it and am very ready to get going. I think I know what it’s called. The working title is The War Effort. And is set in Brooklyn. As I said it’s between WWII and Vietnam. It starts on V-J day and—
RB: So now a new category is burgeoning. The two Lethem novels and Hubert Selby.
EG: Don’t forget [Hubert Selby’s] Last Exit To Brooklyn. That’s a grim book. I’m sure there is a little sub-genre of Brooklyn books. Paula Fox. Most all of her books. But this one will be in New York City as a whole. I am very excited. I feel like my terrain is opening up. Suddenly I have access to the subways and skyscrapers. It was an exciting time—but because I am so interested in the body of the city.
RB: The infrastructure.
EG: Yes, I was also restricted to some extent by historical reality. I had to limit—
RB: You might have tossed in a time machine.
EG: I was accused by one reviewer of engaging in magical realism which I don’t agree with—I definitely wasn’t going to go with a time machine. [laughs] A slightly fantastical occurrence or two is OK. [laughs]
RB: I didn’t read the review. But there are now a group of literary bloggers who review the Sunday book sections and in Los Angeles Mark Sarvas does a scorecard on the L.A. Times, Ed Champion does the New York Times, I think Scott Esposito does the San Francisco Chronicle, Megan Sullivan does the Boston Globe, Sam Jones does the Chicago Tribune…
EG: That’s great.
RB: So I had seen the mention of a review that accused you of magical realism. I had just finished your book and I said, “What?” And then I saw the author’s name and knew he had written a historical novel.
EG: A very dry, straight historical novel. That maybe is more strictly fact-based.
RB: I take it that was an accusation, not a compliment?
EG: Oh yeah.