Philip Gourevitch, the new face of The Paris Review


By Annie Karni

When George Plimpton, founding editor of The Paris Review, passed away in 2003, some feared that without his charismatic public persona to carry it, his literary magazine would become like a body without a soul. Author Philip Gourevitch, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the bestselling “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda” (1998), put an end to the magazine’s existential doubts when he was named editor in March 2005, and moved the journal’s offices from Plimpton’s basement on the Upper East Side to a sunlit Tribeca loft.

Gourevitch’s appointment had skeptics grumbling about how a journalist might change the content of a magazine known for publishing top-quality fiction, poetry, and interviews with writers discussing their craft. Gourevitch, who shares with Plimpton a literary presence that extends beyond his role at the magazine, said from the get-go that he had no desire to clomp around in his predecessor’s well-worn shoes. But they shared a common bottom line: to find and publish good writing.

Now with four issues under his belt, and with subscriptions up 50% since he was appointed editor, Gourevitch hasn’t been forced to defend his editorial decisions. I caught up with Gourevitch in the magazine’s year-old Tribeca office on White Street as the summer issue hit bookstore shelves.

How has such a little magazine like The Paris Review become so well known?

Well, first of all, it’s just a really good name. It was named by the young Americans living in Paris who founded it—H.L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton. They were living over there in the early ‘50s, and there was a kind of glamour to living in Paris. The dollar was strong, you could live this bohemian life for almost nothing.

And from the beginning, they managed to publish early work by authors who later, when they get to be famous, come to be known as “emerging writers.” Philip Roth, V.S. Naipul, Jeffrey Eugenides, Mona Simpson, Rick Moody— I’m going to forget someone and it’s going to seem like I’m dissing them, but I’m not. There were always visual portfolios. The magazine was always cool to look at. And from the beginning they started interviewing the most famous writers of the time.

You’ve changed a lot about the magazine this past year, including the look.

It looks the same! People keep saying to me “oh, you changed the look.” I changed the size of the paper. That’s about it. I like to think that in that respect, the look of the magazine kind of reflects the attitude that I’ve brought to its contents, too— that it appears to be a departure from what was going on, but it’s actually highly tied into and kind of a tribute to its own traditions.

Is there a stronger focus on nonfiction now?

There was always nonfiction— diaries, correspondence, memoirs, travelogues, and narrative accounts. That was a recurrent thing. The standard remains what it has always been—that we should publish really interesting, exciting writing.

The first piece in the summer issue is an interview with Serbian terrorist Nikola Kavaja, which sounds like it would be very grave, but it was funny.

It’s very funny. I suppose if I’ve had difficulty with fiction in recent times, it’s the sense that fiction fails in its imagination to be anywhere near competitive with the outlandishness of actual people and events—the kind of raw scale of how people can actually be blunt about themselves, so this was a wonderful find. The guy’s a terrorist, he’s an assassin, he’s completely unapologetic. He’s something of what I guess people would call a sociopath. On the other hand, he’s very direct. He’s blunt, he’s funny, he’s coarse, he’s astute, and he’s a good narrator.

In your own writing, it seems that you have a tendency to make readers examine what is naturally unpleasant to contemplate. Is that what you seek to publish?

I guess I’m definitely interested in unlikely ways of seeing. Or ways that make you think, to put it simply. Looking at things that require you to think afresh or anew rather than simply confirming or restating your expectations or conventional wisdom.

Do you discover that more often in fiction or nonfiction?

I kind of don’t care much about those categories. I’m interested in good writing. If it comes as fiction, hooray, I’m delighted. I’m really proud of some of the fiction we’ve published. A couple of the debuts—Lisa Halliday, who was a complete first time publication, and Ben Percy in particular.

So unsolicited submissions are actually read?

Oh yeah. The unsolicited stuff, the “pure slush,” as it’s called, all gets read twice actually. But other times it’s us going out and asking writers what they’re up to, going to people whom we admire, or projects we’ve heard about.

Do you miss the foreign correspondent’s life?

Sure I do. But I was not into traveling incessantly. I really loved going out into the field, going out to report a story far away, but that can become kind of a habit, without every story itself being so interesting… I miss simply being intensely immersed in a story and figuring out how to write it. But I don’t consider it something I’ve set aside. I consider it something I’ve added to.

Did you grow up in New York?

I was raised in Middletown, Connecticut, where my father taught philosophy at Wesleyan. My mother is a painter, who always exhibited in New York. She rented a loft on Duane Street. When we moved in there in 1978, the area had only recently been named Tribeca.

Although crime rates were quite high in the city back then, it was one of the safest neighborhoods in town — because no mugger or burglar would think to find any victims down here after dark. It’s been great to see the neighborhood evolve — and to come back to it last year, bringing The Paris Review to its new digs.

You and your wife, New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar, had a baby just before you took over as editor of the magazine. How do you balance two new ventures at once?

My daughter is 20 months old. I balance it by not really sleeping — you really cannot imagine! Then again, compared to the amounts of traveling I’ve been used to as a foreign correspondent, I’m around my baby and awake far more than I could otherwise be. She’s a delight — and so is the magazine — so that makes pretty much anything manageable.