Talent-Spotting at the Jaipur Lit Fest

We caught up with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker and chatted about dealing with writers and writing

Published: Feb 20, 2012
Talent-Spotting at the Jaipur Lit Fest
Image: Amit Verma
BEING ME David Remnick says being modest and being arrogant are both needed to be the editor of The New Yorker

Amidst the milling throngs at the Jaipur Literature Festival, despite the theme that overshadowed everything and everyone else—“Will Salman Rushdie come or won’t he?”—there are islands of comparative calm. Like the refrigerator near the buffet tables, where speakers, delegates and us hacks get to mingle.
We were propping up the Sula wine counter when we heard someone say, ‘Mr. Remnick’ and we turned around; we had been trying to contact him through his office, without success. Bad form to pounce on a man getting his refreshments (he was getting a Sprite), but we cast aside scruples, and asked if we could chat. How about right now, he said. And so we did.

One of your teachers in Princeton wrote in The New Yorker that when he looked back at his own writing, he realised the subjects that he was interested in were the ones that interested him in his childhood.
This is from John McPhee, and I think he was saying is that everything he had written about had some relationship to before he was 10 years old. Not me.

If you’re asking me as a writer? As a writer, I have been all over the place, and I have written, for good or for ill, about a lot of subjects. But I think in recent years, the concentration has been on politics. I hope I was sensible enough as a child to not be all that interested in politics. [Laughs] Interested in power and how power works, both at home and abroad, particularly in Middle East and Russia.

There was an interest?
Happenstance. Happenstance of living in the world, the happenstance of being a foreign correspondent, the happenstance of being assigned to cover the collapse of the Soviet Union, purely by luck and accident. And I had a front row seat to, arguably, the most historic event after the Second World War, which was the collapse of Soviet communism, and communism throughout Eastern Europe. You know, in a place like that, there aren’t that many reporters. That’s a big distance. I have gone back there over and over again since I left in 1991.

From your early days as a newspaper person where a long copy is not necessarily prized, to The New Yorker, where you do explore stuff in depth…
I was lucky to be in Washington Post when it was still possible to publish longer pieces, first of all. There was the occasion to do that. But you’re right; the transition between a newspaper life and a life with The New Yorker is not immediately easy. And this has been the case for a lot of writers over a long period of time. In your early pieces you tend to resort to some of the tricks of the trade; the urge to put all the important information up there right away for fear of losing the reader, when in a longer form, you can exercise the imperatives of narrative, where you’re telling a story and things unfold bit by bit by bit, which can be a very exciting way to go at story telling. If you told a long joke and put the punch line first, it would be a very, very ineffective joke.

You have written books while working at fairly demanding jobs. How do you fit that in?
In fairness, I have really written only one book while working as editor of The New Yorker, and that is one book in 13 years. I published another book that was long pieces, that’s true.

You mean how did I do the Obama book while working at a full time job? Lots of coffee, and the pure desire to do it. If I had more time it would have been half as long.

What did you have to give up to fit this in?

Free time, sleep, other indulgences of normal life. [Smiles]
I’m not complaining! The last thing I would do is complain. I did it because I wanted to do it. It wasn’t for any other reason than the urge to do it. I found that the story of Obama … was astonishing. I mean, I had not encountered a story that way since the collapse of Soviet Union. The idea, in America, of an African American being elected as a president, whose last name rhymes with the man who still troubles the dreams—even dead—of most Americans, is unthinkable and therefore irresistible.

At Princeton, you once said, after you became editor you feel like a fraud taking calls on what brilliant writers produce.

The idea of me, who I know very well, picking up the phone to thank Salman Rushdie, or John Updike, or Philip Roth, or Philip Gourevitch or Katherine Boo, for pieces, or even, God forbid, to make a suggestion about  them, or worse still, to say no to something, is the height of presumptuousness, but it’s also the job. And so you have to get over your firm knowledge that there’s something absurd in that. But it’s also necessary to keep you a little bit modest, and not allow that authority, which, whether you like it or not, is necessary, to become arrogant or corrupt or all the things that having authority can lead to. But it’s a matter of real privilege and joy to say yes to extraordinary pieces of work whether its humour or fiction or poetry, and I revel in it everyday.

How do you attract writers?
The New Yorker attracts writers. [It] has been around for a while, and its reputation for, I think, integrity and accuracy—where non-fiction is concerned—and catholicity of taste, variousness of taste, attracts writers. And also we have more space than the average magazine and then the reputation of the editing is what it is.

Saying no to huge names. How do you  do it?
I think you do it with some knowledge that you may be wrong, that history may prove you a fool in the particular instance. But you can only respond to what you respond to and you have to do it honestly. I don’t doubt that there have been hurt feelings but I think if you respond to it honestly and straightforwardly, that’s the best thing you can do.

Talent-Spotting at the Jaipur Lit Fest
Image: Amit Verma
JUST LOOKING It's one thing to see people on panel giving speeches, and it's another thing to read them

How does a celebrity writer react to being rejected?
Like all writers. With disappointment; the same way I react to somebody who doesn’t like something of mine or rejects it in some way—all of which I have experienced.

I think writers write because above all—at least in the first instance—they are trying to please some inner urge in themselves.

Your India coverage has been good. Ved Mehta had been on your staff for a long time...
That was a long time ago. Akash [Kapur] just published a piece. Katherine Boo publishes pieces. We have lots of fiction from here; we had the special Indian fiction edition years ago. And yet it’s not enough.
Coming here to the festival is a very deliberate way to prod myself to do more, see more, and to hear about and to read authors I wouldn’t have otherwise.

I am not asking for specifics if you don’t want to get into it…

It’s one thing to see people on panel giving speeches, and it’s another thing to read them. So the talent spotting aspect of it, in a deeper way, will come after, when I read a lot more. I know a lot of people are here; there are 250 writers. I can’t possibly have read everybody.

There was this memo that you wrote before you become editor…
I don’t even remember what I wrote, so its not worth talking about…

If you were to write a memo now…
Now? I do it all the time, to myself. I am constantly writing myself notes that we must do more in the coming year about X, Y and Z.

Where do you see The New Yorker in five years?
I’m lucky if I … [Long pause] Our speciality, what we’re on earth to do, is to do certain things deeper. We cannot cover everything; that's the job of other places: Reuters or The Guardian or The New York Times or whoever. To get to… to at least pretend to get to everything on a daily basis. We’re no good at that. That’s not what we’re built for. What we’re built for is not the news coming out of Rwanda; it’s once in a while for Philip Gourevitch  to write something extraordinary about Rwanda. Most recently, he wrote a piece about bicycling, a sport that never existed there before and the way that sport is linked to the genocide and the aftermath of the genocide. That’s something you can’t get everywhere else. And I hope to find stories like that here, in China, and in any corner of the globe that a writer is obsessed with.

In the US, print is under attack. In India we still have a few years to go because literacy is still growing.
Literacy is still growing and those devices are very expensive Keeping that in mind… by being available in everyway possible. Now The New Yorker is available on the Internet, on an iPad, on Kindle, and on every device you can imagine, and soon you can read an entire issue on a telephone. It might not be my favourite way of reading it, but some people will read it that way with enormous pleasure. And, we still sell over a million copies in print, on paper.

The technology of print, for a weekly magazine like ours, is still a good technology; it’s not the only technology and it’s hardly the only one we pay attention to.

So, how it's going to be read, in terms of platforms: Readers will decide. What I hope is, is that some of these technologies will allow readers that are ill served by the mail to read The New Yorker when they otherwise would not. Meaning in Australia, in England, in India, in any English-speaking corner of they world, when somebody wants The New Yorker now, if they are lucky enough to have the device, they can press a button and get it as soon as I can, if not sooner. That’s pretty amazing. I would not have imagined that X years ago.

The Internet as an enemy of long form…
There is no doubt that the Internet has given rise to certain short forms that are exciting. Some of them have done well; they’re as exciting as any writing one can think of. The Internet does not have to be, by definition, an enemy of thought, of depth, or description. As it turns out, on our Web site, very, very often, the frequently-read pieces are quite long, and that's not what all the doomsayers were saying ten years ago. Ten years ago I would go to an Internet evening or conference and people would look at me like I was a dinosaur walking across a desert with two days left to live. Not anymore. Not anymore. In fact, there are now Web sites like Longreads and all the rest that are, if anything, a tribute to what The New Yorker, and other places like it, do.

You have said you wanted to become a novelist…
The best laid plans of mice and men...
I’m 53. If you’re 53 years old and you keep thinking about yourself in terms of… like you’re in your gap year, and just getting started with life, well, life is going to have some surprises in store for you. [Laughs]

I’m obsessed with what I am doing now, and I barely know how to do what I’m doing now. For a football player to suddenly imagine himself to be a baseball player is probably folly. Probably.

You can draw from the same sources...
They’re related. But they’re very, very different. Very different.

(This story appears in the 02 March, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Bvs Prathap

    Interesting questions and great answers. Were the questions actually asked like this? as unfinished sentences? That is a great way to communicate.. only two great minds on same wavelength can converse on these 'lines'. If I were him, I would be more worried about saying no to less known names. If an author is well-known, he will find another place to publish his /her story. If a talented author is not so well-known and if we take a wrong call, then we will be losing an opportunity to uncover a great talent - could be a loss to the magazine or the author, depending on how the history moves from there.

    on Feb 27, 2012
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