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.
How does a celebrity writer react to being rejected?