You're known as something of a crusader on behalf of long-form narrative journalism; in 2000 you established a nonfiction writer-in-residence program at the University of Chicago, and The Atlantic explicitly hired you with a view to ushering more long-form nonfiction into its pages. To what extent did your passion for that kind of writing inform the selections you made for this volume?
I decided early on that I wanted an entire section of the book to be dedicated to narrative non-fiction, which I’ve called “Behind the Scenes.” It includes classic narratives like Tracy Kidder’s “Soul of a New Machine” and E. B. White’s “Death of a Pig.” As with so many of the sections, though, there were space constraints, so a lot of great things had to be left out.
I can see how it would be hard to keep a sampler of narrative non-fiction short. Those pieces tend to be pretty long and diffuse, and they don’t come straight to a pithy little point.
Exactly. That’s one of the reasons they sometimes have trouble finding homes in magazines. That was a difficult section to put together. I knew I wanted it to be representative of different styles of the genre. And I knew I wanted to showcase the whole range of narrative non-fiction going back to the early days of the magazine. The best thing I found from the early years was the Hawthorne piece, “Chiefly About War Matters,” where he takes a trip from his home in Concord, Massachusetts to Washington and sees the Civil War first-hand. That was a wonderful piece of picaresque writing.
I love how he complains right in the body of the piece about how the editors made him take out certain snide comments he wanted to make about Lincoln.
Right! Though one of the things we did for the anthology was to restore the unkind remarks about Lincoln’s ungainliness and uncouthness. Hawthorne must have been one of the most difficult writers to work with. He was such a dyspeptic, bilious character. But what a prose-stylist! His use of footnotes… Everybody today talks about the great footnote pyrotechnics of David Foster Wallace, but Hawthorne was creating fireworks with footnotes 130-odd years ago. I wanted to showcase that. I love the satirical asides in that piece.
Did you always have an interest in narrative journalism or is that something that developed later in your career?
Throughout my career as an editor I’ve worked on all kinds of pieces—essays, first-person pieces, investigative pieces, humor… I’ve enjoyed all of them. But about ten or fifteen years ago I started to realize that the pieces that meant the most to me are the ones that tell a true story using the techniques of fiction. This to me is the highest form of non-fiction writing, because it marries the art of journalism with the art of storytelling. Pieces that do that are the ones that have really stuck with me. I worried at one point in the late 1990s that magazines were beginning to abandon the narrative form, partly because those pieces are expensive to produce, and partly because there was an assumption that readers no longer had the interest or the patience to read these long narrative accounts. I was somewhat alarmed about that at the time, but I think the situation has changed. When Michael Kelly came to The Atlantic in early 2000, he was both a great practitioner of narrative non-fiction and a devotee. He very much wanted to put ambitious narrative writing back in the magazine. It had been there before, but it was in a period of eclipse, and he wanted to reinvigorate it. Then, of course, along came 9/11 and William Langewiesche’s astonishing work on the World Trade Center story. And also his great narrative piece about the crash of EgyptAir. That really established The Atlantic again as a home for narrative non-fiction.
What is it that appeals to you about working in magazine journalism? Has it been a deliberate choice on your part to stick primarily with that medium over the years?
Yes, I loved the immediacy of newspapers, but I disliked the superficiality and the haste with which you have to operate in the newspaper world. After five years of working in newspapers I got frustrated. Magazines give you a chance to get into a subject in-depth while still being relevant and topical and in step with the news. You have the luxury of more time, which means that you usually end up with better reporting and better writing – and pieces with more staying power.
What about book publishing?
I’ve never worked as an editor in the book industry, but I’ve had a couple opportunities. I have to say, I was put off, though, by the sheer volume of stuff that book editors have to process. From talking to writers, and people in the book business, I get the impression that most book editors don’t have time to really edit their books. I didn’t want to be in a situation where I felt I would have to cut corners in the editing process because I believe in that process. I think of editing as being part of a collaboration, and I didn’t want to have to give short shrift to things that would be important to me.
You’ve worked at a number of different magazines over the years—Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and now, of course, The Atlantic. Can you talk a little bit about some of the differences among them—in terms of working environment, atmosphere, and the distinct sense each has of what it’s setting out to accomplish?
They do have different atmospheres. Rolling Stone when I was there was a strangely corporate place, actually. It was in the mid-eighties—about 20 years after it was founded. People weren’t smoking dope and getting high on ecstasy; it was a group of serious people coming to work well-dressed and working hard every day. It was quiet. It’s not like they were booming Led Zeppelin all day. It definitely wasn’t like the old days when the magazine was in a warehouse in San Francisco. But I had a great time there. The advertising climate at the time was tremendous, so we had space to run great, long, 15- to 20,000-word narrative pieces. As for the The Times, it was a much smaller place than I expected. And there was much more interaction between the newspaper and the magazine than I thought there would be. The editors of the newspaper were very involved. The thing that was wonderful about it was that if you had something in the magazine, and especially if you had something on the cover, it was seen by so many people. It was sort of electrifying. Obviously the atmosphere is different in all these places. When I came to The Atlantic, there were so many people who had been there for so many years and it was just a lovely atmosphere and I immediately felt very comfortable. It was a very, very serious place, but not stiff or cold in any way, and I just felt very comfortable there.
Were any of your preconceptions about The Atlantic dispelled or confirmed as you got to know the magazine from the inside?
I guess I had imagined that there were a lot more people involved in the magazine than there actually were. I was surprised by how small the staff was. But I definitely liked the atmosphere. And I especially liked working with my old friend and colleague from the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine, Michael Kelly, and with Cullen Murphy, whose editorial skills and personal charms I immediately responded to.
Do you see The Atlantic as one of several interchangeable examples of a certain type of highbrow magazine? Or are there things about it that you consider to be distinctive?
To me The Atlantic is very distinctive in its ambition, its outlook, and its tone. I’ve thought a lot about what accounts for the magazine’s longevity, and I think one reason definitely has to do with its amazing genealogical tree. It was founded by some of the towering figures of American intellectual life—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell. Just that fact means that a high standard was set, giving this magazine’s successors something to aspire to. And you know, although it’s hard to top a star-studded cast like that, I do think it set the tone for the magazine and gave it an ambition that a lot of other magazines don’t have.
Another important factor is that most of the people who were responsible for the creation of The Atlantic were writers, and it’s very unusual for writers to start a magazine. Most magazines are started by editors or businesspeople or publishers or investors. For writers to get together and start a magazine was very important. It established The Atlantic as a writer’s magazine—a place that provides essayists and journalists with the space to make their arguments in-depth and to tell their stories in all their complexity, as well as the time to research and develop them. That’s a rare and lovely thing, and I think Atlantic writers appreciate that. They also appreciate that when they write for The Atlantic they’re writing for an audience that’s serious and well-educated, and that those readers are going to pay attention to the articles they write. Surveys show that readers of most magazines spend less than twenty minutes reading each issue. But readers of The Atlantic generally spend at least an hour to an hour-and-a-half reading every issue. That’s a significant amount of time to devote to reading a magazine. Writers welcome making a connection with an audience like that.
The publishing industry is in a period of pretty dramatic change right now, with audiences becoming more fragmented and a lot of publications making a move toward shorter, more up-to-the-minute commentary and reporting. Do you have thoughts on how The Atlantic’s core standards and principles might best be adapted to this new climate?
Well, I’m hoping that The Atlantic’s longstanding ambition and its tremendous range of interests, and the importance it puts on good writing will all continue to be things that are valued at the magazine, because there are precious few publications left with these values. It’s a very challenging time for the printed word, and there aren’t many places anymore where writers can express themselves fully and in their own voices. It’s important. This kind of magazine is a national treasure, and we should do everything we can to keep it going in the spirit it has been for the last 150 years.