How has short fiction in The Atlantic evolved, both during your tenure and before?
When I first came to the magazine, I discovered that every story in Bernard Malamud's The Magic Barrel, which had just won the National Book Award for fiction, had been sent to The Atlantic and rejected. There certainly wasn't any kind of anti-Semitism here, but we just weren't publishing very many Jewish writers. A cultural gap was in place, between writers like Malamud, Roth, and Bellow, who were becoming very well-known and popular in those days, and a more traditionalist style of writing that The Atlantic had been publishing for a long time.
When Bob Manning became the editor of the magazine, we began to publish people the magazine hadn't previously been receptive to. Every change of editors brings a change in taste, but in general, the quality of Atlantic fiction has always been high. And we've always done a good job of developing new and younger writers.
How do you usually work with such writers once you receive a story from them, and why do you do so? Do you think of it as an editor's responsibility?
Hands-on editing is a part of my job that I find most interesting and satisfying. I do want to give every story as fair a reading as I can, and if I see qualities that can profitably be nurtured or helped to find a shape, that seems to me creative and honorable.
Have there been instances where you've worked with a writer and they've made changes you suggested, but in the end the story just didn't hold up?
As a rule, we would never get that far with such a story. We wouldn't take it in the first place if we didn't think it basically worked. In at least a couple of cases we liked a story but didn't like the ending, and asked for a new ending before accepting it. Sometimes we've had to get two or three or four endings before we were satisfied. But in most cases we've eventually accepted such stories, and, as far as I know, in each case the author has been delighted with the result.
Are there any writers that you identified and encouraged who have since become big names? And are there writers you remember turning down who have since become big names?
Yes—both. Louise Erdrich is someone we encouraged for a long time and published before anyone else did. I think we can take some measure of satisfaction in having introduced her to the world of literature. We also came in early in the writing careers of people like Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Carver and John Sayles. And we were the first publisher of James Alan McPherson, who eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for his collection of stories, almost all of which appeared in The Atlantic. Ethan Canin was in The Atlantic three or four times before anybody else got wind of him.
Then there are others like Bobbie Ann Mason and Ann Beattie, whom we published before other magazines did, but only by a matter of weeks. They were sending their work to The New Yorker at the same time they were sending it to The Atlantic, and they were getting encouraging letters from both The New Yorker and The Atlantic.
Stories by Tim O'Brien in The Atlantic:"The People We Marry"
Magic was his life. His marriage was a trick he did not want to explain. "The Nuclear Age"
"Nobody wanted to pray, but each of us blessed the bomb without guilt, and Sarah chanted, 'Fission, fusion, critical mass.'"
Of course, we've also turned down a lot of very good work. Tim O'Brien is someone we've published a few times. But we turned down "The Things They Carried," which has now become his most famous story. And we've turned down plenty of other stories that have gone on to get published elsewhere and become widely anthologized. My guess is that someone at The New Yorker or Harper's would have the same recollections of mistakes, if you could call them that. Given that we're only publishing ten stories a year, the opportunity to turn down things that other people end up finding wonderful is greatly increased.