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An interview with John Freeman

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At the end of May, Granta magazine announced the appointment of its American editor John Freeman to the role of acting editor. Freeman came to Granta after six years on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and has been with the magazine since December 2008. During that time he edited work by Ha Jin, Paul Auster, Wislawa Szymborska and Joseph O’Neill. He has also spent the past six months hosting twenty-five Granta events around the United States and Canada. Granta.com’s Roy Robins recently caught up with Freeman to talk about his background, his inspirations and future issues of Granta.

Can you tell me a little about yourself? What’s your background?

I was born in Ohio, delivered newspapers for ten years growing up in California, and spent most of my adult life writing for them. My sleep patterns have never really recovered. During the time I worked with the National Book Critics Circle, we tried to raise awareness about the cutbacks in newspaper book review sections. The consequences of this industry’s self-knee-capping can be seen now in the US. Book sales are way down. Newspapers served a function in the cultural life of America which has yet to be replaced, and may never be recreated. This worries me.

What excites you most about Granta?

The chance to publish the world’s best writers. Reading the magazine over the past fifteen years has introduced me to so many essential voices, like Ryszard Kapuściński, Arundhati Roy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Geoff Dyer, Daniel Alarcón. It also made me realize that travel and memoir and reportage can be every bit as artful as a good short story.

The chance to do this now is also a great privilege. I don’t believe there’s a lack of good writing in our world, but rather a shrinking number of places where it can be published imaginatively, to a wide audience willing to submit themselves to the pleasures and guidance of serious literature, of what it can show them and where it can take them. As an international literary magazine, Granta is in a unique position to tell readers important stories, to make people think. It’s what our readers expect of us.

How do you think Granta can be improved?

Culturally, financially, and metaphorically, we don’t live in an Anglo-American world anymore, but even the best magazines – Granta included – do not fully reflect this. Look at the last ten years of Booker Prize winners and finalists. Our culture has become dangerously detached from the world at large. We need to do a better job of finding writers outside of the English language, from all parts of the world – but especially the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and call on them to tell stories, rather than sending someone from the Anglo-American world to ferry back the news.

In what direction will you take Granta as Acting Editor?

We need to be bolder, stop being so respectable, and take more risks – stylistically, and thematically. We’re not a magazine, really, but a cultural space where anything can happen. That’s Granta’s heritage. James Fenton and Bruce Chatwin and Kapuściński broke the moulds of their form, and made something exciting happen on the page. Finally, I think we need to be less fearful about being political. It’s not that I think Granta should be a current events magazine, far from it: but the attempt to excise politics from certain stories is a kind of political statement. Reading is a moral endeavor and we need to treat it like one.

How does Granta differ from its competitors?

In almost every way conceivable. Unlike The New Yorker, we’re not dependent on ads and we don’t cover current events. We have no space constraints; our next issue features a 16,000-word memoir by Mary Gaitskill, which is a tour de force, a kind of nonfiction novella. Unlike the Paris Review, we don’t have the pressures of non-profit status and unlike McSweeney’s we have the resource to pay our writers well. It’s a lucky position. But we need to justify that beneficence with every issue.

You said in a recent interview that you’d like to ‘reconnect with the vibrancy of American writing’.

Because America is a country of immigrants, the prose created by its writers reflects a blizzard of cultural influences, stylistic tics, and the personality of many, many languages. I think that’s reflected in the energy of the American novel, the antsy, near-constant production of short stories. And now that the US has a black president, it’s about time we admit there is no so-called centre anymore. Everyone is working a margin, which is a much better place to work artistically. It’s sort of thrilling that recent Pulitzer winners in America have included a near-recluse Melvillean like Cormac McCarthy and a pyrotechnical Dominican refracting the American dream through an imagination fed by science fiction, such as Junot Díaz. This isn’t to say that Richard Ford or Marilynne Robinson aren’t great writers as well, because they are white and realists; we can just stop pretending that they speak for the whole country – like all novelists, they’re simply chronicling the inner life of their characters.

How does Granta adapt in an age when magazines are threatened by the internet, the economy and dwindling subscription numbers?

We need to expand how we define what it means to publish great writing. This means reaching readers in the way that they want to hear from us. Such as having a print edition for people who treasure the beauty of text and the photo essays on the page; having a dynamic website for those who want to read us online; having a Kindle or iPhone-compatible edition for people who want to read stories in the palm of their hand; sending out links by twitter to readers who want to know the moment new stories appear; hosting events and conversations and parties for people who want to interact with the magazine in person. The challenge is to make sure that none of these respective endeavors cheapens or reduces the complexity and integrity of the work we publish.

Will Granta continue to be themed?

Yes, absolutely. There are so many topics we have yet to cover, and I believe themes are a great way to group an unlikely and surprising bunch of writers in one issue, to create the cognitive friction of juxtaposition. To focus on important issues. Our next theme is Chicago – which will feature writers from Don DeLillo to Hisham Matar to Aleksandar Hemon, capturing the city’s energy, its history, the elemental, visceral forces of it, and the writers who have emerged from there. Other upcoming themes cover two of the most important things in all our lives: work and sex.

Every now and then, though, we’ll have no theme, which will give us a chance to mix things up.

How do you judge good writing and what writing excites you most?

I think you know right away if a piece of writing is good. Does it move me? Does it have intensity? Is it beautiful? Does it have anything important to say? Could anybody but the writer have produced it? That’s a start. There are too many contemporary writers I love so I’ll just mention the writers who made me a reader: Charles Baudelaire; Knut Hamsun; Naguib Mahfouz; Henry Adams; Virginia Woolf; W.G. Sebald; William Carlos Williams; Ivan Turgenev; William Faulkner; Kate Chopin; Ralph Ellison; Albert Camus; James Wright; James Baldwin; Jack Kerouac.

Can you tell us a bit about Granta 107, the summer issue?

Granta 107 is a preview, I think, of what’s to come in the next few years; it features new fiction from Kenzaburō Ōe; an amazing photo essay by the American photographer Mitch Epstein on the aesthetic and moral implications of how the US uses power (energy), and an essay to match it about how Homeland Security made it difficult for him to even take the images; Gaitskill’s staggering memoir; prose poetry from Mahmoud Darwish; a moving essay on J.G. Ballard by Will Self; Javier Marías on his fear of flying; a sad and funny memoir by Rupert Thomson about his colourful uncle; a fabulous short story by a writer who will be new to many, Tamas Dobozy. And very strong work from William T. Vollmann, Jackie Kay, Lionel Shriver, Rana Dasgupta, Sam Willetts and Terrence Holt.

Comments (63)

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  1. Judy K

    Wed Jun 10 20:25:00 BST 2009

    I've been following your career, Mr Freeman, In a lurking sort of manner. I am an admirer of your energy, initiative and many of your reviews. Congratulations on your new post in the lit world. I think your ideas are intelligent and "grand" in the British meaning. Best wishes.

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