Lorin Stein is a writer, critic, and translator who has served as Editor of The Paris Review since April 2010 – the third in the magazine’s fifty-nine year history. He was a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly before joining Farrar Straus and Giroux as an editorial assistant in 1998. He rose within the ranks at FSG to become a senior editor, working with writers like Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, and Sam Lipsyte. Books he has edited have received the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Believer Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
His writings and translations have appeared in The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, n+1, and the Salon Guide to Contemporary Fiction. His translation of Gréoire Bouillier’s memoir The Mystery Guest was published by FSG in 2008. On October 2 (tomorrow!) Picador is publishing Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story, which Stein edited together with Paris Review Deputy Editor Sadie Stein. (No, they are not related, and yes, they get asked that a lot.)
Stein is often portrayed as a fast-paced literary party boy, but during this interview he was soft-spoken, contemplative, and utterly disarming.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
In second grade, an author of children’s books named Ashley Bryan came to our school and told us how a book was made. I knew that I badly wanted to do that. I remember being shocked at how long it took to make a book. And I always enjoyed making little books at home.
But I think if someone asked me what I wanted to do, I would have said some typical boy thing, like be a fireman or play football. I remember telling a neighbor that I wanted to be a professional soccer play. This neighbor had been a very serious soccer player when he was young. And I remember him telling me— this is so gentle – he told me that I was too intelligent.
That’s a wonderful letdown, isn’t it?
[Laughs.] I had no physical coordination. So, I think I would have said that I wanted to do those things, but in fact I spent a lot of time kind of dreaming about writing and making books. Books had this powerful, magic aura for me.
You did begin to write. Because you wrote poetry. And you studied poetry later on.
After college. But you see, even in grade school I was submitting poems anonymously to the high school literary magazine. And then when I became a freshman in high school, they put me on the staff and I did that all through high school.
And also, since we’re in those years, my father gave me a job editing for him. He gave me a copy of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style and he asked me to edit some publication that his office was putting out. My stepmother used to give lots of speeches and he asked me to edit one of her speeches. I think the idea of giving a kid that kind of power over your parents’ work, even though she didn’t take any of my edits…[chuckles] There was a rush of perverse power.
He would also edit my work. And I loved that. I loved seeing sentences turn into leaner ones. There is just a thrill – especially when you’re a kid and you don’t have very much control over what you say – when a grownup takes what you write and makes it so much better, makes it sound grown up in fact, and you realize that is a learnable skill, that you can strengthen your writing.
I am interested in how the editorial sensibility forms. How someone who first dreams of writing begins to see that editing is something wonderful in and of itself. You experienced that early on.
It’s true. I never thought about it this way before, but I think from the beginning editing was much easier than writing. I was encouraged in the first editing I did. I thought I wanted to write and I would try to write, I spent a lot of time writing after school. I spent many, many afternoons writing but not producing very much. And at the same time, the fun of editing the quarterly at school – it depended on other’s people work.
You were in high school at that point. Did you begin to think more broadly of the publishing world and of perhaps being an editor?
I think I always thought about wanting to be a writer, the editing was always just a lot of fun. I don’t remember it occurring to me that it was a thing to do.
You went to Yale for college. Had the dream stayed intact, or had it changed? Did you still want to create books?
You know, I remember thinking that probably I’d end up being a lawyer. I wanted to study philosophy at first. Lucky for me, my best friend from the beginning of college was a really talented philosophy student – she is now a don at Oxford and works on Plato – so it was pretty clear because of her that I didn’t have much talent for philosophy.
Then I thought that I would do English, that I would get a PhD in English and that I would be an Americanist, and that I would specialize in the 19th century, in particular the 1840 and the 1890s. I was working on my senior thesis and I was staying up very late. I was living on the ground floor of this residential hotel so there was never any light in my room. The phone rang at 1.30 in the afternoon and it was the department head at NYU with an offer. He said, “Just to review the terms, we will fund you for X amount for five years…” And I suddenly just thought, “Five years?!!” I hung up the phone and thought, “I can’t do that.”
So I had no idea what to do with myself. It was the end of senior year. I was walking down the street and I bumped into my college adviser. I said I didn’t have any idea what to do and that I’d already missed the entrance exams for law school. And he encouraged me to apply to the poetry program at Johns Hopkins. I said, “I’m not a poet!!” and he said, “Oh, I know you’re not a poet. But if you go, you can study with these interesting people who are there in other subjects, and if you get a teaching fellowship you can try and see if you’re a good teacher. And it’s a MA so you could potentially go on and get a PhD…” That was very good advice. It was a one-year program and I was able to try teaching and take a few upper level academic courses. I was such a terrible teacher that it really made it obvious that that was a miserable attempt at a career.
Why were you such a terrible teacher?
I guess it was hard for me to know what the point was of teaching stuff that the students weren’t interested in.
Why weren’t they interested? Was it a mandatory class, some requirement?
It was the easiest class to take to fulfill the English requirement. I thought this stuff was naturally engaging. And as soon as I met students who were very intelligent and driven and were good students in other things, who didn’t have any interests in this stuff, even in the shallowest introduction to it, I was just stumped. I couldn’t think what to do. I was a terrible cheerleader for it. I sympathized with them sleeping through the class because they had stayed up studying their organic chemistry. One kid didn’t like “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” and I just didn’t know what to do! I had no move! I had no game.
I remember going in desperation to one of the professors in the program, a poet named Mark Strand, and saying, “I don’t know what to do with my kids, they just hate all the shit that I give them.” He said, “Give them Keats. Everyone loves Keats.” I remember one kid laughing at the line, “Oh happy joy/ Oh happy, happy joy.” It made him think of that cartoon. With the Chihuahua…?
[Laughs.] And yet there you were in the poetry program. And I think you are being very self deprecatory, because I’ve read somewhere that Mark Strand said you were one of the more intelligent students he has ever had.
That was so sweet of him to say, but I have no clue what he was thinking of. I swear! The first day of class, everyone but me came in with a poem. And Strand was very hard on the poems. I found myself not disagreeing inwardly with some of his criticism. And when I went home that day to my new grad student apartment, for the first and last time in my life, I had an inspiration. And I wrote something that I kind of liked. The next week I brought it in. He didn’t praise it to the skies, but I got off easier than the others had. And after that, nobody spoke to me for the rest of the semester.
No! Come on!
It felt that way, at least. And I never wrote another thing that I liked. It was so hard. You had to write a certain number of pages to make up a thesis and I was using the title pages – each poem had a one-page title page, even if it was just a one-page poem – to try to make up for page count. It was humiliating. I learned that I really wasn’t a teacher and I also found the writing of verse very, very hard.
I also found that I didn’t much like the workshop atmosphere. It wasn’t a matter of fault. I didn’t like it as a way of seeing poems be taught. We spent some time studying a long poem by Seamus Heaney called “Station Island”. And I remember thinking that the poem was very impressive but the workshop naturally took the poem and turned it into something to emulate. And I didn’t think there was much room for these young Americans – we were all Americans – to imitate a poet from a small country. I just thought that the problems we had in coming up with something worth saying were so different from the problems that Heaney had that it would have made more sense to study that poem outside a grown-up craft class.
So there you are thinking, Teaching is not for me. Writing poetry is not for me. What were you thinking was for you?
I wanted to write a novel. I really wanted to write a novel. And in some sense, that was always part of the plan. I always wanted to write a novel. So I went to New York – I didn’t even stick around for the graduation ceremony at Johns Hopkins. My friend came by in this pick-up truck, put all my stuff in the back and then we drove to New York. I crashed on a friend’s floor and then I got a cheap room and I tried to write this novel. And I never even finished a page, but it went on for months.
Were you only writing during this time?
It’s all I was supposed to be doing. I would turn on the computer every morning and I would sit in front of it and at a certain point I would go out and get a drink! [Laughs.] And this went on forever.
I remember, I was having dinner with a friend of a friend, a very nice guy, who lived in the village. He took me to dinner and he leaned across the table and he pinched my middle finger, between the knuckles, and he said, “I can tell that you’re not eating your vegetables and you’re drinking too much and it seems to me that you’re not getting any writing done. I have some advice for you. You should go to Barnes and Noble and try to get a job.” I was going to do that. But I noticed the next day that St. Marks bookstore had a Help Wanted sign. I went in and started filling out the form. The guy told me to go home and really study it. When I came home, the phone was ringing and it was a friend who’d heard about a secretarial job at Publishers Weekly. So I went and did that.
I should say that while I was trying to write a novel, I was also hoping that someone would give me a job at a magazine. I was reviewing restaurants for Time Out NY. It was a very small gig. I would do the little restaurant reviews. They would give you something like a fifteen-dollar allowance for a meal that wouldn’t possibly be less than fifty dollars. So you would have to call the restaurant and say that you were coming from Time Out, but Time Out would disclaim any knowledge of you if the restaurant called to check up. So it was very humiliating. And I never had any nice clothes so I always looked like a kid who was trying to scam the place.
Perhaps what you are actually giving us is a tip for how to get a good free meal in New York.
Actually, a friend of mine who is a reporter taught me how to pitch. He said, “When you go into a restaurant, say you are from such-and-such a magazine even though you haven’t gotten the assignment yet, and always introduce yourself by first and last name. And when you pitch, always send three pitches.” I mention this guy, his name is Mark Gimein, because he was teaching me everything that I know today about how to get into a magazine.
He and I had a drink one day in Little Italy. He said he had some news for me. He had been assigned to the Washington bureau of the magazine he was writing for, it was a business magazine. And as a going-away present, he had a big book that I had never heard of that had come out the year before. It was a beat up copy of Infinite Jest. I asked what it was about and he said, “It’s kind of about Hamlet. But don’t let that bother you.” That was the best going-away present. I read it in that bar, during the afternoons. I stopped bothering with my writing and just read the book. And I felt absolutely let off the hook. I just thought it was the novel I would have dreamed of and the fact that someone had captured the world this way meant that no one needed me to beat my head against the wall that was never going to give way. I just felt hugely relaxed. I can’t tell you, it was such a relief.
That is interesting. Because your reaction could also have been: Here is the novel I wish I had written. Damnit!
I must have known I didn’t have enough talent! I hadn’t been able to make up the first scene. To this day, when I try to tell my godson a bedtime story I can’t get past “Once upon a time…”
And yet you wanted to be a writer.
Yeah. I don’t think I knew what was involved. I think I kind of wanted to be an editor. I think what I wanted was to see books come out that I had some involvement in. The actually writing part…I never enjoyed making stuff up.
So you apply for the job at Publishers Weekly. And you get it. What was that like?
Well, it was a part time secretarial job… The guy who hired me has become a good friend, his name is Jon Bing. When he called me for the job I asked, “Do you want to interview me?” And he said, “No, that’s not necessary.” And I said, “What do people wear?!” He said, “People wear kakis.” So I put on some kakis and showed up for work the next day. He was very supportive and so was the woman who ran the book reviews, her name is Sibyl Steinberg.
And pretty soon – and I think this happens in magazines – sooner or later someone needs copy and there is no one around to produce it. So, if you’re sitting there and you can do it… They needed some copy edited and I did it. I got a crash course in how to edit these little reviews, I remember because these were harsh lessons. But you are under deadline, so people will teach you quickly. And I ended up being very, very fast at it. I ended up editing and writing or re-writing a couple of thousand of those reviews in a year and a half.
Yeah. It was a very, very good education. We reviewed everything. Of all different kinds. For a little while I felt very expert in urban women’s fiction.
What was life like for you at that time? Where was this cheap room you had?
It was on Elizabeth and Prince.
Nowadays, that’s quite a nice address.
New York has changed a lot. It was fun, but it was pretty lonely too. I remember that I would feel… it is hard to walk into a party full of people you don’t know. And anyone who first moves to New York, if you get invited to a party, you won’t know anyone. And the parties that I was getting invited to, often by my friend Jon Bing, were often – like many parties in New York – partly professional. And if you don’t have a title that means something to people, they may not know what to do with you. And they don’t know quite how to include you. I remember feeling very daunted, very shy, very lonely.
And I remember going to a Paris Review party, actually. Jon taking me to this party. He had hoped that it might be a place where I might meet someone who would give me a real job. I was getting worried because I didn’t have any benefits and I had realized by then that I wanted to work for a publishing house. I remember feeling very discouraged, I felt kind of like I’d let him down because I was so shy. I just talked to the first person I met in line for drinks. She introduced herself as the mistress of a writer whose book I had just read. And I had never met someone who introduced themselves as somebody’s mistress before, so I was perfectly happy to go stand in a corner with this nice middle-aged German lady.
That scene is like out of a book about coming to New York.
It’s true. The other thing I remember from that night is meeting George Plimpton and meeting Archbishop Paul Moore, who was a liberal hero. He was wearing his cassock, with his pectoral cross and stuff. I remember running home, I couldn’t wait to call my mother the next day to tell her I had been to a Paris Review party.
Isn’t that crazy to think of about now?
I don’t think anyone who goes to a party can feel so thrilled and scared as I was by the parties at George Plimpton’s house. Maybe I am wrong, but part of what was fun about those parties – and I went to more of them later – was the way the generations mingled. The way you would see writers whom you really looked up to who were older. At our parties now, the writers tend to all be a little bit younger. But, then again, maybe I am old enough now that writers who seem young to me seem old to some of the other guests.
I am sure there are plenty of young, frightened newbie New Yorkers coming to your parties today.
I hope I am as nice to them as George Plimpton was to me and to other people like me. He was very good at that. I remember, even in the moment, being so charmed and being surprised that this guy was bothering to turn his high beam in my direction.
There you are at this party. Then as now, the world of publishing in New York was a very close-knit community. Did you enter this community pretty early on?
I was lucky. The people I was hanging out with at Publishers Weekly were really, really great and smart and interesting. I am not sure that we thought of ourselves as being in the publishing world, I guess we were on the edge of the publishing world. But my colleagues there were very literary. They were probably not so much in the publishing world as they were involved in literature.
And then, when I got to Farrar Straus and Giroux, because eventually they gave me a job – in fact, the publishing house that I had my heart set on – I found myself surrounded by young editors and editorial assistant who were my ideal of what it would be like to be in the office of a publisher. The two assistants whom I got to know first were Natasha Wimmer and Elaine Blair, whose translations and criticism now mean so much to me. So, we three were having beer after work every day. That felt very lucky, even at the time.
Tell me about the job.
I worked very long hours. I remember the first three months I felt sick to my stomach all the time. My boss was Jonathan Galassi, I was his secretary. He doesn’t like it when I used that word. I used it at the time and he scolded me for it, but I was his secretary. And this was before the time that email had really caught on at FSG, so there was a lot of drafting of letters, and writing up of letters, and correcting typos and stuff. And a lot of using reference books. You’d have to have, like, a reference book when you were writing copy for other books. There wasn’t Google yet. So, the job of an assistant definitely took more hours of the day than it does now. An assistant before me had gotten in trouble for camping out secretly on Roger Straus’s chaise lounge. I remember thinking it was so unfair that you would get in trouble for that!
True! All you’re trying to do is work longer!
I remember leaving the office very late. I have just been watching the new season of Mad Men and every time Peggy is alone working on silly copy, I am very much reminded of being back in that office. Probably the last office where you would hear the clickety clack of a typewriter, because Roger Straus’s secretary always used a typewriter. And, in fact, it was only two years before I got there that the last editor got a word processor.
It was a lot of fun. The young editors Paul Elie and especially Ethan Nosowsky gave me advice and encouragement. Then Galassi was promoted to be Publisher, from being Editor in Chief, and there was just more and more stuff for him to edit. So the same thing happened as at Publishers Weekly, I just ended up taking up the slack.
And how did you distinguish yourself early on?
I don’t think I distinguished myself, I think I just happened to be the secretary of the most powerful editor in the building. And I managed not to get fired for things like screwing up restaurant reservations. I remember running down to the Union Square Café – where he would always go for lunch – running down the moment they opened their doors because I couldn’t get them on the phone and begging them, begging them to give me his normal table because I had forgotten to put in a reservation. You could just see them at the reservation desk looking at me, a kid in his shirtsleeves, thinking, “Oh, get this fucker out of my restaurant.” You do whatever it takes.
Did you feel that you had found your place, your tribe?
Apart from the fear of getting fired, yes. I really cannot stress too much how sure I was that I was going to lose my job. Until I met Galassi’s wife who mentioned that he thought I was doing a very good job, it never occurred to me. I remember that moment being a real change. But apart from that, I just felt like a fish in water. I felt so much that I was exactly where I had always wanted to be. I mean, I remember even offering to deliver a package to FSG, just so I could see the inside of it.
Yeah, I know. Weird.
So there you are, you have found your place. Do you recall what it was like to have your first project that you were in charge of editing?
I do. Did you see the movie Wonder Boys?
Well, the movie and the book revolve around a professor of creative writing, played by Michael Douglas, who has this one thousand page novel that he’s been working on for twenty or thirty years. And in the last scene of the movie, the wind picks it up and blows it away. But in real life, it was sent to FSG. And I ended up editing that. It is called The Honeymooners, by Chuck Kinder.
Chuck was very gentle with me, but in general if I could go back and not specifically do Chuck’s book but all of them again, from the early time, I would be less sure of my judgments. Not judgments of what I like, not that I would edit less… But I would realize that later on, looking back, every strong editorial feeling that I ever had, every fight that I ever had over an editorial question, after enough time I didn’t think I was really right. That has been true, always. Once you are arguing about an editorial question, there will come a time when you look back and think that you weren’t right. I wish for the sake of some of the books and some of the people whom I worked with, that I had known that.
Do you think the way you work changed over time?
Yes, I know it did. Nowadays, if I find myself in disagreement with a writer, I partly know that given enough time, I will end up agreeing with the writer.
And does that guide how you edit now?
I hope so. Of course, in the heat of the moment, you still get bossy and wrong.
Did you ever feel intimidated when you were given the work of truly great writers to edit?
Oh yes. The moments after you send off an editorial memo until you hear from the writer can be very nerve-wracking.
The first time I felt very nervous about a writer’s reaction was for someone I looked up to and still look up to hugely, where I couldn’t believe that my advice was being asked and had no idea whether I was on the right track or not, was Vivian Gornick.
There you are, you have landed in many ways. You are editing wonderful books in a wonderful house. Then The Paris Review happens. Tell me, was that another dream? How did that come about?
Obviously, running a literary magazine had always seemed like the best possible job in the world to me, when I was in college and afterward. But it wasn’t something that I had had my eye on when I was a book editor. I mean, I never thought I would do anything else. I hoped I would retire at FSG. And then this position came open. It had come open once before, when George Plimpton died. At that moment, because Jonathan Galassi had been the Poetry Editor of The Paris Review and was known to the board, the board came to him and asked him if he wanted to recommend anybody to take George Plimpton’s place. He and I talked about it. And the person we put forward was John Jeremiah Sullivan. That didn’t work out and they hired Philip Gourevitch. And when there was this opening again, I mentioned it to John again. By now he is married with kids and has left New York and is doing his own writing so brilliantly and he said he wasn’t interested. So I was thinking about other people and then I realized that I kind of wanted to do it. [Laughs.] So I had lunch with my sister [the agent Anna Stein] and told her and she said it was a terrible idea.
Really? Why did she think that?
She said that I was happy with what I was doing and that my interest had always been in books. So why leave that? She said it would be like leaving a happy marriage to have a fling.
If The Paris Review were a fling. It is something more than that, maybe.
Well, thank you my dear. Because that is what I said!
It was also a demoralizing moment in publishing because ebooks weren’t really happening then and just the fatigue of having watched all of the reviews collapse and all of the book stores collapse…More and more the stuff that I worried about at night was stuff that I didn’t have control over. Whereas with a literary magazine, you have all kinds of control over how you publish.
There is control, true. But a literary magazine like The Paris Review comes with a different kind of responsibility, too. There is quite a legacy to contend with. You said you had a stomachache for the first three months of your job at FSG. Were there any stomachaches involved in taking on this new role?
There’s some stomacheachyness, yeah. It’s a new thing. Someone hands you the reins and you better start asking a lot of advice. You better trust the advice of the people you are asking. I got very good advice from the Managing Editor, Caitlin Roper. She helped me figure out how to re-launch the website. I wouldn’t have known what to do without her being there.
At the same time, I had very different taste from the people who were working here, so that was tricky. There were a couple of nonfiction pieces that were already paid for and poetry pieces that had been bought. And I was very clumsy about how to handle that part of the transition. But, you learn.
You described yourself as the shy wallflower at that first Paris Review party you went to way back when. And now, when I Google your name, there are all kinds of articles and interviews that focus on your party persona, and on the revitalization of the “cool factor” of The Paris Review. Is that a deliberate move on your part?
Honestly, that angle always surprises me a tiny bit. We throw parties here, but so did Philip [Gourevitch]. And they were good parties, I remember. I love to end an evening with a book over dinner at a restaurant. It was said of George Plimpton that he never had dinner alone. I love having dinner alone. So, for a party person, I am pretty quiet and pretty solitary. And I guess for a solitary person, I enjoy a party. But I think most of us do.
To look back a little bit from the position you are in now, can you think of the best advice you were ever given?
I am thinking of a few different ones. There was a teacher, Mr. Thomason, who, at the end of our senior year in high school, told us to read Remembrance of Things Past. That in and of itself probably made his English class one of the best classes I ever took. That was good advice.
There is the advice of a newspaper editor who is a family friend. He said, “Be brilliant if you can, but what is safer and more likely is to file things on time.” That was good advice.
There is Liebling’s advice for interviewers. Clearly you don’t need it. But it is: to not talk. To not be afraid of silence.
And I would say, for people who want to go into book publishing or any kind of publishing, it is good to have experience writing really short stuff for really conventional magazines. Because once you learn how to spit out boilerplate, whether it’s for Elle Magazine, or Publishers Weekly, or Bon Appetit, whatever, that skill translates into all kinds of memo writing and copy writing and back of the book stuff and letters that you need to write. I think training in the world of schlock journalism can really give you skills that are useful in other areas of life.
I am very happy that you brought up Proust, because I can’t believe I was about to completely skip over this: I am interested in your role as a translator. I am a translator, from Swedish.
Oh! Do you know Knausgård?
I know of him, I don’t know him.
But you live in Stockholm!
[Laughs.] Right? I mean, why am I not having coffee with him right now? But I want to ask: when did your romance with the French language begin?
In high school I did a senior project where I tried to translate some French poems. I wouldn’t mention that except that those are the same poems I am still trying to translate. Some of the same poets. I don’t know what that is about. It is not about translation. Because my French has never been very good and my grasp of French prosody isn’t great and I am not quite sure what it is, but the most recent wave of this fever that sometimes comes back to me was…partly because of the poet Frederick Seidel, I had been going back to look at the poems of Apollinaire. And so had a few other people I knew, including John Sullivan and Robyn Creswell, our Poetry Editor, and Sadie Stein, our Deputy Editor. So we started this project where we would all try to translate a few poems each and then show them to each other. And then we were going to publish them in the magazine without signing them, just say it was the Editors. I mentioned it to our Advisory Editor, Frederick Seidel, the same guy I had been working with. He got involved and ended up doing lots more than the rest of us. We are publishing these translated poems in our next issue. If you read it, you will sense a strong flavor of Seidel…
I love that you started this project in the office.
It’s been a lot of fun!
I wanted to ask you, finally, if you were to look back at your twenty-something self and tell yourself something that you think would have benefitted you at the time, what would it be?
If you had to do it, what would you say?
Well, I still am in my twenty-somethings.
I know you are. But what about yourself five years ago?
Oh…I would say: Perk up, you are worth more than you think.
That’s good. I think…it’s funny, it makes me think of the first two lines of this poem we just worked on:
“I’ve had the courage to look back/at the dead bodies of my days/ they litter the roads I have taken/ and I miss them.”
I think I wish…I don’t know how to put it, but I think I would just say: Be nicer.
Do you think you weren’t nice to yourself or to others?
A little of both, a little of both.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Image courtesy of the artist