An Interview with Lorin Stein, Editor of The Paris Review

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Since he became editor in 2010, Lorin Stein’s name has become synonymous with the renown and success of The Paris Review. Mr. Stein is the third editor at the journal, following Philip Gourevitch and founding editor George Plimpton. Previously, he was at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, first as an editorial assistant and then as senior editor. He has degrees from Yale and Johns Hopkins, where he also served as a teaching fellow. Novels edited by Mr. Stein have received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, among many other honors, and his translations and other works have appeared in some of the most prestigious publications in the world.

I have met Mr. Stein and several of his co-workers on a few occasions for readings and events that coincided with trips to New York City and was immediately struck by their easygoing conversation and social generosity, which is shown in the interview below. It has been our honor to discuss The Paris Review’s new office, their talented staff, and the cultural flux brought on by technology.


The Austin Review: After eight years in TriBeCa, The Paris Review recently moved to Chelsea, on Twenty-Seventh Street. How is the new office?

Lorin Stein: The new office is great. We didn't want to leave our old office, but we had to—typical New York story. We found a place in the back of beyond, way over by the Hudson River, so far from the Time Warner Cable station that our WiFi is almost unusably slow. But my brother-in-law is a contractor who does beautiful work. He designed and built the new office and gave us a deal too.

TAR: Yes, I’ve seen at least one publication featuring your new space as one of the most stylish in New York City.

LS: Yes, that's all thanks to Geoff O’Sullivan, my brother-in-law. I was describing a kind of bookshelf that I needed, and he took out a pen and a napkin and said, “What about something like this?” and, then, I got over my shyness and asked him if he’d give us a bid for the new office.

TAR: How would you describe your management style at The Paris Review?

LS: You’d probably have to ask the people who work with me. I would say that different parts of the magazine elicit different kinds of oversight. Our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, for example, comes to me every issue with a small batch of poems for us to discuss. He's done a lot of the work on his own, out of my sight certainly. Whereas I’m more hands-on with fiction and the interviews.

TAR: With all the demands on your time, though, are you still able to do a significant amount of traditional editing work on the fiction pieces?

LS: That’s the core of the job, the editing; the other stuff is incidental. We have someone on staff who's in charge of development, Emily Cole-Kelly. I should say also that one part of the magazine I have very little to do with is the online aspect—that’s Justin Alvarez and Sadie Stein’s show.

TAR: Has editing always held the same level of enjoyment for you?

LS: Yes, that's what gets me out of bed. If not for that, I don't know what I would be doing in this job. Mainly that means the selection of new stuff. That’s what I love best. There is usually some editorial work with the prose writers, but there tends to be more editorial work to be done on the interviews, although they're not, for me, the most engaging part of the magazine.

TAR: Could you explain why the interviews require so much more editorial attention?

LS: There is something inherently different between a transcript and the kind of essayistic interview that we are committed to running. The thing about the interviews is that when The Paris Review started doing them, they were unique. And partly because of The Paris Review, and then Rolling Stone, and then Interview magazine, the Q&A form has become just ubiquitous. I think it pushes us to make documents that are more and more written, and more and more definitive. There's less percentage in just hearing people talk—we’re so used to that by now.

TAR: How did it come about that The Paris Review decided to make all of its interviews available online without a subscription?

LS: That came about because I inherited a very intelligent managing editor. This was Nicole Rudick’s predecessor, Caitlin Roper. On my first day at the job, Caitlin told me that the first order of business would be getting the interviews online. As soon as she said it, that seemed just the blindingly obvious thing to do.

TAR: It seems that, as a result, The Paris Review is often in the news as a source of insightful material about various authors.

LS: Right before we put the interviews online, I got a phone call from a fact checker at The New York Times. He called to introduce himself and complain that there wasn’t a full set of interviews at the New York Public Library. He’d been trying to fact check something, and he’d been frustrated that he couldn’t find a copy of this interview. I told him we were about to make them all available for free. He groaned. Because, as an employee of The New York Times, he hated to see content get cheapened that way.

I thought of it as a way to make this one part of the magazine more widely available. What didn’t occur to me, because I’d never thought very much about the way these things work, is that it would mean that we were in the news every day that a writer dies or someone writes a long profile of a famous author.

TAR: Can you tell us about some of your newer team members and how they’ve helped your organization grow?

LS: They’re an incredible team.

Justin Alvarez has wowed us all. He’s in effect become the editor of, for instance, our Instagram account. I didn’t know what Instagram was when we hired him. If you read the weekly recommendations of books we run on our blog, you’ll see he reads a hell of a lot, and he knows a lot about movies and theater. In that way, he's a perfect Paris Review staffer. He happens also to be really smart about computer stuff. He always rolls his eyes when I say, “computer stuff,” instead of something like “digital strategies.” So, it's the perfect combination. Justin understands the quarterly down to the ground and has led us into wonderful, interesting business decisions. So that’s Justin.

We’ve just hired a new Web editor, Daniel Piepenbring, so that Sadie Stein can become a daily columnist for the blog and write other things for herself too. I’m eager to see what he and Justin cook up together. Dan used the word “friable” correctly in his job application. At least, I’m pretty sure it was correct. The first practice posts I’ve seen are pretty terrific.

Hailey Gates has figured out a new way for us to think about our ads. She’s brought in a boatload of new advertisers. She too gets what we do, and what we’ve done for the last sixty years. She also understands a part of the world that I know nothing about, things like fashion, for example, and luxury goods. She knows what it is those companies want, which ones would want to be associated with us and why, and how to make it all look great. She has so much chic, it can be dazzling.

TAR: Is Hailey responsible for exploring brand partnerships, like the recent one between The Paris Review and the new Chelsea location of Aesop beauty products?

LS: Hailey’s been great at helping us think about how to turn our sterling reputation into money and publicity, and she's very good at that. Aesop, though—that kind of fell into our laps. The founder of Aesop, Dennis Paphitis, has been a fan of the magazine since long before I was involved with it. He is Australian but happened to be in New York, and we met. We started looking for things we might do together, but really we just kept chatting. By chance, his hotel is on the same block as our new office. He, Hailey, and I were having coffee one morning, and we were talking about this and that, and we offered to show him the new digs. On the way there he said, “I just had an idea. Remind me where we are?” and I told him the address. He said, “You know, we’re opening a shop around the corner; what if we made it a Paris Review shop?”

TAR: Do you lament that there seems to be a decline of print, and do you think something can or should be done to reverse that trend?

LS: Digital media is a bigger and bigger part of our lives; there's nothing to be done about that. It's true in my life, and it's probably true in yours. Here we are doing an interview for a blog, and that comes with benefits and drawbacks, and what can you do?

That said, it's easy to conflate two different things, the rise of digital media and a rise in what I would call distracted or instrumental reading versus absorbed reading. There, I think we all have more of a choice, even those of us who need to be digitally connected for work, the way I find I need to be. You can still carve out the three hours a day, or the two hours a day, or the three hours on a weekend and half an hour on a weekday, that you once spent not glancing over whatever you’re doing at your phone but absorbed in a book. That’s an individual decision that I think most of us, if we’re lucky and have that kind of control over our time, can make.

Now, the businesses that were based on print, and the worlds that grew up around those businesses—whether it’s the world that Larry McMurtry describes as a rare book dealer; or the world my friend Elizabeth Sifton, a former colleague at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, describes in book publishing; or the world of new bookstores; or the world of newspapers—that's all lost. And that loss is enough to make you, if you're in the mood, blue every morning. You could spend your life regretting it. Even ten years ago, I would've thought it was the permanent culture of the country, of the world. And it's just not there anymore. So we’re not going to get that back, even if we hold onto the time that we spend reading, even if The Paris Review continues to double its circulation. We’re not going to be able to save the network of independent bookstores that used to be the underground river of taste-making in this country. It's just not going to happen again.

TAR: Do you also find it strange how quickly those cultural changes are accelerating?

LS: It's just head-whippingly strange. But, you know, that's the experience of modernity. I like the way Jonathan Franzen put it in this piece that we excerpted in our last issue. I won’t do him justice, but he said, translating Karl Kraus, that for the last 150 or 200 years, the experience of an educated person is to be born into one world, and then by the time you leave it, for that world to be altered beyond what you would have imagined, technologically and culturally.

A novel I read a couple of months ago—Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb—is partly about a group who comes back from the First World War to Vienna, and they fall back in their old routines, but nothing means anything like what it used to mean now that the Empire is gone. They’re clinging to their own old habits because they've grown up in them, but they’ve lost all of their valence.

In America we've been lucky that we haven't had traumas like the First World War, at least not in the last century, but when you're old enough, you read those things, and you feel some recognition. In some small ways, we all know what it's like to be walking around, doing the same stuff, but for it to be happening in a kind of posthumous mood.

TAR: Yes, and as we walk around now, most of what we see seems to involve people staring at their phones.

LS: Or when we look at a stranger in a bar, the stranger’s on her phone. I think that changes the basic erotics of being in a space with people we don’t know. The person is always elsewhere.

TAR: Are you currently working on anything apart from The Paris Review, any translations for instance?

LS: No, I’ve taken a vow not to translate anything until I learn better French . . . .

TAR: I don't believe that your French has gotten rusty.

LS: No, it’s not that. Recently, I’ve had the honor of being part of a panel that judges translations from French into English. My fellow panelists are real translators, and I’m so impressed by the way they talk about translations, I'm not sure what I have to bring compared to them. They not only have a beautiful sense of English, which is the most important thing for a translator, but they also have a sense of cultural context in the original, which means that they don't have to fly blind. They know the vector from origin to target. They feel the vector better. I might know the target, but sometimes I don't really know the origin.

I am reading a manuscript by my friend Ben Lerner. We have an excerpt from his novel, so he’s letting me read it. That’s the non Review stuff I’m doing—reading Ben’s novel, which is great.

TAR: Do you have any ties to Austin?

LS: You know, I've never been to Austin. I once had the good luck to edit a novel about Austin, Waterloo, by Karen Olsson. One condition of my becoming Karen’s editor was that I had to read The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer. It’s a trilogy, published in the sixties, based on one counterfactual, which is that Lyndon Johnson, instead of being a senator, is governor. I forget what Brammer calls him, but it’s LBJ. The first volume of the trilogy is about these liberal ranchers trying to push the LBJ character in the direction of integration, and meanwhile drinking and screwing each other's wives, carrying on, and being cowboys. And, it makes you–I know that type of Austin doesn't exist anymore, if it ever did—but it makes you love the place, in a slightly different way from All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry, which may be the one other Austin novel I’ve read, and the only novel I’ve read that’s named after a Merle Haggard song. Clearly, I need to spend more time out West!