Philip Gourevitch Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Writing and Reporting the Story of a Genocide: Conversation with Philip Gourevitch; 2/11/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Welcome to Berkeley, Philip.

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Philadelphia, grew up in New England, mostly in Middletown, Connecticut.

And how did your parents shape your character, do you think?

Well, fairly substantially.

In what ways?

I suppose all parents do, but my parents happened to encourage me to think, read, write, and look at the world pretty closely. It's a long story.

Any books in particular that you read as a young person that influenced you?

I would say that pretty much everything I read as a young person influenced me. I read a lot from pretty early on. I read a lot of ... well I read children's books. I mean, I was influenced by Alice in Wonderland when I read Alice and Wonderland. And Through the Looking Glass. And I was influenced by Dickens, which I read rather copiously in my early teens, although the endings always disappointed me. And whatever I heard, whether it was the songs of Bob Dylan or whether it was things that are of no clear value as influences, like Melville just as much as somebody like Malraux.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer, or did it just come naturally to you to make that decision?

Around the age of sixteen, I would say, I had a pretty good idea that there was nothing else that had ever occurred to me to do. The thing that I most enjoyed was reading books, and the only thing that made sense to me would be to somehow or other do this thing that I liked to receive.

Where did you do your college work?

I went to Cornell.

Did you do much writing there as a student to further this career, or were they completely separate?

I never really understood it as a career. I was writing fiction. It never occurred to me to write nonfiction or journalism, I think partly because for the most part, nobody teaches it until you reach, say, college. Nobody teaches nonfiction as writing, as literature. You read books that have information in them, and then you read books that have information and are pleasurable. [Books in] the second category are called novels. Basically everything I knew about the world I'd learned from novels, and they didn't seem to be deceiving me too badly or letting me down.

At Cornell I kept switching majors. I ended up leaving school because I realized I wanted to write but I didn't really believe in the idea of writing classes. I believed in the idea of writing practice. So I figured the thing I needed to know was whether I could actually sit in a chair and write. So I left and took three years off where I basically tried to write every day. Nothing much to boast about from that period, nothing that I look back on as great stuff, but it was an apprentice period. I learned how to write sentences, I learned what the tool box was.

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