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

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

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What do you think is key to mastering the art of writing? Is it just actually doing it, doing the writing?

One thing that distinguishes writers from non-writers is that they're the people who write the most. I'm serious. A lot of people might wish to write and forget to write and then wonder why they haven't written. Writing requires writing. I don't know what it is. There's no single key. There are many people of very different dispositions and characters and orientations and temperaments who end up being able to produce excellent prose.

Are there habits of a writer that you have to get down right? Ways of organizing your work, and so on? Or it just varies with the individual?

I happen to be reading a strange little novel right now called The Luneburg Variation, which is about chess. And in it there's a chess master who's teaching another master to pay attention, and what he means by attention is think, not that you're concentrating, but that if you make a mistake a catastrophe will happen. The world will literally fall apart. The sun may fall from the sky. Think about it. And he sends him at one point a clipping about a bus crash in which a bunch of school children are killed. And he said, "That was because you were inattentive." The idea that concentration requires that sense of urgency probably doesn't hurt. It's exaggerated, but I liked it as a little fable, and I suppose there is some level at which, in writing, just a kind of relentless willingness to keep revisiting it, to getting it right, to not being satisfied until it's right. It varies what that means.

And so what we're really talking about is patience too, perseverance?

I think in some way you have to have some idea of what it is that you're trying to say in a given piece of writing, you have to have some sense of complete confidence in your fascination with the subject matter being a worthwhile thing to try to convey. That therefore, if it fascinates me this much, I ought to be able to articulate why. I ought to be able to convey that excitement. It may take any number of forms. I don't really have a whole set of rules, I just know when it's going along.

Are you suggesting that there is an element of fear and anxiousness at the heart of this process because it's so important to actually get it right?

Well, no. One's always trying to minimize the degree of disappointment, the gap between some ideal of [the written word] ... I mean, one doesn't write what one means to write. One writes what one can write. I think [for] even the very best writers, there's still a little gap between the sense of "I really want to somehow or other convey this, recreate the universe in this form, in this prose, and oh well, this is the best I could do." So you're always trying to shrink that gap.

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