When George Plimpton, the first editor in chief of the Paris Review and founder of participatory journalism, passed away in 2003, there was no clear inheritor to fill his oxford shoes. Plimpton had more or less founded participatory journalism, brought his wit to countless New York cocktail parties and started the careers of then little-known writers, such as Philip Roth, in the pages of his journal. Surprising many in literary circles, the Review picked Philip Gourevitch, the author of “We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Your Families,” a nonfiction account of the genocide in Rwanda with a mouthful of a title.
On Monday, Gourevitch spoke at the Thomas E. Golden Center, brought by St. Thomas More Chapel, the Genocide Studies Program at Yale, the Yale Council on African Studies and the Yale World Fellows Program. He’s currently working on another book on Rwanda, this one focusing on the politics and justice system as the nation puts itself back together.
Q. What inspired you to return to Rwanda?
A. I went back to write an article. I didn’t go to write a book. After going back last year — I hadn’t been back in eight years — everything started clicking again. I had not foreseen these issues would be as rich as they were and that it would progress sufficiently that there would be another book to be written.
Above all, I found this question of how people can live together and what the limits of that are to be very interesting — how far it can go and how we think about the speed of history. There’s a tendency to look at all of these things in terms of narrow, legal, human rights way. And then there’s the question of history itself. How do you judge it and how do you keep track of it as it goes along? What really drew me back is this fact that the verdict is out. It’s not a settled matter.
There are a lot of people out there who have very high passions about Rwanda — who think that Kagame [the president of Rwanda] is the messiah or Kagame is the devil. I find both of these are pretty uninteresting and don’t do a good service to really telling the story. The more complex view that it is very difficult to make sense of history in any way that looks good in the long run that doesn’t look awful in the short run. Trying to grapple with all of that is very interesting.
Q. It seems that you are less concerned with the legal, human rights angle of the story — and the verdicts — than with other angles.
A. I think they’re interesting. I think they’re a part of the story, but I don’t think they are the story. I think there’s a mistake that we make in American journalism and world journalism these days — to think of these various perspectives as if they were ours. as opposed to as journalists saying they’re part of the story. There’s always a ready-made account of the story coming from courts, political groups, humanitarian groups or NGOS — but rather than accepting them, I’m saying that maybe what’s really interesting is the people who making politics locally, the local stories. Is the most interesting thing about WWII, who could be convicted in a court of law for having pushed someone around? I don’t think so. Courts have their own set of rules and rituals. I’m more interested, for instance, in the local Rwanda courts — which are not due process courts. It happened in their community, it happened so locally. It happened in Kinyarwanda, the language of the place. It happened between neighbors.
Q. When you were younger, you mainly wrote short stories and fiction. Why did you decide to start writing nonfiction?
A. I guess I’d always written some nonfiction alongside my fiction, but then I stumbled into it completely by accident. I needed to make a buck and I got hired at a newspaper. And I really enjoyed reporting. One of the problems I found in my own short fiction in my mid- and late-twenties and in that of a lot of people my age at that time was: a lot of people could write pretty well, but not that many people had good stories or were good storytellers. They didn’t have as much to say. They hadn’t figured out how spin a tale yet — because a lot of them — of us — were writing from experience. There is a luxury to walking out the door with a notebook in your hand and being able to ask all kinds of impertinent questions to people who were involved in complicated stories, to see the mechanics of the way the world works. I think a lot of the fictional imagination about the big world and about the way things really work is timid. And the world is bolder.
And so I became completely engrossed. And I found reporting is a different activity from writing, but it’s a very nice one. Investigating — scratching toward some kind of truth and some kind of representation of reality. But I’ve always thought of what I do as much as writing as it is journalism. The writing itself has to be much more than an instrument for the mere advancement of information. It has to have style and form and voice and all the little elements you break it down to. That’s one’s music box.
Q. Why did you decide to leave the Paris Review?
A. When I was at the Paris Review, at a certain point, I left it because I wanted to write more. I’d always written. I’ve never done anything else. I took five years where I ran that magazine as well. I wrote a book along the way. And I realized if I ever have to write another book while running the magazine, I’d explode.
Do you think that fiction can have the same kind of force for social change as investigative work or journalism?
Certainly, when it’s done well. The difference between fiction and nonfiction is that nonfiction has to be factual and fact-checkable. They both have to be true. When it’s done really well, fiction represents the world in a way we can all recognize.
Q. In past interviews, you’ve talked about how there are fewer short stories in magazines today. Do you think fiction has less of a place in our cultural consciousness?
A. No. I think it has less of a market. Right now, and I’m speaking specifically about the short story — not about fiction as a rule — it has less of a market. The golden ages of short fiction have tended to correspond to periods when there was a strong magazine market for short fiction…
When Hemingway and Fitzgerald were writing short stories for the Saturday Evening Post, they were doing it to make a buck. They were also novelists. In the seventies, when you had Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolf and Richard Ford all writing short stories in that period. And some of them were very good. It’s because there was Esquire and there was Playboy, in addition to the New Yorker. And there were three or four other magazines doing it, and there were five quarterlies that were thriving because these other magazines had created a primary market, and they had a good secondary market. And in the absence of that, people are going to be using their fictional energy to write novels or other forms than the short story. If there’s no market for it, why do it.
Q. Do you think the state of journalism is much better?
A. What am I supposed to say? They tell me it’s terrible.
I’m not at all pessimistic about this. I’m pessimistic about most things on earth. But because I’m a pessimist about most things on earth, I think that news will always thrive. Because there will always be bad news. And people will always want to hear it. There will always be events. The extent to which journalism is quote unquote in trouble these days has nothing to do with the world stabilizing and becoming less interesting to tell journalistic stories about. It’s simply about technological transformation in the way we tell news. People used to talk about TV knocking out radio and TV interrupting the newspaper cycle. I think it’s a bad time for daily newspapers. But I think there’s a lot of room for long-form journalism. Story-telling based on reporting and observation is so deeply a human need that it creates its own demand when it’s done well.