Granta, the literary magazine founded by Cambridge University students in 1889, has a long and storied history of publishing political material as well as the work of several writers. It was relaunched in 1979 as a platform for new writers, and reworked again in 2007 with new editor Jason Cowley. Alex Clark, the magazine’s first female editor, took over for Cowley after he left, and when Smith stepped down, the magazine’s American editor, John Freeman, a frequent Newcity contributor, took her position.
Granta’s fall issue, number 108, is Chicago-themed, and the marvelous collection features entries from Aleksandar Hemon, Alex Kotlowitz, Neil Steinberg, Richard Powers, Sandra Cisneros, Stuart Dybek and more. Don DeLillo offers a brief introductory essay to a Nelson Algren piece, and Chris Ware did the issue’s cover. A photo essay by Camilo Jose Vergara is included and provides an intermission to the text. This collection serves as a packaged insight into what Chicago means—how it feels to live here, be from here, exist within a city sometimes difficult to love yet impossible to resist. I chatted with Freeman over email to get some of his thoughts on the upcoming issue.
Obvious question…why Chicago? It’s become a more international city in the last couple of years with the growth of Obama, but that can’t be the only reason.
It’s just extraordinary to me how many essential writers right now are from Chicago. But unlike the Dirty Realists, who were united by a style, say, a tonal and thematic unity, the writers in Chicago are all over the map. You have Chris Ware, who is inventing a new way of telling stories, and Aleksandar Hemon reinventing ways of using the English language, via the warp of Bosnian history. You have the cool remove of Dinaw Mengestu and the elegance of Stuart Dybek, the density of Anne Winters’ lines, and the talky, loose, classic Chicago style of Neil Steinberg’s reporting. Put together I think they make a wonderful sound, and to me that’s the music of a city pulling away from its well-known past and reinventing itself, violently and sometimes hopefully.
Other than choosing prominent Chicago literary figures to contribute, what specifically were you looking for content-wise?
I wanted good stories. It’s easy to approach a city from the social sciences—to break it down, with numbers. But we get that all the time, and for good reason, in newspapers and on the news. Good stories, however, can capture a place even more effectively because they can refract and reflect, go deep and deposit a delayed depth charge in your mind. We relied on the writers here, told them to just tell us a Chicago story, or give us a glimpse of the city as you know or knew it. So Thom Jones emerged with a hilarious piece about working in a Corn Flakes factory, and Wole Soyinka delivered an impassioned essay on Obama’s heritage and how that enables him to approach the Middle East and Africa in a different way than any American president before him. It was thrilling, watching these pieces come in.
What I like most about the collection of pieces is that it conveys this sense of hometown ownership. We live here, we know this, we’ve grown with it. Just looking for your thoughts on this. Do you feel as if its different with Chicagoans than it is with people from other cities?
I think everyone is familiar with Chicago’s well-known mythology—Al Capone, hog butcher to the world, Saul Bellow. But Chicago now is something less well-known, and the gap between those two things—the reality of the city today and the mythology of its yesteryears—creates a winning sense of ownership among people who live there, of guardedness, of toughness and skepticism, which is uniquely Chicagoan. It’s a big reason why I thought we should pick Chicago as a city over, say, New York, which mulches its outward image annually in the arena of pop culture. I felt for this reason the issue would have something truly new to say about the city, and by extension, about America.
Why did you decide to include a photo essay in this issue? Do you feel that visual images convey something about Chicago that the written word cannot? Or just something different?
I love this photo essay. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and just gorgeously shot—and the chance to publish photographs by Camilo Vegara, who has one of the longest most detailed eyes on American cities especially, Chicago, was too good to pass up. I think his pictures—and the essay that goes with it—evoke the horrors of public housing, and the way they marked the city’s landscape, in a way that’s different than a story, and it’s one of our goals to come at themes or human life from different angles. The unbuilding of these structures is ultimately hopeful. You can see the city greening itself.
Do you think Nelson Algren’s image has changed over the years? Obviously he’s beloved in Chicago…how do you feel the author’s viewed in other parts of the world?
There’s an incredible vitality to his writing, but he didn’t get the Nobel, lived rather self-destructively, and so didn’t stick around long enough to laminate his own legend. Outside of Chicago, I think he is in danger of fading away, which is a real shame. There’s a sound to his prose, the sound of Chicagoans talking, a glimpse at the lives of the dispossessed, among whom he lived, both of which are in danger of being eclipsed, especially now that we live in a world without Studs Terkel. Granta lucked out here. There was a recently discovered Algren story available, and not only that, a very good one. It leaps off the page. I hope it brings more people to his work.
How do you feel GRANTA has changed as a publication in the last few years? There’s a long history you’re faced with given its age…what kind of challenges do you face now?
I think Granta has always been about the search for new writing, and in the last thirty years the most exciting fiction and nonfiction has sprung out of different pressure points. So under Bill Buford Granta chronicled the end of communism, and the rise of American writers (Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Jayne Anne Philips) who came to be known as the dirty realists. Ian Jack had a keen interest in the post-colonial world, and highlighted writers emerging from these regions. Our challenge now is to find the new hot spots, and to highlight the writers everyone ought to know about—which is why this new issue is about Chicago. It’s incredible how many good writers come from or have spent a significant amount of time in the city.
Where do you see GRANTA heading in the future? Where would you, personally, like it to lead?
I’d like us to be bolder, more experimental, more global, and return as well to the great tradition of long-form reportage that started with Bill and which Ian Jack made one of the things we were known for among readers. We published Ryzard Kapuscinski and Bruce Chatwin and Martha Gelhorn. Now we need to find the new writers who are working in their traditions, wherever they are; in some cases they might be unknown, but in other cases they could be right under our noses—I think of Alex Kotlowitz, for example, who is in this new issue of Granta, his first time—so that will involve taking off the blinders about what a Granta piece is, or what a Granta writer sounds like. (Tom Lynch)