Paul Elie is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, which chronicles four great American writers: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. His debut earned him a score of awards, including the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, a Christopher Award, the Beliefnet Book of the Year award, and he was a 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist. Elie is also a prolific essay writer whose work has been published in The Atlantic, Commonweal, The New Republic, and The New York Times, among others. He is currently working on a book about J.S. Bach and the transformation of his music in the age of recordings.
But Elie is not just a distinguished writer. He is also a renowned editor whose list of writers at Farrar, Straus and Giroux include American classics like Tom Wolfe and John McPhee. He currently teaches at Columbia University.
Elie speaks in perfectly formed and grammatically correct sentences, even when excited, which he often is.
What did you do after graduating from college?
I went to Fordham University in the Bronx. After I graduated, in 1987, I lived in Washington Heights and worked for a feature syndicate, writing about television. It was a decent job, but not if you don’t love television, which I didn’t. And I knew I wanted to be a writer, so I applied to the Writing Program at Columbia and was very happy to get in, and then to get a teaching fellowship, which covered the tuition and came with a small stipend. I was so glad to have other writers around, to be a part of a little society of writers. We would to go out to the old West End, which was the bar on Broadway near the Columbia campus that Kerouac and friends used to hang out in. It was still set up cafeteria style, with steam tables and trays, and there was a room with jazz off to the side. You could feel the old New York in there.
Where did you live when you were a graduate student?
I did time in a number of places. One was on Claremont Avenue. An older man rented me two tiny rooms in his rather large apartment. It was obviously rent stabilized, and I eventually found out that he paid about $425 a month for the whole place. And I was paying him $500 for those two rooms!
It was like living in a boarding house. I had one of those coffee pots with a glass bubble on top that shows you when the coffee is ready, like an old sailor would have. The bed was made out of 2 x 4s with a mattress on top. One time the heat went off for almost a full day in the darkest, coldest time of winter. The guy just said, “Hey, what am I supposed to do?” I was cold and angry both. So I went to the Hungarian Pastry Shop for eight hours and graded a huge stack of papers, then staggered home, high on coffee and confectioner’s sugar.
I still dislike the Upper West Side because I so remember being poor up there. I really had no money. I would go out to dance clubs sometimes and I wouldn’t have the coat check money, so I would keep my coat on. Just like the reporter in Sweet Smell of Success.
What kind of jobs did you have to support yourself after finishing grad school?
I finished the writing program in 1991, when I was twenty-four, and it was a time of recession like this one, so I was suddenly thrust out into the world of poor writers. It was no fun. I had a couple of jobs copyediting. I worked at Spy Magazine a few days a month. Spy is remembered as a satirical magazine about New York and the celebrity society, but truly it was one of the all-time great magazines of any kind. It was the coolest copy-editing gig in town, and an education in the world of New York power brokers besides.
I also got a summer job working a couple of days a week in the circulation research department at Time Magazine. For ten bucks an hour, they asked me to tell them where the magazine industry was going. A billion-dollar corporation, asking an underemployed graduate student for strategic direction!
This was a time before the Web. I would go to the Time and Life Building in a tennis shirt and jeans and black Adidas sneakers and sit in a windowless room and read folders of audience research, then go for lunch to the company cafeteria, which was full of preppies in blazers and rep ties. I decided to eat a gyro from a pushcart instead.
One day I was told that I had to go see Reg Brack, who ran Time Inc. So I rode the elevator up to the executive suite in my tennis shirt and jeans, and Mr. Brack, who had on a suit with suspenders, as I recall, sat me down in a leather chair and asked me to tell him where the magazine business was going. I told him what I thought: there were going to be fewer magazine readers than in the past, but the people who did read magazines would read more magazines each than the people of past eras did.
I was right, as things turned out. That era of magazines was a precursor to the Internet era, in which people consume huge volumes of information from lots of different sources. Time needed to get into that mix. I don’t remember how Mr. Brack reacted to my advice, but I do remember how strange it was to get out of that leather chair and go home to eat a tuna fish sandwich in my apartment.
Where were you living at the time?
I had a very small, very dark one-bedroom on 106th Street near Amsterdam. It was skanky. The guy across the hall would bring in hookers with some regularity. The only window looked out on a junk-filled lot and had one of those trapeze gates over it. I had a futon, a computer, a couple of bookshelves, and one little lamp with a 60 watt bulb. I spent all my time in the back room writing. At the end of the night I would pull the gate closed, locking myself into my cell.
Back to work. After Spy and Time, what did you do?
I began working at FSG [the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux] in 1993. I had been working part time as a copy editor for Publishers Weekly. Then as now, the magazine had great people working there, but someone at corporate headquarters had figured out exactly how many hours they could work me without offering benefits or having anything taken out for taxes. I was really poor that year. I remember buying two pairs of shoes, one black and the other brown, for forty dollars at a Thom McAn store on Twenty-Third Street. That was a low point. Twenty-five years old, shopping at Thom McAn. I couldn’t even afford Dexters.
At the same time, I was freelancing for Lingua Franca, the late great magazine about academia. Come tax time. I found that I although I had made next to nothing, I actually owed the government two thousand dollars. I had about fifty to my name. Well, I masochistically paid my tax debt by writing a piece for Lingua Franca — a 6,000-word profile of Alasdair MacIntyre, a brilliantly complicated philosopher who had just completed a thousand-page trilogy. What a way to pay the tax man!
Not long afterward I had my credit card revoked because I didn’t make the payments. The credit limit was only a thousand dollars. My only purchases were Amtrak tickets — I would go to Albany to see my parents. To amuse myself that year, I took several trips to Chicago, because the fare was only $159 round trip — the airlines still took cash —- and I didn’t need a car there, so didn’t need a credit card. It was possible to have a lost weekend in Chicago for three hundred dollars. I wound up getting mugged on North Clark Street at 3 a.m. on Labor Day and was left with 50 cents to my name. But it worked out fine. I got a loan of 50 dollars from the hotel where I was staying and spent the afternoon in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, reading In Cold Blood. As, Saul Bellow said, “It was cheaper to be poor then.”
Thom Beller, who had been at Columbia with me, was a staff writer for the New Yorker that year. One Friday afternoon he called me and said, “Hey, you want to go get oysters on Union Square?” And I said, “Sure!” He knew it was a mitzvah he could do for his poor friends: take them out on his New Yorker expense account.
You did quite a bit of freelance writing. Can you tell me more about that?
I really didn’t like full-time freelancing because you have to be abject all the time. For example, I got a fantastic assignment from Andrew Sullivan when he was the editor of the New Republic. He couldn’t have been more supportive — he still is — but he was obviously extraordinarily busy. Whole magazine profiles were devoted to describing his busy life. This was before email, so I would spend half the week trying to figure out what day and time I should call him about the draft of the piece I was writing. I’d say to myself: “I’ll call on Thursday afternoon. I know they close the magazine on Wednesdays. So maybe he will be in a good position to talk…” You can drive yourself crazy as you sit there in your squalid apartment playing the When to Call game. And then you do call and someone on the other end: “Oh, he’s out. I don’t know when he’s coming back. We just closed a big issue, so it’s possible he is taking a long weekend. Why don’t you try next Wednesday?” And you’re thinking: “Oh, God no!” But you muster a calm: “Sure —- could you just tell him I called to follow up on his comments on my draft…” I try never to forget about all that now that I am often on the other end of that situation.
Was there ever a time you didn’t think the writing thing was going to work out?
There was never a time – since age seventeen, I’d say – when I thought I wasn’t going to do this kind of work. But going to work at FSG every morning sure boosted my confidence. So, even though it took years to write my own book, getting that job not too long after graduate school eased the fretting over if I would have a place in the literary world or not. The job spared me the existential anxiety of: am I a literary person?
Do you see yourself primarily as an editor or as a writer?
As a writer. There is a selflessness involved in editing. And so for me there is a constant tension between the instinct I have to help other people and the fact that, like every artist, I have to put myself first in important ways. I am never going to be an editor who is only out there working with other writers. I have to cup the flame of my own talent and make sure that it doesn’t go out.
It’s a strain for me to “be a writer” from 10 p.m to midnight after a long day at work and with children, which is what I do most days now. But what makes it possible is that my writing is mine. Those two hours are the part of the day when I’m not working for anybody.
I find that I prefer the term artist to writer, because while there are many kinds of writing, an artist, as I understand it, is someone who sets the terms for his or her own work. That doesn’t mean I am not open to outside influences. I am eager for them. But in the end that is what it means to me to be a writer, or artist if you prefer: it means that, where my work is concerned, the big decisions are mine.
And how do you cup that flame, so to speak?
By reminding myself of how much I like to write. Having a full time editing job, even an extraordinary one, serves as a reminder of how much I like writing. I try to take a few minutes for my own work before the workday begins. Even five minutes. It’s now a habit. It’s to the point where I feel like I’ve forgotten to zip my fly or something if I haven’t taken that time.
Is it harder to write now that you have a family?
There were vast patches of time in my twenties when I didn’t write because I wasn’t happy with my way of life in the city. I didn’t have money to do the things I wanted. Now I am happily married with three children who make my wife and me happy all the time. Sure, raising a family takes a lot of energy, but I don’t spend time pondering my grim circumstances. At least, I try not to. I don’t think being unhappy helps anybody be a better writer. My lean circumstances didn’t help me write a better piece about Alasdair MacIntyre.
What’s it like editing major writers (like Tom Wolfe and John McPhee) who you seriously admired, even wrote papers on, when you were younger?
Someone else might say: well, isn’t it kind of boring, that you’re still reading the same people you read in high school? May be. But for me, it’s very satisfying to think I’ve had certain tastes that have held up over the years. I feel as though the narrative of my literary life adds up: characters who had leading roles in the early part of the story show up in the latter part of the story and are important all over again.
The thing that you realize when you work with writers of stature is that every writer, no matter how acclaimed, is anxious to reach the real reader – the individual reader, not “the audience” or “the book-buying public. “ That thirst is not slaked by stature, fame, sales, or other success. A writer needs to be read. And when the writer, even the world-class writer, sees that you’ve read his work, and closely, he feels gratitude. “Wow, you read it – really read it! You asked a question about a line of dialogue on page 455!”
Any advice to young writers starting out?
Do some freelancing — if only because it enables you to identify yourself as a writer. I have found in the Columbia MFA program, first as a student and now as a teacher, that people enter the program trying to answer the big question: Am I a writer? It’s very satisfying to be able to say to myself, twenty years later: Yes, I am a writer. It took me some years after I finished the MFA to see myself that way. And I don’t think I would have become a writer if I’d had to wait for a publisher or literary agent or prize committee to declare me one. I gained that sense of myself by writing things – some very serious, some less so – and seeing them published and paid for and read and commented on. I worry that too many young writers don’t do that kind of work because they are saving their talent for their fiction or waiting for a blessing from some editor on high.
I often find myself telling the writers I work with to be bolder – to cultivate an inner grandiosity. There really isn’t a place in the world for writers who don’t think their work is worth reading. You’ve got to decide for yourself that your work is worth other people’s attention, and that you are the person making the work, not just taking direction from others. I saw this dramatically in the lives of the writers whose stories I told in my first book: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. At some point each of them said, with all humility, “Dammit, I’m a writer, and I have to put my work first!” That was a lesson for me at the time, and it’s a lesson I try to keep learning.
Photo by Sue Johnson
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander