Meghan O’Rourke is the author of the memoir The Long Goodbye and the poetry collections Halflife and Once. Her essays, criticism, and poems have appeared in Slate, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, Redbook, Vogue, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, and Best American Poetry. She has also worked in various editorial positions at different magazines. You can find her online at meghanorourke.net.
Shauna Kosoris: Your bio on your website says you were one of the youngest editors in the history of The New Yorker. How did that happen?
Meghan O’Rourke: Luck! Well, a combination of really hard work, genuine obsession with literature, and being in the right place at the right time. I was a college intern at The New Yorker, and then returned after college, just when Bill Buford, then the fiction editor, needed a new assistant. Bill was a wonderful mentor and a genius editor – he taught me how to edit, gave me lots of chances, and promoted early on. I learned everything I know from him. (Of course, he is not responsible for my missteps along the way!)
Very lucky! Since then, you have worked as a fiction editor, culture editor, poetry editor, an advisory editor, and a literary critic for various magazines. What do you like most about being an editor?
As a poetry editor and fiction editor: being able to advocate for writers whose work seems important to me – original, deep, surprising, whatever it might be. Developing a relationship with those writers and, hopefully, becoming a trusted early reader. This is such a wonderful part of editing.
In my role as culture editor at Slate: assigning nonfiction essays, being able to shape the cultural conversation at large. It was great to think, “Such and such piece needs to be written,” and then find the person who was precisely the right critic to execute it.
And what do you dislike the most?
The pain/frustration both editor and writer feel when pieces don’t work. And the steady acceleration of the news cycle. It is making it harder and harder for online magazines to produce serious writing. Though of course there are many venues that still do. You just have click past the cat-video-bait.
Have you found any way to overcome this?
Well, I don’t work as an editor anymore, so this isn’t really an issue I deal with.
Fair enough. Along with being an editor, you write essays, poetry, and criticisms. What was your first published piece?
God, I don’t remember. Something in The New York Times Book Review? Then I started writing for Slate in 2001, before I moved there as an editor. That Slate piece felt like my first real piece, as it was the first that was self-generated: It was about B.R. Myers’ case against “difficult books” in The Atlantic. I like difficult books!
Why do you like them?
I think being anti-complexity is a form of anti-intellectualism; I also feel that extreme stylization in fiction is fascinating, because realism isn’t what matters most to me, but the way that a piece of art can make you feel, through its formal choices. The essay I was criticizing was kind of anti-hyper-stylization, but I love it.
Do you have a favourite?
Hmm hard to choose one. I do like Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. Proust.
I haven’t read any Proust, but I have read some DeLillo and McCarthy. The way they describe things reminds me of poetry. Thinking of which, what draws you to poetry?
I love poetry for its luminosity, compression, and ability to pierce the reader almost instantly. It is unlike any other form – it relies on music to get at mysteries that can’t be summarized or put in any other way. I love it because it is a “way of happening” (Auden) something “lost in translation,” (Merrill) “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind,” (Stevens) a thing that “must ride its own melting” (Frost). Like Elizabeth Bishop, I love best the poems that have the qualities of mystery, spontaneity, and accuracy…. But poets like Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks, with their powerful social visions, matter a lot to me too.
Do you have a favourite poem form to write?
I don’t have one. I like the variability! And also each poem demands its own form. That said, I think tercets (three-line stanzas) lead to a certain flexibility and spontaneity of thought, while also imparting a quality of order to that thought. I like them.
Once, your second collection of poetry, was published in 2011, just six months before your memoir, The Long Goodbye. They both touch on similar themes (namely loss and recovery). Was this intentional?
Yes, of course this was entirely intentional. I was exploring the loss in different genres, trying to figure out what each genre allowed me to do–what crevices I could get into.
Did you prefer one genre over the other?
No, I liked using both – one reason I like to write in multiple genres is that each genre allows you as the writer to explore emotions, ideas, arguments in different ways. Poetry for me is more atmospheric and elliptical – Wallace Stevens’ “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind.” It gets at the heart of things but in a visceral, limbic-system-thrilling way. In prose, I was able to make stubborn and opinionated arguments I wanted to make about our habit of whitewashing grief. I also thought that The Long Goodbye let me deal with grief as a kind of duration which was hard to express in a poem.
You’re currently working on a book about chronic illness. How’s that going?
Slowly. There is a lot to learn and a lot to think about. What interests me are the stories we tell ourselves about disease, and the ways they obscure deeper realities. We believe we are in an age of science, but the strange assumptions we all make about poorly understood diseases–such as autoimmune ones, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and more–are amazing. It’s utterly fascinating, but I need to begin making some choices about how to limit it.
Good luck with that! To finish up, I have just a few more questions about books and reading. Did a book or author inspire you to write?
I wouldn’t be able to limit it to one – but early on, Anne Of Green Gables was a huge obsession. Later–don’t think this is too pretentious!–James Joyce. I loved the passion (and rage) in Portrait of an Artist as Young Man. Sylvia Plath. Adrienne Rich, for her political fervor.
And finally, what are you currently reading?
Just finished Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts today; currently reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence (set near Florence, Italy, where I am) and the last volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.