Could you paint us a picture of the moment you all decided to found Granta?
It was supposed to be easy. Bill Buford and I were American students at Cambridge on graduate fellowships. Pete de Bolla was the son of a butcher from Kent. We were all reading English. Bill knew Pete from King’s College. I knew Bill from the hothouse of expats who were enjoying their two years over the rainbow. Pete asked Bill to edit an American issue of this forty-page student magazine called Granta. Bill asked me to help. I agreed as long as I could also be the Business Manager, since that meant I could supplement my dwindling grant with a commission on all the advertising – which at that time came from Heffers Bookshop and Chinese takeaways. Easy.
We met at Bill’s house on Mill Road. Bill made coffee. I brought a sack of Chelsea buns. Pete turned up with an industrial-size bottle of Branston Pickle – a gift from his father. The three of us sat at Bill’s dining room table and wrote twenty-odd letters to famous American writers unknown at the time in England – Susan Sontag, Donald Barthelme, William Gass – offering to devote half the issue to essays on their lives, reviews of their works, and other vague celebrations if they would give us an unpublished story for our American issue of Granta. In the innocence of cinnamon, caffeine, and whatever goes into Branston Pickle, we had no idea that a dozen of them would reply. That we would have to print an issue of over 200 pages. That not all the takeaways in China would pay for that first issue, and that my commission would be frittered away on editorial meeting pork chops and bottles of Teacher’s.
What was putting together the first issue like? How did you get writers to contribute?
The problem wasn’t getting writers to contribute. Writers like to see their stuff in print. Many of the writers in that first issue, like Stanley Elkin, James Purdy, and Tillie Olsen weren’t being published at the time in the UK. The prodigiously prolific Joyce Carol Oates was delighted to have a new nursery. There were, alas, a few famous writers who sent us work from the backs of their bottom drawers, and we learned, or tried to learn, the painful art of writing rejections. Later, one American author wrote to me that mine was ‘the second-worst rejection letter’ she had ever received. I was rescued from madness, some years on, when the editor Ted Solotaroff, in an introduction to a book of stories by this author, printed her angry screed calling his early rejection ‘the worst’.
When we started working on that first issue, I was living in a thatched shoebox in Histon and Pete was squatting in a sty called Red Gables. So we edited the magazine, for the most part, in the dining room of a house Bill was renting with some cleanliness freaks from King’s. We lived on refined sugar and common fat, adding stronger stuff when we began to fear we had created a monster. As the pieces arrived by mail, and it became clear that our budget was way too low, I spent a lot of time on Bill’s phone trying to flog quarter-page ads to London publishers at twenty quid a throw – with little success. At last I thought to call Laker Airways, which at the time was making headlines with its £99 Skytrain from Gatwick to New York. Amazingly, the man on the phone took my bait and asked the price for a full page. No one had ever asked for something so extravagant, so I had no rate in mind. But we were short £500 – a number that figured largely in my nightmares – so I gave him that price. ‘Done,’ the man said. I wrote down the address to send him the confirmation and then asked his name, just to be doubly sure that I wasn’t still asleep. ‘Freddie Laker,’ he answered. Sir Freddie – he had just been knighted – was just as much as much a mom-and-pop operation as we were.
Can you share any stories or anecdotes with us about editing in those early days?
For the first issue, Bill and Pete and I enlisted the help of two other American students at Cambridge – Ric Burns (now a noted documentary filmmaker), and Don Guttenplan (the new editor of the Nation magazine). The editing was the easy part, even though none of us had ever edited a magazine before. The problem was the physical construction. Back in the days before electronic publishing, we biked the manuscripts over to a typesetter who then re-typed all the text onto glossy paper with a sticky backing. It was up to us to chop up that glossy paper and paste it onto pages that had grids and margins and other geometric instruments of torture. Our printer assured us that he would then take our pages and turn them into something exquisite. Cambridge and our budget being what they were, we hired a typesetter who made an average of 8.6 typos per paragraph. That meant a lot of cutting and pasting. And re-cutting and re-pasting. Which meant that we got hungry. And thirsty. If you look at an original copy of that first issue, with lines of type headed in all kinds of interesting directions, you can tell, perhaps, that it was put together by fingers anointed with cod and vinegar and beer.
Although the editing was the easy part, that’s not to say it was quick, efficient and bloodless. The pittance that we paid for stories and articles was nothing compared to the fury our editing caused certain writers, most memorably John le Carré, although his quibble may have had something to do with not receiving our edits until after the issue had gone to press. But in the summer of 1986, I had the pleasure of calling John Updike at his home just north of Boston. I needed to fax him a proof of an article that he had written for us about his stutter, ‘Getting the Words Out’. I just wanted, I told him, to check the edits that we had made. There was silence at the other end of the line. Finally – ‘Edits?’ In his fury, Updike refused to let me fax him the piece. I had to send my intern (she had a car and a friend willing to drive with her) up to Boston with the pages. She arrived. She knocked on Updike’s door. The door opened a crack, and a hand yanked the pages inside. My intern stood at the door for a moment and then went back to her car and to wait with her friend. After an hour, it began to rain. Hard. After another hour, Updike’s door opened. My intern ran from the car through the downpour. The hand thrust the pages back at her. Protecting them as well as she could, she ran back to the car. Four hours later, I looked at the proofs. Updike had signed off on all but two of the changes.
What were you aiming to do, in launching this magazine? What did you want to see in its pages?
We didn’t want poetry. Not that we didn’t like poetry – even though our first attempt at merchandising Granta was a smiley face T-shirt with a caption on the front that said Have a Nice Day and one on the back that said Shoot a Poet. Bill, after all, had won his fellowship to Cambridge as reward for working on an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It was just that there were twice as many poetry magazines in the world as there were poets and we wanted to do our small part to redress the balance.
In retrospect, I think we wanted to see a magazine that would recreate the kind of rough-and-tumble conversations we had as students over pints at The Eagle or kebabs at The Eros. Not quite a curated symposium of fiction and non-, truth and dare, but a mosh pit of the mind, with just the right amount of blood and broken glass to make it interesting. But it was a process. If you look back at the issues of the first few years, especially if you can find copies with the original hideous covers, you’ll see that, like any arrogant kids in their mid-twenties, we were trying personalities on for size. There’s a lot of tweedy, self-conscious seriousness in those early issues, as we tried to decide whether we wanted Granta to be High Table or Low.
Then we met the artist and designer Chris Hyde. From Granta 4, but especially from Granta 8: Dirty Realism, the cover of the magazine announced to the world that it was not some quiet quarterly like The Paris Review or Ploughshares. Chris’s covers shouted the message that it was okay to be hip and literary. It was no accident that the Vintage Contemporaries series that the American editor Gary Fisketjon launched in the US to great acclaim in 1984 picked up on the format and design that Chris witched out of our psyche.
But our road to Damascus, the moment when we discovered our inner Granta, involved a run-in with the Rolling Stones and a writer from Tennessee named Stanley Booth. His chronicle of touring across the United States with Mick and Keith and the boys caused our first Great Schism. Pete (who has since gone on to become a major cultural critic and don at King’s College and is the only person I know who can barbecue foie gras with one hand while composing music for a multimedia deconstruction of Samuel Beckett with the other) was our apostle of seriousness. He worried that we would lose half our base if we published Booth’s ‘The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones’. Pete was right. We lost two thousand subscribers. But we added on five thousand new ones. And we found our mojo.
Who were Granta’s great discoveries, who were you most proud to have published?
George Steiner’s ‘The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.’ in Granta 2. The first chapter of Salman Rushdie’s forthcoming Midnight’s Children in Granta 3. The American Dirty Realists Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Richard Russo, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Richard Ford, whose ‘Empire’ in Granta 19 is still one of my favorite short stories – although we were lucky that the New Yorker was still run by William Shawn whose allergy to the F-word drove many authors to our upstart mag. I loved the mix of Greats like Graham Greene, Gabriel García Márquez, and Milan Kundera, and Moderns like Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Kazuo Ishiguro. The space and breath we could give to Redmond O’Hanlon, Bruce Chatwin, and Ryszard Kapuscínski to develop contemporary travel writing is, in retrospect, a source of great satisfaction. And still the funniest story I have ever read is Todd McEwen’s ‘Paramilitarism in Costa del Burger,’ from Granta 14.
But, at the time, Granta was one of the very few places that had the space and the willingness to publish what we called reportage and later was touted as long-form journalism. Many of the writers like Greene and Martha Gellhorn – who wrote for us and drank us under the table, out of the belief that Bill was a latter-day Hemingway – needed no help from us. James Fenton did. A sometime journalist, sometime lyricist, Fenton had yet to find his fortune writing the unproduced translation of the musical Les Misérables that would allow him to become a full-time poet. But Fenton wanted to return to the Far East, where he had adventured during the Vietnam War and its aftermath in Cambodia. Specifically, he had a hankering to fly to the Philippines to report on President Marcos. Unfortunately, the best we could do was to buy him a cheap ticket with a departure date three months off and a limited stay. In the event, the gods were with us. Fenton arrived in time to hang out with the NPA guerrillas. And in a bit of final luck, just before his non-exchangeable, non-refundable return flight, he managed to beat the anti-Marcos crowd as it rose up the hill to storm Malacañang Palace, play a little Bach on Imelda’s piano, and return home with one of her monogrammed towels and a terrific story.
Can you think of any pieces you wish you had published, but they were turned down or they ended up somewhere else? Any ones that got away, as it were?
Bill ran the UK office out of Cambridge with a team of inspired editors including Graham Coster, Piers Spence, and Angus MacKinnon, and the writers Richard Rayner and Todd McEwen. In New York, I had only one assistant and a sofa-full of occasional readers including Hilton Als, who later wrote extraordinary books and articles for the New Yorker, and the actor Gene Jones, who went on to much better cameos in the films of the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino. Over the years, that meant that while Bill and I spoke and faxed daily, I couldn’t shout loudly enough across the Atlantic to convince Bill and his gang to consider writers like Tama Janowitz and Sam Shepard, nor shout softly enough to convince Thomas Pynchon to throw in his lot with us.
But the most disappointing for me was an adventure involving the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. Hrabal was a fascinatingly complex man and writer, a witness to both the Second World War and the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He was the author of several great novels, including Closely Watched Trains and I Served The King of England. He also suffered from mental illness and spent much of his life in and out of hospital. In 1986, I heard of the existence of his unpublished memoir from a woman in Detroit who had translated a large portion. I took a taxi out to La Guardia Airport and flew to Detroit. On landing, I called back to the office in New York. My assistant passed on a phone message with a Czech number. With ten dollars in quarters laid out in the phone booth, I made the call. The woman who answered had a thick accent – not Czech, Yugoslav. The woman was Drenka Willen, an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, a champion of international literature with quicker reflexes and a smarter brain than mine. She hadn’t flown to Detroit but to Prague. She hadn’t chased the translator but the author. She was calling from Hrabal’s hospital room. She had just signed a contract for the memoir. I sat in a bar in the Detroit airport for six hours, waiting for the flight back home and raising several toasts of awe in Drenka’s direction.
One of the pieces in this fortieth birthday issue is Bill’s resignation editorial. You left in 1987, I believe, and he left after the fiftieth issue in 1995. What was it like working with Bill?
Bill and I met shortly after arriving in Cambridge in the autumn of 1977. During our two years together studying at Cambridge, I directed Bill in three plays – my ambition in those days was to direct theatre and Bill’s was to either rewrite Shakespeare’s sonnets or play flamenco guitar in Andalucía. Rehearsing with Bill was a challenge. It meant running around to his rooms and waking him up, usually an hour after the beginning of rehearsal time. It meant drinking serious amounts of brown liquid into the wee hours and making deep grooves in my LP of Aretha Franklin’s Greatest Hits. But the rewards were worth the corralling. With a wild beard and a high Cajun tenor, Bill’s performance as the disillusioned and dissipated Jamie Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (a four-hour play that we rehearsed in only ten days at the ADC) drove the production. The week that the first issue of Granta came out, Bill and I were acting in David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. We were in the middle of an elaborate conversation about how to break into the printer’s warehouse and borrow enough copies of Granta that we could sell quickly in order to pay his bill, when the Stage Manager called places. It was only as we climbed the stairs to the stage that we turned our minds back to the play at hand, and I realized that Bill didn’t know any of his lines. None of them. We improvised the entire play that night. It was brilliant – a fact I mentioned some years later to Mamet himself, who to my surprise, wasn’t thrilled.
In subsequent years, Bill’s willingness to trust his gut, to improvise, to ignore deadlines and curtain times (if Bill had been directing Long Day’s Journey, we’d still be in rehearsal), was both the genius and the penalty of cobbling together every issue of Granta in the thirteenth hour. Slowly, reluctantly, inevitably, as the years went on we had to grow up, give up petty theft and brown liquids. Or at least the petty theft. It’s a miracle that Granta survived our mutual adolescence. And yet, it was that smell of teenage spirit that brought Graham Greene and Martha Gellhorn and Hanif Kureishi to our pages.
In 1990, Granta moved from Cambridge to London – can you explain the move and what its long-term effects were?
I left Granta at the end of 1987, when Rea Hederman took control of the magazine, so can only guess that the London move was the geographical by-product of a creeping Professionalism, that is sometimes called Growing Up. After ten years, it was time to separate from the umbilicus of that punt-infested river. It was time to follow Business Plans generated by Consultants in the Big City.
We were lucky to give birth to Granta at the dawn of the first PC’s and fax machines. Uncapitalized and living hand-to-mouth from issue to issue, working out of our living rooms and eventually small offices, Bill and I were able to design spreadsheets and cash flows and marketing proposals – primitive and bulky as they were – without the aid of professionals. In the rare cases when a potential investor urged us to hire a consultant, we found that our instincts about the magazine outperformed the pros every time.
This attitude, of course, was arrogant and, frankly, adolescent. The move from Cambridge to London, like my departure, then Bill’s, then Rea’s, was part of an inevitable growth that magazines, like teenagers, must survive in order to, well, survive. Forty years on, Sigrid Rausing’s Granta is as distant a descendant of the Granta born in 1979 as that one was of the Granta of A.A. Milne and David Frost. But this is a good thing. Sigrid’s comes out on time, four issues a year.
You’re a writer yourself as well as an editor. Do you think Granta influenced your own work?
Writers first learn to write by reading. During nine years at Granta there was plenty to read, plenty of late-night sessions with Bill and the other editors arguing adverbs and sentences, the sins of the Upper Cases, the dangers of the Second Person. Most of all, those years at Granta taught me that good writing – whether it’s Dirty, Magic, Irish, Icelandic, Eastern European, post-colonial, or post-modern – is better than bad writing. Certainly I hope that the novel I wrote just after leaving the magazine, A Guide for the Perplexed, is better than my juvenile book review of John Cheever’s short stories that appeared in Granta 1.
You were the US editor for Granta, and one of its earliest issues was New American Writing. Do you see Granta as British, or English or some kind of Anglo-American mix? Is it, perhaps, truly global?
I moved back to New York after that first American issue of Granta to play jazz violin and work in the theater. Bill and Pete decided to print a second and then a third issue of Granta and then register the magazine as an independent company. By the fourth issue, I agreed to start peddling the magazine in the States, hunting up American advertisers, and, above all, looking for American writers. I crashed every convention and every party. I met writers like Richard Ford and Louise Erdrich and introduced Granta to editors like Gary Fisketjon and Morgan Entrekin. Our first US office, in the non-air-conditioned basement of an art gallery down the block from the Mudd Club in TriBeCa, was the site of our summer parties which, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, had all the atmosphere of a Brazilian rain forest. The agent Andrew Wylie and I talked about renting a corner office together in the Fisk Building on West 57th Street so we could share a dining room. And in 1987, at a book convention in San Francisco, I met Rea Hederman, who had just bought the New York Review of Books. He fell in love with the magazine and invested enough money for us to test our assumption that there was a market larger than 5,000 people for the kind of magazine we were publishing – introducing British writers to Yanks and American authors to Brits. By the time I left Granta at the end of 1987, we were selling over 100,000 copies of the magazine, the vast majority in the US.
When Sigrid Rausing bought Granta some years later, one of the two suggestions I made to her was that Granta revive the role of US Editor that hadn’t existed since my departure, and breathe new life into the cross-Atlantic partnership. I was delighted when John Freeman came on board, first as US Editor and eventually as Editor, and hoped that Granta would once again become a magazine that brought the little-known best of America to the UK and vice versa.
As for a global persona – the meaning of global has changed in the past 40 years. There’s a homogeneity that has franchised much of the world and H&M’d and Hollywooded and Rock ‘n’ Rolled personality out of cities and nations. The English language has not entirely conquered, but it has infected not only the vocabulary but the sensibility of many foreign languages. Discovering, reading, and translating foreign work is an expensive challenge for any editor who aims to publish a global literary magazine.
To my mind, it’s impossible to institutionalize the persona of a good magazine or define it with a well-meaning, internationalist, egalitarian mandate. Inevitably, the persona of a magazine reflects the passions and peccadillos of its editors. The Granta of the last ten years is no more like the Granta of its first decade than David Remnick’s New Yorker is like William Shawn’s. The Merry Crew that stumbled through those first years has rolled on. Bill was our front man, our Mick. And while there may be many variant drafts of our True Adventures with Granta, there’s no doubt that they were truly adventures.
Feature photograph: Jonathan Levi (left) and Bill Buford (right) in David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago at the ADC Cambridge, the week of the publication of Granta 1. Courtesy of the author.