Book mad

Interview: Keith Gessen’s young literary life
By JON GARELICK  |  April 15, 2008

Keith Gessen reads at Harvard Book Store on April 23 and at Newtonville Books on April 24

Keith Gessen, 33, Harvard grad and former Newton resident, is the author of All the Sad Young Literary Men (Viking) as well as editor and co-founder of the Brooklyn-based literary mag n+1. The novel (which takes its name from the F. Scott Fitzerald story collection All the Sad Young Men) follows the undergrad and post-grad romantic, intellectual, and political adventures of three Harvard guys, Mark, Sam, and Keith. n+1, meanwhile, has been called “unabashedly highbrow,” an aggressive East Coast counterpart to the laid-back San Francisco lit mag the Believer, as eager to take on gossip blog Gawker as the Virginia Tech shootings. When I talk to Gessen via phone from Brooklyn, he speaks quickly, with a friendly, nervous laugh, in cadences that sound like a cross between Ira Glass and Martin Scorsese.

One of your characters becomes involved with “the Vice-President’s daughter” at Harvard. Did you know one of the Gore girls? Is that based on your experience?
Very loosely. I was in school in the same time as one of them, but most of that stuff is made up.

It struck me as problematic to use a real, living person in a fictional narrative.
The idea was to try to find a way to communicate how someone would be disappointed politically and also very personally by the election of 2000. None of this stuff happened to me with regard to his daughter at school, but I still felt extremely personally invested in a political campaign in a way that I’d never felt. And also, nothing that bad had ever happened. Certainly in my lifetime. I still think it’s the worst thing that’s happened in long time. And I feel like it’s something that for me — I was 25 and I was just becoming politically conscious — it still feels like it was more alienating with regard to America than anything that’s happened in my lifetime. It was more surprising than September 11. To me, we’d always expected that we were going to be attacked, but the idea of a right-wing coup [laughs] was less expected. That was something that was much more in the realm of fantasy than these attacks.

When Sam goes to Israel and spends time in the Palestinian West Bank village of Jenin, he argues with himself and finally concludes, “the Palestinians were idiots, but the Israelis . . . were fuckers.” Do you agree with him?
Yeah. I did go to Jenin in the summer of 2002. We had invaded Afghanistan and we were preparing very slowly to invade Iraq. Things didn’t quite happen the way I’ve described them, but that was a conclusion that I came to. But I wrote the novel pretty recently, and I was worried that things were going to change. But they really haven’t changed very much. They’ve deteriorated, but kind of in the same direction. So unfortunately that story still stands.

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