Giving good gimmick

By WILLIAM CORBETT  |  June 8, 2009

NO SLUSH Organizing each issue around a theme, Granta editors don’t have to pick and choose from what arrives in the mail.
There are two reasons to buy this issue of Granta, one is pleasure for the short term and another is Jhumpa Lahiri's interview with Mavis Gallant. Most little magazines have short shelf lives because they are by nature a stop along the way for most writers, from writing to book publication. One of the distinguishing features of Art & Literature is that you can still read it today because there are interesting essays, interviews, fiction, and poetry that have not been published in book form. Lahiri is a celebrated writer but I doubt that her interview with the superb Gallant — which runs 53 pages including introduction — will appear elsewhere any time soon, especially since Gallant may be a little obscure in the way writer's writers tend to be.

Someone at Granta had the bright idea to send Lahiri to interview her favorite writer — one fiction writer interviewing another — and Lahiri came as a fan, in awe of Gallant, a Canadian who has lived and worked in Paris for nearly 60 of her 87 years. In her introduction, Lahiri remembers that the first Gallant story she read, "The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street," "broke something in me — something about my prior understanding of what a story can do, and how." Writers usually have a deeper love for those writers they discover for themselves, who show them undreamed-of possibilities, who set them off on their own course. This complicates the back and forth of interviewing because when you love a writer's work and interview her you want more — to go deeper than mere journalism.

There's a passage where Lahiri, who begins to frame her questions based on her own life and writing as the interview progresses, speaks of having been raised by Indian parents in America:

JL: So I've been brought up with people who have that exchange rate going on in their brains, always converting and comparing.
MG: I don't compare.
JL: But your characters?
MG: I don't know. It depends.

Later Gallant responds to a question about her method with, "I never questioned it. The problem is getting it right." In both instances and in others you can tell that Lahiri wanted more and that Gallant is not only being abrupt but truthful. Gallant comes across as a natural writer who accepted her talent, her way with fiction, and was determined to follow it. She will not explain her work, although she is here, as she is in her many powerfully disquieting stories, a wonderful storyteller. I can hear her voice and imagine both Lahiri's pleasure and her discomfort.

As the interview proceeds into the second and third session the reader learns more about Lahiri, and it becomes a conversation between fiction writers. I'm unclear as to how well Gallant knows Lahiri's work, but this adds to this fascinating picture of not one but two writers. And there will be, at least for some readers, the bonus of being introduced to Gallant. Anyone who reads Gallant's story "The Remission" for the first time because of this interview will thank Lahiri and Granta.

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