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Question and Answer: Dwight Garner

Senior Editor of the New York Times Book Review

Michael Orbach

Issue date: 2/8/07 Section: Knight Life
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Q: How did you end up working at the New York Times Book Review?

A: The short answer is that I'm indebted to the Book Review's previous editor, Chip McGrath, who hired me in 1999. At the time, I was the books editor at Salon. The longer answer is longer. Growing up, I found myself plowing through great books but also through the works of great critics, and I read everything I could by writers like Pauline Kael, Paul Fussell, Seymour Krim, James Agee, George Orwell, James Wolcott, John Updike, H.L. Mencken and Alfred Kazin, among a bunch of others. The freedom and spiky confidence of their prose, and their abilities to make fine distinctions, just tore my head off. I've done all kinds of writing, but in college I began selling book reviews to the Village Voice, to the old Voice Literary Supplement (VLS), and never really looked back.

Q: What's your average week like in the Book Review?

A: Each issue goes to press on Wednesday afternoon, ten days before you see it in the Sunday paper. So my week, like everyone else's at the Book Review, builds up to and then recedes from Wednesday. On a typical day, after 45 minutes of quasi-productive fiddling around (buying coffee in the eleventh floor company cafeteria, returning e-mail messages, scanning a few web sites), I get to work on the reviews I'm editing. Some of these are painless. Walter Kirn, for example - he's one of our regular critics - files copy that is all but letter-perfect. He's so crazily, unfairly talented he could probably call me from his truck and, in between drags on cigarettes, dictate a review that's smart, rude, elegant and funny at the same time and that would be just about the best thing in the newspaper the day it appeared. But they aren't all that easy. I also sit in on a lot of meetings, to determine which books we should review and who should review them. There are also meetings about things like picking headlines and letters-to-the-editor and art. The best part of the day might be my longish train ride to and from work. That's when I crack open a handful of advance copies of new books and read around in them, looking for a live one - a new writer or book worth telling people about. You want that buzz in your brain; good writing is a kind of drug.
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