Unlike the other sharp-suited writers swirling around him at the offices of the New York Times, Klinkenborg arrives for work in a faded button-down shirt, jeans and dusty brown Bludstone work boots. Though he wouldn't turn heads on the average New York street, as an editorial board member of the Times, he's one of a dozen people responsible for formulating the newspaper's national agenda. He leads PW up to his modest office, which is decorated with his wife's nature photographs. A gleaming new Apple iBook displays a picture of Klinenborg's two pigs.
PW: The essays in your new book, A Rural Life, first appeared on the editorial page of the New York Times. Is it unprecedented at the Times to have those sorts of pieces on the editorial page?
VK: Not at all. Hal Borland used to write a long series of them, and Edward Hoagland also did some for a while. I was invited to contribute partly out of a desire to reestablish that tradition and bring that back on the editorial page.
PW: So the pieces were not motivated by news or the need to report?
VK: There are always two parts of this job for me: the personal meditations or narrations that become "Rural Life," and the anonymous editorials I write for the pages as well, which I write as part of the editorial board. I probably write two or three of those to every signed piece. I think that what happens as you read the paper is that you're not clear what the touchstones are, and I hope my pieces serve as touchstones every once in a while. Though The Rural Life looks like a personal diary, it's a very public diary and must fit the national audience of the New York Times. I do address big events in the life of the nation, such as the execution of Timothy McVeigh or September 11. It's one thing to know how to interpret how we're doing economically and politically, but my province is how we're doing emotionally.
PW: Was the Times consciously trying to bring the rural into the urban?
VK: It's part of the fabric of my life, because I'm constantly going back and forth. I live about three hours north of the city and come in three days a week. When I'm in the country, I try to be there as completely as possible, but I write for the Times when I'm there. And when I'm here, its vice versa: I worry about the chickens and what the story is up there.
PW: Do you think living on a farm and working in the city is atypical?
VK: One of the interesting things I found was, last summer, after my wife and I first started keeping pigs, that you couldn't tell a pig story in a room of people in New York City without an amazing number of those people who were only a cousin, an uncle or grandfather removed from raising pigs on a farm. The web is much tighter than you would think.
PW: Are city dwellers living vicariously though you?
VK: These pieces have been so popular with Times readers because so many of them have that rural longing or urge to find a simpler life. At the same time, there's this urban nostalgia for the country and a softening and romanticizing of what a rural life really means. Because the rural life portrayed in the book is so often my own, it has little of the hardness and brittleness that is so often a part of the rural life. It's an omission of which I'm very conscious. There's nothing simple about a rural life at all, as anybody who really lives it can tell you.
PW: Is it unconventional for editors to look for book ideas on the editorial page of the New York Times?
VK: Editors started calling my agent to ask if I was going to write a book after only two or three of the columns appeared. They called every few years, and in January this year, it made sense to me. I finally had the inclination and the time to put them together into a book.