PW: Would you describe Vermeer in Bosnia as your most personal book?
It's not so much that it's personal, I guess, as that it brings together a whole set of my obsessions. It'll be a challenge for booksellers—the kinds of things I write, people don't know where to put them, so they get all scattered, but the books are all meant to be talking to each other. It's this crazy idea that only fiction and literature is to be arranged alphabetically by author and everything else is scattered all over by subject matter, when you might want to take certain nonfiction—and I'm not talking only about myself by any means—and take it seriously as writing and bring it together as such.
There's a bookstore I know that has a "belles lettres" section.
In the best bookstores, they'll have that, but, you know, this isn't belles lettres. There's nothing "belle" about it. The kind of writing I'm interested in, and aspire to be a part of, is a personal grappling with the complexity of the world. At the end of the day, what I am is a storyteller. A connector of wildly disparate sorts of particulars, finding form and pattern, but an idiosyncratic and personal pattern that has persisted across all my writing. If I were a fiction writer, this would be obvious to everybody. And again, I'm not talking about my own writing. I'm talking about Ian Frazier, Joan Didion, Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling—those people should be in alphabetical order under literature, the same place you put Larry McMurtry. When you ask if this book is personal, I could say this book brings together a whole set of my concerns and makes a point of it.
I thought the title essay, about visiting a Vermeer exhibition during the Bosnian war crimes trials, exemplified the category-blurring that goes on in your writing.
It's intended to be a piece about Vermeer, but it's intended to be a piece about Bosnia, and you can do them both in the same place. There's an artificiality to the way we talk about things: This is Bosnia, so we have to talk politically. This is Vermeer, so we have to take it out of the political realm. And that artificiality is what I've spent a large part of my career trying to supersede. I delight in the dissolving of those kinds of borders.
But is that just a case of the way you see these subjects?
It's not just how my mind works, it's how everybody's mind works all the time. It's natural, looking at a painting, to have thoughts about other things which are provoked by the painting, and to be mindful of those other thoughts. But the sluices and conduits of contemporary book capitalism make it difficult to do that. I keep hitting my head against that wall—well, I've had a lovely time doing it, anyway, and I don't seem capable of doing it any other way.
Do you see the same thing happening in the magazine world, too?
I teach a course called "The Fiction of Nonfiction," and I look back at some of the things that used to run in, for example, the New Yorker in terms of length and quirkiness and so on... but it's not just there; there's been a similar constriction everywhere. Having said that, David Remnick is doing a great job for the magazine. But I wanted to try my own hand at publishing a magazine, and so I'm doing that.
How did that opportunity come about?
Three years ago, I was offered a job directing the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. I took it on the condition that they would let me try to launch my own kind of magazine, and they said I could if I could raise the money for it. So we've created a prototype issue of the magazine, called Omnivore.