This fall, a number of lucky undergraduates at Baruch College in New York City will study with acclaimed writer and journalist Philip Gourevitch, author of 1998's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda and 2001's A Cold Case. His powerful examination of the bloody conflict in Rwanda received a National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and the George K. Polk Award for Foreign Reporting. His sophomore effort, A Cold Case, about a decades-old unsolved murder, proved that the careful, precise writing in Gourevitch's earlier work was no fluke.
With his selection as the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence at Baruch College's Weissman School of the Arts & Sciences, Gourevitch joins a select group of resident writers that includes Edward Albee, John Edgar Wideman, Lorrie Moore, and Paul Auster. According to Program Director Roz Bernstein, the idea "is to rotate the genre of the residencies in an intelligent and creative way."
Bernstein says demand for Gourevitch's seminar -- described as a course in the "art" of nonfiction -- has been "terrific." In between assignments that took him out of the country, Gourevitch found a few minutes to chat with BusinessWeek Online Contributing Correspondent Karin Pekarchik. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow.
Q: Your class is called "Journalism and the Literary Imagination." Can you explain what its goals are? What exactly is your class about?
A: The idea is to study the works of a number of master writers who have taken on the challenge of working with reported, factual material and to consider how different writerly sensibilities and strategies respond to and serve their material.
The range of possibilities that writing nonfiction can offer is immense, and I'm hoping to explore those possibilities with the [idea] that it will make us all more discerning readers and perhaps open us to new ways of thinking about our own writing.
Q: Baruch describes your seminar as a "course in the 'art' of nonfiction." Do you think of writing as art? What about mundane factors, like experience and hard work?
A: Yes, of course, writing is an art, insofar as it is essentially an effort to represent reality in a crafted and constructed form. It's certainly not a term of praise to say that a piece of writing, or of reporting, is "artless." That just means it's clumsy or murky about its purposes. Of course, nonfiction has to be factual -- the material must be observed, reported, documented, and not invented -- but that doesn't put it at odds with artfulness in writing.
As for experience and hard work, there's nothing mundane about them -- and art requires both. I know no harder work than writing, [and none more rewarding] than writing well.
Q: What do you hope students will take away with them?
A: A greater appreciation of the work of writing -- what goes into making the world a writer observes come alive on the page.
Q: What will be on the syllabus?
A: I'm still refining the final syllabus. The single thread is that everything we will read will be writing that I admire deeply and believe that one can learn from. We'll read a sampling of great magazine-length pieces, from Joseph Mitchell and Ryszard Kapuscinski, and also book-length works by A.J. Liebling and Bill Buford.
Above all, I'm seeking to ensure that there will be a great range to the syllabus -- humorous pieces and angry pieces, personal confessional pieces and distant third-person pieces, writers who seek to address massive events concisely, and writers who find the scope in seemingly small moments.
Q: Can you give a brief synopsis of your career?
A: I started out writing fiction, and I've never stopped doing that -- though as I've become immersed in nonfiction, reportorial writing, I've had much less time for it. I really had no idea how to become a writer except to write, and that's what I did.
In my late 20s, somebody suggested that I could get paid for writing for newspapers. I went to work for the Forward in the early '90s and stayed there a bit less than three years, as New York bureau chief and then as cultural editor, before becoming a freelance magazine writer. In 1995, The New Yorker sent me to report in Rwanda, and I've been writing for the magazine ever since.
Q: Who has inspired you?
A: I've been inspired most of all, I'd say, by other writers -- by their writing, that is. The range of inspiration is too broad and varied and idiosyncratic to make much sense as a list. But it's by seeing others make the world real that I got the idea to write in the first place.
Q: Do you consider yourself a nonfiction writer or a journalist? Does the distinction matter?
A: The distinction doesn't matter much. I'm a writer and a journalist. Just as there are all kinds of writers who aren't journalists, there are a lot of good journalists who aren't very interesting writers. My aim is to produce work that can be judged equally for its quality as writing as for its merit as journalism, and I don't really concern myself with how it can be categorized.