Q&A with John Wilson, Editor, Books & Culture
Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
John Wilson: I'd hand her several issues of Books & Culture to leaf through.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
JW: Hard to know. As soon as I could read, I loved magazines. When I was a boy at home we got The Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic, Reader's Digest, Sports Illustrated, Ladies' Home Journal, Vogue, and Sunset. Except for Sunset, I read them all. Even when I was a kid, I had a sense—which I couldn't have put into words then—of the vastness of the world, its complexity and many-sidedness. I would read The Saturday Evening Post—where a Perry Mason novel (condensed, perhaps) and the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (who had a regular column) and huge, striking black-and-white photos of victims of a mafia hit were mingled with seductive ads for pipe tobacco, refrigerators, and airline travel. I would feel intoxicated with an emotion I couldn't name, a sense of all these worlds somehow existing in the great big world that also included the familiar little house in Pomona, California where I lived with my mother and grandmother and younger brother, and where I lay stretched out on the floor with a magazine. And all this was Creation.
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
JW: One was the time I spent prowling the library when I started college, checking out ridiculous numbers of books (and racking up hideous fines) but also roaming the section where bound periodicals were neatly arranged, shelf after shelf. I discovered Partisan Review, and read my way through anything that caught my eye in the issues from the late Forties through the mid-Fifties. And so on, willy-nilly.
Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?
JW: The best advice pertinent to my job has been implicit rather than explicit, and has come through the example set by editors I greatly admire.
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
JW: Everything feeds into it.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
JW: Wendy (my wife) and I try to start the day with a reading from The Divine Hours and a walk in Lincoln Marsh, near our home in Wheaton, Illinois. I spend a lot of time every day at the computer. I look at the books that have just come in: some for only a few seconds, some for several minutes, some to take home to skim or read straight through. Most of what I get on the web, I print out to read later. (Here I imagine younger readers shaking their heads.) There are stacks of magazines and reviews—Science, Nature, the TLS, the NYRB, the NYTBR, and so on—which I mostly read at home. And a stack of books—actually a lot of stacks—next to the bed.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
JW: Email is quite wonderful, though of course it comes with a downside too.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
JW: A special section several years ago in Books & Culture, "In Search of Native America: The Persistence of Indians." It was something I'd wanted to do since the magazine started. (And the cover of that issue is one of my favorites among all that we've done).
Comment: How do you plan your work?
JW: It is firmly structured by having an issue due every two months, along with a bit of web-exclusive "content" (as they say) every week. But within such structures, I work by instinct.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
JW: There isn't a clear dividing line between my work on Books & Culture and the rest of my life.