Andrew Proctor is the Executive Director of Literary Arts. He talks about traveling and studying, and then his professional career at HarperCollins and International PEN, a writer’s organization known for its advocacy of free speech around the world.

Show Notes

Recorded Tuesday, September 17th, 2013, and this is episode number 29. Follow Ray, Kandace, Dan, or Needmore on Twitter. Please rate our show on iTunes!

The Interview

Ray:
Hi, Andrew.
Andrew:
Hello. How are you?
I’m good. How are you?
Welcome to Literary Arts.
Oh, it’s nice to be here. This is my favorite room for sure. This room is really cool.
It’s magnificent.
Why don’t you tell me where are you from?
Where I’m from? Oh, I grew up in a small town called Port Hope in Ontario in Canada. Rather, ironically named for a town that produces dashboards for the most part.
Car dashboards?
Car dashboard for GM. It’s not always the happiest place in the world but it was actually a fun place to grow up, little tiny town.
How did you get interested in this is a broad question but how did you get interested in writing and literary arts themselves?
Oh, I had an affinity for it in high school for sure and like a lot of kids, I wrote a lot of little stories and things like that as a kid.
You can swear here, it’s okay.
I’m trying so they all look good and then just really literature seems subversive to me in high school so it’s very attractive as an angsty teenager that I was. Somebody gave me a copy of Henry Miller, The Tropic of Cancer which I don’t know it’s really great. I don’t know that I’d classify it now as great literature but I think that it is a pivotal moment in my level of passion for the art form because that book is basic. It’s not a scream of conscious but it’s the first person there really. Just had him ranting and raving essentially about I’m in Paris. It was so raw and so honest even if it’s despicable at the same time, it’s really exciting because I think up until that time I read this highly structured social realist novels which were fine but then when I read, I was like, “Oh, you could do anything.” There’s no structure to this. There’s no formality to it. It’s just this voice and I really like the voice. Again, as an angsty teenager, it just seemed incredible that anyone would talk about sex and drugs and male sexuality in that way. It was totally acceptable and available to library which is a mind blowing, I think, in the moment.
Most libraries, yeah.
Most libraries, that’s it.
All different …
Subjects. I suppose that idea that pathway of being subversive was really interesting to me.

Somebody gave me a copy of Henry Miller, The Tropic of Cancer… I don’t know that I’d classify it now as great literature but I think that it is a pivotal moment in my level of passion for the art form… it was so raw and so honest even if it’s despicable at the same time… it just seemed incredible that anyone would talk about sex and drugs and male sexuality in that way. It was totally acceptable and available at the library, which is a mind blowing, I think, in the moment.

Were you writing also in high school?
Yeah. Again, I’m probably like most teenagers, participating and writing a little bit and I did a minor inquiry writing in college later which I really enjoyed but I don’t really have any talent so there’s only limited opportunities for writers without talent, little on the ones with talent. There’s not enough opportunities so I certainly wrote a lot and then loved it and had an appreciation for how difficult it is to really put together something that’s really well-crafted. It’s an enormously challenging and so I think everybody should have a take a little bit of music just that you really understand just how impossible it is to make a song really work beautifully like it’s very hard. It’s very good to sound okay. It’s very difficult to sound amazing and anyone stringed together a cute story here or there but to get to a level that a lot of professional writers that we all admire. It’s a whole other animal. You get an appreciation for it.
One of the most important things that we go and obviously we just run a web design studio but one of the most important things to me is no matter what someone does at our company, there have to be a good writer because so much of what you do is if you can write clearly, you can think clearly and there’s so much of that is just organizing the way that you think about things.
Organizing it so it’s accessible to somebody else is what’s really important about that. I think there are a lot of people who have incredibly insightful or brilliant thoughts but just completely fail to externalize them and so writing does it in the most rational logical way that forces you into these modes and that’s what’s really challenging. We’re talking about just a business of writing and certainly it helped me a lot and certainly again, I’ve read a lot of e-mail. I don’t know if I do a lot of it more than that but my job and a big piece of my work, I would say the lion share of my work is to communicate an idea and a vision for an organization so that it can survive and thrive for the long term. That means good thorough communication with the board, it means good thorough communication with my staff, it means good thorough communication with our donors, our patrons and the writers that intersect with us. If you do that, well, you need to have a vision for an organization and all that but so many directors get caught up and not I think in being poor communicators that can really end your career abruptly. It’s a huge part of my life, being able to write clearly and communicate clearly.
Where did you say you went to college? Was that in the states or was that in Canada?
No, I went to Concordia University of Montreal, just the rival college of McGill. My dad used to refer to it as Accordion College. He wanted me to go to McGill pretty badly and I got in but I couldn’t begin just being slightly jerky teenager and knowing that my dad really wanted me to go to McGill, it was part of it and a part of it was it’s a great school but my dad had taken a job in a private high school in Canada so that we could attend the faculty brats because faculty brats went for free which meant that instead of going to the local high school in the small town of Canada which was not that great, we went to this really ritzy school and it was exhausting. The idea of going to another place filled with oak trees and football teams like it just made me feel nauseous. It sounds like I’m apologizing for Concordia, I’m not. Actually it was a really amazing experience but it’s one of those wrenching moments which looking back, of course, probably it wasn’t but in my little world it was. It was a highly modern. It’s like a new school of Canada, like a new school in New York City. No campus, all downtown, no dormitories.During my time, they voted on a sports facility whether to do it or not and it turned out it was voted down so there was never really any athletics to speak of so it was jazz, it was literature, it was French and English, truly bilingual way which McGill was an Anglophone enclave and had this sense of being a little bit lost in its own world where in Montreal, it’s highly engage in urban way and a lot of people from Montreal went there, all the people from outside of Montreal went there so it had this worldly quality that was really actually amazing and I did a minor in jazz. I did creative writing thing and did English literature as my primary major.
It’s really fun. Where did you go from there? What was your first job at a college?
It’s funny, well, I can’t answer that question without answering a preceding question which is in the summer times I used to go back to Port Hope and I wrote a bunch of plays that were really bad and discovered what I would do for the rest of my life without knowing that I discovered, that I was going to do it. Although, I think my mom knew but wasn’t going to tell me which I really want to put this plays on.
For fear you would rebel against that?
Who knows, right? I was a jerky teenager. I still apologize to her about that. I would go back and I want to put these plays on there as a theater in town that was dark during the summer that I got some help finagle access too. I got some actors together who were might do whatever. They were all like unemployed, bums and so I started a house painting company just so that I could employ these actors so I could keep them around so they could be in the plays that I wanted to put on. Then, in my first bit of fundraising for the play isn’t everything and learned to be without knowing in an arts administrator and thrived in the making and the doing of it and the creating of it rather than probably the making of the yard. I didn’t know that then but what’s really funny about that, I suppose or what was strange now that I look back on it is when college ended, I had no idea what to do. It was almost like it surprised me that it was over. It was like, “Oh, it’s April in my last year of college and I’ve written my last exam and, oh.” I randomly got a phone call. You wonder about the comic universe a little bit sometimes. An old professor who knew about this teaching assistant job in England in this really posh private school called Haileybury College. It was actually the school that if you didn’t get into Harrow you went to the Haileybury so it had this awful mix of a really wealthy school for not very smart kids. Now, they consume me, of course, but it’s a very strange play. I just said yes just because what else was I going to do? I had no other answer so I moved to England just done there. No experience, no anything and no money and no real clue of what I was doing. I was like, “Oh, it’s on the north of London, it will be fine somehow.”
How long did you do that for?
I was a terrible teacher. I feel badly now, looking back on all of that but I did it for a year, about a year but then lived in England for a total of four because as life, one thing leads to another. I did that. It was a lot of substitute teaching. It was ridiculous. Somebody would get sick and I had to do a week of this course or a week of that course or a month and at one point, a Physics teacher got cancer, it’s awful and so they just made me do it. I had an English degree. I have no aptitude for science, I would barely add and so I find myself teaching eight level physics. Kids are smart, they know that you have no idea what’s happening. I was like, “Read the textbook Under the Podium.” I was only about three pages ahead of them and they would ask a question, like a really difficult question and I’d say, “Well, that’s an excellent question for homework, Lizzie. We’ll all go home and do that one,” because I don’t really know. If somebody didn’t get into Oxford in Physics, it’s probably my fault from that year.
They’ll sue you.
They could sue me too. You take all that I have which is not that kind. I did that for a year. It was terrible. I met a lot of great people but I wasn’t a very good teacher and it was a difficult situation but then things led to other things. It was great because it ended up creating the stepping stone into Europe, this … that gave me … bunch of years there which was really wonderful.
Tell me about that. It seems like you’ve traveled a lot. Did you have favorite places?
I love England. I love living there. I don’t know if you could see me on podcast but I’m a tall redhead white person. Maybe it’s a little bit like, “I’m home.” I don’t know, like deep in the genetics. I have no relationship to England, whatsoever but felt very comfortable there. I think being Canadian in England was a huge advantage because you could move between social classes really easily. In America, when they want to know your class, they ask you what college you went to. In England, when they want to know what class you are, they just get you to speak a little bit and figure out what your accent is.
Sure.
If you can stomp them twice. I went to this little tiny urban college in Montreal. Well, I didn’t help anybody and then your accent is not really American nor is it British, that means they have to deal with you as a real person. They can’t just put you in ….
Then, like at least he’s tall. It must be okay.
He seems harmless. Let him stay a little longer. That meant that I could do other things so I love living in London. I love the culture. I went to the theater so much. It’s subsidized there so that you could get these incredibly low cost tickets and see world class theater. You could do two a night in some cases.
The museums are basically free.
The museums are all open and free. For a while, I was working for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs for the Cultural Affairs office which is on Trafalgar Square. There’s a four or five consulates of what remains of the Commonwealth. I’m pointing, like it’s there. The art museum, I think it’s the National Gallery is right on Trafalgar Square so we’d go and have lunch there. Why not?
It’s crazy.
It’s some different culture. I just think that the British sense of humor and the irony and the use of language, again, we’re talking about the theater in England literature in England really is the theater in many ways and poetry. It wasn’t till much later, in my opinion, they produce many great novelists and this incredible world tradition, poetry was out loud. Theater is obviously out loud and so that just is part of that culture which is tremendously exciting. Dinner conversation with really smart people is wild. It’s a sport. I felt like people didn’t understand Christopher Hitchens as an American, probably because he treated conversation as a verbal duels in showing off for the sport of it and people took them so personally. I think there was a real cultural thing and maybe he knew, maybe he didn’t know. I don’t know but he was in it for the joust and for the fun of it which I think is a lot of where English conversation of the high level is at like Americans feel like going to hurt because we’re so sincere at the people that we feel that somehow we’re being attacked but I think that’s not the case in a lot of the time.

National Gallery Trafalgar Square

National Gallery, London and Trafalgar Square
Photo credit: Mary Ann Fiebert


After that, you were an editor for a while, is that correct? Maybe I’m jumping ahead a little bit here.
At a certain point, I’ve been in a whole bunch of crazy jobs in England. I played music professionally for a little while. Also, I have no talent as a musician. I could sound like other people in a reasonable passion.
What did you play?
I’m a saxophone player and worked for the Canadian Department of the Foreign Affairs and was a professional house sitter for a while. Really just reading, writing, hanging out, very undirected time which was really lovely in some way. I see all of these art interns, we did an amazing cover of interns who come here for literary arts. They’re so directed and so focused and it gets awesome like I had no clue but I also think there’s something a little bit lost in that. Ultimately I ran out of visa options in England. There’s only so long you can be a tall white guy and be a bum before they’re just like ”Go home buddy.” There are 60 million people on an island the size of Rhode Island.” It’s over. We don’t want anybody unless you’re being threatened in some serious way. My mom is a New Yorker who married a Canadian and went to Canada so I always had this double passport. I have two passports, dual citizenship. I moved to New York, a little bit of wing in a prayer. I’m done with my master’s degree while I was in England. I had some connections through professors to editors that for publishing them, for example, or whatever and began to look for a job. When I finally did get a job, it was amazing to me because I was 29 then and I was like the assistant. I was as low as you could be without being in the mail room. I spent a lot of time in the mail room anyways there were these assistants were coming out of the writer clip, publishing college where the Columbia Publishing School at 20 and by the time they’re 29 they were senior editors and they’ve been already doing it for nine years. I think that’s so wonderful. I was like the old man assistant on the floor. I think that I was a little slightly creepy guy like “Who is this old guy?” “He’s the assistant.” Someone said, “It’s so weird.” In the other hand, they had never done anything else in their entire life except go to school and then work for a large corporation. I think a lot of people are forced into that because of school and I don’t fault them for that for a second. I had the incredible benefit of leaving both my degrees with zero debt and that is just pure accident of birth and luck. You in Canada, it’s federally subsidized. You make a little bit of money in the summer time, work harder in the school year and you could finish easily with no debts. I had this three or four years in England where in Europe where I travelled, I got all over the place. I didn’t think about a career. I have no idea what I was doing. I have no clue what I was supposed to be doing and at some point, I guessed it dawned on me, I guess I should go get like a real job. How long can this go on for kind of thing and that’s when I moved to New York and it was a really rich, really wonderful experience.
You ended up at HarperCollins right?
Yeah. Rupert Murdock’s empire.
I’m sure you didn’t personally work for Rupert Murdock.
No but we all do kind of, don’t we? No. HarperCollins is not known for literature necessarily except there is a packet of the hard cover division that is through ultra-literary, actually. I worked for a woman named Terry Karetn who is a brilliant editor, extremely hard working, really dedicated to authors onto the book that she publishes. Again, so much seems lucky now, one of the things that I had such an appreciation for in New York and in the United States. I consider myself a convert American. I grew up Canadian and as a Canadian, you’re supposed to have a chip on your shoulder with United States which I dutifully have and then have become the worst kind of American which is a passionate advocate and a convert. Though, capable of self-criticism but I do have a lot of affection for this country now and despite all these crazy flaws and problematic elements to it and one of the things that I think we underestimate sometimes here which is not true in Britain and not true in Canada is that I had three names and e-mail addresses on a piece paper that I had scavenged in England. I’m going to New York, does anybody know anybody and people said, “Oh, I know so and so editor.” The advice that I got was actually from Andrew Motion who is a poet lord of England at the time who is at the University of East Anglia where I did my master’s degree. He said, “Just e-mail them and say can I have 15 minutes of your time.” Just a really three sentence e-mails and I just took that advice extremely literally because I had no clue what I was doing so I got to see everybody. His other piece of advice was don’t ever leave one of those informational interviews without three more names. Just be talking about it. I e-mail somebody. They said, “Sure. You can come for 15 minutes.” They’re like answering e-mail the entire time when you’re sitting at your office.
Checking their phone, yeah.
Not even hiding it. They’re just typing and they’re sitting in their desk but you meet all their assistants and the people who work there and you end up waiting a lot so you’re in the hall, if you’re a little outgoing. At the end of it, you’d say, “Well, could you suggest anybody else I could go see?” I’m just trying to learn. I want to break it to publishing. I’m ready to be an assistant. I’m ready to do all the dog work that you can throw at me and if you’d go in with that attitude, man, I got to see Sunny Meda. It was changing for a gala right the entire time. It’s like, “Yeah, kid, whatever.” He wrote down on the back, I’ll never forget, in the back of some envelop three more names. If you knew the random house e-mail formula which wasn’t hard to figure out, you could just find those people and say Sunny Meda sent me a note. It’s like, “Holy shit, Sunny Meda sent you. I’ll see that.”
Nice.
That openness and that willingness to … Who was I? I was a nobody. I didn’t even live in the country. I have no credentials. I had a couple of nice degrees but I don’t know if that matters that much. I really have a huge appreciation for that and that experience was not replicated ever in Canada or in Britain. It was a much more closed down. It was much more like I’m going to keep the pride on myself in the cultural world. I try to emulate that here a lot. If anybody e-mails me, even the most ten US connection you try to make 15 or 20 minutes and really try to be open. I don’t know. I think that folks like Sunny Media whoever recognize that there’s a value in being really poorest that anybody, any stupid young kid who didn’t know his action on the ground could come and see me and is it really that much work to spend 15 minutes with them?
Especially if you’re in the middle of getting dressed. It’s definitely what goes around comes around. I think that a lot of people, I think successful people recognize that to a large extent.
Oh, yeah. The smartest most successful people always do it. It’s like being a plane waiting for a runway. You’re circling all this editors and leaving your resume on their desk and talking to them and sooner or later somebody phones you back. It seems miraculous at the time because no one is calling you and Terry had a job that just come loose, an assistant who’d left and then I went interviewed and went to the process and by goddamn I got the job. I was so excited.
How long were you doing that for?
I was there for four years, I guess. I worked for Terry the whole time. As an assistant, you do everything. You could be editing, which you’re also deal on development means production, all that stuff, sales, marketing, whatever. In between, one of the jobs of an assistant, a really good assistant and it’s hard to be a good assistant. I think it’s not a pee on job is to try to help, make sure that your boss has the maximum creative time and a minimal administrative time. Once you figure that formula out and get really good at it, you’d become highly valuable. I got good at running offense for her because I think a big company like all bureaucracies. Bureaucracies invent bureaucracies, this is why they exist. Big publishing companies are no different and if you left the coral reef grow, all you’ll do is just fill up paperwork to get things done. I can still tell you the budget code number from HarperCollins, 2299620-62. It was Terry Karten’s budget code, if you want to charge anything over at HarperCollins to her account. If you could manage that and really deal with it and I don’t mean just paperwork, and also people so where there’s a marketing department, sales department, everybody wants something from editors. If you could take even a small chunk of that, if you could take a big chunk away, you’re really doing something valuable for somebody who’s very creative and very talented.
Was that the last thing you were doing before this?
No, I left HarperCollins in 2004 and went to PEN American Center which is a non-profit human rights organization for writers. It’s one of the oldest human rights organizations in the world, actually.
What did you do at Pen?
Well, I did something weird. I scaled the mountain a little bit at HarperCollins and become an associate editor. I had my own small list as well as worked on Terry’s books which is how you make the leap from assistant to full-editor is that you begin to cultivate your own list and if your own list gets big enough or gets valuable enough, if you got a big best seller then you get bumped over the line. I never got bumped over the line but also I wanted to do something else for a variety of reasons. Actually, kind of hit the reset button and became an assistant again at PEN and took a big pay cut. A lot of that early careers like a story of, I don’t know. Failure is too strong but it’s like a striving to figure out what am I doing. I was an okay editor but I wasn’t a great editor. I don’t think I would have done any writers in a really great surface. I would have been serviceable, I would have been fine but it was clear to me that I wasn’t totally natural. I also don’t read fast enough to be an editor. Just to get through the piles of submission, you have to be a very quick reader and be able to absorb huge amounts of information, process them and have an opinion about them extremely quickly, sometimes in days. We were reading three and four novels a week and you had to be able to extraneously advocate for something to a project you wanted to buy it at the editorial level, often, very quickly because there would be five of those around the city who were also buying for that same manuscript. Really great manuscripts are really rare so when they get a hot manuscript, you got to move really quick. I couldn’t do that. I don’t know I just found that smart. I don’t process information that way. I relate to literature in that way. There was a wonderful interview in PW from a [inaudible 00:26:47] editor whose name escapes me but I’ll give it to you at the end. She talks a lot about the way an editor reads and I don’t think I ever read that way which is this way of coming to it with such love and intensity.
Not like it’s just speed reading but an actual …
No. This is going to sound like bullshit but it’s a way of being a reader. It’s an attitude. It’s an approach to art. English literature and the study of literature and its historic context, literature is a tradition. It has an arc to it. Movements are related where there are counter movements or their extensions of a previous movement, it doesn’t matter. It’s still all a tradition. Jazz is a tradition, rock and roll really isn’t much of a tradition. It’s sort of a tradition but it mainly tends to reinvent itself every ten or 15 years whereas literature has this large extension. Writers talk a lot about the ideas and you go back and read everything that’s ever been written. You learn to emulate it and then you begin to develop your own style. These are how a lot of writers talk about their work and how they learned to be great writers. That’s not the way you study literature. My training and probably the way I always naturally approached, it was a much more analytic way of looking at writing which to look at it as an object rather than as a tradition. I think that editors read more like as though they were writers in disguise and they read in a very different way.
Do you feel like there were over like manuscripts that came across your desk that you didn’t see the value of that were actually really good?
My famous, famous in my mind, my famous but my wife reminds me this all the time and she laughs her ass off is that the Life of Pi was submitted to all these publishers across the city on a very short turnaround.
Part of your job is just to screen into side where it gets pushed to your boss’s desk.
Right. I might know about slash pile. We didn’t even touch the slash pile in time but submissions from world famous agents who were still trying to figure out because it was literally just more than any human being could ever possibly read. I read the part of the Life of Pi and was like, this is terrible. There’s no way. I’m lucky I didn’t get my ass fired. It’s on the best seller for like what? Four years. It is back on the …. Some of these books are licenses to print money.
That was your version of rejecting The Beatles?
Yeah, exactly, my own little tiny world. I’m sure there were others. Publishing is about taste like anything else and it’s okay not to like a great work of literature and really brave editors can recognize a great manuscript and not buy it because they’re cultivating a brand as an editor, sort of, and they’re cultivating a sense of stable of authors that makes logical sense in some way to them. I remember when Jonathan Safran’s first novel, Everything is Illuminated was being passed around New York. It’s the talk of the town for sure. He’s a very specific taste. It’s in chronic voice. It’s a very specific way of writing and there were lots of editors who knew it was going to be great but just didn’t get into the auction. Anyway, I’ll find this thing about this PW interview which is a … editor and she’s brilliant because she really is able to talk about what it means to be a really amazing reader as an editor. I did not have that. It just didn’t make sense to carry on in publishing.

I read the part of the Life of Pi and was like, this is terrible. There’s no way. I’m lucky I didn’t get my ass fired… Publishing is about taste like anything else and it’s okay not to like a great work of literature and really brave editors can recognize a great manuscript and not buy it because they’re cultivating a brand as an editor… they’re cultivating a sense of stable authors that makes logical sense in some way to them.

I guess I caused you to have a digression there. We were talking about being at PEN. Tell me a little more about that.
Total eureka for me career wise. After all, it’s like music or writing or editing like what was I going to do with this interest in literature because I knew I didn’t want to be a professor. I just wanted to do something else and at the time single living in New York like, whatever, I can quit jobs which you can’t do later in life often. It’s just another form of another permutation, another experiment in my professional life. I was the assistant to the membership in literary awards guy, Peter Meyer. Where is he now? I don’t know, at PEN and just loved it and it was a really spectacular moment in the organization’s history so PEN is one of the oldest human rights organizations in the world. It’s founded, I think it was 1904. No, excuse me, it’s founded 1924. I have to go back and look but it was originally fostered around. The close of the first world war, a bunch of writers got together and said, “Well, our contribution to making sure this never happens again is to create an international fellowship so that cultural communication is possible so that it works and translation get moved around the globe and that will foster cultural understanding that may prevent or contribute to preventing greater conflicts.”
Totally worked.
Got that taken care of. I’m moving on the next round but admirable and worth pursuing even in the face of a lot of the utility that we all feel and then it evolved in change over time. It’s like 140 offices around the world or something and the PEN American Center in New York is the oldest and biggest of them. It has professional human rights people and it was a tremendously invigorating place the time. It was a way to interact with world famous authors. The board is who’s who of American literature. For me, when you’re an editor there’s so much of an author’s career rests in your relationship with them. You’re the one writing the contracts and that’s what their pay is. Even though the agents really supposed to deal with all the money stuff there is this employment element to being an editor where you are paying writers for their work. That changes your relationship. When you got to PEN it was just what people cared about. Rusty was the president of the PEN board at the time and there was nothing in it for him which is something he was really passionate about and he’s just one famous example of thousands of writers of all statures who were engaged and the same we could be set of the most of the staff were really passionate about what we’re trying to do. That to me was like, “Oh, this great.” I didn’t even know places like PEN really existed until I got to New York. I didn’t really understand that there’s this whole other culture of non-profits that are around literature.
What was your job title?
In the end I was director of a totally made up title. I was a director of membership and operations which really meant recruiting the best writers around the world to be members and to be advocates. They were the people who could create publicity for you that would bring an issue to the news to the writer to a congressman’s attention or whatever or just a general public setting. Underneath that title was something much more exciting which was in 2004, Rusty was furious with the patriot act and what it was doing in terms of closing down American intellectual activity. Especially as it related to what was later coined ideologically exclusion. I’m not a lawyer so I’m going to screw this up a little bit but it’s essentially the federal government’s decision who to give visas to and who not to give visas to. There’s no voting on this. There’s no appeal because the people being given visas have no standing. They have no legal standing in the country and therefore there’s no recourse for them. They’re foreigners or aliens. What was happening in beginning before 2004 but under the patriot act was this idea that you could exclude anybody from the country you wanted to who is coming here legitimately and it could have ran counter to everything that PEN and its original iteration was trying to foster with. This international exchange because it was true in 2004 is it wasn’t 1924 which was that it’s possible that America got itself into a number of cul-de-sacs geo politically party because it had no understanding culturally of the places it was engaging with. This is highly speculative but it did get born out later like the way that we behaved both in the military and civilian administrations in Iraq, in Afghanistan. It was clear with the population that at the beginning, at least, had no clue what we’re doing. All literatures born this out whether it would be George Packer or what 90’s guys. That was really clear to [Rusty 00:36:25]. Probably it was clear to anybody. It was most clear to him right away, I think. It’s probably safe to say at least in the spirit that I was working in and maybe that’s because of his own international background. There were number of cases where there’s one really famous one that a lot of people were involved and PEN was also involved with Tariq Ramadan who is a moderate Muslim scholar who’s invited by Duke University to be the chair of the Middle Eastern Scholars Department and was denied of visa by the state. I think it’s a State Department that issues visas, because he’d given $25 to a refugee camp in Ramallah or somewhere on the west bank. Nobody thought that that was a terrorist organization but because they get classified that way, they did and denied his visa so we engage with the cell units where they place the most big lawsuit around him getting him visa and it’s a few tile from a legal perspective because he has no standing. You cannot sue on his behalf because he has no rights. He’s not an American citizen. The law does not apply to him even. We did end up trying to sue in this very convoluted way on behalf of the American people on their first demand rights to here to Tariq Ramadan which is a totalred herring. There was no way he would survive.
He’s demanding for press?
Totally for publicity. The real reason why is that Bush administration or whoever was making decisions took a look, had their marching orders, took a look at Tariq Ramadan. He speaks five languages. He’s a very beautiful man, highly articulate who wants to be the interpreter for the east and the west in a totally liberal and wants to foster an international fellowship which ran counter to a lot of the narrative around some of our activities abroad and they were like, “Shit, this guy is going to end up on CNN in about ten minutes if we let him.” It’s going to be really bad for us, let’s not give him a visa. Duke is hardly a Podunk school in nowhere. That’s what made it so laughable. It wasn’t like he was just trying to slip into the country on the sly, one of the most eminent universities in the country, one of the chair …
Invited him.
Yeah. We’re very clear about it now. I think it was an involving question and part of what involved out of that conversation and I was not involved with this at the early stage was this idea that PEN was going to have international literary festival and it wasn’t just going to be one moderate Muslim scholar, we’re going to invite hundreds of them and we’re going to force the country to continually deny all these visas and that was I think the germ of the idea. In the end what end up happening was PEN World Voice was created which was one of the largest international literary festivals in the world. It’s in New York City. It’s 80 events over six days. The writers are from all over the planet and it goes back to the original founding notion of PEN which was this idea of international literary fellowship and the idea that Americans know, we only read three percent of our works, three percent of all literature in the United States is translation whereas in a country like England, it’s about 40%. It’s slightly speculative therefore statement. Well, maybe we don’t know about the world and we’re on this cul-de-sacs because we’re not reading the literature of these people so it’s not enough to think that CBC, I think my Canadian is not coming out, CBC, I just said it. CBS or NBS is going to somehow a strict reportage of fact about Afghanistan doesn’t tell you very much about what’s actually going on there. Let’s invite all these international writers here and hear what they have to say about what’s going on and we’re going to record it and we’re going to podcast it. PEN was, really early days, podcasting intensely because they can’t stop the signal. When Tariq Ramadan’s visa was finally denied and the whole lawsuit blew up and there’s just no way, we just beamed the man via satellite to a town hall and then invited Bush Administration officials to come and see it which is slightly juvenile but really fun.

PEN World Voices Festival and Tariq Ramadan's Video Statement

PEN World Voices Festival and Tariq Ramadan’s Video Statement


Just to make a point. Sure.
I just love working on the festival in the early iterations of it. Later I became less involved because I became professionalized but new programs with non-profit tend to be ran by the existing staff rather than by new staff. During the festival, we practically slept at the office. We do four, five literary events in a single day, come back with all the tapes and those that were debts, come back with that tapes and upload them. We took forever in those days again on the internet to podcast and by the time it was all done, it was 4:00 in the morning. It always fails. Our equipment sucked. Do you know what I mean? Like, “Oh, it didn’t upload.” Start the whole goddamn thing again. It’s a tremendous sense of camaraderie among the staff so my best friends are from those days. There was a sense of purpose and a sense that I think I certainly felt in my adopted country like helpless in the face of the things that I agree with. It really gives you a sense of an outlet like here is something you could do however small and whatever slice it was. To me, it seemed like a positive push to some pretty fundamental values of the country. I was pretty good at it, for once, finally. I was actually pretty good at the administrating part of this. I was pretty good at making the trains run on time. For a bunch of writers is like hurting cats. These guys are hopeless, right?
Sure.
They just wonder off into the hills if you let them. I had a tremendous affection for them and I still do for writers and so I think they probably sense that and here’s a guy getting the trains run in time and he likes us, right?
Right.
Let’s keep him around a little bit longer.
What made you start looking for and eventually discover an opportunity at literary arts or an opening?
At first, pedestrian reasons that lead to something larger, I suppose. I was running the department at PEN which I loved and I had a couple of people working for me. My boss was like, “I don’t have a place for you to go inside this organization beyond this. I’m in my mid 60’s, you’re in your low 30’s.” I was 35 or 36. “There’s a big gap between my age and yours. Do you notice that?” Because New York is a world capital, it is a place with home offices which means that the people who get to run things in New York are tremendously talented and experienced and are tremendously globally connected. It’s very difficult to rise straight through the ranks in New York City unless you go out and do other things and have other experiences. I think it’s a mistake in a career to try this, at the early stages of it, to try to stay to it in a single place if you’re really an ambitious person about your career. I think there are lots of reasons to stay rooted for other reasons that are great but it certainly wasn’t going to be my path, probably. Then, my wife and I were thinking, wow, she was starting to get tired of New York and at the time, she was pregnant. It sounds like an accident, doesn’t it? I struggle that because we were pregnant sounds so icky and weird. Anyway, my son was going to be arriving soon and there was probably no way that we were going to legitimately support a family or I was going to support a family in New York City. What stuck in my head was a little bit is this thing about is this is a city home offices and in some ways you start to idle because you don’t get to run something because you’re not given enough responsibility to fail and to learn and you could start to feel that happening at PEN a little bit. I started to feel it. I was like, “Okay. I know what this is and there’s nothing else here for me,” at least. There were things for other people. You in a crossroads and then we decided. My wife and I sat down and picked out five or six cities that we thought would be a great place to live and then I began to look at what those cities had to offer from a literary perspective. Now, having a much clear idea about what arts administration was, understanding there was this whole eco system with non-profits that they were not academic and they weren’t publishing for a profit. There’s this really interesting mix and it’s also what I love about them is that they can be very sincere and very serious about literature but still really be sensitive to what’s happening in your community. Academic could sometimes get a little inoculated. There is a value to that too, for sure. I’m quite interested in Miami. I know Mitch Kaplan a little bit there who runs Books and Books which is a chain of bookstores. That in some ways broke around for Florida in terms of developing a literary culture. You open these books up. First, you’re selling books at Miami Beach like I have a rolling suitcase. Later, open these beautiful bookstores and has all ecstatic I was like, “I’m going to have beautiful bookstore,” like amazing restaurants and we’re attract touring authors. Suddenly, it’s not just like a bookstore, it’s this place where all these new ideas are trying to flow through the system and I think the Miami book fair is tremendous institution. I think Miami doesn’t get enough credit by a long shot in terms of international flavors. Your taxi cab driver might speak Spanish or Portuguese or French or English and maybe from anyone of those five places around the Caribbean or postcolonial nations. I think it’s incredible cultural mix there. Portland was on that list along with Boston and a few other places. Then, I became thinking about what the opportunities were going to be. Then, within a few months, this job came across my desk so we just begin to apply.
Is there truth to the rumor that you had never been to Portland? I’ve read about it.
I’ve read about it, it seemed cool and I figured, well, if I get far enough along in the process, they’re going to have to invite me out, right?
Yeah, just to make sure a little litmus test.
There was more than just one trip for me at the time but I’ve never been to Portland. The idea of living in the West Coast, in Portland was really interesting. There was a lot of writing to do. We talked about writing earlier. Long before I ever talked to anybody, there’s a lot of writing to do before in the application, not just this regular application stuff but they want to really see me on the page and hear about some ideas I might have and then there’s a phone interview but then I came out and I remember it was 2008 in December. My son was born in November of that same year and snowstorms here are wild. I’m from Canada so it seemed a little silly. I spent days getting here because you could never fly in and you get here and you’ll be like, “Are you kidding me?” There’s half an inch of snow.
I remember the snowstorm you’re talking about. I grew up in Minnesota where there’s ample ways to deal with snow. It’s a soft problem but out here it’s like, “Oh, how do we get this off the road?” There’s nothing.
… yet. I’ve panicked. I remember, I don’t know. This sounds goofy but I do recall, it was lightly snowing, it’s one of the MAXX train is coming up. I guess it was fifth, I don’t remember what street that is because I was walking on the standard because that’s where my interviews were. I could vaguely see the mountains. This is a lot like my wife’s home town which is Friedberg in Germany. I thought this would be good for us. I don’t know. It’s just intuition, a little bit. You just think, “Well, this seems like a great organization.” It seemed that way on the surface. You don’t know much when you’re in these interviews. It wasn’t till the last interview that I even saw the books as it were, the financials to really know which we’re getting …
You’re getting into.
Well, it’s a big deal because if you’re not really careful, you can walk into a job to settle you up for failure and you’ve moved your family.
Was it this location or was this still in the Wieden Kennedy Building?
Yeah, that’s right. We’re based in Wieden Kennedy Building until 2011. Well, this is new for us. This space is new for us.
You’re still here for almost five years later?
I guess four years this March, this past March so five years in the March …. I know because I know the age of my son.
Exactly, yeah.
He’ll be five in November which he reminds me about a lot. Well, I feel extraordinarily privilege to have this job. I feel incredibly lucky to have it. It’s an incredible organization and I don’t know what to say. It’s just so obvious. It’s such a fun four years.
That’s great to hear.
Not very good. It’s not very articulate, I realize.
I was to ask people just because I like to bring this back to Portland. Do you have a favorite Portland restaurant or thing that you just really love going out to do at night here, anything like that? I know that changed when you have a kid.
Yeah.
I’m sure you at least can get out to dinner sometimes.
I do get a dinner. For a little while I did. We did something really crazy. I realize all my answers are secured as I’m really sorry. We did something really crazy. We moved here with very little and a four-month-old with no family in the middle of an economic crisis. Literary has done just fine. This is an easily 70-hour a week, 60-hour a week, 80-hour a week, sometimes, job. I take being a dad really seriously. That really just swallows your hope right there because we don’t have a lot of support family-wise. We have a great family but they’re not here. For a while I felt like I didn’t know anything. It’ll be like, “How’s Portland?” I’m like, “I have no idea. I don’t have a clue.”
The four blocks I see you going to work, that’s great.
I know what I need to know. The people I didn’t know. I like to eat at Bluehour a lot. I like to eat at Clyde Common a lot for lunch. It’s a great place. I like to eat at The Heathman. I do that a fair amount therapy of art supporter. I like the back room at Higgins because it’s open late.
Yes, I know that room, yeah.
You can get a burger at 11:00 at night which is very difficult it Portland. It’s hard to adjust to as a New Yorker. I work at night a lot. That’s part of my gig and I remember the first couple of months I would … We’d have some amazing speaker at the… We have a full day of activities for them and I’d finally said goodnight at 11:30 and then you literally couldn’t eat except at a 7-Eleven. In the South Park Backroom which is a new discovery for me, a little bit because it’s also open late and serves food late. I suppose a lot of the places are downtown. I’m not very cool or very hip but that’s because so much of my life is about being with my family or being at work. My work life is very public which I relish and like but that makes me all more private when I’m with my family. It’s really about my kid and biking with him and hanging out with him and going camping with him or whatever. On the east side, we’re at The Andaluca actually at Fairmont which is on Fremont, it was an Italian place which is really good. It’s an unusual mix of being really good and also family friendly so we’ll take that. Those are the restaurants I like.
I’m going to check that one up there.
It’s wonderful, like home cooking.
Great. Well, thank you so much, Andrew, for taking your time today and I really enjoyed hearing your story.
Thanks a lot for having me. It’s been a lot of fun.
Cool. That was great.