Uncategorized | April 01, 2004

I recently had my first, serious set of interviews in the publishing business. For those of you who haven’t tried it, getting ready for interviews is a bummer. To get ready for my interviews, I thought up questions and came up with possible answers.

It seems that certain questions often go hand in hand. When I meet new people, they often ask, “What is your major?” and I tell them I’m an English major and wait politely as though I have no idea what their next question will be. More often than not the next question inquires about my favorite author. It’s a logical step that everybody seems to take. So rarely does somebody ask about my major and then say, “Cool” and walk off. Observing this pattern, I have come up with a standard response: Tobias Wolff for short stories and William Faulkner for novels. This answer seems to satisfy most people. As it happens, human resources people at large publishing companies aren’t “most people.” It’s their job to ask questions, and they do it with gusto.

At my first interview the woman with whom I met asked me about my favorite books. I assumed she was asking to make sure I wasn’t reading choose your own adventure books and X-Men comics (make no mistake, the X-Men rule), so I brought the Wolff/Faulkner response out of the barn. As it happens, she didn’t really care about that part of the question. She really wanted to know why I chose them.

Secretly sweating beneath my very corporate power suit, I struggled to come up with the answer she wanted. I had an answer: I love the authors because their books move me, because they’re beautiful, because reading them sucks me into a different world I would normally never see.

So much of giving a great answer is figuring out why the question is being asked in the first place. What does she want to know? I was about to say something about the beautiful prose when it hit me: she wants to know what I want to contribute to the literary landscape should I ever work my way up to a position in which I could choose what books go out into the world. She wanted to know what I thought made the books so great. I told her the unadulterated truth: books are important because the closer a person gets to another person’s life, the better their perspective is. Better perspective cultivates the ability to feel something close to empathy and empathy allows people to be something other than selfish. If Faulkner brings a privileged reader so close to poverty that the reader can nearly feel it, then the reader will view poverty as real and tangible and a problem that needs solving. The creation of perspective is what Faulkner and Wolff do so well and therein is the value of their work.

Having said my piece, I watched for the interviewer’s reaction. She knitted her brows and nodded, agreeing that what I said about the value of literature was very true. Sensing her reluctance, I quickly added, “Of course, the escapist value is also substantial in both authors’ books. I mean, people love getting sucked in, which is why commercial fiction is so great.” The interviewer smiled and my literary mind finally empathized with a commercial world.