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Foundation + Innovation

Interview with Chad Harbach of n+1

A quick glance at the first bookshelf in n+1's office yields Goncharov's novel Oblomov; esoteric, humorous, and askew from the canonical norm, this sighting tells me I'm at the right office better than a sign on the door. A biannual journal of cultural criticism, fiction, and literary trends, n+1 has in the five years since its inception become a literary golden boy on the same sparing level as the staid and long running journals - picture The New Yorker's famous cartoon of Eustace Tilley looking through his monocle pensively at n+1 instead of a butterfly. Situated in a huge building in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, n+1's office is a small common space with a clean look and past issues neatly lining the walls, a quiet sanctuary amid offices that I hazard are teaming with architects, designers, and Wilhelm Reich-like psychiatrists. I'm met by two of n+1's employees, one is Chad Harbach, Executive Editor, who offers me a beer and patiently talks with me for over an hour about the magazine he helped found. Chad Harbach is an editor of n+1. His first novel, The Art of Fielding, (Little, Brown) will be out in 2011.

By Justin McNeil

Can you comment about the meaning of the name n+1?

Chad Harbach: Back as far as 1998, Keith Gessen and I would talk on the phone about how we wanted to start this magazine, at the time still a vague dream that we worried was being born in a crowded field. During one of these talks I suggested n+1, meaning that no matter how many of these magazines are in existence there's always room for one that will attempt something different. One of the definitions of a vital magazine is publishing good writing that doesn't fit into known channels, and we get to create a space for those pieces.

Though you have a core group of writers and editors who lay the foundation of n+1, can you share a success story of an outsider who has caught your eye and published with you?

Yes, absolutely. For every issue there are a few great writers who pitch us blind. In our new issue a writer named Emily has a piece about the cinema of Mozambique. When there was a Marxist revolution there in the 1970s they decided that the country would start a national film industry from scratch for culture building purposes. It's something very rare that existed for a short time and Emily who was familiar with the area pitched it out of the blue. It turned out great.

n+1 is gifted with writers who have found success outside the magazine, is this a business model like, say, Wu-Tang Clan's ability to promote their collective by their individual members success?

Yes, we’re are exactly like Wu-Tang (smiling). Ben and Keith's novels (Indecision: A novel, by Benjamin Kunkel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, by Keith Gessen) have helped the magazine because that's where the publicity comes from. I remember the piece in The NYT Sunday Magazine by A.O. Scott, which was a great, but publicity reaches a saturation point, and even though our following issue was even a bigger improvement over the one mentioned in The Sunday Magazine there was little publicity about it. That's why the writer's and editor's other projects are so important. Also, while being courted by other publications, the synergy our writers create here is always the most special.

Does n+1 try to have a no dead authors rule?

Yes. One which we just broke in our last issue, and ended up apologizing for. I'm speaking of issue #7's Roberto Bolaño poem and the short play by Thomas Bernhard. There were reasons for both cases: Bolaño, because it went with Benjamin Kunkel's essay about him, and the Thomas Bernhard play because it was the first time it had been translated. But the rule still stands, reappraisal of past authors does not interest us as much as what's happening today or tomorrow.

Was it a tough decision for n+1 to chose to publish longer critical reviews of darker subject matter, I'm thinking of the review of the drug Adderall or the online essay by Mark Greif about Fugazi concerning violence coupled with music?

Another classic example is Mark Greif's piece about reality television in issue #3. This is not a conscious choice so much as a look at how these phenomena affect our culture today; it's not us looking for darker subject matter, just what's already there. As writer's who love literature, cultural criticism, and philosophy, we try and use that background as a lens to view the contemporary world and all its products.

I recently read a great short story called "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," by Delmore Schwartz, and afterward discovered that it was originally published in the very first issue of The Partisan Review way back in 1937. Have there been any pieces in yet in n+1 that you would consider timeless?

Yes. Both Phillip Connors' piece about working on Wall St., "Lost Worlds," and Wesley Yang's piece about Virginia Tech "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho." Oh, Elif Batuman is a good example, look at her piece "Babel in California"...

Elif Batuman, is a great example of n+1's ability to mix high literary culture with personal experience. I was so taken by her piece “Summer in Samarkand,” that I checked her website looking for Part 2, she's like a new school version of Susan Sontag by the way she surrounds her website with the culture of writing.

Elif's second part of "Summer in Samarkand" will be published in the new issue and it's even better than the first half. To get back to “Babel in California,” not only is it a 20,000 word opus, but if I'm not mistaken it was one of the early pieces Elif had published and she's since gone on to write for many publications, but that's close to the "Delmore Schwartz moment" you mentioned before, and we're pleased it happened within the pages of n+1.

Justin McNeil is a writer who lives in the Boston area.