Q&A: The New Editor of the Paris Review

Dana Isokawa
From the November/December 2018 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

What does a good relationship between a writer and an editor look like to you? 
I approach relationships with my writers with a lot of enthusiasm and curiosity. I’m a pretty—I’m not going to say tough—but I’m a pretty engaged editor, and I do a lot of edits. I think the only way for those to go over well is if you deliver them with kindness. And usually that works—it doesn’t always work—but usually that works. I also bring that sort of relationship on the page to conversations and relationships [in person]. And even if I don’t connect with a writer on a particular piece, I try to support the work and the person making the work. I spend a lot of time saying, “No, but please keep in touch,” and, “No, I’m not going to publish this, but I care about your work, and I’m excited about it, so let me keep reading it.”

What do you think is the most helpful thing you can give a writer?
The platform of the magazine is huge, and I know that, and I’m so excited about that. We just lost Philip Roth, and we published him at twenty-five, which really made his career or started it. So I’ll acknowledge that. But on a personal level, I really love taking a story that is amazing and that I love and spending some time with it and making it just a smidge better. And showing the writer ways they can grow and improve. I was recently at the Sewanee conference, and a writer I’d published five or six years ago said, “You know, the way you line-edited made me think about the way I write, and I’ve written differently ever since that interaction.” And that melted this editor’s heart. But giving people a new platform or encouraging people to keep going even if they’re not quite there—that’s an easy grab for me, to just be honest and enthusiastic about people’s work. And I don’t know that the writing community always has that generosity.

How would you describe your editing style? It sounds like you’re a really close line-editor.
I am. If I see a really big structural issue I’ll generally ask about it and send more general notes. I always want to test the water if I want to do an overhaul—someone might feel that their story is perfect the way it is, and that’s fine—but if they’re up for it, I’ll send notes broadly. I don’t have time to do that with every story, of course, so I have to be kind of judicious about developmental edits. Usually it’s just one story an issue, or if I see two or three things that [have] developmental issues, I might space them out across a few issues. And then when a story feels close, that’s when I get in there and really think about each line and the pacing of every scene. I learned how to edit from Jessica Faust, a poet and a poetry editor. She was my mentor when I was in graduate school, and we then became colleagues. When you’re editing poetry you’re really considering every piece of punctuation, so I brought that over to editing fiction and interviews and everything else. It’s tedious, but I love it. 

It’s hard to think about the Paris Review and not think about George Plimpton. Is there anything from his vision or editing style that you hope to adopt or carry on?
He looms so large. This is Sarah Dudley Plimpton’s rug [points to rug beneath her desk]. This was at the Plimpton home. I feel like I have a strong feeling of his work, but I’m still really learning the details of his legacy. One of my favorite things about this past Spring, and after my appointment, was hearing all the Plimpton stories from all the writers who had encountered him and whose careers he’d helped. That was so much fun to get these stories. I feel like I’m still gathering those and talking with other editors who worked closely with him and getting to know more of his leadership style. That’s an ongoing project. I read his book Paper Lion years ago, and as a person who likes literature but is writing about sports, he was a guiding light for me before the Paris Review was on the radar as a place I could work. So I feel really fortunate to be carrying on that tradition of writing. But that’s secondary to learning how he ran this magazine and how he built this magazine from a really ambitious place. I feel like the journal has been able to carry that ambition and thrive.

Speaking of yourself as a writer, you recently signed a deal with Farrar, Straus and Giroux for your book about spring training, The Cactus League. As an editor, writer, and visual artist, do you find that the roles complicate or complement one other?
I’m an editor first. I spend most of my time doing that, so when I have the opportunity to write or draw I’m sort of a snake and I just gobble—I have a really big meal and get a lot of work done. Because I’m not one of those writers who sits down and writes every morning. I wish I was, but I edit every morning! And that feels really good. But the thing is, working with language makes your language better. Working on other people’s stories—of course it takes away in terms of number of hours from my writing practice—but I feel like every time I do sit down to write I have a bigger tool kit. So I’m really grateful for that interplay. And the visual arts practice that I love—it will always be part of my life, but it’s sort of tertiary right now. And that’s fine.

At Poets & Writers we have a database of literary journals, and right now it lists almost 1,300 journals, which to me seems like a very daunting number to both writers and editors. Does that number surprise you or seem too high? 
That is a really big number, but I think it’s fine. Every journal is run by people who want to make a thing and put it out in the world, and I don’t think there’s any reason to stop that or hinder that progress. Obviously that’s more than I can read in a year. But I think with elbow grease, some strategy, and the right mix of editorial leadership and resources, those journals will find the right audiences—and if they can’t find those audiences, maybe there will be 1,250 next year. I don’t mean that in a glib way; I think that every experiment is worth it. Having seen a lot of great journals close for reasons of resources or lack thereof, I’m really excited that the Internet and other means have reinvigorated the form.


Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.