The Best of Granta:
A Conversation with Sigrid Rausing
Sigrid Rausing is the editor of Granta magazine and the publisher of Granta Books, along with being a philanthropist, and an author in her own right. In advance of The Center for Fiction's event with the lauded magazine for their 2017 “Best of Young American Novelists” issue, our web editor Kristin Henley talked with Rausing about putting together the issue, the challenges of running the Granta empire, and what Rausing is reading now.
Your work prior to becoming publisher of Granta magazine, Granta Books, and Portobello Books was focused on anthropology and philanthropy for human rights issues. Can you talk about what drew you to publishing?
I co-founded Portobello Books together with my husband Eric Abraham, and publisher Philip Gwyn-Jones. We were inspired by our Italian friend, film producer Domenico Procacci, who founded a publishing house called Fandango. The idea was to create a close relationship between Eric’s production company Portobello Pictures and the new publishing house, but of course it ended up with its own separate profile.
What has been the most surprising part of publishing?
I hadn’t realised how much book publishing is about relationships—how important the word on the street, reputation, is for acquisitions of manuscripts. The magazine is a different enterprise altogether—on that side I am only surprised by how genuinely delightful and fun it’s been.
What has been the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was undoubtedly the big restructure we did on the book side in the spring of 2013—that was a very tough time, but we came through it. It’s awful having to let people go, but we had to do it—Granta was becoming a zombie company, heavily subsidised, losing its edge.
When John Freeman, who was the editor of the magazine, left in the summer of 2013, I took over as acting editor, a position which was made permanent the following spring. For three years I combined being publisher of books and editor of the magazine, while also building up and chairing the board—it was far too onerous. The summer of 2016 our new publishing director, Alex Bowler, started, and from January this year I have been focused full time on the magazine and the board.
And what are you most proud of as publisher?
I am proud that we stayed the course, and made—I hope—a success of it. Acquiring Granta a few months after we started Portobello in 2005 was a big thing—Granta had been run from New York, but was essentially a British company, and it was complicated in all sorts of ways. In the last few years we have won the Booker (Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries), the now Bailey Prize, then called the Women’s Prize for Fiction (A. M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven), and the International Booker (Han Kang, The Vegetarian). We have had fantastic review coverage, sales are going well, and the Granta editorial teams—both books and magazine—are second to none in Britain.
This is the second time you’ve been involved with selecting the writers for the "Best of Young American Novelists" issue for Granta magazine. Can you tell us about the process, and did anything change from 2007?
There have been some changes. We went back to novelists under 40, having lowered it in 2007 to 35. I think the in-house reading process was more formal and structured this year—all the editors read, even on the book side. We read 400 or so novels, and met on a weekly basis to discuss and create the longlist.
Any regrets from 2007?
There are always people who fall in between, or who don’t make it onto the list for whatever reason—we’d have to do it every year if we wanted to catch everyone. On the whole I think it’s still a very good list.
You have a brilliant panel of judges this year—Patrick deWitt, Kelly Link, Ben Marcus, and A. M. Homes (who also served in 2007). Can you give us a peek into the judging room? Was it hard to balance all of those opinions?
Paul Beatty too was a judge, but had to pull out after he won the Booker—we missed him. The judges are remarkable—widely read, deeply engaged in contemporary fiction. The discussion was both very serious, and often funny—for the last meeting we were in the ACLU boardroom (they kindly lent us space, since we have no NY office now), and we had all the books under discussion on the table. Five or six authors were on everyone’s list, and many more were on the list of most of us. When we got to 15, Ben Marcus suggested that we each pick one author we felt strongly about, and we each spoke about the merits of the authors we picked—I don’t think you’d be able to guess who picked whom, but we did all agree in the end.
This interview will be posted before the slate of writers is announced, but is there anything you can tell us about the new crop of writers in the "Best of Young American Novelists" issue? Any trends you see in their writing? And how do they stack up against the Brits from 2013?
I think there is astonishing new talent in America. The writing schools help, but also of course it’s such a big country with so many different traditions. We saw several different trends—there is a strong current interest in experimental fiction. Then there is the trend of autobiographical fiction, books that are often short, impressionistic, and intense. There are several ex-military writers, grappling with what they have seen and experienced. Then there are authors who are interested in writing about, and from, particular identies, ethnic and otherwise.
How do the best of young Americans compare to the British? British writers seem to me more rooted in the land and the regional traditions, Americans, as you might expect, are more urban. American writers are more zany, perhaps, British writers more forgiving of the dull and mundane. British writers quite often have a cause, hidden or not—American writers strike me as more individualistic.
What are you excited about in fiction right now?
Names? George Saunders, always; Mohsin Hamid; Hisham Matar, who just won a Pulitzer; Jon McGregor.
For our own books, I’m excited about two new authors, Tom Lee (The Alarming Palsy of Joseph Orr) and John Connell (The Cow Book). For the magazine, we are working on the summer issue now—we have fiction by Han Kang, Robert Coover, Tom Lee and others. We also have a great piece by Rana Dasgupta about Océane, the French girl who committed suicide on social media. Rana became obsessed by the case, and has written a long piece which is the best thing I have read about the Parisian banlieues; graffittied spaces and tattooed bodies; the cult of celebrity and the cult of death. We have an intriguing piece by A. M. Homes about being sent new information about her adoption; Joe Dunthorne about going to Cyprus for an international writers’ football tournament; John Barth on rocking himself to sleep; and Charles Glass, interviewing an Isis killer, now in Kurd custody, with photographs by Don McCullin. It will be a great issue.
I am very excited about the autumn issue too—it’s about Canada, guest-edited by Madeleine Thien and Catherine Leroux. It will be very interesting to see what they do with it.
And finally, what are you reading?
I am re-reading Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks—I read it as a teenager, far too young, and couldn’t get through it, but what an interesting book it is. If it were edited now, the editor would probably take issue with the descriptions—each character is stolidly described on first meeting—and yet it comes to life. I just finished The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis, which I thought was astonishing and grim.
Sigrid Rausing is the editor of Granta magazine and the publisher of Granta Books. She is the author of two previous books: History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia, and Everything is Wonderful, which was short-listed for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. She has a PhD in Anthropology from University College London, and is an Honorary Fellow of the London School of Economics and St Antony’s College, Oxford. She lives in London with her husband, film and theatre producer Eric Abraham.