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Rodes Fishburne is an American writer with experience as a journalist, playwright, and novelist. His 2008 novel Going to See the Elephant explores the creative and financial difficulties of writing[…]

Rodes Fishburne describes the conception and process of compiling essays from the world’s greatest minds.

Rodes Fishburne: I was lucky to be hired as an editor at a magazine called Forbes ASAP, which is a technology magazine at Forbes, and I got a front row seat of the internet bubble because I was there in the late 1990s, early 2000s, one of the things The Big Issue did was once a year they put together a special issued called The Big Issue, very modest, and we would ask the finest writers and thinkers in the world to write an essay for us about a single theme.

Sometimes the theme was time and how time is changing; sometimes the theme was convergence and how these different worlds, science and religion, business and art, night and day, are all converging in this modern world we live in. One year the theme was the pursuit of happiness, and The Big Issue was my project, and I was the editor of that, and so I had the good opportunity to work with some wonderful writers, people like Gore Vidal and Kurt Vonnegut, the Dahli Lama, John Updike, add Bill Gates, and it was an extraordinary experience and I felt like this Big Issue was a way of giving people something more substantive to think about because it took us a long time to put it together, it took about six to eight months.

And what we ended up with was a 250-page magazine that was full of really substantial interesting essays by a range of people that you would have never expected to see together, and the response was overwhelming. We were one of the most read magazines playing in that space and I was just so delighted and honored to be part of it.


Question: What was your editing process?

Rodes Fishburne: Well, there would be a fair amount of talking and vetting when you were talking to them about this, so if I was talking to somebody and I said, I remember going to Kurt Vonnegut and saying we are doing this special issue on convergence and we would love for you to do a piece on the convergence of East and West Germany, which was a nice sweet spot for him and he instantly got it and had a sense of what he wanted to do with it, and so you had sort of these preliminary discussions, but sometimes you would take it to a very well known writer and they would not deliver, it wasn’t quite what you were hoping for, and the funny thing was when you went back to them and said, I’m sorry, Mr. Big Shot, but this is not quite what we were looking for, they always knew that, they always knew it did not quite work.

And I remember a couple of times doing that and them then getting very competitive with themselves and sitting down and doing something, again, that was much stronger than their first thing. So it was about drawing a line and getting these people to sort of come to the table.

But in our culture of side bars and sound bites and very short little pieces, almost to a man and woman, everybody who worked and wrote for The Big Issue was so excited to even be involved because there really is not anything, or has not been anything like it, a place where you can do a sustained piece of writing on a single topic, and it was not like they were fielding ten offers to do things like this, so there was a natural enthusiasm to participate that really went a long way to getting the best work out of them.


 Recorded on: June 3, 2008.