FBNY Exclusive — Four Questions: The New Yorker‘s New MacArthur Genius Award Recipient, Alex Ross

ross_alex_small.jpgAlex Ross, The New Yorker‘s classical music critic since 1996, can explain complex theories in the simplest terms while still enlightening the most knowledgeable reader. In The New York Times Book Review, Geoff Dyer called his book, The Rest Is Noise, “a work of immense scope and ambition… a great achievement,” and others have given similar praise to his work. Now Ross has another line to add to his resume: genius.

Ross is one of 25 recipients of the 2008 MacArthur Foundations Genius Fellowships, a no-string attached prize of $500,000. The writer took some time off from seeing a Stockhausen performance by the Berlin Philharmonic to give FBNY the scoop about screening the call from the MacArthur people because he thought his cats were being repossessed, the new nickname he’ll never live down and his plans for the money.

1. What was your initial reaction when you received the phone call?
It took me totally by surprise. The stock market was crashing that day, and a couple of times in the morning I saw this mysterious call coming in from Chicago, which seemed ominous. I thought they were trying to repossess my cats or something, so I didn’t pick up. Finally David Remnick tracked me down at The New Yorker and told me not to move until the phone rang. I was overwhelmed in every possible way and couldn’t think of anything coherent to say. I still feel that way; I couldn’t be more grateful for this huge recognition.

2. Who was the first person you told?
My wonderful husband, Jonathan, who was very happy. He immediately started calling me “Gene,” short for “genius.” Obviously I’ll never hear the end of this. I also told the cats, who were relieved.

3. Now that you’ve had some time to digest everything, what are your initial thoughts on plans for the future? Will the MacArthur change your approach to working or give you the opportunity to pursue a project or projects that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to? I know the award is no strings attached but do you feel any added pressure to produce? What’s next for you in the immediate future?
I don’t plan to make drastic changes. I’m very happily employed at The New Yorker; they will have to carry me out on a stretcher or in a straitjacket, whichever comes first. When I get around to writing my next big book, this award will allow me to take some time off here and there, travel to do research, and otherwise explore the subject in depth. I wrote my last book in coffeeshops between assignments, in the middle of the night when other work was done, and whenever else I could squeeze in the time. The MacArthur will give my a lot more breathing room. I would also like to use the award to build up my website and pursue related multimedia projects. And I’m hoping to launch some home improvements, so I no longer have hundreds of books and CDs piled on the floor or in closets. Basically, I am hoping for less chaos and more time to think.

4. What’s next for you in the immediate future?
I’m looking forward to the release of The Rest Is Noise in paperback and plunging into my next New Yorker pieces. I’ll start working on a new book in the spring. I can’t say enough how stunned I am by this news and how grateful I am.