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HAVE STORY, WILL TRAVEL: The New Republic is just now seeing the fruits of its initial hiring spree earlier this year. It’s sitting on a runaway hit of a piece in a personal essay from Walter Kirn, “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon.”
The item, in this week’s issue, has been plastered in all the usual fan sites — Longreads, Longform.org, Byliner — and many an ardently followed journalists’ twitter feeds. Beyond the online reaction, Kirn told WWD he’s never experienced such “overwhelming response to anything.”
It’s an affirmation of the magazine’s new guard, and voice. A piece as memoirish in tone would not have appeared in the old, wonkish New Republic.
It almost didn’t appear in editor Frank Foer’s TNR either. The piece was originally intended for GQ, Kirn’s old employer. For GQ, there’s a sense of déjà vu in missing out on another talked-about story — Michael Hastings pitched his explosive profile of General Stanley McChrystal to the magazine, but it had already had a similar assignment out.
But the magazine intended to publish Kirn’s piece until he jumped to TNR in May. Kirn has been contributing to GQ since 2001, mostly extensive personal essays and short items on film. In February, he was hired as a regular political blogger at gq.com.
He and his editor, Mark Lotto, conceived the Mormonism piece early in the year and Kirn started writing it in April.
By the time Foer reached out to Kirn in May about joining his magazine, the piece had been pushed out of the July issue because of space, and neither Kirn nor Lotto wanted to cut.
Kirn understood that to mean the status of the piece was uncertain. And when TNR came calling, he took the piece with him. He says he wasn’t sure if the piece legally belonged to GQ, and didn’t ask.
“I just wasn’t sure of its fate at GQ. It was a judgment call. It was a piece I had to do right by, and the version I wanted to publish was more appropriate for TNR,” he said.
He was gratified the editors made it the magazine’s cover story, which would not have happened at GQ.
While Kirn says GQ brass was unenthusiastic about the piece, sources at 4 Times Square say the magazine had every intention to publish it in the August issue. The photo department spent months digging up archival images and a layout had already been produced. Editors at the magazine were surprised when Kirn jumped, but even more so that he had taken the piece with him.
GQ editor Jim Nelson confirmed as much.
“We were disappointed Walter chose to take the story with him, since the story originated with us; we had worked on it, had high hopes for it and had every intention of running it,” he wrote via e-mail. “Frankly, it didn’t seem right to me, but Walter made the unilateral decision, and that was that. I still think Walter is a wonderful writer, and I expect great things from him at The New Republic.”
Kirn seems to have been replaced in the August issue by a Wells Tower feature on Mitt Romney.
Kirn clarified that he enjoyed his time as a contributor — four months in all. “GQ was really nice to me in letting me write a really eccentric political column for their Web site,” he said. “There’s no bitterness on my part.” But he relished the chance to join a magazine that was “going for its ninth life.”
At The New Republic, he’ll be writing a print column for the duration of the campaign, as well as blogging occasionally.
“I have a take on the campaign as an event in culture. What campaigns do is throw open the doors in a way that allows us to see ourselves,” he said.