What do agents do that drives you crazy?
Oh, there are so many things. The worst thing an agent has ever done to me involved a novel by a Hollywood-based person who had been in show business. This person had written a memoir before, and he was a pretty good writer, but the novel was a mess. The writing was pretty good and the background was interesting—the material was all there—but it just wasn't well done. So I passed. But when I passed, I said, "I do like this. I think there's potential here, but it's not ready. If you don't sell it, and the author wants to talk to me about reworking it, I'd be glad to have a conversation with him." They didn't sell it. The author called me and we went back and forth—calling, e-mailing—and he started to rework it. He said, "I think I've got a great idea now, so thank you." A couple of months later, my assistant drops the revision on my desk. It has a letter from the agent on top—multiple submission. I called up and said, "What are you doing?" The agent said, "You didn't really expect to get this exclusively, did you?" I said, "Well, I'm passing. Thank you." She said, "You're not going to read it?" I said, "No." I couldn't believe that.
Here, I have actually taken options on two books in that situation. I'm working with the authors now, trying to get the books right, and if we get them right we have an agreed upon purchase price. It's a formalized way of doing what I did in that case, and it protects us, obviously. When you read a book and you see something there, and it's a good writer, I'm loath to give up on it.
Are there any younger or less well-known agents out there who are really good but who maybe writers aren't aware of yet?
There are two agents in particular, right now, who I send people to when I'm asked for help in finding an agent. I think of them first and I go to them first: Doug Stewart at Sterling Lord and Daniel Lazar at Writers House. Both have sent me really, really good things. I have not bought anything yet from Doug—actually I did because I sent him an author and then I bought the book. I've bought a couple of things from Daniel, who has consistently amazed me with the stuff he sends. It's off the wall sometimes, but I just love it.
What are you looking for in a piece of writing?
The first thing is the voice. If it's got a strong voice, I'm going to keep reading. And if a story sneaks in there, I'm going to keep reading. To me, those are the two most important things. I want a voice and I want to be hooked into a story. I believe very strongly that books are not about writers, and they're definitely not about editors—they're about readers. You've got to grab the reader right away with your voice and with the story you're telling. You can't just write down words that sound pretty. It's all about the reader. You've got to bring the reader into it right away. If the writing is poetic and so forth, that's nice. I'm reading something right now that has an amazing voice, and I'm only fifty-six pages into it, but I'm already getting a little tired because it's so nice, if you know what I mean. It's so pretty. It's like every page is a bon bon, and I want a little break somewhere. It's become self-conscious, in a way. I want the author to surprise me and excite me, and so far he hasn't. He's just made me think, "Oh, that's nice." I even called somebody and read them half a page because I thought it was so nice. I don't know. I'll give it another fifty pages and see.
How long does it take you to know?
You can usually tell after a paragraph—a page, certainly—whether or not you're going to get hooked. Every now and then, something will surprise you. I remember one novel at Simon & Schuster that I was reading, more as a favor than anything else. The writing wasn't great, and the story was a little on the predictable side—it was okay, but a little boring—but then I got to the end and it surprised the hell out of me. I went back and thought, "Fuck, this is really something. I would have given up after fifty pages if I hadn't promised somebody that I would read it." I ended up buying it and it did really well.
Are there any specific elements of craft that beginning writers tend to neglect?
I think beginning writers tend to not think about a reader. They tend to think about themselves. They think about making themselves sound smart and good, and they forget that this is really all about telling stories. I used to joke that I was going to put a big sign over my desk that said, "Quit writing and tell me a story." The problem is that they just write. They fall in love with their own voice. They write and write and write, and they lose sight of the fact that they're trying to entertain somebody. You have to reel them in.
Do you have any pet peeves about mistakes that you see writers making again and again?
Oh, there are little things. "‘I like you,' she smiled." [Laughter.] And you see that kind of thing from fairly good writers sometimes. You know, if you want to get the smile in there, it's "‘I like you,' she said with a smile." It's just little things like that. But if I'm reading something and I'm on the fence and I see too many of those, it goes against the book. I don't see it a lot, but every now and then, I read a novel that someone has obviously written with a thesaurus beside him. I'm not a stupid person. But I don't know every word. When I have to get up from my desk and look up words to understand what I'm reading, that's another thing that sends me to the other side of the fence.
You have said that you work very closely with the writer, with the reader in mind, to make every book as commercial as possible. Why is that important to you?
It's very difficult to make a living in this business. I'm told that there are something like two hundred writers who actually make a living at writing. Or maybe fewer. The others have to supplement their incomes in order to make a living. If a writer really wants to make a living as a writer, they need to sell copies. I want them to be successful. If they're successful, we're successful. To some extent, it comes down to money.
But I don't believe in just going after stories to make money, obviously. There are some books I've been able to publish here—one example is An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England—that have been a fight. So many people here hated that book. It's interesting. I haven't done this in six months or a year, but it used to be that if you looked at the Amazon page for that book, the reviews were split fifty-fifty between five stars and one star. Half the reviews were like, "This is the greatest book I've ever read," and the other half were like, "I would give this book zero stars if I could." It gets that kind of reaction. It makes people angry. I love that kind of book. It inspires people to really talk about it. Some people despise it and start to sputter because they hate it so much, and other people go crazy over it.
Go back to this notion of working very closely with an author—with the reader in mind—to make something as commercial as possible. What are the nuts and bolts of that process? What does the page look like?
Physically, it's a mess. I write all over it. I'm not a shy editor. I edit in ink, and I just sit down as a reader. I start reading, and when I come to a word or whatever that makes me stop, then I think, "Okay, there's a problem." Because any time a reader stops—whether it's because they didn't understand something, or the word is an odd choice and it throws them off, or a character does something slightly out of character—then you have to stop and say, "This is a problem. How do we fix it?" Usually I will have a fix that I just go ahead and write in. I always tell the authors, of course, that my fixes are suggestions. I say, "You don't have to do it this way, but you've got to do something here. Whenever I find a problem, you've got to address it. You can't ignore it. You can find your own solution, but you have to do something."
I go through the whole manuscript that way. Sometimes I just write in the margins, sometimes I write pages of notes and type them up and send them to the author. Sometimes it's just a matter of cutting and connecting and writing little one- or two-word transitions. But it's always a matter of taking the reader with me. I want them to be able to follow everything that's going on and not have to stop and puzzle anything out.
What's the most satisfying big edit you've ever done?
It was probably Kitty Dukakis's memoir. It was one of the first manuscripts I was given to edit at Simon & Schuster. It was an unusual situation: It had been bought jointly by Alice Mayhew and Michael Korda, who are two radically different editors. The manuscript was huge, about five hundred pages. Alice called me into her office and said, "Chuck, there's way too much in here about politics. People want to know the personal story. You need to cut out a lot of this political stuff." Michael called me into his office and said, "Chuck, there's way too much personal stuff in here. People want to know about the politics. You've got to get rid of a lot of this personal stuff."
I sat down and thought, "Okay, who are you going to please?" I decided to just please the reader. I went through it and did what I wanted to do as a reader. The cowriter on the book was wonderful, but she had not controlled Kitty in any way. Kitty had just rambled and the cowriter had organized everything but hadn't cut it at all. For example, every time Kitty had gone to a different town and had a different hairdresser, she'd spend a paragraph thanking that hairdresser for doing such a great job. I said, "Kitty, there's an acknowledgments page. That's where all of this has got to go." I went through the book and just carved. It was almost like carving a block of marble or granite or whatever to try and get the statue that was beneath. I painstakingly went through the thing a couple of times and carved away and connected things. When I was done, I thought it was great. And both Alice and Michael did, too. I was really proud of that. I knew I had done a good job, and they were really proud of it too. It went on to be a big best-seller for us.
This is the magazine's MFA issue. Do you have anything to say about them?
Obviously a lot of good writers have come out of MFA programs—you see it in their bios—so I know there's a lot of good work being done. I will confess that many of the MFA novels I see are better written than they are good books, if you know what I mean. There's a lot of good writing, but that doesn't necessarily add up to a good book. I feel like perhaps in those programs too much emphasis is being put on style and word choices rather than actually thinking about how to communicate with people. It's too much about—to make it sound terrible—but it's too much about showing off and not enough about trying to please a reader.
Again, I go back to the whole thing about storytelling. I'm old enough to have started reading back when it really was primarily about stories. I guess there were a lot of quality literary books being published then, but my mother didn't buy them. I read what was around the house: Edna Ferber and Daphne du Maurier and Mary Renault and Thomas B. Costain. These are writers you don't hear anything about anymore, but they were brilliant storytellers. They were also good writers, mind you, but they were brilliant storytellers. They would grab the reader right away and just not let go.
Today, I'm seeing better writing than the writing in those books, but I'm not seeing better storytelling. That was why Water for Elephants excited me. Sara is a really good writer. She's not a great stylist or anything—you're not going to sit down and read her sentences just for the beauty of them—but she tells such a great story. She knows how to pace a story. She knows how to make it work for the reader. When I read the book, I said, "This is like Edna Ferber. She's taken an intimate story and played it out against a very large backdrop." And it works beautifully. Look at Michael Chabon. He's had success from the beginning, but it wasn't until he wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, where he took his formula of two guys and a girl and put it against this big panorama—the Holocaust, the Depression, World War II—that he turned the intimate little stories he'd been writing into a big story. It's not that difficult to do. It's not easy to do, either. But when you really look at what he did, you just have to come up with the right backdrop and put the story in front of it and make the story one that people really relate to and care about.
I'm trying to get Susan Cheever to write a novel for me here. I love her. I think she's a brilliant writer, and I don't think she's ever gotten the attention she should have because people unfortunately review her name and not her books. They resent her name, for whatever reason. I think she's capable of writing a really great novel. We keep talking about what it should be. I keep saying, "Look, write Romeo and Juliet or write Jane Eyre or whatever. But put it against a big backdrop. Steal somebody's else idea, but just make it your own."