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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Editor Janet Silver

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July/August 2008

7.01.08

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Do you have any insight into this amazing productivityboth in quantity and in qualitylate in life? It's kind of unusual.
I think that a lot has come together in his writing. There's a particular fury that's always been a part of his work, but at this time in his life he's been able to focus it on a large canvas. When he accepted the National Book Foundation's distinguished medal, he talked about having the great American writers as his models. By that he meant he didn't necessarily think of himself as a Jewish writer—that he's not necessarily Saul Bellow or Bernard Malamud or the other writers he's usually grouped with. This is speculation, but at this point in his life maybe he sees his own writing in an even larger way—more in the context of the history of American writing—and that's partly where some of these more recent novels come from.

You also work with Cynthia Ozick. Tell me about your experience with her.
She's a delight in every way. Cynthia was at Knopf for many years. She got a new agent, Melanie Jackson, and I think that she was ready for a change—some writers just need a boost. She's a writer who I'd been reading for years and who I adore and who I think both in fiction and nonfiction—especially as an essayist—is without peer. She writes a better essay than any American writer. She is a public intellectual, in a way. I don't always agree with her. But she's so deeply engaged in this cultural conversation—like it or not, in terms of her opinions—and she cares so deeply about American culture and what's happened to it and where it's going, and she's so eloquent, that you must read her.

But she's also a great fiction writer in the tradition of Henry James and my favorite nineteenth-century Victorians. When I found out that she was looking to move—I had already brought over Anita Desai, who is also represented by Melanie Jackson—I immediately expressed my interest. Melanie sent me the novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, which was untitled at the time. Actually, it was called The Bear Boy because one of the characters is based on the real life model for Christopher Robin in the Winnie-the-Pooh books. I started reading this novel and I was just blown away. I said to myself, "It's her Middlemarch." And, in fact, the main character is named Dorothea, and there's this whole family drama that takes place in the Bronx. It's George Eliot in the Bronx! When I had my first conversation with Cynthia, I said to her, "It's your Middlemarch," and she knew that I understood where she was coming from. We had the best meeting. It was a love-fest all around.

I just felt that she was so important that she had to be published at the top of the list. She just had to be. Sometimes when you love a writer, and an agent brings you a book, it's just not the right book to move. You really want to be able to make a difference. Boy did I think this was the book where we could publish it in a different way and make a difference. All of her books had a similar look, a kind of "Cynthia Ozick look," and instead of doing that we gave it this bright cover with foil fireflies on the front and a title that was unlike any Cynthia Ozick title you've ever heard before. We got her to meet booksellers, which she had never done. She had never had a chance to go out and meet booksellers. Lots of people had seen her on panels and in that context, but they had not been able to sit down at dinner with her and just talk. She is just the most delightful dinner companion you can imagine. She truly is so generous and so deeply interested in what people have to say.

You also edit Tim O'Brien. Was he always a Houghton author?
Tim is one of a number of authors who left Houghton and came back. I can't take credit for all of them by any means, but a lot of them stayed under my direction. Roth came back, obviously. Bob Stone came back. Tim O'Brien came back. He had been brought to Houghton by Sam Lawrence, the legendary Sam Lawrence. After Sam died, John Sterling became his editor. About the time that Houghton published In the Lake of the Woods, John went off to start up Broadway Books. Tim went with John. As sad as it was, I love to see that. I love to see an author be really loyal to an editor. But he just never felt the same about the house. And at a certain point he came back and talked to our CEO, Nader Darehshori at the time, and said he wanted to come back to Houghton Mifflin. I met with him and Wendy Strothman, who was the publisher at the time. We had this great lunch, and he said to me, "I want to come back and I want you to be my editor." How gratifying is that? That's pretty great.

We just have a truly wonderful relationship. I think writing this last novel, July, July, was very hard for him. He's gone through so many changes in his life—he moved to Texas and got married and has two children. But all this time, and especially when we were working on this last novel, which evolved from a collection of short stories into a novel, we've just had such a wonderful back and forth, and I've also been able to get a sense of his own ambition and his own frustration with being boxed in as a writer who's expected to produce a certain work, always about Vietnam. The Things They Carried will always be the book he's known for. It just will. But, much to his credit, he really wanted to do more than that, and always has. He has always sort of tested that, and I admire that tremendously. His writing is so complex and so edgy, in a way, that I think people could relate to it in war stories but it's more unexpected when it comes to other kinds of stories. That's been a real tension in his work for a long time. But he's working on a new book now, I'm happy to say.

I'm curious about your transition from editor in chief to publisher. First of all, what is the job of the editor in chief in your mind?
I can only talk about myself—I think it's different at different houses—but in my mind it's really to guide the editorial group and to encourage editors to grow in their own ways. I became editor in chief at a time when the editorial ranks were really depleted. There had been a lot of change at Houghton, after having stability for literally generations. We were bought by this French water processing company, Vivendi, which had aspirations to take over the world. They bought us and sold us very quickly, so there was a lot of turmoil.

When Wendy Strothman became publisher, her background had been at a university press and then at Beacon Press. She had a strong affinity for books on social change and felt that Houghton could be doing more of that, which we did, with some success, but not with the kind of breadth that I felt the list really needed. But she was able to help me focus the list in a way to return it to its real strengths—rather than trying to be all publishers to all people and trying to compete with much larger houses with much bigger resources in all of the same categories. My feeling, and I had her support, was to really focus the list on areas that would sell over time, and to focus on narrative nonfiction in areas like science and history and biography that Houghton had a strong background in. Actually, Houghton was less known for science—we had been known for natural history—but I felt that you had to grow organically, and the natural way to grow out from natural history was to publish more science. So I wanted to hire a science editor. I wanted to find a history editor. My role was to find specialists who could really speak to authors in their own language. That's one way of being convincing when you have more limited resources: to find the most brilliant editors, with a deep knowledge of a subject area and experience editing those kinds of books, and to say to an agent and an author, "Let's get these two together. Let's have a conversation."

Eamon Dolan is a great example. There's someone who now, at a young age, has become a very legendary editor. Eamon was known for a certain kind of narrative book. But Houghton published sports books, and what did Eamon bring us? He brought us the best of sports. He brought Buzz Bissinger and Three Nights in August. I remember when he brought that book to the acquisitions committee, which includes sales, marketing, and all of that. The sales people sort of shook their heads. "Oh, it's regional." This was before Friday Night Lights became a movie and a TV show and popular in that way. Eamon said he didn't think it was regional. I didn't think so either. So sometimes you defy the internal wisdom. Eamon also found Eric Schlosser and Fast Food Nation. Again, there were some in-house doubters who said, "It's a magazine article. Is this a book that's going to sell over time? Isn't it all about the current moment?" But Eamon was convinced, and he convinced others, and he was right. So that's what you do as a publisher. You find the best talent and you let them shine.

Talk me through how you decide how much to pay for a first novel.
It's partly enthusiasm in the house. It's the uniqueness of the voice. It's passion. But unfortunately it's also "Who does this remind you of who has sold really well?" It's all of those things, and there's no one way to decide. When Jonathan Safran Foer's novel came to us, Eric Chinski was the editor at the time. He got that manuscript around to people so quickly, and so many readers in-house instantly knew that this was something very special. That was an investment unlike any we had made in a first novel before. I can tell you—I was the editor in chief at the time and Wendy Strothman was the publisher—that she was nervous about it. But she also saw what was going on in-house. She saw how many different readers were responding to it, and not just in editorial, but in sub-rights, in publicity, in marketing, in sales. And not everybody agreed. There were definitely naysayers, which is the best way to go about it. You want people to love it or hate it—mediocrity is the thing that you should pass up. But the people who adored it were so passionate that she was willing to take a very big flyer, and it was certainly worth it. It was a great bet in the end. It was also something that allowed us to push a little bit on the kinds of fiction that Houghton did, not to have a reputation for doing only one kind of thing in fiction.

One of the nice things about the era in which we were publishing writers like Jonathan, and building writers like Richard Dawkins, is that it was very much a group effort. As a publisher, you want to encourage your editors to work really closely with marketing and publicity, and to bring the author in as well. One of the things that we've all learned in publishing is that the authors know their audiences very well. We want to have them participate as part of the conversation.

Reader Comments

  • stardancer101 says...

    I always get excited when I get to read the new Agents and Editors section. I see hooks like 'editor Janet Silver discusses what she looks for in a new writer and what every author should know about agents," and my eyes light up, being a young unpublished writer myself. But I find myself consistently disappointed in the article. There are usually only two or three questions in the interview that really speak to the subject line, and the rest of them are about publishing eras, job history, name-dropping, discussions of relationships with well-known published authors.... These topics are good to note, but I just wish there was a lot more meat in the article in the areas of advice and the things the opener promised.... Names and positions being slung around don't really catch any interest for me, and that takes up the majority of the article. I found myself craving more from the all-too-short section of common mistakes for new writers, and what she looks for in a writer. I've felt this way about the last three Agents and Editors sections too....

  • Myfanwy Collins says...

    Thanks for this interview (as well as the others). I appreciate Janet Silver's enthusiasm and willingness to share information, and finally I have found someone who has read Moby-Dick as often as I have.

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