Which competitors call forth the best in you?
They all do. So many publishing houses have superb editors, regardless of whether I admire the house as much as I admire, say, Knopf. Reagan Arthur at Little, Brown is pretty hard to beat. FSG is a gorgeous house and offers literary firmament that has enormous appeal to writers, just as Knopf does. And I wouldn’t relish being in an auction against Susan Kamil.
At the start of our conversation, you blamed everything on your local librarian and your high school English teacher. Could you talk a little more about your teacher?
Oh God, can I! He is a marvelous man named Bernie Kaplan, who has since gone on to become principal of a Long Island high school. It is a job I know he was born to do, but to this day I think must be such a loss to the generations of English students whose lives would have been changed by encountering him.
He taught us Gatsby, Shakespeare, Hemingway, poetry. It almost didn’t matter. He taught with urgency and intensity and intelligence, and he made it all so immediately relevant to the experience of being 14 or 15 or 16 years old. He absolutely changed my life. It was as if he picked me up by the scruff of my neck and set me down on this road, and pushed me off in this direction.
You’ve been the recipient of a lot of wonderful mentorship. Now you’re in the position to pay it forward.
All of my assistants are far more successful than me—Sarah McGrath [vice president and executive editor at Riverhead] was my first assistant. And right now I have one of the greatest assistants I’ve ever had. Her name is Caroline Bleeke, and I live in fear of her leaving me.
How do you support her development?
By how deeply I invite her into the process. I trust her taste enormously, so if I have a book on submission that I think might be important, we read it together. If it turns out that I am competing for that book at auction, she is my co-conspirator. If I’m editing a book, I invite her editorial notes as well—not all books, but selectively. She has a great editorial eye and her notes have been fantastic.
The most important thing is to allow somebody in. To treat them as a colleague rather than a secretary. Caroline is truly so much smarter than I am. She speaks several languages, she’s better educated. She is something else. I love having her as a colleague.
You mentioned that nineteenth century literature and the Russians are your literary touchstones. But you also published A Visit From the Goon Squad, which was, in part, a series of PowerPoint slides. How do you approach a novel that breaks out of the classic tradition?
I think they reach us in the same place—if they reach us. They’re differently woven, but fundamentally, in how they act upon us, they’re similar spells. I almost don’t distinguish.
If I had to connect the dots and take a guess, I’d say that the most important thing to you is how much heart a story has.
You know, I actually wouldn’t say that. It’s not necessarily heart. It’s an immediacy. It’s a sense that something is alive, that whatever mask I wear in my daily life is somehow stripped away by the experience of encountering it. It’s a cliché now, but the book that’s the “axe to break the sea frozen inside us”—that’s the thing I am looking for. I’m interested in being disarmed.
We’ve talked a lot about approaching a work from a place of love, and you’ve told me about a few heartbreaks. Has there ever been a divorce? Have you ever had to cancel a book contract?
I did cancel one book. One of the things that I have learned about myself, generally speaking, is that it is a mistake for me to sign up a novel on the basis of a proposal. That is thinking with a part of my brain that almost always lets me down.
I don’t mean a new novel by a writer with whom I’ve been working for many years. I would happily offer any of my writers a long-term contract if I could, because I have a basis for making that leap of faith. But to begin a relationship with a novelist on the basis of a proposal for me is almost always an error.
How much time and room can you give your authors to get the book right?
A writer with whom I am already engaged? Someone with whom I have a long-term relationship?
Without telling you anything about it, here’s this manuscript on my desk. This is the third draft of this book. It needs a huge amount of work. But this book is phenomenal. We will go on revising for as long as we possibly can and then we will publish it. I am so happy to help this writer burnish his prose, because it is already extraordinary, and it is going to be a brilliant publication.
The only limit is the writer’s threshold for revision. If the talent is there, there’s almost no amount of work that is prohibitive to me if the path forward is clear and the writer is willing to undertake it. I am also willing to undertake it.
The financial bottom line doesn’t play a role?
The most important thing is to get the book right. At Knopf, we have the good fortune to be able to prioritize that. There are, in any given year, books that are essential to our budget, but even within those parameters, there’s an emphasis on putting the book first: giving the author the time to get it right, and making sure that we are going out with the strongest book we can.
What are your thoughts on little magazines and literary journals?
They’re essential, more than ever. In most cases, they provide a writer’s first experience of being taken seriously, of being compensated on any level for the work they’re doing, and their first opportunity to reach an audience of any kind.
Do you read them?
Less than I would like to, but I try. N+1, the Believer, Zoetrope, McSweeney’s. Dave Eggers is a force of such good in the culture.
What about writers’ conferences? Are they useful?
They’re very useful to writers. Anything that brings a writer out of isolation and into community is a positive thing.
Do you know this Hemingway quote? “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life…. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.” That’s a very vulnerable place to be.
One of the most important moments of my youth was going to Bread Loaf, and encountering Richard Bausch, who I think is one of the great men of all time. And now I publish him. I can trace that directly back to a writers’ conference I attended seventeen years ago.
Writers also need financial support, of course. Are there writers on your list who are full-time writers? Not employed as a teacher or anything like that?
No. I don’t think there are—except Maggie Shipstead. Maggie is not otherwise employed right now.
How worried are you about a book selling what you projected it to when you acquired it?
I never enter into a relationship with a writer who I don’t believe is ultimately going to be widely read, and “widely read” translates directly into sales. If I believe that a writer is standing at the beginning of a potentially significant career, I am inclined to take a financial risk in support of that.
The hope is always not only that a book will become profitable and widely read, but also that you’re cultivating what will become valuable backlist—works that will be read over time.
I certainly feel accountable for how each of my books performs. It is simply the case that most books disappear. But for better or for worse, when I am lucky enough to discover someone new, someone of what seems at that moment to be infinite promise, that memory dissolves very quickly. [Laughs.] And if it didn’t, it would be very hard to continue on.
How do you think of the investment a reader makes in a book?
I’m coming to it as a reader myself. One of the telltale signs that I’m going to want to publish something is the immediate eagerness to pass it on to someone else, to press it into someone else’s hands.
What are you grateful for?
My God, I’m grateful that no one’s given my office away yet. Every time I come back from a vacation and find that I still have a spot here I am awash in gratitude.
How much should your writers pay attention to shifts in the book industry?
I have never been more hopeful or optimistic, and it isn’t because I have any insight whatsoever into what the future looks like. It’s just because there are so many good books out there, and it seems unmistakably clear that it doesn’t matter how they arrive in the world, in what form they arrive in the world, or even who helps them to arrive in the world. It is the fact of their arrival that is miraculous and wonderful and absolutely unchanged. And will remain so.
What are you excited about?
I’m so excited about Alexander Maksik’s novel. It’s just so beautiful, this book. With a little luck, this is a book that is going to have a real impact. He, sentence by sentence, is a huge talent. The novel opens with this young woman, living alone on an island in the Aegean. She’s clearly very bright and elegant, and she’s sleeping in a cave on a mattress made from trash. She’s absolutely exposed to the elements. The question in the reader’s mind is, “What brought her here?”
You begin to discover how she has come to be in this predicament, and you learn that she has escaped from something so terrible that she has had to exile herself from all human society. It has essentially broken her bond to humanity. The question from which the novel’s considerable suspense derives is “Will she find her way back to humanity, or is she going to tip forward into full-blown madness?”
It’s a staggering book. One of my colleagues said that she finished it at midnight in her apartment, and she had to get up and walk around the block in the dead of winter. I finished it and I just put my head down on my desk. It’s a novel of extraordinary force and beauty.
And I have high hopes for him, Xander. I’m meeting him, actually, for a drink tonight, because he is in that very uncomfortable moment between the arrival of the bound book and the actual publication.
And I’m excited about Dept. of Speculation. It goes out into the world with a Michael Cunningham quote.
I wanted to ask for your thoughts on blurbs. The editor’s experience of them is so much different than a reader’s.
It’s not a pure world. I think it’s a deplorable process, and it puts me as an editor in a position that I really hate, which is asking a writer to take time away from their work. It goes against my instincts: I am here to help writers focus on their own work. I find that very uncomfortable. It makes all of us feel like beggars.
At the same time, there’s no question that it can make a difference. Receiving a well-timed endorsement can tip the scales. In August we’re going into sales conference for our spring list, and I’m hoping to receive a blurb for a particular novel just in time to put it in front of the sales reps as they encounter this book for the first time. It could be the difference between whether they read this book or something else.
Also, this will be a very unpopular position to take, and it slightly contradicts what I said in the first place, but I believe that young writers should support each other. When a young writer has had the exceptional good fortune of finding a wide audience right out of the gate, it behooves them to turn around and pull someone else of equal merit up with them. I have a really hard time when writers who have had the fates shine upon them immediately develop a no-quoting policy. I think that’s shortsighted. It makes me feel like an old curmudgeon to say it.
Would you describe most of your books as literary fiction?
I am wary of the term literary fiction, because it is often used to subliminally suggest something about the potential size of a book’s audience. Take a book like Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, an intensely literary work but with a huge potential readership because of its vitality, because it’s so engrossing, because it’s so affecting and unputdownable.
From a marketing position, it can suggest that a book’s artistic reach is greater than its commercial reach. I resist that, because I don’t think that’s the case.
If calling something a literary novel can circumscribe the potential of a book, is it also a way to define the bar over which you want your writers to leap in their writing?
I wouldn’t say that. I don’t feel I am the person holding that bar for my writers. They essentially come to me with that bar already in place.
Can you walk me through a scene of learning that one of your authors has received a big award or some career-changing news?
I remember when I got the news that Ayana Mathis’s novel had been chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. I received an e-mail from our executive director of publicity and media relations, Paul Bogaards, and it was in all caps. I was elated.
I wanted so much for Ayana’s novel to find its way in the world. I was overcome with gratitude that she had been seen, that she had been recognized, and that she would find her way.
Awards are of course wonderful. They’re wonderful because they create opportunities for writers. There are very few awards that translate directly into sales; the Pulitzer is the most powerful, no question. But they open doors.
I want to quote you back to yourself.
That’s terrible. Oh my God, that’s horrible.
You once said, “There’s no better life than the editorial life.” Well, a life is in some part composed of habits. Do you have any editorial habits?
I’m on the fly all the time. I edit on subways, and in taxis, and in my kids’ beds after they fall asleep. But I do see it as the greatest good fortune to be able to make a life out of reading, which is all I have ever wanted to do.
Michael Szczerban is an editor at Simon & Schuster.