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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Jonathan Galassi

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July/August 2009

7.01.09

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How did you get from there to FSG?
After I was fired, Roger [Straus] gave me a job. FSG was pretty far down at that point. Roger's son, Rog, had come back to the company and I think they were trying to revivify it. Luckily, they hired me. And the minute I got there, things clicked and I felt like I was totally at home.

This was a real turning point for you.
It was. Basically the first book I signed up was Presumed Innocent, which was a huge best-seller. It was a first for FSG, and it was exactly the kind of book I was supposed to have been publishing at Random House. Of course there was great joy in Mudville about that. [Laughter.] But you have to remember that when I was in college, Lowell and Bishop were my teachers, and both of them were published by FSG. So FSG books had an aura of sanctity. To come and work here was amazing. I just felt like FSG was good at doing the kinds of books I wanted to do. It was still the old days then—it was still a small independent publisher and that was still a viable thing. But it had taken me a long time to get going as an editor. I'd been in publishing for over ten years before I got to FSG and it all came together.

Tell me a little about the atmosphere of the place.
Did you ever visit the old offices? When I came we were on the fourth floor of 19 Union Square West. Calvin Trillin said it looked like a branch office of a failing insurance company. It looked like something out of a porn magazine. It was dirty linoleum and cockroaches and just really, really gross. When we moved up to the old Atlantic Monthly Press office on the eleventh floor, my health improved.

What about the personalities?
In those days Roger was there, of course. Pat [Strachan] was there. Bob Giroux was still around. Michael di Capua. Aaron Asher was gone, but David Reiff was working there as an editor. Rog was there. It was a very personality-filled company with a lot of smart people who were very dedicated. But they never took themselves too seriously. That's one thing I've always loved about FSG. With Knopf I always felt that there was a snootiness—they would look down their noses. That was never true at FSG. It was scrappy; it was irreverent. I mean, they took literature extremely seriously, but they never took themselves seriously. It was a very good-natured place where people wished each other well. I think people felt like they were doing something good. The pay was terrible, and the conditions were terrible, but everybody knew why they were there. And we all felt like it was a privilege to work there. I think both Roger and Bob were responsible for that in different ways. Roger loved the game of publishing. He loved competing. He loved having enemies, being outrageous, swearing, making nasty comments. That was fun for him. Bob was more bankerly and serious, but literature had an unquestioned importance for him. It was a part of life that really mattered. I wouldn't say that that doesn't exist in publishing today, but it does feel different today. At that time books had a cultural primacy that they don't quite have now. Books have been sort of moved to the side by other media. It's not that people don't read books. But books are one among a smorgasbord of options. Whereas in those days books were still where cultural life was centered. People were decrying the influence of television, but books were still more at the center.

A couple years after that you became editor in chief. Was there any friction between you and Roger?
Not a lot. I think I was lucky that I came along at the moment in his life when I did. He and Rog loved each other, but they were not natural business partners. I was able to be a kind of business son in a way that his real son couldn't. We had some set-tos, but not a lot. He was much mellower and less threatened in his later years. There had been a time when a number of really talented editors didn't survive at FSG.

What would you and Roger argue about?
Well, he didn't always like what I liked, but he was pretty tolerant. There would be issues involving money and how much we could pay for things. Roger loved to fight with people. I always thought that wasn't good business practice. I thought it was better to get along with people so you could have another deal with them down the line. I remember one time when I said, "Don't you think we should make up with so-and-so?" He said, "Don't give me any of that Christian stuff, Galassi. I'm a vindictive Jew." [Laughter.] He enjoyed having enemies. But all in all we had fun together, and he was like a father to me in a lot of ways.

Tell me about the transition from editor in chief to publisher.
That was a little difficult in the sense that it had to do with Roger's mortality. When he sold the company in 1994, the deal was that he would run it as long as he could. He did, and he continued to act like an independent for many years. But he slowed down eventually. One of the difficulties I had was that there was a lot of deferred maintenance. In other words, things kept going in a certain way longer than maybe they should have in some areas. The company remained a very personal fiefdom of Roger's even after it had been owned by someone else for a long time. And with that goes what I would call deferred maintenance. The biggest and most significant change I made was bringing in Andrew Mandel to be the deputy publisher. He helped organize and rationalize our practices in a lot of ways. It's still an editorially driven house—the editors still decide what we're going to publish—but the business aspects are a little less seat-of-the-pants and a little more planned out and fiscally responsible. The other thing is that I wasn't editor in chief anymore. I do fewer books and have a lot of other responsibilities. I usually have another editor work with me on projects. I've had to step back from some things. I can't edit these thousand-page books with the kind of assiduity that I used to. I'm still editing a lot of books, but there are just more other things I have to do. It's like how I said earlier that the book is your baby—now the company becomes your baby. You're thinking about ways to strategize for the future. You're thinking about, "How is FSG going to continue to be a literary publisher?" It's more about the organism as a whole and less about any single book. You're asking yourself, "How can we maximize the lives of all the books we do, both in the current environment and in the future?"

What are you looking at when you're thinking about those things?
I'm thinking about the proportions of what we publish, for example. Another one of the things I've been excited about recently is bringing Mitzi Angel here to run Faber. Stephen Page and I decided to take Faber and make it a bigger player in the conspectus of American publishing. That's a really exciting thing and I think Mitzi's doing a fabulous job. So we're trying to expand our bouquet. We also have people like Lorin [Stein] and Courtney [Hodell] coming along who are doing really fresh publishing, and we're trying to give them the support they need. We're also trying to expand our nonfiction publishing to balance the literary publishing because a lot of serious readers read nonfiction and we want those readers too.

Tell me about some of the high moments in your life as a publisher.
One of my happy moments has to do with Denis Johnson. We published two books by Denis in the early nineties: Jesus' Son, which was one of the best books I ever published, and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, which was also a wonderful book. But then Denis left. He went to Robert Jones at Harper. He was dissatisfied. He didn't think that we were doing enough for his books. But he came back to us for Tree of Smoke and it became a New York Times best-seller and won the National Book Award. So there was a great sense of happiness and accomplishment that we came back together and were able to help him achieve so much.

What are some other great moments like that?
When the manuscript of [Marilynne Robinson's] Gilead came in. This is a book that had been under contract for so many years that...it wasn't that we forgot about it, but we didn't know if or when it would appear. And then it came in. It was perfect. Almost nothing was done to it. It was one of those experiences of spiritual uplift. To come across a book that you knew was a great book? And you were reading it first!

The second great moment is when it actually becomes a book—a physical thing. I always feel that when you put a book into proofs it gets better just by virtue of being set in print. I know a lot of writers feel that way too. It takes on a kind of permanence. And then it's even more satisfying when it becomes an actual book.

How did you meet Alice McDermott?
Alice was sent to me by Harriet Wasserman, who was a very important person in the beginning of my publishing life. Her office at Russell & Volkening was in the same building as Houghton Mifflin's New York office. I got to know her and eventually became very close to her. We did a number of really interesting projects together and Alice was one of the first. She gave me these pages from this book about a young woman working at a vanity press, and that was the beginning of A Bigamist's Daughter. She was such an assured writer. She had such definition and wit and this very subtle, cool, deadpan humor. She's one of the most amazing stylists I know. And she's such a modest and well-spoken and well-behaved person. I took that project with me from Houghton Mifflin to Random House, and I remember that, after she turned it in, several weeks went by and somehow it came out that I hadn't paid her the advance that was due on delivery. I said, "Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you ask for it?" She was too well-behaved to ask. [Laughter.] She's someone who didn't write just one wonderful book—she's produced a lot of them. Her methods of writing are very original. She's always writing two books at once, and she ends up choosing one. The other one goes in a drawer somewhere. Which means there are all these incredible, unrealized books by Alice McDermott somewhere. But she uses one to bring out the other. I think it's a very interesting psychological thing. It's like she's always having twins. One twin comes to life and the other twin is still gestating somewhere.

One thing that always fascinates me is how people view their jobs and their various responsibilities. Give me a sense of how you view yours.
I think my responsibility—my task and my joy—is to try to make FSG as effective an instrument for publishing as possible. To make it strong and to help it make a difference in the publishing business. FSG is a lot different than it was when I came here. But what I don't think is different is the attitude about what's important to publish. That is my biggest responsibility—to make sure that that stays at the center of what we're doing. And that we believe literature is important and that our mission is to enhance the dissemination of it. So while everything has changed around the core of FSG, I don't think the core has changed at all.

And if you had to articulate that core and what's important to publish?
I think it's about the voices of writers. FSG really became FSG when Bob [Giroux] came and brought people like Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Those writers, who were all very distinctive and idiosyncratic, contributed to the essence of American literature in their time. And our desire is to continue to be a place where people like that feel at home and feel that we're doing the best we can for their work—and the public feels that the books we publish have value. It's a business, and I love the fact that it's a business. I really think it's much better for publishing to be a commercial enterprise. But it's not just a business. It's about selling something that you believe in.

What houses do you feel competitive with?
I feel very competitive with Knopf. But I feel competitive—and when I say "competitive" I also mean that I feel collegial—with people all over. You and Morgan [Entrekin]. New Directions, who I love. Penguin Press, both in America and in the UK, is a really fabulous publishing house. I think Cape is great. I think Chatto is great.

Who do you feel the most competitive with?
I guess we still think of Knopf as the big giant. We're the we-try-harder. But we're not really like Knopf. We're different. We're smaller. But I think they do a really good job with a lot of great books.

When you suspect you're going up against them for a book, what's your pitch?
My answer to that is that it only makes sense for authors to be published here who want to be published here. In other words, if they buy into our approach and feel that we will do well by their work, that works. If it's about money alone we're not going to tend to win those contests. Someone else can always come up with more money. So what we have to offer is ourselves, and our approach, and what I would do to compete is just tell the author what we think about the book, ask him what he wants from a publisher, and show him how we've done other books in the past. What else can I do?

What's the biggest practical difference, in your mind, between FSG and Knopf?
We're smaller, and that means we can give more attention to each project. We have a very good publishing team. Jeff Seroy is a brilliant publicity and marketing guy. Spencer Lee, our sales guy, is terrific. And there's a cohesiveness to what we do.

It can be difficult to articulate what exactly you're looking for as an editor, but tell me about something recently that captivated you for whatever reason, and talk about why.
The book that we're doing now that comes to mind is All the Living by C. E. Morgan. It's a first novel by a young woman and it's about Kentucky. It was sent to me by Ellen Levine, who is Marilynne Robinson's agent. We publish Marilynne, and this author admires her a lot. I think it was offered to other publishers too, and I don't know if we offered the most money, but we certainly paid a serious advance for it. What I felt was so unusual about it was the voice and the consistency of her approach. She's created a sort of small myth. It's concise. It's intense. It's very different from most other fiction we see in that it's so much about the place. It's very American in that way. It's not ironic. It's not disabused. It's very American in its romance about place and about death and love. I found it very primal and beautiful in a restrained way.

But right now we're also publishing John Wray's book, Lowboy, which Eric's doing. Courtney's doing the Wells Tower book [Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned]. Lorin's about to publish Clancy Martin's book, How to Sell. All of these books are different in terms of their angles of attack, but they're all very strong voices. And they don't sound like anyone else. I think the voice is the most important thing—and then the shape.

One thing that I don't see a lot of today, and that I used to be very taken with, is the bigger kind of novel. Social novels, even. I think of The Twenty-seventh City. That was a first novel that just blew me away. On the one hand there was The Twenty-seventh City and on the other hand was The Virgin Suicides.

Another book that I'm really excited about is Amy Waldman's first novel, The Submission, which is a social novel. It's a fictional account of the attempt to build the World Trade Center memorial. It's a fantastic book about politics, art, religion, and all the different issues there. I very seldom see novels that have that kind of social reach.

Reader Comments

  • mikerol says...

    As a former quite small publisher [of Urizen Books http://isbndb.com/d/publisher/urizen_books.html ] who got his first steady job at Farrar, Straus, in 1966, and brought them Nelly Sachs, all the Hesse books, Hans Erich Nossack, Christa Wolf, and most importantly, Peter Handke, I would say that the now nearly venerable firm has much improved under Jonathan Gallassi's guidance. Jonathan's description of Roger Straus and his conduct of editorial meetings, brings to mind the founder's rather Runjonesque, which I must admit I appreciates, as I appreciate "characters" of all kinds. What is surprising, especially in this retrospect, is how many far nicer people were working there at the time, Hal Vussel, Mr. Henry Wohlforth, the treasurer, Ms. Nicholson, author of a manual on style, in rights and permissions, Ms. Miller, Roger's assistant. Overall though, I would have to agree with the decision by Robert Giroux, as quoted in Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's obituary - Christopher also wrote Rogers obit for the N. Y. Times - that thought of Roger was so distasteful as to keep him from writing a history of the firm. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/books/06giroux.html?scp=2&sq=robert%20giroux&st=cse Each sentence in those two obits is well weighed. Not that Roger was not serious, but he was not passionate about literature, he liked the social side, the hobknobbing at least as much, having no end of never enobling Nobel Prizes, and in that respect Roger does not compare either with his contemporary American [Alfred Knopf, Bennet Cerf, George Braziller, to mention just three of the many] or European equivalents such as Siegfried Unseld of Suhrkamp, Michel Krueger of Hanser Verlag, even a true hobknobber and delightfully social animal such as Ledig-Rowohlt of the Rowohlt Verlag could get down and translate and edit with the best of them and had languages and world wide interests; ditto for Jonathan Maschler of Cape, Mathew Evans the then editor of Faber, no end of great French, Italian and Spanish publishers. I want to tune this point with a very specific example, that of the publication history of the work of Peter Handke in this country, an author since he burst on the scene in 1966, of some 66+ books, who has developed and changed over the course of time to an author of the importance of the greatest in German literature in the past two hundred years. The fellow Handke translator Scott Abbot mentioning, a few weeks back, in a discussion on what is everybody's favorite Handke title at http://handke-discussion.blogspot.com/ that Handke, while he and Handke were together in Yugoslavia, had shown him a letter from "Robert" Straus to Siegfried Unseld where Straus mentions that he's got a big problem called Handke, elicits these thoughts on Farrar, Straus has published Handke in this country: Farrar, Straus did 11 printings of KASPAR AND OTHER PLAYS. FS+G sold the first half a dozen Handke titles to various paperback publishers for reprinting, the Brit Methuen shared upfront costs, over and over, and so certainly did not lose any money. However, in all these years I have never seen an ad for a Handke book in this country. Even the diary-novel, as I think of it, Weight of the World did well, not that FS +G has had the good sense to publish it's successor Die Geschichte des Bleistifts which exists in the major Romance languages of course, to inform Handke's English language reading public, as this book does and can, how Handke's thinking on writing and his project is changing.[Little chance that the mostly idiot reviewers that the mostly idiot book review editors assign books to would take the trouble to give the matter of change any thought to as they so very obviously have not, baffled! I happen to have about each and every review, and there exists a single outstanding one, by Willim Gass in the L.A. Book Review when it was edited by Stever Wasserman]. First major mistake of Roger's was to fail to publish HISTORY OF THE PENCIL, the second and more serious one was to publish A SLOW HOMECOMING jointly in one volume together with LESSON OF SAINT VICTOIRE and A CHILD'S STORY [to save money and also on the individual presentation which these three very different books deserved. These failures in publishing finesse are compounded by failing to put books which had wide readerships in their paper editions with Avon and Collier Books into the FS+G quality paperback imprint Noonday Books to make for continuity [many have recently been reissued by New York Review of Books Books] and then in passing on Handke's greatest plays, WALK ABOUT THE VILLAGES [Ariadne Books] and THE ART OF ASKING + THE HOUR WE KNEW NOTHING OF EACH OTHER [Yale University Press] and many others not even translated yet. So what Roger is complaining to to Unseld is something that was easily remediable by him if he had been as good a publishers Handke's French and Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, etc Publishers were. Handke, also, has had about ten different editors assigned to him since I left there in 1969. Some first rate, the first several, some not, but each of course incapable or unwilling to construct the history of publication, that is to be a real editor! Recently the excellent Annie Wedekind left and so far I haven't found out to which overworked novice Handke has been assigned. Imagine, you're a bright young thing and Goethe is assigned to you! Elizabeth Sifton had a wonderful piece in Slate some years ago about being assigned Saul Bellow when she was a very junior editor at Viking http://www.slate.com/id/2116502/ Evidently Ms. Sifton did not drown, but this indicates the amateurishness with which these matters can be handled. And the case of a foreign author is then far more serious, especially of the new editor who assumes that load does not know the original language. michael roloff http://www.roloff.freehosting.net/index.html

  • Victoria Mixon says...

    Every day in my work as a freelance editor I hear aspiring writers complain that authors are the only people in the publishing industry who care about the quality of the work, that everyone else is obsessed with the money. Thank you for bringing Jonathan Galassi to us in this wonderful interview, so those who hope to become a part of the industry can see what the industry to really is.

    I'm very happy to have this article to mention in my blog on the craft of fiction.

    best,
    Victoria
    http://victoriamixon.com

  • LitPark says...

    What a beautiful interview - from Monte Cristo to the eagerness and heartbreak of young editors to Elizabeth Bishop. Loved all of it. And thank you.

  • lapidaire@netzero.net says...

    Thank you, Mr. Galassi, for putting today's publishing woes in a hard nutshell. Yes, book reviews are overrated; I used to take out from the library the books rated favorably by The NY Times, The NY Book Review, et al, & sometimes brought them back half-read, impatient, because I found them wanting. But this is the truth of reading: It is subjective. One size does not fit all. & do not condemn book clubs, at least they spread the word(I don't belong to one)but less informed & less knowledgeable people could be reached (partic. young ones)through schools & libraries,esp.since you want to market directly.& please, interviewer, Ferrari-Adler(I do not know whether you are male or female), & Mr. Galassi-the accusative of WHO is WHOM,& the dative TO WHOM.As a European-American & a writer myself,it physically hurts me to hear people misuse the cases - both you & the interviewer should know better(worse still:they invited Harry & I).Keep the English language beautiful.Thank you, Ingrid Wild Kleckner

  • Jessica Keener says...

    What a stupendous article. Honest and yearning. Thanks to you both—I also wanted to say to Jonathan how much I loved reading the Bishop-Lowell letters that FSG published. It came to me by way of a gift from my sister. I sank into their correspondence every night for about a month. After that, I ran into Bishop or Lowell in unexpected conversations, and unexpected places. The friendship and love these two great writers gave to each other over their lifetimes was inspiring and surprising. Thanks for publishing it. Jessica Keener, fiction editor at Agni magazine and writer.

  • jj1009 says...

    I honestly believe that this is the best interview I've ever read. The questions were perfect, leading to very informative lessons about editing, publishing, and writing. Jonathan Galassi is amazingly in love with his business, which shines through in this well managed interview. Thank you Jofie Ferrari-Adler.

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