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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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If you're anything like the writers I meet at conferences and MFA programs, the word sweet probably isn't the first adjective that comes to mind when you think of the head of a major New York publishing house. I hear a lot of other words (many of them unprintable in a wholesome writer's magazine), but the takeaway is often the same: They are snakes in suits whose only loyalty is to the bottom line. While it's true that such creatures exist—I could tell you stories—they are far less common than you might think.

Take the case of Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who got where he is, in part, by being one of the most gentlemanly editors in the business. Born in Seattle and raised in small-town Massachusetts, Galassi grew up surrounded by books and was, by his own admission, a "typical geeky kid." At thirteen he went away to boarding school and fell in love with poetry and languages; he discovered the thrill of editing other people's work when he got the opportunity to publish a friend's short story in the school literary magazine. At Harvard he studied with Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. In 1973, after two years in England on a Marshall Scholarship, he moved back to the States and took an internship at Houghton Mifflin. Before long he earned a reputation as an adroit literary editor and was appointed head of the company's New York office. One early acquisition was Alice McDermott's debut novel, A Bigamist's Daughter, which he took with him when he moved to Random House in 1981. As it turned out, the publication of McDermott's novel was a rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal tenure. At Random House, Galassi's books won critical acclaim but sold modestly, and in 1986, after five years with the company, he was fired.

Redemption was both swift and satisfying. Within months of accepting a job at FSG, an independent house that specialized in the kind of serious work he loved, Galassi surprised everyone by taking on a thriller by a Chicago attorney named Scott Turow. The novel, Presumed Innocent, became a runaway best-seller that propelled Galassi up the editorial ranks and ultimately positioned him as the heir to FSG's founder, Roger Straus. In his spare time, Galassi published two volumes of his own poetry, translated the work of Italian modernist Eugenio Montale, and spent a decade as poetry editor of the Paris Review. He also accumulated every major editing award in existence.

Today Galassi says his job is to ensure that FSG stays true to its mission of publishing important voices as effectively as possible. When I asked him what he'd change about his job if he could, he lamented that he doesn't have as much time to read as he used to; he also wishes he had "more of that immediate engagement with new authors." Note to readers: If you can find a way to make Galassi's wishes come true, yours might not be far behind either.

I don't want to bore you with a lot of questions about your childhood but I am curious if there were any books that had a big impact on you at an early age.
I was a big reader as a kid. I used to go to the little library in the town where we lived in Massachusetts and read voraciously. I read everything. I was in the Weekly Reader children's book club and I remember loving The Wind in the Willows and Johnny Tremain and books like that. My grandmother was a big reader. She lived in Boston and would come down and bring books like The Alexandria Quartet or The Fall or Passage to India. I remember the romance and the exotic quality of those books. I remember what they looked like, what they felt like. Eventually all of my grandparents' books ended up in our house, so there were a lot of old books around. It wasn't that I would sit and read them all. It was more that I would pore over them and feel the textures of them. My grandfather was Italian, so there were all these books about Italy, and I would pore through them and look at the pictures of the different places. I was just very absorbed by books as a way of escape and as something to escape into.

But there was no particular book that altered the direction of your life?
I don't think I can point to any one book. But I was bookish. I was very unathletic. I had bad eyesight. I was a typical geeky kid. I remember reading The Count of Monte Cristo when I had the mumps or something and just being overwhelmed by the romance of the story. I loved stories that had a medieval or foreign feel. I loved The Golden Warrior and books about the ancient world. I loved all of that stuff. And then I went away to school when I was thirteen and got very interested in languages and poetry. In high school I got interested in everything that I'm interested in now. That's where I started to write and edit. I was an editor of the school literary magazine. I remember the experience of working with my friends on their writing and how exciting that was to me, and how rewarding it was, even more than my own writing. I felt a real sense of connection to them, and a certain effectiveness. That was a powerful experience. I remember that my best friend, who wasn't a particularly literary guy—he was a jock, really—wrote a short story that ended up being the best story published in the magazine in our time. I was blown away by the intensity and the power of that story. I got a real thrill out of being present at the creation of somebody else's work.

Do you think your work as a poet and translator informs your work as an editor and publisher?
That has always been secondary to my work as an editor. I mean, maybe it wasn't always secondary in my deepest heart, but when I started to work in publishing I decided that I was going to put editing first. And I've never had regrets about it. I guess I think of those things as flowing into and out of each other.

When I started writing I didn't have much confidence in my own powers, but I think over time I've become more comfortable with what I can do as a writer. That came through working on translation. I was translating Montale, which was a deep interest that went on for many, many years. That taught me a lot about writing. And obviously I've also learned a lot from working with writers over the years. But I've never felt any ambivalence about being a publisher as opposed to being a writer.

But is there anything in your experience as a poet and translator that informs how you go about the business of being an editor?
Perhaps I don't think of authors as different animals. I can give authors a sense of realism about what can be done in the world with their work. I would never want to put myself on the same plane as the writers I work with, but because I know what it is to write, I think I can empathize with their desires and frustrations. There are some publishers who think of the work as something for them to mold, and I don't think of it quite that way. But I wouldn't want to convey the impression that I'm a writer who's also a publisher. I'm a publisher who's also a writer. And as a rule I don't talk about my own writing with my authors, unless they bring it up. Because I'm here to work for them.

Did you teach yourself how to edit?
I guess so. My first job was as an intern in the editorial department at Houghton Mifflin in Boston in 1973. They just sort of threw you into it. Nobody was sitting there and teaching you how to do it. I think you learn it by watching how the people around you work with authors, and it happens almost by osmosis. There are many different styles of editing, too. It's an apprenticeship. There are courses you can take to learn the mechanics of the business, like the Radcliffe course, but I don't think they teach you how to edit. Editing is more by-the-hip. You look at a text and ask yourself how it can be improved. One thing I have noticed is that when you're a younger editor, you're more intense about it. As you go along, you relax a little. More and more, I feel that the book is the author's. You give the author your thoughts and it's up to him or her to decide what to do. One time [Jonathan] Franzen made fun of me about that. He didn't take some suggestion I had made and I said, "Well, it's your book," and he sort of mocked me for that. [Laughter.] But that's what I really believe. I believe it with poetry, too. The texts are so personal. Yes, there are times when I've worked with poets to edit their work, but usually you either buy into what they're doing or you don't. If you don't, you shouldn't be working with them, and if you do, you realize that they know what they're doing.

What were the hardest lessons for you to learn when you were a younger editor?
One of the really hard lessons was realizing how much of a crapshoot publishing is—how you can love something and do everything you can for it, and yet fail at connecting it to an audience. Maybe you misjudged it. Maybe it didn't get the right breaks. One of the hardest things to come to grips with is how important the breaks are. There's luck in publishing, just like in any human activity. And if you don't get the right luck—if Mitchi [Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times] writes an uncomprehending review, or if you don't get the right reviews, or if books aren't in stores when the reviews come, or whatever the hell it is—it may not happen. That was one of the hardest lessons: how difficult it is to actually be effective.

Another really hard thing is that, as a young editor, each book is like your baby. I remember wanting to publish Peter Schjeldahl's biography of Frank O'Hara so desperately. I lost it to some other editor who paid more money, and I was melancholy about it for months. Of course the book ended up never being written. [Laughter.] But at the time I felt like a piece of me had somehow been sawn off. I wanted to pour myself into that project so much, and it takes time for that sense of wanting, and identification—which is what publishers live on, really—to relax a little. I see my young editors going through that and I empathize so much. But you have to learn to let go of things. That was a very painful lesson.

But when I was young I had so much reverence for writing. Elizabeth Bishop was my teacher in college—she was my favorite teacher, and I revered her work, and I loved her as a person very, very much—and I remember that when she would invite us over for dinner I would get almost physically ill. It was this combination of conflicting feelings: excitement, discomfort, a sense of unworthiness. It mattered so deeply that it made me almost physically ill. Caring that much was painful. I don't know if that's a lesson but it was certainly something where the intensity of my devotion was overwhelming.

How did you end up in New York?
I started in Boston in 1973, and in 1975 they sent me down here. I wanted to be in New York. After college I'd gone to England for a couple of years on a fellowship. I was in Cambridge, but I spent a lot of time in London, and I realized that I wanted to live in a metropolis. So I came down here. But I was working for Houghton Mifflin, which was a Boston company that had very conflicted feelings about New York. I was very interested in publishing young writers, and I felt that Houghton was kind of stick-in-the-mud-ish and that a place like Knopf or Random House would do that better. It was sort of callow of me because Houghton had been very good to me. They had let me start a poetry series, they had let me publish first novels. And I learned so much there.

But I was a young man in a hurry and eventually I was offered a job at Random House. Jason [Epstein] was the one who hired me. And that didn't go well. There were a number of reasons, some of which were my fault. Jason had a sort of sink-or-swim approach, which was fine, but he was also not terribly interested in what other people were doing. I was used to being the kid who got to do what he wanted. But I wasn't a kid anymore and there was a lot of internal competition and I just didn't respond well to that. I didn't do well. And Random House had Knopf next door, where Bob Gottlieb was at the apogee of his effectiveness. He was a terrific publisher. Random House was always sort of vying to live up to that. The books I was doing were Knopf-y, within Random House, and I just didn't know how to make that work. Someone else could have, I think.

What did you take away from those years at Random House?
I learned a huge amount. Not all of it was pleasant. I learned a lot about competition and how literary life really worked, because Houghton Mifflin was a little bit off to the side. Random House had a kind of glossiness to it that wasn't really me, even though they were a very effective publisher. In the Bennett Cerf days, Random House had been in some ways an ideal publisher because they were what I would call a "best of breed" publisher. They could publish Gertrude Stein, and Faulkner, and O'Neill, but also a lot of very commercial books. And they all sat next to each other comfortably. By the time I got there that had dissipated and there were all sorts of other pressures. But they were a much more confident publisher than Houghton Mifflin.

Knopf was also there, and you saw that it was about a sort of consistency of commitment. They knew how to publish literary books. They published one after another, and some of them would work and some of them wouldn't, and they had a system that was very well oiled. They had a place in the publishing universe, so a lot of their work was already done for them. If they committed to publishing an author, you knew that the Times Book Review was going to pay attention, and this, that, and the other thing were going to happen. That's what that little machine existed for, and they ran it very well.

I actually think that when Bob left publishing, to go to the New Yorker, everything changed in my business. Bob was such a dominant figure in literary publishing that he kind of controlled prices. A lot of people would go to him to be published without auctions because they wanted to be with him. He sort of set the prices in the sense that he wouldn't participate in auctions. It wasn't that he was unfair—he was fair and generous. But he was reasonable. When he left, that was over. Auctions became much more a part of how most books were sold, and the prices went up, and the whole game became more about money. This was in the mid-eighties, and it was a watershed moment in publishing.

I learned some other lessons that were not so nice. It wasn't a collegial place. People really didn't wish each other well, which I wasn't used to. But looking back on it I think it was a difficult situation that I could have responded to differently. I think I grew up a lot during that time.

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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