Well, it was famous there, not anywhere else. Again, it was me trying to prove myself when I was young and trying to prove myself. I bought a work of nonfiction about an FBI guy who went undercover and got so deeply undercover that he became a criminal himself. A journalist had written a proposal to write this story. Susan bought it, and when it came in she gave it to me to edit. It was terrible. The guy was a good reporter—he dug and dug and dug—but he hadn't a clue about writing or putting a book together. I looked back at his credits and realized that he had been with People magazine, and his articles always said they were "reported by" him but written by somebody else. So I thought, "Okay, we're going to make this work."
I started rewriting it. When I was done with the first chapter I sent it to him. He said, "Oh, I see." I said, "Can you do this now? Can you look at what I've done to this chapter and redo the rest of the book?" He sent it back and it was still terrible. No better. I thought, "Either I reject it or I rewrite the whole book." So I started rewriting the whole book. At some point he started pestering me about when I was going to be done. I sent him the first half. He called me and said, "Forgive me. This is brilliant. I love what you're doing. Keep going." So I kept working on it and got about another hundred pages done—it's like four hundred pages long—but then he called me again. Now, I'll admit, it had been three or four months by this point. But he called me again and said, "Where's the rest of it?" I kept putting him off, but eventually he started calling me every day. One day he called me and said, "I'm really getting upset about how long you're taking with this."
I have a terrible temper, but I don't lose it very often. I'm usually able to keep myself from going off the handle. But that day I was just in a bad mood or something, and I said, "You know what? I hate you and I hate your book." And I slammed down the phone. I was sitting there, kind of hyperventilating, and then I heard Susan's phone ring, and about thirty seconds later I heard her walking down the hallway to me. She yelled at me, of course, but she was nice about it. She said, "You should have rejected this. You should have come to me and said, ‘This is terrible.'" I said that I just didn't want to give up on it.
Tell me about some of your more memorable celebrity experiences at S&S.
There were so many. Going to Cher's house and sitting in her strange living room and just talking with her—that was pretty awesome. I liked her. I can't say I ever got to know her. I think she's very afraid of exposing herself. So she limits her world to people who are right around her and she trusts, and we were never going to be part of that. But it was fun to work with her anyway. Esther Williams was memorable and probably one of my proudest publishing experiences, because everyone laughed at me when I bought the book. They said, "What a joke. Nobody cares." But thanks to two other people I worked with—one in subrights, one in publicity—who also loved Esther and loved the book, it became a big best-seller. It probably sold 120,000 copies, which was great for a book that everyone said I was stupid to buy. And I loved working with Esther.
Two of my more memorable experiences involved celebrities I never actually did books with. One was having lunch with Diana Ross with Michael at the Four Seasons when her memoir was being shopped around. She wanted Michael to be her editor and I think it had been requested that we have lunch with her. I was immediately besotted with her. I just thought she was the most exciting person I had ever met. It may have all been a performance—it probably was—but when I walked out of that restaurant I was ten feet off the ground. I was just in love with her. The other one was dinner with Sidney Poitier when his book was being shopped, and he was wonderful and brilliant and charming.
Working with Charlton Heston was great. I loved him. We never talked politics or gun control, and he was just a genuinely sweet man. I even said to him at one point, "I've worked with a lot of celebrities and they are many things but they are usually not nice. How can you be so nice and be a household name?" He said, "Good thing you didn't know me thirty years ago." He was really well grounded. Meeting Elizabeth Taylor was exciting. There were a few people I worked with who I got to know pretty well. Neil Simon and I became pretty friendly when we were working together. Paul Mazursky, the director, was another. Maureen Stapleton was a sweetheart.
You mentioned Diana Ross coming to Michael. There is obviously a cult of personality with some editors...
Michael, having been a child of Hollywood himself, made a lot of these people feel comfortable. The drawback was that sometimes I think they felt he was also competing with them.
As you were coming up were there any other people who had an important influence on you?
Susan Moldow was a huge influence, just because she gave me a chance and encouraged me. Carole Baron was one of the greatest people I've ever worked with. I just loved her. Ray Roberts at Macmillan was a huge influence on me. I love him. He and I were incredibly close friends. He gave me confidence in myself about what I could do.
Is that because your personality type was similar? You didn't have to be an oversized personality?
Exactly. There was an editor at Macmillan at the time who just died this week, Eleanor Friede, and she was an oversized personality. She was kind of daunting. I liked her a lot but, you know, it was like, "Now that's an editor." I could never be like that. I could never be like Michael; I could never be like Nan Talese. I just don't have that in me. I was always happiest just being in my office and working and not necessarily being out there.
Why were you were ultimately pushed out at S&S?
It's a complicated story, and I'm not sure I know the whole story. I was told that they had to cut back and that Michael had declined to retire. They wanted him to retire. And because he wouldn't retire, they were going to fire me. They wanted me to continue editing [on a freelance basis], but they told me I should just retire.
You were making too much money?
I guess. It didn't seem like it to me, but I don't know what everybody else made. I was certainly well paid. But, mind you, when David Rosenthal came to Simon & Schuster he immediately gave me a raise. He said, "You're not making enough." I was never one who went and lobbied for big raises. So I think it was a combination of things.
How did the Algonquin job come about?
When I was fired from Simon & Schuster, I was given something like four months notice, mainly because they wanted me to finish editing the new Mary Higgins Clark, which had to go to press in March. So I had until the end of March to clear out. An agent, Cynthia Manson, who is a friend and a wonderful person, called me and said that Peter Workman was looking to hire somebody. She knew Peter and asked if I would be interested in talking to him. I said that would be serendipity because Algonquin was in North Carolina, where I already had a house and spent a lot of time.
But, to be honest, I had little hope for it because...Mary Higgins Clark? Jackie Collins? Those weren't exactly the kind of authors I thought of when I thought of Algonquin. But Peter could not have been nicer or more inviting. He basically said, "I don't what you to learn to do Algonquin books. I want them to learn how to do the books that you're comfortable with." So that gave me some hope that this actually might work. No one else offered me a job, and I could've done freelance and probably made more money than I'm making here, but I didn't want to do that.
The thing that I love about what we do as editors is, first of all, working with the authors. But I also love this excitement when a new manuscript comes in and you think, "Okay, I'm ready to fall in love again." It doesn't happen very often, but when it does it's just unbeatable. I didn't want to give that up. I could have kept editing on a freelance basis, but I would have missed that love experience. So we worked out everything and I was very happy to take the job down here, and it has been, I think, the most exciting thing that has ever happened in my career. I mean, who would have thought? I got a third act here.
I read somewhere that Water for Elephants is the biggest seller in Algonquin's history. Tell me about the acquisition.
The acquisition process was simple. Emma Sweeney e-mailed the book to me and told me that it had been under contract to Morrow—I believe this is right—and they had rejected it because they wanted another romantic contemporary book like Sara's first book. I had been the underbidder on Sara's first book [Riding Lessons] at Simon & Schuster, and I had met her when she came around to meet people. So that was the reason the new book came to me. I started reading it and immediately just loved it. I gave a copy to Ina Stern, our associate publisher, on a Friday. We both came in on Monday and went, "Oh my God! We have to have this book." It was the first and, with the exception of one other book I've brought in, the only time that every editor here and the publisher said, "We have to have this book." Usually there's one naysayer, and sometimes several, but in this case everyone agreed. I remember saying at the editorial meeting, "I don't know that this book will be a best-seller. But I think this author will be a best-seller because she's an animal person and will continue to write about animals." Her first book had involved horses. I said, "You've got the opportunity for off-the-book-page publicity because you have an author you can promote," which is infinitely easier than just promoting the book. So we took it on with great enthusiasm.
Was it a competitive situation or did you have it exclusively?
It was out with a number of other houses. I told Emma, "Look, I really just want to take this off the table." I think I offered her fifty thousand for world rights. She asked me if I could go up, so I went up a little bit, and we got it. A few months later, after the book had been edited and everything—it didn't take much editing because it was really clean—our publicity and marketing people had a meeting to talk about the next season. They meet every season and choose one or two books—we promote all of our books a lot—but they choose one or two that they hope can be especially big. They chose another novel as the big book for that season. But it turned out that our marketing director, Craig Popelars, hadn't read the novel yet. So, after that meeting, he read it. Afterward, I remember, he walked in here with the manuscript and said, "Best-seller. We can make this a best-seller. I can give this to my mother, I can give this to my father, I can give this to my wife, I can give this to my old college roommate. This book is universal." I was a little jaded by that point, so I said, "Sure, you go ahead and make it a best-seller." And damned if he didn't. Craig along with Michael Taeckens, the publicity director, and Ina Stern, the associate publisher, got behind this book and just made it happen.
In the lead-up to publication, what are some of the key things that you and your colleagues did?
Craig got on the phone or emailed thirty or forty key independent bookstore people around the country. He said, "I want to send you a manuscript that I think is going to be huge. If you like it as much as I think you will, I want you to give me a quote that I can use to put together an ad." He sent out the manuscript and the comments that came back were universal. There wasn't one negative response. The independent booksellers got behind the book in a huge way. He took those quotes to sales conference in New York, and the sales reps had started reading the book and agreed that it could be a best seller. Michael started putting together a thirty-city tour. We had started out thinking the first printing would be fifteen thousand copies, but by the time we actually went to press it was fifty thousand.