That must have been a big book for you. Or was The Right Stuff the bigger book?
Well, The Bonfire ended up selling more copies. They were both big books. I guess The Right Stuff must have been a best-seller as well. I forgot about that. I remember when Bonfire was out and I was sitting at my desk typing something and young Roger, the sales director, came in and kissed me on the forehead. I said, “What’s that all about?” He said, “You’re number one.” And I didn’t know what he was talking about. Bonfire had hit number one on the best-seller list, but I didn’t viscerally relate to that.
Because it had been a long time since the editing and I was already on to something else. Of course it was wonderful for Tom and wonderful for everyone involved, but my work was pretty much done. I had nothing to do with it becoming number one.
That’s interesting because today editors are so involved in the promotion and the talking and the chatter, getting everyone fired up. Has that been a change in the space of your career?
That is a bit of a change. I mean, I always did a lot of hobnobbing on my authors’ behalf and that never let up. We were not quiet and genteel at FSG. We were very fervent and committed. But my basic job had been done, in that particular case, and now it was up to someone else to make it a best-seller. And Tom didn’t need my help. He didn’t need quotes. He was already a well-known writer. But we hobnobbed in different ways. It was less within the house than it was outside the house. It was like each editor was his or her own brand. The decision on what to publish was pretty much up to you, and therefore you had to justify your decision. And the responsibility was all on your head for every book you signed up. Certainly fiscal responsibility reigned at a small, private house where, you know, the bank was at our door a lot. So those profit-and-loss statements—whatever they called them then, before you signed up a book—were important. You saw what the last book did and sort of tailored your advance to that. We were very careful with money.
Roger was notoriously stingy.
[Laughs] He was careful with money. John McPhee actually called him McStraus, and he called him that to his face, and we all laughed. But John never had an agent. John just took the deal every time and eventually we had the best-seller with Coming Into the Country.
How did you actually learn to edit? Was there a mentor?
The mentor, initially, was Mr. Giroux. I would Xerox his manuscripts after he edited them. He took the month of August off every year and would edit three or four books during that time. But the closest teacher was a woman named Carmen Gomezplata, who was our chief copyeditor. We were the children, and we and Carmen were in and out of each other’s offices all the time. We would ask her questions and as we grew into our roles we continued to ask her questions. She really taught us to see those copyedited manuscripts in great detail. In those days, you went over them and then sent them to the author. You really learned. That was a valuable experience. That’s the technicalities of editing. The editing itself—I mean, not the punctuation and if you put the possessive here or there, but the instinctive editing—is hard to explain. That has to do with your own ear and your own sense of the language. Every editor is different, and the editing is generally subjective and instinctive, which is why everything is pretty much put in a question form. That’s what I call the slow reading, rather than editing—slow, slow, slow reading. You have to have a very long attention span as you know and just not get up for a long time to keep the continuity. And if you are a sedentary person anyway, which I am, it’s a marvelous, marvelous job.
Did you know that you liked it right away?
I did. It’s because the writers were so wonderful. One after the other would come into the office—most of them did, anyway—and they were so interesting and so fun to be with. It’s not as if the editing of their books was the penance part, but the association was such a joy, and I knew I wanted to be among that group of people who were writing and publishing books.
You were also editing a fair number of poets. How did you come to meet Seamus Heaney?
I met him through his books. Seamus had been distributed by Oxford University Press—his Faber and Faber editions—and Faber had for a while wanted Farrar, Straus to publish him. I started publishing him with Field Work, which was maybe 1978. And that was really, really a wonderful opportunity. He’s so kind, and so funny. This is what I find about a lot of poets: Before the kind, the funny. Why are poets so funny? Joseph Brodsky: hilarious. Derek Walcott: hilarious. Mark Strand—they’re all funny. Even Gjertrud Schnackenberg is funny. Grace Schulman’s funny. They don’t have as much at stake as far as becoming financial successes. There is a limited readership, even with someone like Seamus. They are jealous about prizes and jockey in that sort of way, but basically they’re pretty satisfied with what they’ve chosen to do in life. It’s a choice that was almost made for them. It’s who they are.
I have to confess that the idea of editing poetry is mysterious to me. What does it amount to?
It shouldn’t be mysterious. Because once again it’s just slow reading. If there’s a dangler in there, the poet doesn’t want that dangler. “No, I didn’t mean for that to refer to that.” I think it’s basically just catching mistakes. If there’s something you really, really think should be clear—it’s meant to be clear but it’s not, it’s coming forth as obscure—then you ask. And if they say no, it was supposed to be at a slant, that’s fine. But you just ask. Editing poetry to me was asking the dumb question again and again and again, and having absolutely no pride about that. So that the poet knows that everything there is what she wanted to say. It’s asking a lot of dumb questions. And there is work to be done with poetry, work that’s very concrete, just like any other piece of writing. And you would find that too if you sat down with a manuscript of poems. All the mystery would go away.
You also edit the novelist Daniel Woodrell.
Daniel is new to me. I can credit my husband, Bill, for Daniel. Bill was editor in chief at Holt when Dan was published there by Marian Wood. He really liked his work and met him and liked him very much. After his seventh or eighth book, Daniel decided that he wanted to try a new publisher, which is very common and often legitimate. Just to see if another sales force might do better. It had nothing to do with the editor at all. So a partial of Winter’s Bone was submitted to Little, Brown. And the partial was so strong that we bought the partial and an unwritten novel. And with fiction, that’s very unusual. Obviously he’d written books in the past, but we hadn’t worked with him in the past. It turned out to be wonderful. We’ve been able to at least double, if not triple, his sales. We were able to do the same thing for Rosemary Mahoney with her travel memoir Down the Nile.
Tell me about that. What do you do for a writer who’s maybe midcareer, whose career may have stalled a little bit in terms of sales?
It’s tough. Getting new sorts of support for the writer that he or she hadn’t had before is sometimes helpful. For Winter’s Bone, Edna O’Brien gave a comment. I know her, but she’d never read Dan before and would not have praised the book if she didn’t really love it. So to have a blurb from Edna O’Brien, that sort of points to something about the language in the book, whereas people may have been thinking, “Oh, does he just write country noir? Or are these crime novels? Or are they mysteries?” I’m also very proud to have gotten Tom McGuane, who I don’t know and who doesn’t know Dan, to read it and write a comment about it. That in turn helps the reviewers to think about the writer again. And we got a ton of reviews, and big ones, and really nice ones, for this book. And reviews do sell books at a certain level. So it’s a very gradual sort of chipping away process and nothing is really guaranteed. You can’t make someone give a blurb. I’ve always regretted that—that you can’t write the blurb yourself and sign it.
You also had a very close relationship with Laurie Colwin, the late novelist and food writer.
Our children started it, the first day at City & Country School, on Thirteenth Street. Our children were barely two years old. She needed time to write and I needed for my child to have some action other than the babysitter. We sort of circled each other. I knew she was a writer, she knew I was an editor. And we were very standoffish at first. This is all about the children. This is not about business. And then it was clear we were just made for each other. As mothers. As friends. She did teach me a lot, as a friend, about what the writer’s life is like, how challenging it is, even for such a popular writer. How Spartan it can be. Of course she countered that by making things nice, and often it was through food. Food was very important. Halloween was very big in her and Juris’s part of Chelsea, and so the Halloween meal would be served at their apartment. You never had a drink before dinner at Laurie’s. You just sat down and had dinner and got right to it. And then you talked and talked and talked. She was a very dear friend. A lot of my writers were friends. Laurie wasn’t my author, so that was a different situation. I was constantly amazed that she was interested in anything I had to say. Because she was so interesting, and I’m just an editor, a boring person who works at a company.