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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Editor Pat Strachan

Jofie Ferrari-Adler

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.

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Excellent interview, wonderful editor!

I'm so grateful you have this excellent interview by Jofie Ferrari-Adler in full here on the Web site. I finished the print version in P&W and immediately logged on for more. Strachan's sensibilities and experience across a broad spectrum of publishing houses are hopeful evidence of the intelligence, taste, and discretion still to be found amongst those searching to find, polish, and promote the best talents and deliver them to intellectually thirsting readers. Thank you Pat Strachan! I am glad you are out there for us writers. --Octavia Randolph

A clarification about a remarkable woman

A rather off-hand referral to a very remarkable woman as working under a "psuedonym"  has prompted this comment. It seems odd that someone who both took the course and worked at Radcliffe for a year after that could not do Mrs. Venn any better. So in order to correct this lapse, I offer the following:

"Mrs. Diggory Venn" was Mrs. Helen "Doylie" Venn, wife of Richard "Diggory" Venn and mother of Tamsin Venn, my wife. Richard got his nickname in high school, where the well-read students made the connection to the character in Hardy's Return of the Native. Doylie ran the Radcliffe course for 26 years, although she had been working with the project for 33 years at her retirement.

Diggory and Doylie were involved in writing, publishing, public relations, and travel throughout their lives. They met in San Francisco while Diggory was working at the San Francisco Chronicle and Doylie was working for the League of Nations. In 1945, she was awarded a citation by the United Nations Conference on International Organization for "faithful and diligent performance of duty, [which] contributed to the creation of the Charter of the United Nations."  Born in England, Diggory came to school in the U.S. and joined the Marines during WWII. He seved as a correspondent in several serious battles, including Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.

After the war, the Venns moved to the East Coast, first to New York, and then to to Boston. During this period, Doylie worked for Conde-Nast Publishing. The publishing course was founded by Edith Stedman, literary agent and writer, in 1947 to provide hands-on training in publishing for Radcliffe graduates, and Doylie was active in the course as assistant to the director from its inception. Helen Everitt was the first director. Doylie became the third director in 1954. Doylie often had students and visiting authors and publishers who lectured in the course the course as guests to her summer home in Ipswich, Mass, and traditionally included a clambake for participants.

The 6-week publishing course was known as " the shortest graduate school in the world and the most prestigious crash course in publishing." (Boston Globe obituary, Dec 13, 1993). More of Doylie's accomplishments are mentioned in the biography accompanying the description of her donated papers in the Radcliffe College Archives:

"She taught the Franklin Book Program Seminar for publishers from developing countries (1965), led the Radcliffe seminar 'Communications for the Volunteer' (1965-68) in which volunteers learned how to conduct meetings, plan publicity and promotion, speak in public, and fund raise, and the Brazilian Seminar sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development, 1967-69. Venn was honored for her contributions to publishing: she received the Dwiggins Award from Bookbuilders of Boston (1978) was chosen one of Boston's 100 New Female Leaders by Boston Magazine (1980), inducted into the Publishing Hall of Fame (1984), and received a Women's National Book Association Book Women Award (1987.)"