Take me back to the early part of your career and talk about the atmosphere of the industry in those days.
Well, I must say that there were a lot of parties. There were those George Plimpton parties. It was to celebrate writers. That was the purpose of the parties. Publishers would give parties at their houses and invite total strangers. George Plimpton was one of those people and Roger Straus was one of those people, too. Roger actually had a standard poodle named Schwartz who was sent downstairs at eleven o’clock to sort of herd people out. Eleven o’clock was the time you were supposed to leave if it was a dinner party. The parties may not have been very useful, but you met people. You met friends of your writers who might want to publish with you. You met people who might want to support your writers. That sort of networking was very easy to do because of publication parties. If a party was at the National Arts Club, every editor at the house was invited, as well as all the publicity people. It wasn’t very focused, frankly. Everybody came: the young people, the older people, everybody. It wasn’t just for the press.
This was all over the industry?
I think it was fairly industry-wide that publication parties were expected. I’m not saying it’s a huge loss that we don’t have as many publishing parties as we used to, but the kids had a lot of fun—the younger people, I shouldn’t say kids—because you got a lot of free food and you met a lot of people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. It was a benefit, it was definitely a benefit. And people did have fun outside the office. Michael di Capua was just a workaholic in the office. You couldn’t get him to look up or stop yelling about something that went wrong. But outside the office, we would costume up and maybe go to Studio 54. And you didn’t talk about work outside the office. You may have talked about books, but you didn’t talk about the office. It was a different time. This was the ’70s and ’80s.
In those days, who were you were looking up to in the industry? The way that someone my age would look up to Galassi or whoever.
Cork Smith—Corlies Smith—everyone called him Cork. He was an editor at Viking for many years. He was just an addictive reader. I remember him saying to me once, “I know it’s bad, but sometimes I finish the manuscript when I know I’m not going to buy it.” Because he just couldn’t stop reading! He always wanted to know the end of the story. He was very laconic and he looked like…what did Cork look like? He was extremely handsome. As Elisabeth Sifton always said, “Well, just stand in line, because there are a lot of people in line and he’s been married to Sheila for many, many years.” He looked like Marlon Brando, only tall and thin. That’s pretty good looking. And everybody really admired him.
Alan Williams was another one. Alan was at Viking as well. He had a piece recently, I think in the Yale Review or somewhere, about his career—he died a few years ago—saying, “All right, here’s what my liberal arts education did for me. I learned how to talk about anything for five minutes and to talk about nothing for more than five.” And that’s the definition of a trade book editor. You’re constantly becoming an expert in every area. You can do fiction and nonfiction, which we all do, and there’s this continuing education aspect to it. Bob Gottlieb was always highly admired for being interested in everything—interested in the way the ad looked, interested in every aspect of the process. He had very catholic, broad taste—he could publish a thriller or anything else. Peter Mayer at Penguin was also extremely well-respected and liked.
What was it about Peter that you admired?
His commitment. That publishing was his life, is still his life. And that’s really the only way you can do it. You know, you don’t go home and switch on the TV every night. You’re always thinking about how you might push this book, how you might help the book, how this world event might help. There’s an article in the paper about Polish workers in London, and I think, “How can I attach that to Rose Tremain’s book?” And of course you can’t. But it becomes habitual that you are always thinking about the publishing process and the books that you’re working on. It’s that way-of-life mentality of some publishers. Roger Straus. Bob Gottlieb. Cork Smith, who was more an editor than a publisher. Alan. Peter Mayer. There must be others I’m leaving out, certainly Roger Straus and Bob Giroux. You know, as Edmund Wilson always said, “Literature is life,” and in some ways if you’re in publishing, publishing is life. And it gives back. You’re constantly learning.
Do you have any great Roger Straus stories that you can tell?
He was extremely personable. He loved people. He was a liberal at heart in the way that he trusted people. He trusted other people’s opinions, not just his own. And I think in a way, like Alfred Knopf, who probably wasn’t as friendly, he depended on advice, and that was a way to build a great house. Whether it was the CIA people he had out there in Italy finding Alberto Moravia, or later it was Susan Sontag and Joseph Brodsky advising, he trusted other people. Not that he couldn’t judge for himself. But why not get the people who write for a living and read for a living, the total-immersion people, to tell you who’s best of these twenty Italian writers? And he was self-confident enough to do that, to take advice, and Knopf did the same thing. That’s how Roger built up his European list. And he trusted his editors. Now, of course, if you didn’t get the good reviews, he would stop trusting you. So that’s why your standards became very high—because you didn’t want to disappoint him. And a bad review was not acceptable. He wouldn’t say anything, but you knew he was disappointed, and that was a great motivation to sign up the best things you could find and not take it lightly.
Do you have any sort of guiding philosophy that shapes your editing?
Not a guiding philosophy, but I do think it’s extremely dangerous to mess with a novel structurally, because it’s close to poetry in that it’s almost pure consciousness. The way it comes forth from the writer is the way it should probably be, even though maybe the beginning is unclear or not enough action happens in this part or whatever. With a literary book—I hate to say literary, but a piece of serious fiction that isn’t genre fiction—I try to stay away from structural suggestions because they can be very damaging. One big change can make the whole house of cards fall apart. So with literary fiction I really try to stick to line editing. I also think the less done the better, and I consider myself a fairly heavy editor. But I do as little as I can do, because a work of serious literature is a very fragile construction.
I have a few little bugaboos. I learned one of them at the New Yorker. It’s called the “stopper.” A stopper is usually a graphic or upsetting image that causes the reader to stop and read in a daze over the next pages. The reader has a visceral reaction. And you don’t want to do that and follow it up with important stuff. You don’t want to do that too fast, you don’t want to do it too soon—especially in a story. It’s more than prudery. There are certain rules about how a reader is actually reacting, that I have in my own mind at least. But the stopper was a New Yorker term, and I thought it was really very wise.
Who was editing the New Yorker when you were there?
It was Bob Gottlieb, lots of fun, and the deputy was Chip McGrath, marvelous, and Roger Angell was the head of the fiction department, which he probably still is. Alice Quinn was there doing poetry and some fiction. Linda Asher and Dan Menaker, lots of fun, plus assistants and about three people who did nothing but read.
Why did they call you? This was after Bonfire?
Yes. It was right after Bonfire, which was my first best-seller after Coming Into the Country and my last best-seller. I knew John McPhee very well, and they were looking for a fiction editor and John, I know, recommended me to Roger. And I knew Chip fairly well. They may have thought I might have been unhappy because I was passed over for the editor in chief job at Farrar, Straus, which was offered to Jonathan Galassi, who’s done such a beautiful job ever since. Because of the length of time I had been there, they may have thought my nose was out of joint, which it really wasn’t. But the opportunity presented itself and it was lovely. The magazine was more limited in some ways, but it’s more expansive in that you had an audience for each story of possibly eight-hundred-thousand readers. Now I think it’s up to nine-hundred-and-something thousand. The idea of distributing a piece of fiction that you love to so many people is alluring. For selfish reasons, it’s nice because the piece of writing you’re working on is very short. There’s no interior design to be fooled with. There’s no jacket. There are no reviews, no subrights. Being a fiction editor at a magazine is a very distinct task, as opposed to books. Surely there are people who can’t image the sluggishness of our process—“How can you have the patience to work with books?”—but that was what I was used to. So that’s why I left after four years, very tearfully, because I loved the people and I loved the magazine but I knew I wanted to be back with books.
How did it work at the New Yorker in terms of deciding what got published?
The way it worked then, which was 1988 to 1992, was that when you found a story that you liked you would write a little report on your manual typewriter—maybe we had electric by then—fold it over, and pass it on to the next reader. All the editors read all the stories, and the report would circulate with the story. The next editor would read the story, open up the piece of paper, and add his or her paragraph. It would go all the way to the top that way, to Chip McGrath and eventually Bob Gottlieb, and Bob would make the final decision. We rarely talked about the story until the process was over, which must have come from years of experience, from knowing that talking about fiction can often lead you into an emotional tug-of-war, that the responses to fiction are very often psychological, and the discussions could become very heated and the opinions just wildly divergent, even within the fiction department at the New Yorker. So it was best not to talk about the stories until it was over. Then you could say, “What did you think about that?” when the stakes weren’t quite so high and there was either a yes or no already. I thought it was a very elegant way to do things, and they may not have even been aware of it.
What was it like to work for Bob Gottlieb?
I wish I had seen more of him. He was very busy because he ran the whole magazine. He was absolutely ebullient and excited about just about everything and very outspoken when you eventually got to speak to him. But I felt that I was working more for Chip and Roger and those people because Bob had the responsibility of the whole magazine. He did say, when we moved offices—we moved from 28 West Forty-fourth Street to offices overlooking Bryant Park—I remember him saying, “We are going to have individual radiators and individual air conditioners, just as we did in the old office, because I don’t want to do climate control issues.” He was so wise. I don’t want to do climate control issues. That’s usually what the discussion is in every office—whether it’s too cold or too hot.
Getting back to books, I wonder if you would walk us through your day a bit to give us a sense of how an editor spends her time.
We don’t read or edit in the office. If someone asks you to read something really quickly for them, you might stop and read, but you want the leisurely hours to read. We have meetings: editorial meetings, acquisitions meetings, marketing meetings, focus meetings, meetings about the jackets, meetings about the titles. There are lots of meetings and often there’s preparation for those meetings—we don’t just walk in cold. An agent or two may inquire about one thing or another: distribution of the book internationally, some question about the catalogue. Usually there are several agent inquiries a day. They’re trying to keep on top of what’s happening with their clients’ books.
I correspond with writers, obviously. I do miss the phone contact, but e-mail has become so much more efficient. If they’re not home—and they’re often not home—the e-mail is still there. So that’s a lot of the day. We always look at Publishers Lunch for too long. Rejection letters. Rejections are things that you try to compartmentalize and not think about too much. It’s probably the least pleasant part of the job. It takes a lot of tact to do it without hurting anybody’s feelings. Doing it so that the author could possibly see the letter and feel encouraged rather than discouraged is time-consuming. It’s anonymous, unsung work. Everybody in the company knows what you signed up, but they don’t know what you didn’t sign up. There are also lunches. Lunches are the best. That’s with the writers or the agents. Lunches are always interesting to me, and I feel really privileged that I get lunch. You get your bearings back when you inhale a little oxygen and actually talk to people. I don’t think lunch is a universal love, but it’s certainly one of mine, and it’s very useful.