Tell me about your most memorable lunch.
Maybe it was my first lunch with Tom Wolfe. Of course, I took the subway. I was headed to the Four Seasons. And the subway got stuck. Tom, the most courtly of men, was waiting at the Four Seasons for forty-five minutes, close to an hour, and he didn’t leave. And when I finally arrived it was memorable for its tension released by his gallantry. Another was with Joseph Brodsky, when he learned at lunch that I didn’t know much about classical music. He was really horrified. After lunch, he took me to a record store and bought me a basic set: Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, Brahams’s Third Symphony. A few basics to get me started. And I’ve been listening ever since. My daughter is addicted, has to go to sleep by it. So I guess that was a life-changing lunch in terms of my cultivation level. The horror on his face! I loved a lunch with Jamaica Kincaid. I think it was my introductory lunch with Jamaica. We were at the Gotham on Twelfth Street, and we both ordered rosé, and the waiter brought red, and she looked up and said in her beautiful Antiguan accent, “You must think we look stupid!” That was all she said. And the red was exchanged for rosé.
Book editors serve all kinds of different masters: the authors, your bosses, the agents. I wonder how you think about those allegiances and responsibilities.
An editor always wants to make their writers happy. That is a priority. There’s had to be some adjustment and adaptation to the systems as they work now. For instance, the attitude toward the book jacket is more sophisticated than it once was. Today we wouldn’t necessarily get someone to paint an oil of a certain scene for a jacket. It’s become more sophisticated. So the editor’s role, in part, is to translate for the writer the logic behind certain decisions on the house’s part. There’s more gentle persuasion that needs to take place for jackets, titles. But that’s about it. The rest is between the editor and the writer.
How many new books do you try to buy in a year?
As many as I love, really, and it varies from year to year. I might buy four one year and eleven the next. Sometimes they come in clumps. The books you like come all at once. And that can be awkward sometimes. You’ve just signed one up, why should you be signing up another one? Well, it may be six months before another one comes along. So the acquisitions rhythm can be jerky.
Take us behind the scenes at an editorial meeting. I think a lot of writers would be very interested to know what happens.
There are two levels of meetings. First there’s an editorial meeting, where the editors and the editorial assistants basically air their views on significant manuscripts that have crossed their desk in the last week. Often it’s to find out if your colleagues might have a particular interest in, say, Rufus Wainwright, because you know of this Rufus Wainwright book that’s going around. And if there’s significant interest then you might chase it more readily than you would otherwise. So that’s sort of determining subject interest, topic interest. Even now and then with fiction writers, you’ll get a manuscript and want to know if other people have read the writer and what their opinion was. It’s sort of just airing things so there’s a forum for all the material that’s coming in every week. Every now and then, someone will mention a significant turnaway—a reluctant or significant rejection—that sort of thing. “I passed on this even though it’s going elsewhere…” It’s like our live newsletter—what’s been happening at your desk. And it’s not so much a decision-making meeting. Every now and then our editor-in-chief, Geoff [Shandler], will say, “I wouldn’t pursue it. I don’t think it’s right for us.” But not too often. Everybody likes to talk. We talk a lot. It’s a little bit of togetherness, and then we retreat back to our lonely desks.
The acquisition meeting is a decision-making meeting, and we prepare fairly rigorously for it. We write our opinion of the book. We do a description of the book. We give some background on both sales and critical reception for the author’s previous books. We make a profit and loss projection—always an estimate, but something to go by. Every acquisition meeting varies from one company to the next as far as I can tell, but generally a decision is made in the meeting whether or not we’re going to make an offer for the book, and about how high we would be allowed to go to buy the book. So it can go either way. It can be yes or no. And you have to be very manly about it. If I’m unable to sign up a book I want, that’s when I have to be my most manly. And everybody has the same experience. It’s not always a book the company can do, or feel it can do well. But the main thing, your main desire, if you love a book that isn’t signed up by your house, is that it be signed up at some other house. And there are very, very few titles that do get lost. So while it’s a disappointment, it’s not tragic, generally, if your book is turned away. If that’s the worst sort of trauma we have to suffer, it’s not so bad.
So are these decisions made, on some level, by consensus?
On some level. Different voices speak up. Editors. Publicity people. Salespeople. And everybody’s just sort of gently giving their opinion. Then our publisher has to make the final judgment. But it’s often the result of what’s gone on before.
Do you feel a sense of competition with editors at other houses?
That’s a good question. I can’t say that I do. If I admire an editor, and I can’t do a book and they can, I have to honestly say I’m happy for the book, because the writer landed with a good editor. So I don’t really feel competitive. There are some moments when I feel envious, but I don’t feel active competition.
Say you get a debut novel or a debut collection of stories. What is it about something that gets your attention, compared to all the other ones that don’t?
Well, take this collection of stories by Peter Orner, Esther Stories. It was sent by Rob Preskill, an agent in San Francisco who I’d never done any business with and didn’t even know was in business. The stories came out of the blue. I started reading them, and I just found them enormously emotionally affecting. They’re very spare, and the writing is fantastic but not fancy. I just found them very serious—I mean, sometimes they’re funny—but the intent behind them is very serious. They’re basically about families. I was able to find another reader, Eric Chinski, who also loved them, went completely berserk over them, and I was able to buy them at Houghton Mifflin. We put them into an original paperback and lots of wonderful things happened for this book. I published his second book last year. Esther Stories was a very pure acquisition. I’d say that’s about as pure as you can get. Never heard of the agent, no stories published in major magazines.
If you’re talking about a more obvious way of having a book of stories come to your attention, there’s Uwem Akpan. This is a Nigerian writer who is also a Jesuit priest and who got his MFA from the University of Michigan in 2006. He’s written a collection of stories called Say You’re One of Them. It’s about children in various African countries who are in crisis because of conflicts they can’t control. I read the one story, “An Ex-Mas Feast,” in the New Yorker. I read many New Yorker stories, but this one really bowled me over, in, again, a visceral way. And I couldn’t stop reading once I started. So we took action fast. Michael Pietsch, our publisher, felt the same way about the story. I wrote to Uwem. We waited. We waited until the second story came out. Then he got an agent. We waited at auction. We bought the book. It was as if it was fated—it was going to happen. But a lot of publishers wanted a story that was so powerful, and a collection that also had the New Yorker imprimatur.
On the other hand, what is the most common problem with first books?
They can be too controlled. I find a lot of first novels too careful and too polite. I mean, let’s face it, Housekeeping is a wild book. I don’t think Marilynne had ever published anything before, even short pieces. She was doing what came from her mind and her experience. Larry Heinemann’s book is another example, a graphic war novel, but just gorgeous. Sometimes others can be a little tight and a little fearful of being messy.
Do you think MFA programs contribute to that problem?
I don’t think so. I think they’re trying to counter it in some way. I think they try to coach the students to…Look, any time you do something for the first time, you’re more fearful than you are the second time. So the feelings often don’t come forth right away.
But in your opinion are MFAs a good thing for a writer to do or a bad thing?
I think it doesn’t hurt if you have the time. If only to meet other writers and to meet writers with more experience. To learn to talk about writing and the different ways people approach it. I think it’s a good thing. I don’t think it damages writers. I don’t think you can teach anyone how to write, but it can certainly teach people what to expect from themselves, and give them a communal feeling—that this isn’t easy—and give them some endurance power. I don’t think there is a plethora of the programs. I’ve been to several and I always find the writers so alive.