In an industry known for its larger-than-life personalities, Pat Strachan, a senior editor at Little, Brown, is something of a revelation. Born and raised in the suburbs of St. Louis, and educated at Duke University and the Radcliffe Publishing Program, Strachan moved to New York City in 1971 and spent the first seventeen years of her career at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), starting as an assistant and rising to vice president and associate publisher by editing top-shelf writers such as Joseph Brodsky, Lydia Davis, John McPhee, and Marilynne Robinson. Over almost four decades in the business, she has edited some of our most celebrated poets—Donald Hall, Galway Kinnell, Philip Larkin, Czeslaw Milosz, and Grace Paley, to name a few—and an equally impressive roster of prose writers, including Ian Frazier, Jamaica Kincaid, Rick Moody, Edna O’Brien, Jim Shepard, Tom Wolfe, and Daniel Woodrell. In 1982, she was awarded the PEN/Roger Klein Award for Editing. Yet despite these accomplishments, she remains a gentle and unassuming presence—an echo of Max Perkins in the era of Judith Regan.
When Strachan leads me into her office, the first thing I notice is that her large, L-shaped desk is neat and uncluttered. She explains that many of her manuscripts are at home, where she does her reading and editing. The office is decorated with dozens of framed photographs, drawings, and other mementos from a life in books: here a black-and-white photo, taken in the 1970s, of Derek Walcott at the Trinidad Theatre Workshop; there a shot of Padgett Powell and his beloved pit bull, Spode. On the wall to my right is a poem by Seamus Heaney titled “A Paean for Pat,” which he presented to her when she resigned from FSG in 1988 to become a fiction editor at the New Yorker. In 1992, after four years at the magazine, Strachan returned to book publishing, holding senior-level positions at Harcourt and Houghton Mifflin before moving to Little, Brown in 2002.
Shortly before this interview went to press, the literary world was shocked by news that Tom Wolfe, whose books Strachan edited at FSG, had left his publisher of forty-two years and given his next book to Little, Brown for an amount of money that anonymous sources have placed at between six million and seven million dollars. Sara Nelson, the editor in chief of Publishers Weekly, speculated in her weekly column that “by choosing Pat Strachan, wherever she is, Wolfe is declaring that sometimes it’s the editor, even more than the house, that counts.” I dropped Strachan a line to ask if she thought that was the case. True to form, she ducked the opportunity to take any personal credit, replying, “I can barely believe my great good fortune in being able to work with Tom Wolfe again. His new novel will be both an enormous amount of fun and an important reckoning with our times, as readers know to expect of Tom.”
In this interview, Strachan talks about her years at the New Yorker, the art of editing literary fiction, and what authors should consider when trying to land a publisher.
Maybe you can start by telling me a little bit about your background.
I was born in Kirkwood, Missouri, which is a suburb of St. Louis. Marianne Moore lived there when she was young, with her brother and mother. They lived with their uncle at the parsonage at the First Presbyterian Church. I only learned that later, when Mr. Giroux went to her funeral and brought back the program. Basically it was a postwar suburb. I went to public schools all the way through and then Duke University. At Duke, I found a flyer advertising the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures course. It was run by a woman named Mrs. Diggory Venn, which I think was a pseudonym. So fate took me to that course, and that’s where I met my husband, who was also taking the course. There were seven men out of seventy-seven students, and he was one of them. We met and married a year later, when I was twenty-four. That’s the nutshell story.
Did you know you wanted to go into publishing when you were growing up?
Oh, no. Books came into the house via an aunt. My father died when I was small—five—and this aunt from afar sent us books all the time for some reason. She would send us the Caldecott and Newbery award winners. So I read Thurber, for instance. My mother was a reader but she was more a periodical reader—the New Yorker was always in the house. But she preferred to read to learn something. A third grade teacher, Mrs. Hunter, somehow spotted me as a reader and encouraged me to read as much as possible and kept feeding me books. You know, this was third grade, so it was Little House in the Big Woods. She was extremely influential. In fact, I went back to St. Louis last April to see Kathryn Davis at Washington U. Kathryn asked me what I wanted to do most when I was back, and I said I’d like to see my third grade teacher. So we found her and went to see her. She turned one hundred in July. And she’s still reading and she’s still bright as anything. So, that, I think, indicates how much I felt I owed her.
The second teacher was a high school English teacher, Miss Andrews, who was a fanatic about literature and especially Moby-Dick. There was a harpoon over her desk. She was very passionate, and she encouraged me to work with the literary magazine as an editor—really as an editor more than as a writer. I was a timid writer, and we didn’t really do creative writing in high school. A few people did obviously or there wouldn’t have been a magazine. She pushed me. She pushed me to become involved. And the goal for women in those days when you went to college was to become an elementary school teacher if you were a reader, or if you were an action person to become a nurse. And Duke had a nursing school and an elementary education division. So you majored in English if you wanted to teach elementary school. I knew fairly quickly that I didn’t want to do that.
One day I went to a lecture by what we used to call a woman lawyer with my roommate. I walked out knowing I didn’t want to become a lawyer, but that’s when I saw the flyer for the publishing course. It was a eureka moment. So I went to Boston. It was a six-week course, and after it was over, my husband—my future husband—got a job at Anchor Books with Anne Freedgood, a wonderful, wonderful editor. So he moved to New York and I stayed in Boston and worked in the Radcliffe publicity department for a year. And then it was another fateful moment when my boss at Radcliffe—she knew I wasn’t very suitable for that job—told me Mr. Giroux at Farrar, Straus and Giroux had an opening. She reviewed books for the Boston Globe and knew what was happening in publishing. So I basically just flew down there fast.
Had you been to New York before?
To visit Bill but not to live. So I flew down, got that job, and moved to New York. That was 1971. And it was very lucky.
Did you like New York right away?
It was a pretty scary time to be here, wasn’t it?
It was extremely dangerous. We lived in a group house on the Upper West Side on a block that is now quite nice, West Eighty-fifth Street, but was then deemed the most dangerous block in New York City. And yet we got used to it. We got used to it fairly quickly, and then Bill and I got our own apartment. And, of course, the wonderful thing about those days was that you could get an apartment for practically nothing. We made nothing and the apartment cost practically nothing, so living was a lot easier. Union Square, where I worked, was very rough. No one would walk across it except Roger Straus—in his ascot. He had no fear whatsoever. And now, of course, it’s beautiful. It looks like an English garden now.
Tell me about your first impressions of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
I felt as if I were in heaven, really. Mr. Giroux (whom I call Bob to his face but still call Mr. Giroux in public, as I first addressed him) was very supportive and kind and kept giving me more things to do. Mr. Straus was a character—very brilliant, very outspoken, very self-confident, and very personable. He walked around the office twice a day and said hello in one way or another to everybody.
Michael di Capua, who was mainly doing children’s books, was a huge support. He always pushed me to try to do more, to try to acquire—to do this—and gave me a great deal of help and confidence. So I was very well taken care of. I remained an editorial assistant for five years, which is sort of unusual, but I just didn’t see why I would leave. At that point I was taking care of some of Mr. Giroux’s authors, some of the poets, and then when Tom Stewart left, I was promoted. Tom Stewart was taking care of—I say taking care of rather than acquiring—Tom Wolfe and John McPhee at the time, and I inherited them. So really, am I not the luckiest person in the world? Now the trick was to start acquiring.
What were some of the first books you acquired?
A book about the Cajuns. I liked Cajun music and decided that there should be a book on the Cajuns and their story should be told. I found a writer at an alternative paper in New Orleans—his name was William Faulkner Rushton—and he said yes, he would do the book. We had a gumbo party at my apartment when it was published. The book was in print for about twenty-five years, so it was a good book.
Basically you had ideas and Roger [Straus] would throw you things, like, “Here’s a great book on papier-mâché, baby.” And you would edit a book on papier-mâché. I edited a book by Aldous Huxley’s widow, Laura Huxley, which was a self-help book about getting closer to your true feelings.
[Laughter.] Those were the days.
But that’s how you prove yourself as a worker. You will do anything and you will get these books into shape. It was fun, really. Then Larry Heinemann’s book Close Quarters landed on my desk—the first Vietnam War novel I had read. Ellen Levine sent it to me, probably as a single submission. I just adored it and was able to buy it for a very low price. This was maybe 1977. The book was basically about a grunt’s tour of duty—very vivid language—and his next novel, Paco’s Story, which I also edited, won the National Book Award. I believe that was the first serious book I acquired. The second also came from Ellen Levine, whom I owe a great debt, which was Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.
That was the second book you acquired?
Yes, the second serious one. It was possibly a single submission as well, for a modest price, and there was no question that it was a great book. I read it, and Mr. Giroux read it, and we signed it up. But, you see, things were a lot easier in those days. There wasn’t the same competition. You had time to read it, consider it, and you could buy it if you liked it.
At the time, did you have any sense of what Housekeeping would become?
I thought it would last. It’s not just the writing, but the feeling. It’s a rendition of loss without heaviness, and of course loss has a great deal to do with all of our lives. It was just too gorgeous and affecting not to last.
Was there any real editing to be done?
Let’s put it this way: Marilynne and I sat at my dining room table and did some back-and-forthing. And I would say in 99 percent of the instances of questioning, Marilynne’s opinion stood. The book is really almost the same as it was when it came in to me. I have notes and papers and some record of our back-and-forthing that wasn’t done at the dining room table, which is really wonderful. She’s so articulate in explaining why she had done what she had done, why she had used that word rather than another word. She’s just brilliant.
Was the title always Housekeeping?
It was always Housekeeping and the title was questioned. The questioning was put to rest because that was the title Marilynne had always had while she was writing the book. So Housekeeping stayed. And the jacket process was basically, “Marilynne, what would you like to have on your jacket?” She said, “I’d like the bridge across the lake,” which was roughly Sandpoint. So we commissioned someone to paint the lake and the bridge. It was an oil painting. Someone asked me recently, “Where is that painting?” Well, I don’t know.
It’s probably in the art director’s apartment.
You know, maybe not. Maybe it was tossed. Who knows? In any case, that was the second book. And then there was a cluster around then, late seventies, early eighties. Jamaica Kincaid. I read one little story called “Girl” in the New Yorker, found out who the agent was, made an offer, and signed up the book. Edna O’Brien was also around that time. Of course she wasn’t a first novelist, but she’d switched publishers one too many times and was sort of at sea. We put together her collected stories and got Philip Roth to write the introduction and got a front page TBR [Times Book Review review]. And then there were Ian Frazier and Lydia Davis and Padgett Powell. So you had this base of authors and they would write other books, obviously, and it was a wonderful base to have.
Tell me about working with John McPhee.
John had been published at Farrar, Straus for several years before I got there. I can’t tell you who first acquired him. I think it was Hal Vursell. And then Henry Robbins and then Tom Stewart. I took him over with the book about general practitioners. John is a perfectionist, and he had very strong opinions about things, but always in a very nice way. He didn’t want his picture on his book jackets, though I think we finally broke him down on that. He didn’t want any pictures in the books—he was doing it with words and didn’t want to compromise that. He was very particular about his jackets. If we sold reprint rights, for instance Coming Into the Country, he said, “I just want to make sure that the paperback publisher doesn’t put an Eskimo with a ruff on the cover.” I said, “Just talk to them about it. Just say, ‘There’s one thing I really don’t want: an Eskimo with a ruff.’ ” And then the cover came. You guessed it. I can’t remember if it got changed or not.
I got very sick in 1994 and had to go through the whole treatment and surgery and everything. And John called me—at that point I was unemployed, Harcourt had let go of almost everybody in New York—and asked if I would edit, together with David Remnick, the second John McPhee Reader. He was basically giving me a job when I was in a bad spell, both professionally and with my health. So he’s a really good guy.
And now his daughters are writing. He had four daughters, and his wife had four daughters, so there were eight girls. And when my daughter was born I remember he said, “Congratulations—you have fourteen years before she’s fourteen.” So he’s also really funny.
Coming Into the Country was his first best-seller. That was very exciting. That’s probably the peak of excitement on a certain scale—when a company has published twelve books and the thirteenth becomes a best-seller. And then all the books thereafter sell better.
When did you meet Tom Wolfe?
He was working with Tom Stewart, who left the house, and I stepped in starting with The Right Stuff, which was so great. He had done a serialization of The Right Stuff in Rolling Stone but then revised it completely. Tom is a reviser. So the deadline is coming up and the book is expected and he’s revising up to the last minute. My job with Tom, mainly, was to make sure that nothing had slipped up in the revision process, that there weren’t any inadvertent repetitions or timeline problems. The wonderful thing is that he revised in different colors. He must have used some kind of soft colored pencils because the lines were thick—it wasn’t this stingy little pencil line—and there would be several layers on the manuscript of green, blue, red. It was beautiful to see. The copyeditors loved it too. It was a terrible inconvenience, of course, but nobody seemed to mind because he was, and is to this day, I’m sure, extremely courteous with everybody and so apologetic that these further changes had come forth. He was a pleasure to work with. After The Right Stuff there was From Bauhaus to Our House and then Bonfire of the Vanities.