It’s easy to get a touch of vertigo in the book world these days: So much is changing, and so fast. But whenever the rate of transformation makes me a little loopy, I try to tune out the noise about the business and focus instead on the books, those extraordinary little devices that connect writers to readers. After all, every publishing empire is built upon the simple truth that readers need good things to read—and every great editor is first, and always, a devoted reader.
That’s why I was so glad to talk about the pleasures of books with Jordan Pavlin, a vice president and executive editor at Alfred A. Knopf. “Most of us are here because literature sustained us,” she told me. But not all editors are as beloved as she is to her authors. One of them, Karen Russell, describes working with Pavlin as “the ultimate lottery win.”
Pavlin and I spoke at the end of June, a week before Knopf’s parent company, Random House, announced that it had completed its merger with Penguin—both a response to volatile conditions in the bookselling world and fuel for wild speculations about the future. Booksellers are concerned about e-books; publishers are concerned about bookstores; editors are concerned about first printings; agents are concerned about advances; and writers are concerned about, well, everything.
Amid these changes, Knopf remains remarkably stable, known not only for the physical beauty of its books and the prestige of its writers—who count sixty-one Pulitzer Prizes and twenty-five Nobels among them—but for the lack of turnover in its editorial department. As Pavlin put it, “People come, and they stay. It’s a very special place.”
Knopf’s editors represent just ten of the ten thousand employees in the new global Penguin Random House, but they punch well above their weight.
In December 2012 Pavlin published The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis—a debut novel that Oprah immediately anointed as the new title in her book club. Then, in early March, Russell joined Mathis on the New York Times fiction best-seller list with Vampires in the Lemon Grove, the follow-up to her widely acclaimed novel Swamplandia! Later that month, Pavlin published Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which landed at number one and hovered for months near the top of the best-seller list.
After catching the publishing bug at the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now the Columbia Publishing Course), Pavlin began her career in 1990 as an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s Press.
A year and a half later she moved to Little, Brown, where she worked with Vikram Chandra, Charles D’Ambrosio, Thom Jones, and Katie Roiphe. In 1997 Pavlin joined Knopf as an editor and has remained there for the past sixteen years, publishing works by Pauline Chen, Jennifer Egan, Nathan Englander, Ethan Hawke, Anthony Lane, Ben Marcus, Sue Miller, Susan Minot, Julie Otsuka, Ann Packer, Allison Pearson, Maggie Shipstead, and Julie Orringer. In May she was promoted to her current position.
Let’s begin with your origin story.
There are often two essential people in the life of a passionate reader: a great local librarian and a brilliant, inspiring high school English teacher. I had both, in Long Island, on the North Shore.
As a kid, I was a bit of a misfit and I read avidly in the most escapist manner. I was more comfortable, more confident, when I had a book under my arm—a book was a kind of armor. In the most awkward, socially challenging moments in adolescence I would skip lunch in the cafeteria, which was a minefield, to sit in the library with a sandwich and a book.
Which books were the most important to you?
One of my most beloved books was A Wrinkle in Time. And Judy Blume—I don’t know how any girl grows up without Judy Blume. From those early books I moved pretty quickly into excavating my parents’ bookshelves. I was utterly promiscuous in my affections. I moved right from Judy Blume to Rona Jaffe and Danielle Steel and Jackie Collins and Robert Ludlum and James Michener. And from there it was a short hop to the nineteenth-century novel, and from there to the Russians, who have been my touchstones ever since.
Did you think about being a writer?
I loved writing, and I adored writing essays on great writers, but no—that was never on the table, thank goodness. I had absolutely no talent as a fiction writer or poet.
How did you find your way to publishing?
I was an English major at Vassar, and in my senior year I did an internship at Ecco Press. I knew that I wanted to have a life in books, but the idea of becoming an editor had never entered my mind. I didn’t know what publishing was.
I had been looking for something local to Vassar, and I took two internships. One was working with abused children in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the other was this Friday-afternoon internship with Ecco—which was then both Ecco and Antaeus, the literary magazine. My job was to read the slush, and I took it really seriously. I felt that I had been tasked with this immense responsibility—to judge a writer’s work—and I loved it. The offices were on Seventeenth Street then, and one whole wing of the office was essentially an enormous book room.
I think that in my heart, like so many of us, I was a book thief. Every Friday I would go in with a canvas bag, and I would leave with copies of Antaeus and volumes of poetry. This culminated, finally, when I turned a corner one Friday and came upon the beautiful, multivolume Ecco editions of Chekhov. I don’t know if you’ve seen them.
I don’t think I have.
You just swooned! Twenty-odd years later, you swooned!
It was a powerful moment. A moment of tremendous conflict. I stood looking at them, and, really, I just couldn’t walk away. I had absolutely no self-control. I put as many of them into my bag as I could, and as I walked out the door I bumped directly into the publisher of Ecco, Dan Halpern.
And he saw what you had done?
I was mortified, and ashamed. He looked into my bag and put his hands on my shoulders and said, “You don’t have to steal. You are allowed to take these books. You are welcome to these books.” That was a magical moment for me. I understood one part of the beauty of the business: that it was not theft to take the books that you were in some way helping to make. I was very moved, and I credit Dan for putting that seed of virtue and honesty in me. I bet that he has no memory that I was ever in those offices.
Did you ever have a similar encounter with your local librarian? I think of the number of times I crossed my fingers and said, “That book? I'm sure I returned it.”
I loved this woman so much and I felt that she was personally shepherding me through my childhood, so no, I was good at returning them. Also, the library book is such a dead giveaway!
I wish I remembered her name. It was the Shelter Rock Public Library.
What happened after the internship?
At the end of senior year I was walking to the career development office. I had no idea what I might do after college; I was thinking graduate school but I really didn't know. On the floor was a brochure for the Radcliffe Publishing Course, and having come through this internship, that idea connected with me. I thought, “Well, I can go and learn and see.” Even having had the benefit of this brief internship, I didn’t have a sense of the mechanics of book publishing, because I had been reading primarily for Antaeus rather than Ecco.
I applied and was given a scholarship, which was a lifechanging gift. It would not have been remotely a possibility for me otherwise. The first time I encountered an editor talking to me directly about the work and the books and the process, I just fell in love. It was pretty much instantaneous. By the end of the publishing course, I was sure I wanted to come to Knopf.
The beauty of the books, the list, the writers. I spent that summer noticing for the first time that there were different logos on the spines of the books, and by the end of it, I understood what it meant if a book came from FSG or Knopf. It was my deepest aspiration to land at a house like FSG or Knopf.
Instead, I was offered a job working for Tom McCormack at St. Martin’s Press, which was in so many ways the polar opposite. At that time, St. Martin’s was all about volume; we must have done five hundred offsets of British mysteries on every list.
But it was a wonderful place to be young. There was an extraordinary pool of assistants. I was there with Bill Thomas and Reagan Arthur and Cal Morgan, all of whom have gone on to have extraordinary careers. It was also a place where there was very little sense of hierarchy.
Which is the bane of an assistant’s life, typically.
You could do almost anything that you could make the time to do. Of course you had to do all of the Xeroxing and the typing and filing, but Tom encouraged young people to acquire, and he let me edit alongside him. I think his philosophy, in part, was that the longer the editorial meeting, the better. And he took enormous pride in being a mentor.
He did something else for me that was very important. I was living in a horrible apartment on Avenue A. This was the summer of the riots in Tompkins Square Park, before Alphabet City was gentrified. I was working at St. Martin’s every day, and every night I was working at Shakespeare & Company. Then, on the weekends, I was waiting tables in the East Village.
Shakespeare & Company was exactly the experience I needed to have—if by day I was writing flap copy for thirty British mysteries, by night I was in the stacks reading poetry and shelving the classics. But I was exhausted. I began to think I had to give one of the jobs up, and I had a real question about whether it should be St. Martin’s or Shakespeare & Company.
One day Tom called me into his office and put a hundred dollar bill down on his desk. He said, “Kid. Do yourself a favor. Get yourself a new pair of pants.” [Laughs.] It was pretty bad. Humiliating. And as I turned to walk out, he said, “Another thing. I hear you’re moonlighting. That’s a good job, Shakespeare & Company. I’m sure you like it and I’m not going to tell you that you have to quit. But I think that you have a talent and I want you to be able to quit if you want to.”
He gave me a five-thousand-dollar raise on the spot. At the time, I had been making four hundred and seventy-three dollars every two weeks.
How long had you been there?
That had to have been four or five months in. It was liberating, and encouraging. Nevertheless, I missed great literature, and by the end of that year, I had pretty much decided to go to graduate school to study Shakespeare. I had applied to graduate programs all over the country.
I shared this with [the late] Lindy Hess, who was the director of the Radcliffe course and [until her death in July] the director of the Columbia course. She said, “It would be a mistake for you to leave for academia without seeing what it’s like in one more house.” I was reluctant, even though it had been an exciting year, but she convinced me that I should interview for a job at Little, Brown, working for a man named Roger Donald. And I took that job.
Tell me about Roger.
Roger was truly one of the great men in publishing. He now lives in Montana, and he is just a fabulous person, a true intellectual. He took many of us under his wing. I think the person who followed me after I left that job was Geoff Kloske [now publisher of Riverhead]. Because he was so accomplished, like Tom, he was absolutely delighted to have his assistants do as much as they could possibly do. This is not always the case.
Sometimes an editor can feel competitive with an assistant.
Yes, exactly. With Roger that was not the case at all. One of the first experiences I had with him came after I read a story in the New Yorker by a writer named Thom Jones. The story was “The Pugilist at Rest,” and it knocked me out of my seat. I brought it to Roger. He thought it was excellent, and said, “Let’s write to him.”
Thom’s story had come in, I believe, over the transom at the New Yorker, and had been pulled out of the slush pile by Deb Garrison, who is now our brilliant poetry editor at Knopf. By the time we wrote to him, he had gotten himself an agent, Candida Donadio.
It was very exciting to be in correspondence with him—this was my first experience of seeing something and then forging a connection to it. And it was at just about this moment when I heard back from graduate schools.
Which letter held more sway?
I feel very fortunate that these things happened simultaneously. I was given a scholarship to Columbia, and a stipend for a six-year PhD program that was actually more than my salary. But I had fallen in love with Thom Jones’s story and with the possibility of publishing more of his stories. It had such a powerful hold on me that I couldn’t go. And because it was a scholarship, I couldn’t defer. I had to make a very clear choice.
I felt that in a parallel universe I would be very happy to read Shakespeare all day and all night. But publishing was a way to bring my love of literature into the world. For me, the university would have represented a retreat. The greater challenge was to find a way to be at the intersection of art and commerce.
The moment when that coalesced for me was when I read Thom Jones. To this day, I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to Thom, who kept me on the path I feel I was meant to be on.
Did you end up publishing him?
We did! We published The Pugilist at Rest and then we published Cold Snap. Thom had been a janitor in Lacey, Washington, when he published that story in the New Yorker. When he received the bound book he wrote me a beautiful note, and sent me his janitor shirt with his name across it. It was very moving.
Lindy was absolutely right. Little, Brown was a thrilling place.
Who else was there?
Bill Phillips was editor in chief, and he was editing Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. It was a very long book, and he’d been at it for a long time. In an act of extraordinary generosity and inclusion, he asked me to read behind him. That was such a thrill, of course, and he took me to the White House to sit down and go through the pages with Nelson Mandela. I was twenty-four years old. It was absolutely unforgettable.