It was the beginning of a golden time for Little, Brown, which has obviously continued. I arrived six months after Michael Pietsch got there. One of the books that he shared with me early on, not on submission, was The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace. He was just in the process of acquiring Infinite Jest. It was this vibrant, thrilling moment in the life of a great publishing house.
I was there for five years, and I would have stayed, happily, for much longer. But I was approached by Marty Asher at Vintage, who was looking for a paperback editor. I was so excited to meet him, and admired his work and Vintage so much, but I told him that I knew in my bones I wanted to be a hardcover fiction editor. And he said, “You should really meet Sonny Mehta.”
What had you done at Little, Brown at that point? You had bought Thom Jones’s book?
It was really Roger who bought Thom Jones. I was just along for the ride. And Jim Silberman, a great editor, had orchestrated a match with Katie Roiphe. He felt that Katie should have a young female editor, and so I published her book The Morning After, which ignited a charged conversation about feminism. That was terrific.
I published a novel, a brilliant novel I loved so much, by a guy named Max Phillips. This novel just enraptured me. It was called Snakebite Sonnet. I published Vikram Chandra’s first two books. And I had published, or was about to publish, Ethan Hawke’s first novel, The Hottest State.
Who were the agents you were working with?
It’s funny—it’s such a long time ago now. Eric Simonoff was my first ever agent lunch. Sloan Harris. Jennifer Walsh, who was already extremely accomplished. I was just getting to know Nicole Aragi. It was a small group.
Tell me about meeting the head of Knopf, Sonny Mehta.
Marty engineered a lunch with him, and we went to Billy’s, a wonderful old Random House hangout with red-checked tablecloths. It was an informal meeting, and there was no job on the table. We were just making one another’s acquaintance. But because my deepest wish was to come to Knopf, it was extremely freighted for me.
Do you remember it?
Vividly. Then, as now, there is absolutely no one in the whole world who is better to talk with about books than Sonny Mehta. It loomed large for me. After that lunch, we met again for a drink. And when we set up that meeting, I felt a sense of mission. It was another informal meeting, and there was nothing on the table. But I put it on the table. I brazenly suggested that perhaps there would be some way in which I could be of use at Knopf, which was so plainly not the case. Knopf abounds in brilliant literary editors, and there were no lacunae on the list.
And there’s no turnover.
People come, and they stay. It’s a very special place. I wanted to be here so much. And I wore him down.
Over the course of a single drink?
Over the course of several subsequent meetings. He would always spend some portion of these meetings telling me no. But I continued to press. Finally, he said, “I really don’t have a job for you. And if I did have a job for you, I would have no place to put you.” I had an answer to all of these insurmountable hurdles. I remember that I had cast my net so wide, I had to ask, “Is it in editorial?” when he finally offered me the job.
It was a lateral move. I was an editor at Little, Brown, and I was coming to Knopf as an editor. The salary was identical. Sonny said, “One day, you will resent me.” I told him that I would never resent him. But in an early indication of my dubious skills as a negotiator, I said, “If you really think that is the case, would you consider throwing in a complete set of the Everyman’s Library?”
The next week, these boxes started to arrive at my tiny apartment. When my boyfriend, now my husband, moved in, I said, “Don’t think of it was moving in with me—think of it as moving in with the Everyman’s Library!” They took up virtually the whole apartment, and still do, though I’ve moved many times since.
Did you ever come to resent him? What did he mean by that?
I have no idea what he meant. No, not for a second. I am so grateful. This is the life I dreamed of. It’s the work I love. It’s a gift.
Who was the first writer you acquired for the Knopf list?
I don’t know. I was looking back over some of the early books I published, and I think that my life illustrates the axiom that, in fact, most books disappear without a trace. Some don’t, and that is sustaining. But most of the experience of being a book editor is defined by heartbreak.
You published Nathan Englander early on. How did you come to meet him?
It was through agent Nicole Aragi. At the time I was on the board of Story magazine, and Lois Rosenthal at Story had been very excited about publishing Nathan. Nicole told me that he was giving a reading at the KGB Bar downtown, and that I should go because she would be going out with For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. It was his first-ever reading, and it was phenomenal. We won that book in an auction, and we had to compete fiercely for it.
You know, the first book that I acquired on my own at Little, Brown was also a collection of short stories. I don’t think that is a coincidence.
You bought only the stories? Not a novel, too?
Just the stories. It was a book called The Point by a writer named Charles D’Ambrosio.
I love Charles D’Ambrosio! The Dead Fish Museum is in my all-time top five.
When I say that so much of this business is heartbreak, talk about someone who should be more widely read! He is one of the great short story writers of our time. It breaks my heart that I haven’t been able to put him across with greater success. But the people who read him are passionate about him, and he is a fantastic teacher at Iowa, so he’s cultivating another generation of writers as well. He’s a great human being.
I was a young editor when Charlie invited me to go trout fishing with him in Montana. I was hoping he would write a novel, but I couldn’t get him to talk to me about it. He told me that if I came trout fishing with him, he would talk to me.
He picked me up at the airport in Bozeman. He had some waders, a rod, and we went camping in Yellowstone. It couldn’t happen now, but it’s a glorious memory. He remains in my life—he was in my wedding.
And here’s a picture, actually, of Nathan, with my husband. I like to call that picture “Young Jews with Chainsaws.” [Laughs.] Everyone was so young. We slept on Nathan’s floor in Jerusalem more than a decade ago.
Did you ever work on books that you inherited from other editors?
Tons. The life of the associate editor.
I’m interested in what you have to say about an editor’s personal passion for a work. How important is it?
I have a very strong feeling about that in relation to fiction. My job is to be a writer’s ideal reader. It’s an amazing thing to make a life out of: to be the most open, the most credulous, the most willing to surrender. I am first and foremost a fan. That is where the work has to begin. It has to come from love and sympathy and from a feeling that I not only share the writer’s vision, but that I’m able to see even a flawed work not only as what it is, but what it wants to be. But that is not always possible. At Little, Brown, I was editing primarily nonfiction. The books that tended to be heaped upon me were self-help books. They all had lessons to teach me, because I was a young editor, but I didn’t enjoy learning them.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at Little, Brown?
The difficulty of publishing is that every book is so entirely new. Every book is the first of its kind. So in that sense, it’s an impossible business to rationalize.
I was learning the mechanics. At that stage in my life, if I had a deadline, I literally would sleep in my office to meet it. If I didn’t have the time, I would find the hours in the night. Being a mother has made me, I must say, much more efficient in that sense.
In addition to Sonny, who are your role models at Knopf?
The two great unsung heroes of Knopf are Kathy Hourigan, our managing editor, and Andy Hughes, our director of production. They are the standard bearers—do you know what I mean?
They set the bar of excellence.
Yes, exactly. And in countless moments when I have been prepared to capitulate in some manner, or compromise, they are the last ones standing. In a sense they are the authors’ most tireless advocates. They have such reverence for the work of the writers.
Would you share with me a specific instance?
Susan Minot’s next novel is coming out in February. We wanted to have galleys for the BEA convention in May. And she has since made substantive changes, including some small structural changes to the novel.
There was a question of how to move forward with booksellers and media. You need to get the galleys out so people can begin reading it and falling in love with it. But the galley was not the final version of the novel—it had evolved. Kathy Hourigan was the first person to say, “No, of course we need to make new galleys.”
I started out as a managing editor, and can verify how rare that is.
I’ll give you another example. This is a Sonny example, but it is the kind of attention to detail and perseverance and dedication to the author that distinguishes Knopf. I was publishing a first novel, and we had been through—no exaggeration—sixty-five jackets. And the clock was running out.
How many of those jackets had the author seen?
Maybe nine. Patience was running thin. We were wearing out everyone’s goodwill. We had, in the sixty-fifth round, a jacket that we all thought was pretty good and that positioned the book well. We were prepared to accept it. I showed it to the author, and she wrote me a long letter. She said, “I know it’s been a trying process, and if this is the jacket, I can certainly live with it, and I thank you for going this far. But here are all the reasons why I think it’s actually not the right jacket for this book.”
She proceeded to detail, very precisely and brilliantly, why this jacket was a compromise. I sent the note on to Sonny, thinking it would exasperate him and further erode his best intentions toward the novel. I sent it with an apology: “Maybe this is too much information, but I thought you should see this.”
He wrote me back immediately and said, “Come to the conference room.” So I went to the conference room, and there he was with all of the jackets spread out on the table. He turned to me and he said, “That was a brilliant letter, and she’s right. We have to try again.” And we tried once more, and we had a terrific jacket—the jacket the book deserved to have.
Which book was it?
It was Maggie Shipstead’s book Seating Arrangements. It was worth fighting for, and worth holding out for.
Let’s talk a bit about book jackets. What makes a jacket excellent?
If you had asked me this many years ago, I probably would have said that it was important for a jacket to be beautiful. I now believe that the most important quality is how arresting it is: how readable, how telegraphic, how distinct on the shelf, and yes, how it looks reduced to the size of a postage stamp. That’s important.
Here at Knopf we have a great atelier, a true art studio. But design is an unscientific process, and it’s important that the author feels that the jacket is right. It is the author’s name on the book, though you are often in the position, as an editor, of straddling your allegiance to your colleagues and your allegiance to your writers.
Tell me about another jacket you love.
Alexander Maksik, A Marker to Measure Drift. This is a jacket that we struggled with so much that we actually made advance copies with a completely different cover. The ARCs show a picture of a volcano erupting.
That’s about as different from a calm, gray sea as you can get.
But this is magnificent. This is from Peter Mendelsund, who is a magician. I think this is exactly how this novel should look. But the final judge is the world.
The jacket is the most important marketing tool you have, but ultimately, it’s alchemy. There is a great yawning abyss between ourselves and our readers. And negotiating that is the work.
How much of a role do you play in titling the book?
Almost none, particularly with fiction. Writers tend to come with the titles fully formed, but that’s not always the case. Initially there was a possibility that Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves was going to be “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.” And then it was going to be “St. Alba’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” and “St. Insert-Girl’s-Name-Here-Ten-Times for Girls Raised by Wolves.”
That book was such a joy from the moment I first read her work. I read “Haunting Olivia”—it was the first story she published in the New Yorker—and it was just overpowering. I was two paragraphs in, and absolutely sure I had to work with her.
Tell me the rest of that story.
Her agent was Denise Shannon. Denise sent me the manuscript, and I read the stories in one great gulp. They were magnificent: piercing and beautiful and full of sorrow, with this absolutely singular sensibility. Zaniness. Karen’s unfettered imagination and her wild risk-taking in both style and subject. I just loved it.
I was enraptured. To some degree this is the case with almost all the books I’ve acquired. When a book works upon you in that way, you have a kind of lunatic passion that is an elemental experience. Have you ever read this book? You haveto read this book.
You just reached for Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners.
This is probably the most brilliant book ever written about fiction and the short story. She’s talking about why people read. She says: “People are always complaining that the modern novelist has no hope, and that the picture he paints of the world is unbearable. The only answer to this is that people without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I am always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality, and it’s very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal.”