She goes on to talk about people who read to improve their minds, and says: “The lady who only read books that improved her mind was taking a safe course—and a hopeless one. She’ll never know whether her mind is improved or not, but should she ever, by some mistake, read a great novel, she’ll know mighty well that something is happening to her.” [Laughs.]
You know when you are in the presence of something that is alive on the page, when a voice just takes you in and sweeps you up. That was my experience with Karen. I was absolutely sure that this was such a distinguished and distinctive and important debut, that it would be on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Now, in retrospect, that was very close to madness—to be certain that a debut story collection would be the cover of the Book Review, or even reviewed in it.
I believed it so completely. And I was wrong, of course. But Swamplandia! was. And that is the game.
Where does that mad belief come from?
You have to begin from a place of love and need. A very similar case for me to Karen was Ayana Mathis’s novel, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. I remember it was the night my eldest son was graduating from fifth grade, and also was the night of the fifth-grade dance, which I was not permitted to chaperone. But I was expected to be local.
I went and sat by myself in a café across the street from where the dance was taking place, and I took this manuscript with me. I was transported into another time and place. The language was so beautiful, and I spent the rest of the weekend reading it. On Sunday morning, around seven o’clock, I sent an e-mail to Sonny. I was absolutely beside myself. “I’m so sorry to e-mail you on the weekend, but I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that I have this sublimely beautiful first novel, and it’s the best thing I’ve read in ages, and can you please read it?” I wanted to buy it right away.
Walk me through how you acquired that book.
The book had come in on Friday and I couldn’t wait until Monday. I was so afraid it would disappear, that someone would intercept it.
I e-mailed the agent, Ellen Levine, to tell her that I was beside myself and that I would do everything I could to bring her to Knopf. So that week, early in the week, several others read it, including Sonny and colleagues at Vintage. I wanted to preempt it. And there was another house also trying to preempt, so we were in a kind of impromptu auction almost immediately.
There was a question of how to be aggressive to be. Whether to let it go to auction; to compete for it at auction; what the limit should be.
I tend to be cautious about advances, because I know how difficult it is to actually sell books in the quantities that you posit in your highly speculative and fictionalized P&Ls. And I know how rarely it is the case that we are able to reach those levels of net sales.
But with this book, at every step, I was so determined and unconflicted and certain that, even if it was a risk, this was the beginning of a huge career for Ayana, and that we had to participate in it.
I had my first conversation with Ayana in the evening at home. This gets tricky when you have kids. Finding that quiet space, that uninterrupted private moment, can be very difficult. I have frequently had to lock myself in bathrooms, but in this case I locked myself out on the terrace, and had a long and wonderful conversation with her. And I think I was able to persuade her that she would never regret coming to Knopf.
Was it a beauty contest? Was the money essentially the same?
We were the underbidders, so yes, it absolutely was. The other publisher was someone I admire enormously. She would have been an excellent editor, and she would have done a brilliant job.
When you spoke to Ayana, what did you talk about?
We talked about the book in great detail. It was an editorial conversation. As with most of the great writers I’ve published, she needed very little from me other than support. But there were a couple of issues I wanted to raise with her, specifically about the ending of the novel. That was an exciting conversation—generative and fruitful.
My goal in that conversation was just to persuade her that I had read the book very, very closely, and that I loved it on its own terms. I was dazzled by her language, by the characters, by the scope.
I remember, in the lead up to galleys after I had acquired it, sending bits of it around in emails to various colleagues—just sentences I loved. I would get notes back saying, “That’s gorgeous! What poem is that from?” But it wasn’t a poem. It was a sentence from this extraordinary first novel.
Here is the other relentlessly optimistic part of my character: I really believed that what happened to this book was going to happen to this book. Because of the book itself. Because the novel was so beautiful.
If that’s the case—that it was destined to be a success—what value does a publishing house offer the writer of such a book?
We don’t know, because we can never publish a book twice. That is the case with a lot of sleepers. We wonder: Would this book have met the same fate brought out by another house?
But our whole business is predicated on the belief that we do something essential in connecting a writer to readers, and maximizing that readership.
I do think that Knopf brings something very special to the life and the evolution of a writer, especially a young literary writer. The books are so exquisitely made, and it’s such a deeply literate community editorially.
There is a very old-fashioned separation of church and state here in the way that there once was, and perhaps still is, at the New Yorker. The author comes first, and everything else is secondary to that. Our editorial department is protected to a remarkable degree by the vision of our editor in chief.
It seems that you come to books nakedly.
I hope so. There’s a line in one of Camus’s essays where he writes, “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” I really do feel that about my work. I feel that my job is to fall in love. It’s also not to fall in love. [Laughs.] But fundamentally that’s the job.
The first requirement is therefore to be openhearted and credulous and available to be worked upon. That’s definitely part of why this work feels so personal, because it is personal. When you tell someone that you love her novel, what you’re saying is, “I share this despair, or pain, or experience of beauty or longing.” It’s a very intimate place from which to begin an association.
Something I ponder is the exact source of Sonny Mehta’s genius. Because his genius is absolutely unmistakable. One part of it, I think, is that he is just the most curious person I’ve ever met. I’ve never met anyone else who has maintained his curiosity to this degree and over such a long stretch of time. I know that he is regarded as living in a kind of rarefied literary landscape, but the truth is that he is the most catholic reader. And his ability to read high and low and across all genres with equal curiosity—there are many others of us who struggle mightily with that. He comes to everything fresh.
Is that a trait one can cultivate?
I think it’s actually a gift. I really do. There are many others of us who have a greater capacity for boredom. Which is a kind of laziness, in my mind.
The other night, I said something about boredom, and my daughter said, “I know, I know—‘a failure of the imagination!’” But we do, so many of us, fail in that way, and he never does. It’s astonishing.
Could you take me through an editorial meeting at Knopf?
Here? We have meetings infrequently, I would say. And our meetings are unlike any other editorial meetings I’ve ever attended.
Would you contrast it with the meetings at Little, Brown?
I don’t know if it’s still the case now, but at Little, Brown the process was in two parts: the editorial meeting and the publishing meeting. In the editorial meeting you talk about the book that you’re interested in, and if you are able to garner enough support, you proceed to the publishing meeting, which is quite formal. You present a memo about the book and the history of the author, and make an impassioned and sensible case for it.
Our editorial meetings at Knopf are not acquisition meetings. They occur after a book has already been acquired. It’s the very first moment in which you are presenting it to your colleagues in a preliminary manner. They take place in Sonny’s office. Some people sit on bookcases, some people sit on the floor.
All of the editors who happen to be here. The assistants do not come. Our publicity director and art director come so they know what’s on the horizon. Our associate publisher and marketing director.
It’s a small group, and a chance for our colleagues in different departments to offer insights about the state of the business, what’s happening in the publicity department, what’s happening with our retailers, what’s working, what’s not working. It’s kind of an overview—a snapshot of a moment. There’s usually a report on the sales conference that we’re coming out of or heading into.
They are by any measure not traditional editorial meetings. Tom McCormack’s meetings lasted for three hours, and he would read off every single submission that had been logged in by anyone, and everyone in the company came.
When I told a young editor in my building that I was going to speak with you, she said, “You have to ask her two things.” The first one was about breaking out debut fiction. What made Maggie Shipstead’s book Seating Arrangements work?
Well, clearly with Maggie Shipstead it had to be the jacket!
Maggie had many wonderful things happen for her, but foremost among them was that this novel was selected as a Barnes & Noble Recommends pick. I think that was the key factor for Maggie. What was the other question?
It’s a tougher one. How did you feel when Jennifer Egan left Knopf to work with Nan Graham at Scribner?
It took me about four months to peel myself off the floor. That was one of the hardest moments in my professional life. I wish her only the best and I miss her terribly.
Have you ever worked with a writer who hasn’t been agented?
What do the best agents do to add value to the publishing process, beyond bringing a writer’s work to your attention?
First and foremost, they make it possible for the relationship between the author and the editor to remain pure by handling the negotiations. The best agents also provide another editorial eye. Not all agents can do that, but they are often the first readers.
I appreciate it when an agent presses for greater attention, whatever that might mean: a more focused marketing campaign, or a more substantial ad budget, or more prominent positioning.
This will not make me very popular here, but it is often helpful to me, as I advocate for an author, to have an agent putting a reasonable amount of pressure on me, and sharing those extremely high hopes with me. Within reason! [Laughs.]
The best agents also have a vision for their authors’ entire careers, so that they are helping to strategize and build an author in a variety of ways.
Is that different than an editor’s perspective on an author’s career?
In the best-case scenario, it’s shared. I would add that—this will sound so self-serving to say—but I value agents who cultivate and help to sustain long-term relationships for authors with houses.
An agent who will work with you to keep an author on the Knopf list.
Before a reader buys a book, it’s typically been sold four times: First, the writer sells the agent on the idea of working with him or her; then the agent sells it to you, the editor; then you sell it to your salespeople at a launch or positioning meeting; and then they sell it to booksellers.
There are so many opportunities for missteps!
Or opportunities to bend the life of the book toward the remarkable.
This is why I have a particular terror of launch meetings: It is a moment when I can do so much damage.
Do you mean that there aren’t many books that have been made by an editor’s launch presentation, but there are plenty that have been sunk by a poor one?
That if I fail, this is an important failure. I feel the weight of that when I walk into that room, trembling and sick to my stomach. Always, after twenty years. I find it very daunting.
What strategies do you use to put the books across in the best way possible?
I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried writing speeches; I’ve tried not writing speeches. I’ve tried making bullet points. I’ve tried writing out six key sentences.
I’m afraid to say this because it’ll sound so ridiculous, but a friend of mine once put these words in my head, and I have thought about them ever since: The goal is to look into people’s hearts and try to touch them there.
By the time I walk into that room, I’ve read the book anywhere between two and six or seven times. I have a pretty clearly articulated vision of what the book is, and that has been expressed in innumerable bits and pieces of copy.
So if I’m talking about this novel, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation—a book I love and which we will launch with all of the flourishes—I’m not just talking about the language, even though the language is exquisite; I’m not just talking about the audaciousness of its extreme economy, or all of the things that make this unique. I’m talking about the things inside of it—the moments that penetrated me as a reader.
Books, and novels especially, operate on us in such intimate ways, and in such intimate places. I’m trying to reveal that about my own encounter with a novel when I walk into that room, in the hope that it will encourage someone else to pick it up and to engage with it.
The idea is that, if there are ten or twenty or even just two other books discussed in that meeting, people won’t really remember exactly what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel?
That’s true. In this house, everyone who walks into that room is brilliant. Everyone who’s sitting at that table is remarkably literate. The only thing that distinguishes me is my experience of the book, my love for it. And that’s what I am trying to put across in that moment.
How do you help your colleagues reveal the gifts inside your books to other people along the road to publication?
I try to be the most cogent I can be in developing a handle for the book, and in creating clarity around what makes a book special. It’s a collaborative process. My wish is always to be involved with, and welcomed into, every aspect of the publishing process, but there are many stages at which part of my usefulness is to get out of the way.