How did you
get from there to FSG?
After I was fired, Roger [Straus] gave me a job. FSG was pretty far down at that point. Roger's son, Rog, had come back to the company and I think they were trying to revivify it. Luckily, they hired me. And the minute I got there, things clicked and I felt like I was totally at home.
This was a
real turning point for you.
It was. Basically the first book I signed up was Presumed Innocent, which was a huge best-seller. It was a first for FSG, and it was exactly the kind of book I was supposed to have been publishing at Random House. Of course there was great joy in Mudville about that. [Laughter.] But you have to remember that when I was in college, Lowell and Bishop were my teachers, and both of them were published by FSG. So FSG books had an aura of sanctity. To come and work here was amazing. I just felt like FSG was good at doing the kinds of books I wanted to do. It was still the old days then—it was still a small independent publisher and that was still a viable thing. But it had taken me a long time to get going as an editor. I'd been in publishing for over ten years before I got to FSG and it all came together.
Tell me a
little about the atmosphere of the place.
Did you ever visit the old offices? When I came we were on the fourth floor of 19 Union Square West. Calvin Trillin said it looked like a branch office of a failing insurance company. It looked like something out of a porn magazine. It was dirty linoleum and cockroaches and just really, really gross. When we moved up to the old Atlantic Monthly Press office on the eleventh floor, my health improved.
In those days Roger was there, of course. Pat [Strachan] was there. Bob Giroux was still around. Michael di Capua. Aaron Asher was gone, but David Reiff was working there as an editor. Rog was there. It was a very personality-filled company with a lot of smart people who were very dedicated. But they never took themselves too seriously. That's one thing I've always loved about FSG. With Knopf I always felt that there was a snootiness—they would look down their noses. That was never true at FSG. It was scrappy; it was irreverent. I mean, they took literature extremely seriously, but they never took themselves seriously. It was a very good-natured place where people wished each other well. I think people felt like they were doing something good. The pay was terrible, and the conditions were terrible, but everybody knew why they were there. And we all felt like it was a privilege to work there. I think both Roger and Bob were responsible for that in different ways. Roger loved the game of publishing. He loved competing. He loved having enemies, being outrageous, swearing, making nasty comments. That was fun for him. Bob was more bankerly and serious, but literature had an unquestioned importance for him. It was a part of life that really mattered. I wouldn't say that that doesn't exist in publishing today, but it does feel different today. At that time books had a cultural primacy that they don't quite have now. Books have been sort of moved to the side by other media. It's not that people don't read books. But books are one among a smorgasbord of options. Whereas in those days books were still where cultural life was centered. People were decrying the influence of television, but books were still more at the center.
years after that you became editor in chief. Was there any friction between you
Not a lot. I think I was lucky that I came along at the moment in his life when I did. He and Rog loved each other, but they were not natural business partners. I was able to be a kind of business son in a way that his real son couldn't. We had some set-tos, but not a lot. He was much mellower and less threatened in his later years. There had been a time when a number of really talented editors didn't survive at FSG.
you and Roger argue about?
Well, he didn't always like what I liked, but he was pretty tolerant. There would be issues involving money and how much we could pay for things. Roger loved to fight with people. I always thought that wasn't good business practice. I thought it was better to get along with people so you could have another deal with them down the line. I remember one time when I said, "Don't you think we should make up with so-and-so?" He said, "Don't give me any of that Christian stuff, Galassi. I'm a vindictive Jew." [Laughter.] He enjoyed having enemies. But all in all we had fun together, and he was like a father to me in a lot of ways.
Tell me about
the transition from editor in chief to publisher.
That was a little difficult in the sense that it had to do with Roger's mortality. When he sold the company in 1994, the deal was that he would run it as long as he could. He did, and he continued to act like an independent for many years. But he slowed down eventually. One of the difficulties I had was that there was a lot of deferred maintenance. In other words, things kept going in a certain way longer than maybe they should have in some areas. The company remained a very personal fiefdom of Roger's even after it had been owned by someone else for a long time. And with that goes what I would call deferred maintenance. The biggest and most significant change I made was bringing in Andrew Mandel to be the deputy publisher. He helped organize and rationalize our practices in a lot of ways. It's still an editorially driven house—the editors still decide what we're going to publish—but the business aspects are a little less seat-of-the-pants and a little more planned out and fiscally responsible. The other thing is that I wasn't editor in chief anymore. I do fewer books and have a lot of other responsibilities. I usually have another editor work with me on projects. I've had to step back from some things. I can't edit these thousand-page books with the kind of assiduity that I used to. I'm still editing a lot of books, but there are just more other things I have to do. It's like how I said earlier that the book is your baby—now the company becomes your baby. You're thinking about ways to strategize for the future. You're thinking about, "How is FSG going to continue to be a literary publisher?" It's more about the organism as a whole and less about any single book. You're asking yourself, "How can we maximize the lives of all the books we do, both in the current environment and in the future?"
What are you
looking at when you're thinking about those things?
I'm thinking about the proportions of what we publish, for example. Another one of the things I've been excited about recently is bringing Mitzi Angel here to run Faber. Stephen Page and I decided to take Faber and make it a bigger player in the conspectus of American publishing. That's a really exciting thing and I think Mitzi's doing a fabulous job. So we're trying to expand our bouquet. We also have people like Lorin [Stein] and Courtney [Hodell] coming along who are doing really fresh publishing, and we're trying to give them the support they need. We're also trying to expand our nonfiction publishing to balance the literary publishing because a lot of serious readers read nonfiction and we want those readers too.
Tell me about some of the high moments in your
life as a publisher.
One of my happy moments has to do with Denis Johnson. We published two books by Denis in the early nineties: Jesus' Son, which was one of the best books I ever published, and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, which was also a wonderful book. But then Denis left. He went to Robert Jones at Harper. He was dissatisfied. He didn't think that we were doing enough for his books. But he came back to us for Tree of Smoke and it became a New York Times best-seller and won the National Book Award. So there was a great sense of happiness and accomplishment that we came back together and were able to help him achieve so much.
What are some other great moments like that?
When the manuscript of [Marilynne Robinson's] Gilead came in. This is a book that had been under contract for so many years that...it wasn't that we forgot about it, but we didn't know if or when it would appear. And then it came in. It was perfect. Almost nothing was done to it. It was one of those experiences of spiritual uplift. To come across a book that you knew was a great book? And you were reading it first!
The second great moment is when it actually becomes a book—a physical thing. I always feel that when you put a book into proofs it gets better just by virtue of being set in print. I know a lot of writers feel that way too. It takes on a kind of permanence. And then it's even more satisfying when it becomes an actual book.
How did you
meet Alice McDermott?
Alice was sent to me by Harriet Wasserman, who was a very important person in the beginning of my publishing life. Her office at Russell & Volkening was in the same building as Houghton Mifflin's New York office. I got to know her and eventually became very close to her. We did a number of really interesting projects together and Alice was one of the first. She gave me these pages from this book about a young woman working at a vanity press, and that was the beginning of A Bigamist's Daughter. She was such an assured writer. She had such definition and wit and this very subtle, cool, deadpan humor. She's one of the most amazing stylists I know. And she's such a modest and well-spoken and well-behaved person. I took that project with me from Houghton Mifflin to Random House, and I remember that, after she turned it in, several weeks went by and somehow it came out that I hadn't paid her the advance that was due on delivery. I said, "Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you ask for it?" She was too well-behaved to ask. [Laughter.] She's someone who didn't write just one wonderful book—she's produced a lot of them. Her methods of writing are very original. She's always writing two books at once, and she ends up choosing one. The other one goes in a drawer somewhere. Which means there are all these incredible, unrealized books by Alice McDermott somewhere. But she uses one to bring out the other. I think it's a very interesting psychological thing. It's like she's always having twins. One twin comes to life and the other twin is still gestating somewhere.
that always fascinates me is how people view their jobs and their various
responsibilities. Give me a sense of how you view yours.
I think my responsibility—my task and my joy—is to try to make FSG as effective an instrument for publishing as possible. To make it strong and to help it make a difference in the publishing business. FSG is a lot different than it was when I came here. But what I don't think is different is the attitude about what's important to publish. That is my biggest responsibility—to make sure that that stays at the center of what we're doing. And that we believe literature is important and that our mission is to enhance the dissemination of it. So while everything has changed around the core of FSG, I don't think the core has changed at all.
And if you
had to articulate that core and what's important to publish?
I think it's about the voices of writers. FSG really became FSG when Bob [Giroux] came and brought people like Flannery O'Connor and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. Those writers, who were all very distinctive and idiosyncratic, contributed to the essence of American literature in their time. And our desire is to continue to be a place where people like that feel at home and feel that we're doing the best we can for their work—and the public feels that the books we publish have value. It's a business, and I love the fact that it's a business. I really think it's much better for publishing to be a commercial enterprise. But it's not just a business. It's about selling something that you believe in.
do you feel competitive with?
I feel very competitive with Knopf. But I feel competitive—and when I say "competitive" I also mean that I feel collegial—with people all over. You and Morgan [Entrekin]. New Directions, who I love. Penguin Press, both in America and in the UK, is a really fabulous publishing house. I think Cape is great. I think Chatto is great.
Who do you
feel the most competitive with?
I guess we still think of Knopf as the big giant. We're the we-try-harder. But we're not really like Knopf. We're different. We're smaller. But I think they do a really good job with a lot of great books.
suspect you're going up against them for a book, what's your pitch?
My answer to that is that it only makes sense for authors to be published here who want to be published here. In other words, if they buy into our approach and feel that we will do well by their work, that works. If it's about money alone we're not going to tend to win those contests. Someone else can always come up with more money. So what we have to offer is ourselves, and our approach, and what I would do to compete is just tell the author what we think about the book, ask him what he wants from a publisher, and show him how we've done other books in the past. What else can I do?
biggest practical difference, in your mind, between FSG and Knopf?
We're smaller, and that means we can give more attention to each project. We have a very good publishing team. Jeff Seroy is a brilliant publicity and marketing guy. Spencer Lee, our sales guy, is terrific. And there's a cohesiveness to what we do.
It can be
difficult to articulate what exactly you're looking for as an editor, but tell
me about something recently that captivated you for whatever reason, and talk
The book that we're doing now that comes to mind is All the Living by C. E. Morgan. It's a first novel by a young woman and it's about Kentucky. It was sent to me by Ellen Levine, who is Marilynne Robinson's agent. We publish Marilynne, and this author admires her a lot. I think it was offered to other publishers too, and I don't know if we offered the most money, but we certainly paid a serious advance for it. What I felt was so unusual about it was the voice and the consistency of her approach. She's created a sort of small myth. It's concise. It's intense. It's very different from most other fiction we see in that it's so much about the place. It's very American in that way. It's not ironic. It's not disabused. It's very American in its romance about place and about death and love. I found it very primal and beautiful in a restrained way.
But right now we're also publishing John Wray's book, Lowboy, which Eric's doing. Courtney's doing the Wells Tower book [Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned]. Lorin's about to publish Clancy Martin's book, How to Sell. All of these books are different in terms of their angles of attack, but they're all very strong voices. And they don't sound like anyone else. I think the voice is the most important thing—and then the shape.
One thing that I don't see a lot of today, and that I used to be very taken with, is the bigger kind of novel. Social novels, even. I think of The Twenty-seventh City. That was a first novel that just blew me away. On the one hand there was The Twenty-seventh City and on the other hand was The Virgin Suicides.
Another book that I'm really excited about is Amy Waldman's first novel, The Submission, which is a social novel. It's a fictional account of the attempt to build the World Trade Center memorial. It's a fantastic book about politics, art, religion, and all the different issues there. I very seldom see novels that have that kind of social reach.