Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Last night's entry
My computer has taken up this adorable habit of disconnecting from wireless each night for no particular reason. Last night I thought I'd lost the signal. Tonight I know better. Here's a belated update:
We began our Tuesday with Ellen Reeves. She is a wealth of sarcasm and fabulous job advice - she is in charge of helping us edit our bios and resumes, building "unassailable" job application materials.
"The down-and-dirtier your job experience," she said, "the more I like you. If people trust you with your kids and dogs, I can trust you to transport a manuscript on the subway."
She advised us to be Lily Bart from Edith Wharton's House of Mirth. Lily Bart knew how to turn her impulses into intent. I can't tell you how happy I was to hear an Edith Wharton reference before 10 AM.
She also quoted Twain: "Don't write 'the lady screamed' - bring her out and let her scream." We were instructed to show that we were organized by citing an example of redoing a company's filing system, rather than describing ourselves as "organized."
Reeves is hysterically funny; I highly recommend her upcoming book on interviewing and resumes. Beyond all of the impressive experience she has in the field, she did a project in college on irony and sarcasm. You have to buy the book of anyone who has that sort of qualification.
The afternoon session was a conversation between beloved novelist Ann Patchett and the executive editor of Doubleday, Alison Callahan. They are both intelligent, articulate, beautiful, well-dressed women who walked in in such a way, we knew they loved their jobs. And so we paid attention.
They began by talking about the late Robert Jones, who had been Alison's mentor. He bid on Bel Canto just as he was diagnosed with cancer, and Ann Patchett traced a lot of the book's hype back to him. He wanted Alison to take over his job at Doubleday, which she did.
Before this, Patchett had worked with Dick Todd, who lived in the Berkshires and rarely visited the publishing house. "Having him as your editor was like believing in God," Patchett explained. "You have to trust he's there, and feel his love - you see it in the flowers and in the wind."
Unlike many other authors, Patchett doesn't pre-sell her novels. She takes about five years to write each, and she explains that she mostly sits and stares, and often cooks and cleans. "I'm a very good cook," she said. Alison affirmed this, adding, "And all her counters are clean." Patchett added, "And my dog is very, very clean."
Patchett spends years creating a story in her head before she puts it on the page. She described the writing process as like taking a beautiful butterfly out of the air in a sunny field and brushing the dust off its wings until the color is gone, and snapping its wings and balling it up in your hands and sticking it to a corkboard with a pin through its chest.
She is best friends with Elizabeth McCracken, and says that she works very hard with McCracken on each novel. She met Jane Hamilton and traveled to an old lakehouse in Wisconsin that's been in Hamilton's family for generations and read her latest novel aloud. It took three days. But Hamilton, lying with her eyes closed, would sometimes snap her fingers and say, "You used that same word twenty minutes ago." Patchett said she tried this because Hamilton does this with all of her own novels.
Patchett said of wrestling with film rights and foreign rights and all sorts of other rights, she feels "like a foreign country." She is very close friends with her former lawyer from HarperCollins, Jim Fox. They read Henry James together. "The more important relationship you have as a writer," Patchett states, "is with your publicist." Hers is Jane Byrne, and she swears as long as Jane Byrne is at HarperCollins, she will be too.
A student asked how her life had changed since she became big, and she said, "Nothing changed. Nothing changed except I made a bit more money and I got to meet truly amazing people." She cites Jane Hamilton and Jim Fox as two of these people.
Alison Callahan explained the basics of book publishing - the rhythm of the three seasons, the difference between houses that specialize in hardcover and paperback (these things have changed since she was at Columbia). Her favorite part of the work is the acquisition process.
She generally reads forty pages of a manuscript from a big agent, then if she likes it, her assistant reads it with her. Otherwise her assistant works on the pile of manuscripts that have an interesting pitch. If she finishes a book and can't wait to have it, she can go into her boss's office and they could buy it almost instantly.
She also used the joking line, "You cry, you buy." She said she hadn't cried in ten years of book publishing, but one book got her this year, and it will be released in the fall of 2009.
A student asked how often she is assigned books she doesn't want to read, and she said, "Publishing houses are set up so beautifully that there is a person for every kind of book." She says she falls in love with a book about once every three months, and reads about sixteen manuscripts a day. She takes work home with her; she never stops reading. She said she doesn't have the chance to read for pleasure these days, but she loves her work. It was apparent in every way she spoke about the business, in the way she laughed with Ann Patchett, and with the way she got excited just describing the books she'd liked in the past. She was particularly excited by David Eberhoff's upcoming novel, The 19th Wife, which I read for Columbia and I can't tell you how much I hope you read this book. It will be released August 5th.
Two of her other clients are Zora Neale Hurston and Sylvia Plath. She said the trick with classic authors is reminding people that they're there.
I will end this section by explaining how Ann Patchett was first published. She published in The Paris Review at 19 and had an agent, who eventually passed her to her assistant, Lisa Bankoff. She moved to Nashville, I believe, and worked as a waitress. At 26, she drove to New York to drop off her first novel - she left her agent with the only copy of her book. She drove to her mother's, came home four days later, and discovered she didn't have to be a waitress anymore: her book had been sold.
Patchett added if she could go into the publishing business right now, she'd try to be an audio producer. Rick Harris, she said, was the best person with whom to be locked in a black box for eight hours for recording.
As if that weren't enough, we met Bob Gottlieb this evening. He was an editor at The New Yorker from 1987 to 1992, but he's best known for his work at Knopf.
He has the great big glasses and older face that are the makings of New Yorker cartoons. He spoke with characteristic eloquence. I expected him to be more outspoken, with larger gestures, perhaps. Instead he speaks with great restraint - he speaks like a gentleman, a pleasant reminder of the heyday of The Algonquin Table and the men who dominated The New Yorker in decades past. (He said that we do not have a generational gap; we grew up in different epochs. His contemporary literature in college was Joyce and Faulkner - he did not know of any writers from Spain, Portugal, Japan, etc., and they are common in our contemporary literature.) However, he has adapted to huge changes in the industry, and manages to demand the attention of thousands of people and some of the best contemporary writers.
He makes it a priority to return a manuscript if not the same night as he receives it, certainly the following day. He reads it quickly the first time because he wants to read like the book's readers would.
He revealed that Toni Morrison's new book, A Mercy, will be released in November, "and I think it's the best thing she's written in years." He said it was in the same vein as Beloved. Someone asked him what he'd corrected in her work and she had to call him up and ask him. "She, of course, remembered every word because they were blows to her heart; I was just talking." But he admitted he did two important things for her: (1) After Song of Solomon, he told her to give up her job at Random House to be a writer. (2) After she finished Sula, he said to her, "Sula is a perfect book. You don't have to do that again."
He talked John Cheever into doing a collection of his short stories. Cheever said, "Why would you want to do that?" They were already published, and he hadn't been well-received at first. Gottlieb insisted the time was right. Of course, Gottlieb was right - the book won Cheever a Pulitzer.
He explained that good editing is reading and reacting. You have to like the book, which means you have to be sympathetic with it, and you have to make it better for what it is. "The book belongs to the writer. It's not yours. You have to ask yourself, how can I help this writer?"
He spoke with a tone that made everything sound simple and straightforward. I had heard legends of his ego, but it wasn't the sort of ego I expected. He trusts his instincts and ignores everyone else's. His instincts happen to be just about the best in the business, and he puts in the time and energy to make everything work. He explained that Michael Crichton is not a great writer, but has a good mind for plot and scientific detail, and Gottlieb was able to work the rest out.
Gottlieb rewrote another commercial book entirely for an author in Colorado, and he said she was so grateful she did something no other writer has done for him before: sent a crate of Colorado celery. Apparently this is a source of Colorado pride - who knew?
He described working with the two top spy novelists, Len Deighton and John le Carré. Le Carré was a fabulous rewriter. Deighton was eager to please, but not especially good with rewrites. Gottlieb famously said, "Len, we have a problem here. On page 28, this character is gunned down and dies. Then on page 110, he's at a cocktail party." Len said, "That's great! I'll fix it!" and ran home. Gottlieb read the new draft: "On page 28, it now said the character was gunned down and almost died."
Joseph Heller was apparently a "genius for editing," and editing his work "was like working with a surgeon on a patient, except that the other surgeon IS the patient." The eeriest story Gottlieb told was about editing the book Something Happened. He finally said to Heller, this is wonderful, but I have to tell you, the character never felt like a "Bill" to me. I see him as a Bob. Heller admitted, "You know, I had him as Bob, but I changed it because I didn't want to offend you."
That, Gottlieb said, is trust.
Gottlieb reports that being an editor is about a balance of authority; you have to know when to back off and when to be persistent. Being an editor is also about transference. An editor is a symbolic presence on every psychological level, and that's a delicate thing. It is also a service job, and when a writer leaves an editor, it is a very difficult thing. Your job is to make them feel secure and to be loyal to them.
The difference between magazine and book publishing, then, is that as a magazine editor, you are a product provider, and do all your editing to please the magazine; as a book editor, you do everything to please the writer.
Publishing is "about making public your enthusiasm for a given book." He gave a book to a woman who is like family to him at Knopf named Nina. She came into the office the next day very excited and said to him that she'd stayed up all night reading the book. She was so excited, she had to tell someone about it! When she finished, it was too late to call him and it was too late to call anybody. So, she said to Gottlieb, "I made a cup of tea and told myself about it."
A few tidbits, just for fun:
Gottlieb called Miss Piggy's Guide to Life "one of my major contributions to the culture of the world."
He also hates writing. "Nothing in the world is harder than writing - or more painful - or more stupid."
He says he read Nora Roberts, and that she gave him hope for the American reader. She really is the best of all romance writers, he says, and writes about fifteen books a year. Readers must be intelligent if she's the top of the list.
Someone asked if he would recommend a book to her. He said no. "If we sat down for two to three hours, I could tell you a thousand books." But just one? Almost impossible. He wrestled with the question for a while, and finally went to his default book, War and Peace. He said you can't know that Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time by reading just one book. His favorite thing in the world to do is read everything a writer's done in chronological order.
Perhaps the line that best summarizes Gottlieb's attitude is this single quotation: "I never wanted anybody else's opinion." And small wonder. His instincts are the best in the business.