On the first day I met my agent, Victoria Sanders, she recommended two books. One was about Max Perkins. Since then I’ve written and sold a book The Last Woman Standing: A Novel of Mrs. Wyatt Earp and started the next proposal. Even though I am not a biography reader (my bad), I sat down to read A. Scott Berg’s massive biography of the Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins, the man behind writers as famous yet as diverse as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Ring Lardner and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. It is not a spoiler to say that they are all dead. While there are many valuable lessons in this book, one of the keys for a fiction writer is the many ways that Perkins tended to his flock of needy, brilliant, sporadically blocked writers. He tended to their literary woes but often their financial and emotional woes as well. Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby has been forced on generations of high school students, lived above his means and was constantly interrupting his novel writing to borrow money, go to Hollywood, and write short stories suited to the glossies of his time. Perkins lent him money, both in the form of advances against work that may never arrive and out of his own pocket, during their long relationship. Wolfe arrived, young and blustery and in a tangled relationship with a must older woman and benefactor, with a massive box of manuscript pages that Perkins helped him shape (sometimes the equivalent of wielding a machete of a red pen) into Look Homeward, Angel. In an era where fancy Manhattan publishers often acquire books and don’t have that deep emotional investment in their writers, it was a great reminder that an editor, like my beloved editorial coach, can be a branch for the writer to hold onto during the storm that is the writing of a novel. Also, reading this book, I realize that each writer has their own challenges — drink, blocks, a love of physical danger if your Hemingway, romantic entanglements, doubts about talent and legacy — and that a good editor cannot protect the writer but can help them deliver a manuscript that sings. Reading the book allowed me to get a birds’ eye view on multiple writers and their varying needs — plotting, overwriting, difficulty finding the meat of the story, starting too early or too late in the story, relying on false endings. But there is also a great sadness to the book — Fitzgerald dithered and was finally writing a genius book when he died suddenly of a heart attack, the work, The Love of the Last Tycoon unfinished. Wolfe is a hurricane of a Southerner, whose first book burned many of his bridges in his native Asheville, North Carolina, with his first book but became an international literary star. Having had Perkins help him create that book out of a mass of manuscript pages, he later turned on the editor he looked upon as friend and father figure. And then dropped dead, suddenly, at 38, at the height of his powers. In some ways, it is the very beginning of the end, as Perkins works harder — a truly brilliant editor — and ultimately drinks more. There are many mysteries that remain about the man — does his being in a loveless (or so the author says) or mismatched marriage account for his sadness. Does the betrayal of authors? The senseless death of Fitzgerald, who frittered away so much talent and was on the verge of being considered simply a chronicler of the Jazz Age and not much more. The depression and mental illness that plagues so many of the authors close to Perkins and his own Yankee stoicism that kept him chained to his desk. Reading the book from a female perspective, I do recognized how closed this world really was. The editors are men. The agents often women. Perkins had a number of female authors but it was the men — Wolfe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald — that owned most of the real estate of his heart. And, yet, gender bias aside, I agree with my agent, this book is a must for novelists both to understand how publishing works and how many roads there are (and roadblocks) to getting a novel finished (an achievement in itself) and transformed into the best that it can be. RIP Maxwell Perkins. Long live the editors who, in the current often hostile climate, continue to nurture novelists whose needs aren’t just on the page.
Hoboken mother, wife, teacher and fearless fictionista Caroline Leavitt cracked the NYT Bestseller List with her ninth novel, Pictures of You. Leavitt never runs from the truth when discussing this probing novel about two runaway wives praised by Jodi Picoult as “heartbreakingly honest.”
TA: How old were you when you came out of the closet as a writer?
CL: As soon as I could hold a pen, I wrote stories. They were always about a ten year old girl named Jo whose millionaire parents were always away so poor Jo was at a boarding school with a mean headmistress. I got into those stories and my older sister would often write them with me, and we’d decide on plot. Once we decided the headmistress was going to die, and I cried and cried and couldn’t stop, and my sister finally said, “Okay! Okay! She doesn’t have to die!”
TA: What did you like to read as a kid? As a young adult?
CL: I loved the Oz books and fairy tales and the All-of-a-Kind Family books. As a young adult, I loved A High Wind in Jamaica. My sister’s boyfriend gave me a real reading education: hee brought me Richard Price’s The Wanderers, A Clockwork Orange, J. D. Salinger, and more.
TA: What was the first dirty passage you read in a book?
CL: I found my mother’s copy of Fanny Hill when I was ten and promptly told all my friends! I didn’t quite believe any of what I was reading.
TA: Every one always wants to know: How long did it take to write this novel?
CL: Four years. About 20 drafts. Seriously.
I wrote ten drafts, showed it to friends and they all had comments. When I finally gave it to my agent, she said, “I love it! Now let’s get to revising it.” She had me revise five times. Then Algonquin bought it and they said, “We love it! Now let’s revise.” But I never minded because each rewrite made the book sharper, deeper, richer. It was work I absolutely loved.
I have a deadline now: two years. I’ve been working much harder and been more panicked about meeting the deadline, too. But it forces you to work smarter, to really look at the novel as a whole.
TA: Rate on a 1-10 scale how much of your writing is done with an eye to earning money (versus for The sake of The Art or for its own sake)?
CL: Well, you’re talking to someone who never made real money on her novels up until this one! I’ve always had extraordinary reviews and sort of terrible sales, but being a NYT bestseller hasn’t really changed anything internally. I’m still the same writer grappling with a new work and having the same worries and insecurities and terrors over it.
So I’ve learned that it is the writing itself that is the reward, the drug, the great pleasure. Now that Pictures of You is a bestseller, you’d think that would change, but actually, it’s still the writing that really matters to me. [Read more…]