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.
Recently, I sat down in Manhattan to chat with “Savages” author Don Winslow for Yahoo! Movies. Afterwards, there were transcript bits on the cutting-room floor that novelists interested in craft would appreciate. Here, Winslow on using the omniscient point-of-view:
Don Winslow: Writing books I’ll change point-of-view inside a sentence. I just don’t care, as long as the reader can hang in with it. And then people, particularly heavy-duty crime genre types, go nuts on me. They say you have a chapter where there are two or three points of view and I want to say, dude, I have a sentence where there are two or three points of view. I would switch every syllable if I could. It doesn’t bother me at all.
TA: When I went through editing on “Playdate,” which has an omniscient narrator, my editors encouraged me to go through a rewrite and pull any point-of-view that would shift within a paragraph, and since it was my first published novel, I went along.
DW: In my first book, whatever they said, I was like, yeah. But, now, it’s stet, stet, stet. And you’ve seen the book. It’s a copy editor’s nightmare. I said, ‘when you get to the copy-editor, take away his belt and shoelaces.’
Tomorrow, I’m going on WRITERS ON WRITING. KUCI Irvine, NPR, Orange County and I’m considering reading a short, short piece from my novel that I haven’t read aloud before, an intimate moment between father Lance and daughter Belle while they are making breakfast before school:
As Lance and Belle stood side by side in the kitchen, with Belle’s wild head of black curls at Lance’s hip, he experienced such a feeling of oneness that it scared him. How would he pull himself back together if something happened to her? He relished these moments of gooey eggs on their hands; the brush of his arm hair against Belle’s; and the simple knowledge that Cinnamon Toast Crunch was his daughter’s favorite cereal, having vanquished Lucky Charms and an austere period of plain organic yogurt.
This quiet harmony Lance and Belle shared was what he had imagined he would experience with Darlene as their marriage ripened. Instead, as the newness of their passion waned, a gulf had appeared between them, competitiveness entered the void, and, it seemed to him, a desire on Darlene’s part to assign blame. He still wanted to bridge that gulf, but wasn’t sure how.
March 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm, by Cherise Bathersfield
Entertainment journalist Thelma Adams’s novel Playdate, just out in paperback, explores the minefields of modern marriage with humor and sass. But Playdate is no empty romp. In addition to parenting precocious pre-teens, the protagonists—couples Lance and Darlene and Alec and Wren—are dealing with complex issues. Lance, an unemployed weatherman, is married to Darlene, a restaurateur, who maintains an inappropriate flirtation with her restaurant’s financier, Alec, who is married to Wren, a yogi, who is having an affair with Lance. Got that? If that love quadrangle weren’t dizzying enough, a fierce forest fire is menacing their comfortable upper-middle-class California enclave. We asked Adams to talk about the game plan behind Playdate.
You’ve been a film critic and entertainment writer for almost 30 years. How did that experience inform your first novel, which is about marriage and relationships?
I am a married film critic and entertainment writer with relationships. Some of which, I confess, are a little convoluted. This novel began as an idea for a screenplay: What if we melded Warren Beatty’s handsome rootless philanderer in Shampoo with Michael Keaton’s overwhelmed dad in Mr. Mom? It seemed like a funny concept. However, as it turned out, I’m a prose girl. The movie idea morphed into a novel.
With his sensitive nature and commitment to parenting, Lance is the heart and soul of the book. But he’s also having an affair. Was it hard to construct a sympathetic cheater?
Making Lance sympathetic without demonizing his wife Darlene was one of the great challenges of the book. Personally, I am the daughter of a relatively sympathetic cheater. My dad was no saint, but he was no demon either. I was a daddy’s little girl who adored her father, and growing up we had this kind of very easy, affectionate, unconditional love. And then, when I was in my early twenties, I discovered that I’d lived in a house where a pattern of infidelity on my father’s side gutted my mother. Being daddy’s little girl was suddenly a difficult position to have within the family politics. And, on top of that, when I found out about my father, I was still crying over a post-college live-in relationship with a serial cheater with whom I was crazy in love. That’s a long time ago, but fidelity, and understanding how infidelity molds a family, and a relationship, has been central to a lot of my writing. In the end, I came to understand my father, which is not exactly the same as forgiving, through my love for Lance and [his daughter] Belle. [Read more…]