Monthly Archives: June 2015

A few things I wish I had told Ann Patchett…

My Desk

I first became aware of the immensely gifted writer Ann Patchett when she published her first novel with my old publisher Houghton Mifflin. It was an old Boston firm located in a classical brick office building that seemed indigenous to the Boston Common and the Back Bay. Houghton Mifflin satisfied every dream I’d ever had as an American boy who grew up wanting to be a writer. It was a palace of Boston WASP and its masthead sang out with distinguished New England names. I thought I’d be a Houghton Mifflin boy forever.

But the world of publishing was about to undergo a sea change in the creative lifetime of all writers. I thought my first editor Shannon Ravenel would be my editor forever. But she moved to St. Louis before my first book even came out. Then I believed that the lovely, stately Anne Barrett would direct my career, but Anne retired, then died. I was given the young, dazzling Jonathan Galassi and I thought I’d stumbled into the lifetime of the greatest editor of his generation and I had. But Jonathan was New York bound and New York destined and the mighty Random House recruited Jonathan for its own impressive stable of editors. I would have gone to Random House with Jonathan because I recognized his genius and wanted to be part of it always, but the editors of Random House, in their infinite wisdom and ineptitude, insulted Jonathan and me when I went to sign up for my new novel The Prince of Tides. Both Jonathan and I wince when we recall that dispiriting day whenever we get together in New York. Houghton Mifflin assigned me a new editor Nan Talese and she and I have been partners in whatever crimes against literature I’ve created in the last thirty years. Nan became my destiny and I left Houghton Mifflin, heartbroken, to join her at Doubleday. I plan to be with Nan for the rest of my life.

But Houghton Mifflin is still a cry within my writing heart. It seemed so right for me, an instrument perfectly tuned to the writer I was hoping to become. The firm was literary, low-keyed and calm in its aristocratic singularity. The editors pushed books on me by their new novelists and writers. It thrilled me to read the first and second books of brand new voices on the American scene. My teacher James Dickey had published his first novel Deliverance with them two years before I’d arrived on the scene. Philip Roth had begun his career with Houghton, then had lit out for New York. But I read the first books of Don DeLillo and Paul Theroux and Sylvia Wilkinson and Madison Smartt Bell. Anne Sexton was publishing her incendiary poetry at that time and the Houghton Mifflin’s backlist was a writer’s field of wonder.

Over my time there, I took special pleasure in reading the first works by young novelists, those fearless navigators who slipped into that perilous world with something new to say. Like all publishing houses, Houghton Mifflin was male-dominated, possibly a tad misogynist, and women writers seemed poorly represented when I first arrived. But like all great publishing houses, Houghton was itself a mirror of American society and the great surge of women writers was already on the march.

Ann Patchett

Late in my time at Houghton Mifflin, two young women arrived on the scene who were the talk of the company – Susan Minot with a novel called Monkeys, and Ann Patchett with one called The Patron Saint of Liars. Both were talented, all agreed, but both were also drop dead beautiful.

Physical attractiveness does not make frequent visitations to the writers’ world. When I attended a party celebrating the writer Jennifer Egan’s first novel, Gay Talese came up to me in the middle of the gathering and said, “This isn’t a writers’ party. These people are way too good looking to be writers. Writers are ugly people. This group is way to gorgeous to call themselves writers.”

The talented Jennifer Egan is also a beauty and her husband is in theater and they had attracted a comely group among their New York friends. But Gay had a point and a great eye for detail, which has made him one of the great non-fiction writers this country has ever produced. Generally, writers descend from a lesser tribe and whatever claim to beauty we have shows up on the printed page far more often than it does in our mirrors. Even as I write these words I think of dozens of writers, both male and female, who make a mockery of this generalization. But comeliness among writers is rare enough to be noteworthy.

Though I’m no longer part of the Houghton Mifflin family, I still keep up with their new young writers and I always wish for them success as a publishing company. One of the sales reps sent me a reading copy of Ann Patchett’s first novel The Patron Saint of Lies and from the beginning she seemed like the real thing to me. Her voice was clear and original and I marked her down as a writer to watch. I attended a writer’s conference at the University of Mississippi sometime in the blur that was the 90s for me; I stood in line to get a copy of her second novel Taft signed by her. We introduced ourselves to each other and I found her to be one of the most attractive women I’d ever met. She looked like one of those women you wished you could’ve met and married as a young man. She was poised, self-contained, delightful, and I thought Taft was a fulfillment of the great promise she showed in The Patron Saint of Liars. I thought she was still shaking free of those invisible handcuffs and chains of bondage that the writing schools of America impose on their grads. She was a survivor of the the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where they train the rogue elephants and the big cats of the writing world. It’s both a cutting edge and thought-cutting matrix that has produced some great writers and an endless regiment of failed ones. It is a savage gathering of wolves on the middle plains of Iowa and I can’t think of a more honorable or deadly arena for an American writer to test his or her talent in the vast meanness of the writing world. I applied for admission to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was turned down, and still consider it one of the great blessings of my writing career. But it didn’t lay a hand on the strength of Ann Patchett’s talent. It always makes the great ones better and the bad ones better, too.

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