On The Road Again… Airports, Editors, Publicists and my writing life
Hey, out there,
I flew to New York on October 1 for the opening shots of my upcoming tour for The Death of Santini. The book comes out on October 29, when I’ll be running my mouth and signing my books until I’m mercifully released to return to my writing desk to continue the writing life that has become my life. Though I far prefer writing to touring, I’ve always thought it was part of the contract to try with all the resources I can bring to bear to help sell the book and to give my publisher an incentive to publish my next book. Because I’m older now, travel takes a lot out of me, but my mother raised me to be a boy who likes to please and meeting readers has given me pleasure that few writers have ever known. It’s part of the business of being a writer, and I try to approach it with an open spirit and a clear-eyed understanding of how lucky I am to have been to be asked to do it.
After arriving, I was met at the Essex Hotel the following morning by Todd Doughty who has served as my publicist for the last three books.
Over my career I’ve come to revere the work of publicists, and the charming Todd Doughty is exemplary of the breed. Their work is back-breaking and constant and, I believe underappreciated. Very often, they are the best looking people in a publishing house, and I’ve met some great beauties and handsome men in my various swings through their hallways. Editors, in general, are a plainer but cerebral tribe, but even among this group, there are some dazzling exceptions to be found. My own editor, Nan Talese, has always walked the earth as one of those self-contained, well-composed New York beauties you catch glimpses of as you stroll down Fifth Avenue. In matters of goodlookingness, we writers are the ugliest of the bunch and normally our appearance is akin to that of someone investigating a crime scene; though the women in American writing keep producing world class beauty in droves and there are many breathtaking writers among them.
Todd had arranged five interviews that day. The first was with Bob Minzesheimer, the book editor for USA Today, whom I’d met before and liked a lot. He has great style and looks like he could have been friends with Hemingway if they’d known each other in Paris in the 20s. Our interview was cut short when he received a phone call that Tom Clancy had died and he needed to get back to his office to write an appreciation of Tom’s life for the next day’s edition. The next was a radio interview where Teresa Weaver asked questions of Fannie Flagg and me about our new books. I’ve long been enamored of the works of Fannie Flagg; her books have always made me howl with laughter and taught me a great deal about how southern women think. Hell, how all women think.
At lunch, Nan Talese and I had a meal brought in from the Random House cafeteria. Nan and I have been a team for over thirty years now and
I was present the night she received the first Maxwell Perkins award for lifetime achievement in editing. It was a proud night for both of us. I’ve worked with some of the great editors of my times during my career, beginning with Shannon Ravenel, one of the founders of Algonquin Books, who passed me on to Anne Barnett, who passed me to the superb Jonathan Galassi who has enjoyed one of the most successful careers in the history of publishing and whose departure left me in the able hands of Nan Talese. I don’t think that a writer and an editor have ever been so mismatched, yet made it work out in our own ways. In her elegance, I’m always somewhat of an aardvark in her presence. She wears Armani with an unmatchable grace while I wear L.L. Bean only for dress up occasions. Her husband Gay Talese writes a prose so impeccable that I find myself studying it between books. His suits are so perfect that they look woven from pelts of manatees. Together, Nan and Gay look like café society taken to its highest register.
Nan and I were there to talk about my new book The Death of Santini, but I wanted to know what her other writers were doing. She always provides fresh news of Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan, and I wanted to hear everything about her writer Valerie Martin, whose book The Ghost of the Mary Celeste I had just read and admired. Because we’ve spent thirty years together, we wander back and forth in time. Editors and reps and bookstore owners we have known together. We still remember the editorial assistants using typewriters, and when tons of people smoked in the sanctity of their own offices. But we’ve always agreed that it’s the beauty and power and skillful use of the language that will sell a book – no matter what it is printed on. She’s found great happiness on a farm she bought several years ago in Connecticut. I wondered how long our relationship could last, but I was proud of the things we had accomplished together. Looking back, I wish I had not been so sullen and cantankerous when we were editing my books, and good God, I wish I’d been better dressed as I met them at their table at Elaine’s.