Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. “If you have to recommend just one bourbon to me….” Naturally, this was my first question for Reid Mitenbuler, author of Bourbon Empire. There are some perks to be an editor, and working with an expert on American booze writing a book on the history of bourbon means personalized recommendations. His answer: Buffalo Trace. A lot was riding on his answer: whether or not I, as an equal opportunity drinker of spirits, would buy him and his book depended on my liking his selection. His reasoning certainly sold me: here was an inexpensive bottle ($30) that wasn’t too sweet, or too woodsy. It would go down smooth, he assured me. And the package was cool but wouldn’t win me any hipster points. Spoiler alert: I loved it. And so began a partnership that was about as much what to drink as how to structure the narrative. In many ways the book itself depended on Reid’s unique take on what makes a bourbon good, and how to cut through the marketing hype and tales long made up about a lone man (it’s always a man) toiling on a single still, with a single barrel, to bring you an exemplary bottle of whiskey. Every chapter we worked on became a lesson in reality versus myth. There’s a reason we don’t know the name Lewis Rosensthiel but we know Jack Daniels, or Evan Williams. Rosenthiel is the man responsible for the legislation that cemented bourbon as an American-made whiskey. He was also Jewish, and as savvy a businessman as you’re likely to encounter in the annals of American lobbying. He had a surplus stock of whiskey to sell—a surplus that would, quite literally, evaporate into thin air—and how better to get bottles moving than to limit your competition from overseas. Only Americans could make and sell bourbon, and this definition has stuck. Of course getting to the heart of Reid’s nuanced portrait of American booze—a ride that includes stops at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, to peer at the whiskey-soaked bones of dead Civil War soldiers; at the Kentucky Derby, to sample the world’s finest mint julep; and at the Jim Beam laboratory for the future bourbon flavors—required careful research on my part, too. By which I mean: more bourbon tasting. Memorial Day weekend, 2014, in the thick of pouring over pages of Reid’s first draft, I did my patriotic duty as Method editor and went to the liquor store. There’s a wonderful chapter on the creative genius behind Maker’s Mark—and I sipped on Maker’s Mark. Reid’s brilliant final chapters look at the boom of craft distilleries, and I tried my first rye whiskey, from Tuthilltown Spirits, based in upstate New York. As a reader I love the context for my drink choices. And Bourbon Empire delivers on this and so many others levels. You’ll never look at a liquor store shelf—or bar menu—the same again. Read more about Bourbon Empire here.
Today, June 10th 2015, would have been Saul Bellow’s 100th birthday. In celebration of his of his life, we reached out to Beena Kamlani, Bellow’s editor, to reflect on the writer’s life and influence. Bellow @ 100: Some Reminiscences and Thoughts To read Bellow is to be struck. As by a meteor, a thunderbolt, or something from some indefinable source. You are suddenly in possession of knowledge that comes from elsewhere—as if gifted. Stunned and blessed—how often does this happen to us in our lives? I speak from experience. I read him when I was eight. The book was Herzog. We preferred to read because TV in Bombay, India, was grainy and unpredictable. From the Hardy Boys to Enid Blyton, from Jane Austen to H. Rider Haggard—there was nothing that was considered unacceptable, and nothing that turned us off. But the world opened up for me when I came to Herzog. For it spoke about things no one had ever spoken about before. Its openness bowled me over. I was eight. It was a hard book to read as a child. The intellectual discourses in the letters Moses Herzog wrote were confusing and frustrating, for one didn’t know any of the references. But its truth was unassailable. Perhaps a child can grasp such things more easily than an adult for here was Moses remembering his childhood, the youngest in a family of four children, an immigrant family struggling to make it in immigrant Chicago, describing the helplessness of a child who sat in full knowledge of the struggles and challenges that faced them. These challenges colored his experience of childhood. Persistent failure rubbed shoulders with success; dashed dreams and thwarted ambitions made near impossible lives already brought low by sickness, the deaths of close family members, and sheer survival. Simple existence had to be constantly redefined, rearticulated, reimagined. In our family, too, there were deaths, divorces, and the effects of failure. Illness and sudden loss were common. Mourning bore witness but the questions multiplied. No one said a word in the mistaken belief that children ought to be protected from the truth. But there, in the kitchen of Moses Herzog’s home on Napoleon Street, in immigrant closeness and proximity, there are no secrets and the children come to know everything because it’s happening in front of them. It is the source of his intimate knowledge about a child’s world, filled with uncertainty, frustration, knowledge that is useless in the present but becomes part of our psychic calibration later, and the constant threat of abandonment. “We were like cave dwellers,” Moses says. We, too, become cave dwellers with him as we hear his pain about losing a beloved wife to a best friend, about the terrible longing for his daughter, and listen to him rage in loneliness against the world. There is the unforgettable scene in that kitchen when Father Herzog comes home robbed and beaten after a bootlegging expedition. “’Sarah!’ he said. ‘Children!’ He showed his cut face. He spread his arms so we could see his tatters, and the white of his body under them. Then he turned his pockets inside out—empty. As he did this, he began to cry, and the children standing about him all cried. It was more than I could bear that anyone should lay violent hands on him—a father, a sacred being, a king. Yes, he was a king to us. My heart was suffocated by this horror. I thought I would die of it. Whom did I ever love as I loved them?” Beckett, writing about Proust, said, “Yesterday is not a milestone that has been passed, but a daystone on the beaten track of the years, and irremediably part of us, within us, heavy and dangerous.” In Herzog, Bellow shows us how to record our pasts, how to transcribe them, how to live with them, even when they threaten to wreck us. Bellow concerned himself with what affected people, in the way they lived their lives, and in the way they dealt with the struggles of the heart. He had a real feeling for it, which is why his work leaves such a mark. He taps corresponding notes in another’s life. He is able to articulate what we know but cannot decipher for ourselves. “Every writer’s assumption is that he is as other human beings are, and they are more or less as he is. There’s a principle of psychic unity. [Writing] was not meant to be an occult operation; it was not meant to be an esoteric secret.” Memory becomes the key to unlocking those crossover truths from writer to reader. You not only become a cave dweller in that kitchen but you also recognize the truth of what’s happening when the older Moses takes you into the kitchen of his home where these struggles took place. You trust the sensibility and the mind of the older Moses, remembering, seeing his family again, and as a reader you find equivalent emotional hotspots in your own life, hotspots that take you right into the heart of Saul’s work. In the world I grew up in, girls are handed knowledge in breadcrumbs. It is a privilege, a gift. Boys can expect it by the sackful, for it is necessary to live life, to bring forth families and to support them. What Bellow does is to hand us all this gift. When I was working with him, every night, weary with the challenges and exhilarations of the work, we would wind down for the day and hand the manuscript to his wife, Janis, for safekeeping. He had gone, as usual, close to the fire, and it had taken a lot out of him. We worked on hard copy, and it was the only extant copy of the manuscript. The vault she placed it in was none other than the freezer, for this is the last place to be attacked by fire. That act of reverence and preservation was necessary—for the present, yes, but also for posterity. For those words, cooling in their frozen vault, would become jewels for readers in the future, illuminating and warming them as we ourselves had been. Years later, I told him I’d read him when I was eight. “It was Herzog,” I said. He looked at me incredulously. “You don’t say!” he said. Then he put his fingers on the table where we were working and playfully drummed them against the wooden surface. “And here we are!” he said. -Beena Kamlani Browse through all of Bellow’s work here.
David Ebershoff, Vice President & Executive Editor, Random House, offers insights into his work with author Jill Alexander Essbaum on her debut novel, Hausfrau. Hausfrau is an unforgettable story of marriage, fidelity, sex, morality, and most especially self. Navigating the lines between lust and love, guilt and shame, excuses and reasons, Anna Benz is an electrifying heroine whose passions and choices readers will debate with recognition and fury. Her story reveals, with honesty and great beauty, how we create ourselves and how we lose ourselves and the sometimes disastrous choices we make to find ourselves. How did the fact that Jill Alexander Essbaum had primarily written poetry before beginning Hausfrau influence her approach to the novel form and the development of her narrative prose voice? Jill’s poetic sensibility is everywhere in Hausfrau. When we say a novel is poetic, we often mean lyrical or even pretty. But that’s not how Jill is using poetry here. For example she uses iambic meter in several sections to create a steady drum-beat of dread and inevitability. She uses space breaks the way a poet uses them between stanzas to both pause the story and quicken the read. While writing, she read the novel aloud to hear the sounds of the words (in fact, she has memorized much of it). Whenever she was stuck and didn’t know what to write next, she started choosing her words the way a poet would — relying on sound, beat, image, and even how it looks on the page. Yet what’s so remarkable about this, to me at least, is Jill has written a very plot-y novel and paced it like a thriller. What was involved in the scope of the editor/author process of working with Jill from initial manuscript to finished book? The manuscript I read on submission was strong and self-assured. This made my job delicate — I didn’t want to mess up something that was mostly working. Jill and I went over the novel line by line, making sure every word was in place and there was nothing extraneous or overwrought. I paid particular attention to the passages concerning love and sex because I knew a certain kind of reviewer would pounce on any purple or overheated language. I also asked Jill a number of questions about her protagonist, Anna. We discussed how and why readers might interpret her, giving Jill a chance to respond (or not) in the text itself. Having already received much praise, drawing comparisons to such classics as Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina as well as mega-bestsellers such as Gone Girl and Fifty Shades of Grey, Hausfrau is well positioned as it enters the market. What, in your view, sets Jill’s novel apart and what aspects do you think will most engage readers? I acquired world rights to Hausfrau at a fairly modest level because I wasn’t sure how readers would respond to such a controversial heroine. I closed the deal the same morning I left for last year’s London Book Fair. By the time the fair’s doors opened, foreign publishers were offering on the book. I met with several of them, and so I had a chance to hear directly from readers around the world who were – I’m not exaggerating – obsessed with the book (one editor was in tears). What I learned then, and continue to see today, is that people read the book differently — some see it as literary fiction, some see it as a psychological thriller, some emphasize the sex and love. Jill’s UK publisher is calling it domestic noir (if that isn’t a category, it should be). The novel is almost a Rorschach test. The same is true with the protagonist, Anna. Some people empathize with her. Others love to hate her. Some understand her. Others find her a mystery. The novel opens with this memorable line: “Anna was a good wife, mostly.” That seems to capture why people are engaging with the book. Readers are debating with passion and fury just how good a wife Anna was — or wasn’t. Read more about Hausfrau here.
Rebecca Saletan, Vice President & Editorial Director, Riverhead Books, offers fascinating insights into her work with bestselling Russian-American author Masha Gessen on The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy. On April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs fashioned from pressure cookers exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding 264 others. The elder of the brothers suspected of committing this atrocity, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, died in the ensuing manhunt; Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found guilty in a Boston court of all 30 counts he was charged with. How did such a nightmare come to pass? Gessen is uniquely endowed with the background, access, and talent to tell this probing and powerful story of dislocation, and the longing for clarity and identity that can reach the point of combustion. She explains who the brothers were and how they came to do what they appear to have done. Most crucially, she reconstructs the struggle between assimilation and alienation that ensued for each of the brothers, descendants of ethnic Chechens, fueling their apparent metamorphosis into a new breed of homegrown terrorist, with their feet on American soil but their loyalties elsewhere—a split in identity that seems to have incubated a deadly sense of mission. At what point after the Boston Marathon bombings did the genesis of this book take place and how did you work with Masha to identify the most important elements and perspectives of this tragic story to present in book form? It happened very quickly – within 10 days or so of the bombings. Masha was at the time still living in Moscow, and deeply immersed in researching and reporting her last book. She always thinks forward to her next project while immersed in the one she’s working on, but in this case, it wasn’t until a longtime friend suggested she take on the story of the Tsarnaev brothers that it occurred to either of us – and as soon as the idea surfaced, I realized there was no one better equipped to tell it. We immediately knew the story we were interested in wasn’t the ripped-from-the-headlines one of the bombings themselves – other books would cover that amply, and faster. The book we were interested in was about why such a tragedy comes to pass in the first place: What transpired in these brothers’ lives to make them decide to take such drastic and devastating action in a place that was as much home to them as any had ever been? By virtue of not only her background, her bilingual – actually, bicultural – fluency, and her astonishing feel for narrative, we knew she was the perfect person to tell that story. Masha herself came to the Boston area from Russia with her family in her teens, and had experienced firsthand the dislocations of the immigrant experience. She stayed in the US for a decade before she returned to Russia in her twenties to cover the transformations wracking her homeland, which included the wars in Chechnya. To report this book she traveled to places that would be dangerous if not impossible for most other reporters to access, including Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan. What was the scope of the editor/author process as this project evolved from initial concept to finished book? This is the fifth book of Masha’s I’ve had the privilege to publish, and we’ve developed an almost married-couple familiarity with each other’s ways at this point. She’s also an incredible storyteller who always develops a vision for what particular path she wants to take through her research and reporting to convey not only the facts but the perspective she’s arrived at. With her Putin biography, I made a major structural suggestion that resulted in a restructuring of the first half of the book – though not actually major rewriting – because I had a sense of where American readers need to be met in order to come on board the story she was telling – but in this case her sense of how to unfold the narrative was nearly flawless. She was writing fairly quickly, however, and I was seeing the book chapter by chapter, so my most useful input was line-by-line, to make the story flow as dramatically as possible and to make sure the themes she was developing resonated chapter to chapter. Sometimes I also suggested she cut back on editorializing and just let the story tell itself, reassuring her that the details she’d chosen were making the points she wanted to make. In other instances, I felt she needed to lead the reader a bit more explicitly toward the connections she was driving at. I think this is a big part of editing, standing out in the theater before the audience arrives and saying what reads clearly and doesn’t need to be hammered home, and what’s not quite coming across. Practically speaking, we have a great rhythm – Masha is a night owl whose most productive hours are from the late evening when her children go to bed until three or four in the morning, while I’m an early riser, especially when I’m in the thick of editing; so not infrequently she’d send me a chapter before she went to bed, and I’d have it back to her, with edits and comments, by the time she woke. The bombings were such a horrific atrocity that many people may not want to revisit. Just as many people, though, are still wondering, “Why and how could this happen?” What aspects of The Brothers do you feel address that question in ways not discussed before and will connect with readers most powerfully? This is not a book about the bombings per se, and it is not about the victims and the many people who have been traumatized by the tragedy; that story has been well covered by others, in short and long form. This is a book that reconstructs the path someone might take to arrive at the decision to commit such an atrocity – what might have taken place in their background, their encounters with this culture, the shifts in their thinking. This is not to excuse or minimize it in any way. But it does call into question the received models we have been using – models of “radicalization” that are not borne out either by the research on terrorism or by the specifics of this story. We sense on some level, I think, that these models don’t make sense, but we continue to evoke them. In the process we react to such incidents in a way that inadvertently glorifies them and their perpetrators and, unfortunately, helps set the stage for more such episodes. I think this book is crucial reading for all of us because it helps us to narrate the story to ourselves in a way that actually fits the facts and might allow us to evolve a saner and ultimately safer response. Learn more about the book here.
Kara Cesare, Vice President & Executive Editor, Random House Group, offers insights into her work with debut novelist Bethany Chase and the newly released The One That Got Away. Full of both humor and heartbreak, this book tells the story of one woman’s discovery that, sometimes, life is what happens when you leave the blueprints behind. Having been the editor of a broad range of bestselling, award-winning authors, from Janet Evanovich to Lisa See, what was it about Bethany Chase and The One That Got Away that captured your interest and made you want to acquire and edit her novel? I fell into The One That Got Away immediately, and I didn’t stop reading until I turned the last page, which speaks to Bethany’s storytelling talent. I appreciated her gift for creating relatable, winning characters looking for love, but also searching for their place in the world. I missed the characters as soon as I finished the novel—that’s how vivid they were to me, and that’s when I knew I wanted to acquire such an impressive, emotional, and romantic debut. I was also very inspired by Bethany’s strong aesthetics in the novel—she’s an interior designer by trade and her descriptions of architecture and design are so mesmerizing. How would you describe the editor/author process of working with Bethany and what was involved in the evolution of this title from initial manuscript to finished book? Bethany is an incredible partner in publishing. We connected the first time we spoke about the novel, and she was open and receptive to the editorial notes I shared with her. She was very engaged in the editorial dialogue we had and was sincerely invested in making the novel as strong as it could possibly be. Who do you feel will be most attracted to The One That Got Away and what elements of the characters and the story will resonate most powerfully with readers? I think the premise—What would happen if you got a second chance at a love that almost was?—is really intriguing. Her opening is enticing: “Every woman has one. That name you Google at two o’clock in the morning. The intoxicating connection that somehow never solidified into anything real; that particular memory you still visit every now and then, for that guaranteed hit of pure, sugar-packed dopamine.” There’s an irresistible love story at the center of the novel, but there are also wonderful and poignant themes running through it about family, grief, resilience, and of creating a sense of home for yourself that I think will resonate. My hope is that the heart, wisdom, and humor that pervades this novel will appeal to readers looking for a great new voice in fiction, and that their discovery of this new talent will be one they can’t wait to share with their friends! Read more about The One That Got Away here.
Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. I first got to know Dave Barry about twenty years ago. By that time, he’d already won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary and had more bestsellers than half the publishing houses I know, but he’d never tried fiction. Then the Miami Herald approached him and several other South Florida writers, including Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard, to write a serial novel; I bought the book rights; and I loved his chapter so much, I asked if he wanted to write a whole novel. He said, sure, great idea! It wasn’t until he signed the contracts that he realized that meant he actually had to write a novel, with characters and plot and, you know, a lot of words. It was a brutal awakening. I’m not sure he’s ever completely forgiven me…. But I digress. Since then, we’ve done many books together, both fiction and nonfiction, but I have to say I think his new one may be my favorite: Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster): Life Lessons and Other Ravings from Dave Barry. It’s a collection of all-new essays about what one generation can teach to another – or not. Two of the centerpieces are letters to his brand-new grandson and to his daughter Sophie, who will be getting her Florida learner’s permit this year (“So you’re about to start driving! How exciting! I’m going to kill myself.”). Another explores the hometown of his youth, where the grownups were supposed to be uptight Fifties conformists, but seemed to be having a lot of un-Mad Men-like fun – unlike Dave’s own Baby Boomer generation, which was supposed to be wild and crazy, but somehow turned into neurotic hover-parents. Yet another conjures the loneliness of high school nerds (“You will never hear a high-school girl say about a boy, in a dreamy voice, ‘He’s so sarcastic!’”). All of them are extremely funny, but they also have the essence of humor: real heart. They make you not only laugh (a lot), but think and feel, and I promise you will be reading a lot of it aloud to people you love, and even to random strangers. Perhaps over a beer. Here’s to you, Dave. Read more about Live Right and Find Happiness here. Listen to a Beaks & Geeks interview with Dave Barry: