Adventures In Editing, Part V


One day, Bantam publisher Irwyn Applebaum summoned me into his office and asked, “How do you respond when I say, ‘Tom Robbins’?” Without even thinking, I said, “one of the great prose stylists of his generation.” He said, “That’s what I thought. I want you to go out to Seattle and meet him. You might become his editor.” (Spoiler Alert: I did, and I did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

In past pieces in this series, I’ve tried to give you some idea of what life is really like from the editor’s point of view. I began writing “Adventures In Editing” because I rarely read about that aspect of the publishing business, and the little I did read described only a cookie-cutter, stereotypical, author-v.-editor relationship that tended to come from the author’s side of the negotiating desk: much of it seemed to emanate from Writer’s Digest habitues who had never faced a pile of unsolicited submissions in their lives. I wanted to show prospective writers that editors are human beings too, enumerate the very real contributions the “suits” can make, and maybe impart some insights that could help them along in their dealings with what will continue to be a vital function, even in this DIY book-publishing age. But this time, I can’t send out any useful career advice. I can only tell you what it was like to deal with some tremendously cool outliers – all of it by the seat of my pants. The point is not that I’m some sort of editorial savant: trust me, I ain’t. The point is that each and every author requires an individually different editorial hand, and if you can suss out that much, on either side of the table, you’re on your way to a better product than you would have had beforehand.

OK, let’s go to Seattle and meet Tom Robbins, so the measure of the man can be taken. It was clear that the man being measured was not Tom R., but your humble obedient servant, Tom D. His former editor had left the company, and it was known around Bantam that I was a fan. That means nothing more than familiarity with the author’s work, but I’m also part of that same generation of which he’s such a great prose stylist, so what the hell: let’s put the kid on a plane and aim it out West.

One tiny prob. Most of my Robbins reading — I’d never, ever, missed a TR book — had occurred a long time ago. I believe I had all of three days to prepare for my trip, so I unwisely decided to use every spare moment to re-read every single novel: ANOTHER ROADSIDE ATTRACTION, EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES, STILL LIFE WITH WOODPECKER, JITTERBUG PERFUME, and SKINNY LEGS AND ALL, which Mr. Robbins had inscribed to a trembling me at a Bantam pub-celebration throwdown back in our cozy New York offices. This much Robbins, ingested in such a short period of time, can seriously damage your brain, and it’s something I would never recommend to anyone, as I told the author to his face when we finally met. Tom Robbins loves ladies, laughter and language, and his beautiful work is best savored slowly, like the cigars he puffs while idling through his beloved stack of magazines. But no: I took an OD-quantity dose directly into a vein and nearly went nuts, because my brain stem was unable to separate specific images within the cascade fighting for life among my various synapses. The bravura rumination on the pack of Camels in STILL LIFE, yep, that’s on the cover, isn’t it? But much further and I was suddenly stymied. It was like being in Pepperland, or that wild Porky Pig cartoon where every being looks like a psychotic’s nightmare. Only this was real life. The Tom Robbins high was precisely as the author intended; I had simply erred and done the shit uncut. (The experience did help me later when I picked out some excerpts for a limited-edition TR reader we produced for booksellers, but I couldn’t know that while I was still literarily tripping.)

I think he thought I might work out. His squeeze (now his wife), Alexa, did a reading on me and said OK too. His agent, Phoebe Larmore, seemed amicable as well. But I’m sure it was Tom himself who cut through it all and answered his own question: “Does he get me?” We spent the rest of the weekend sharing mundanities, like shlepping a painting out to the Bainbridge Island home of film director Alan Rudolph (Tom was a well-respected art critic, with that same funky voice, before he ever turned to fiction), and by the time I went home, we were on the same team. The red-eye flight back to New York stopped in Chicago, and that’s where George McGovern plopped into the seat next to me. Bro, I woke up immediately. An amazing few days, that, the kind that make you glad you’re alive.

Tom Robbins is sui generis, and so is the way you “edit” him, or fail to. Back then, he produced a novel every five years: three years composing in longhand on a legal pad, one year tidying up and promoting, and one year chilling and thinking about the next one. He had his own trusted longtime copy editor, so that part was not your problem. Every year, he would meet with his “editor” and show some freshly typed pages, which he hired somebody to transpose. You couldn’t take them back with you. You’d go off and read, then come back and have a discussion. He was interested in finding out if his intended meaning was clear to a (presumably) thinking human. He had specific questions: what did you think when thus-and-so happened? Making the whole thing super-strange was that the book I worked on, HALF ASLEEP IN FROG PAJAMAS, was written entirely in second person present tense: “You do this. You see that.” An amazing feat that receded after a few pages; as the story took hold, you read past it until the unusual point of view was just an eerie echo in the background. Oh: did I mention that “you” are a Filipina stockbroker? Yes, working with Tom Robbins was every bit as much fun as I’d hoped it would be. He recently signed to write a memoir for Ecco, and I can’t wait to read it.

Tom probably wouldn’t call himself a “comic novelist.” He’s a novelist whose stuff is often funny, always playful. Later, at another publishing house, I fell in with a couple other guys who also wrote novels that were funny. I did three and a half books with the lovely and talented Bill Fitzhugh. As it happens, we both grew up in Jackson, Mississippi (I didn’t realize that at first) and it turns out we knew lots of the same people, though not each other. Bill had been a jock on Jackson’s legendary WZZQ, one of the country’s best progressive rock stations in the great FM era, and I was an avid listener (and a rockcrit in Georgia when Bill was actually on the air), so we had both laughter and rock & roll in common. (Bill’s late, lamented show for Sirius XM radio was produced with vinyl records in a studio out back of his L.A. home. The set lists alone can make you cry.) An unusual series of circumstances made me the third editor on Bill’s second novel, ORGAN GRINDERS, and by the time I came aboard the poor guy had already struggled through two sets of notes. That’s why I call that a half. Starting with his next book, CROSS DRESSING, I was there the whole time.

Bill wanted a more traditional hand. He’s a confident writer, bursting with ideas, but he’ll listen to suggestions from anywhere. An editorial dreamboat. CROSS DRESSING – about an adman who’s forced to impersonate a priest – is still my favorite, maybe because I come from advertising myself. It was one of the most gratifying editorial experiences I’ve ever had, because when it was done I could honestly say, this is a damn good book, and I helped make it that way. This is how an editor really gets paid: in satisfaction. You don’t get rich except for inner wealth. Bill and I connected creatively (in Kurt Vonnegut terms, we discovered we were in the same karass), and maintained that wonderful relationship on the subsequent books. He’s still a good friend of mine.

Then there was Christopher Moore, who I inherited about the same time as Bill. Chris has a wonderfully inventive but ever-comic mind. We at Avon loved every word he wrote, but he was supremely wacky: the books were about prehistoric beasts attempting congress with oil tankers, etc. One day his agent, Nick Ellison, told me, “Chris is ready to step up, and he wants to know that you, his publisher, will too.” Everybody knew he was great, but now he wanted to get on the bestseller lists and ratchet up his audience. “Can you do it?” I said hay-ell yes, and bought two prospective Chris Moore books on the basis of what he was now proposing: a Chris-invented early life of Christ.

The Holy Bible doesn’t tell you much about Jesus’s life between the money-changing and the Sermon on the Mount, so Chris supplies the filled-in stuff in a book called LAMB: THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO BIFF, CHRIST’S CHILDHOOD PAL. There was no outpouring of Christian angst, even though I tried to provoke it by sending LAMB galleys out to every burgeoning right-wing evangelical I could find. Evidently, they hadn’t all gotten together just yet (this was post-Limbaugh but pre-Fox-News-as-wallpaper). Nevertheless, LAMB – our book! – was Chris’s breakout, a solid NYT bestseller, and he just kept going from there: in other words, we wound up fulfilling our promise to Nick. This great, funky, joyful, inventive artist is now in the very capable editorial hands of Jennifer Brehl at William Morrow, who also helps bring you Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson and Joe Hill. (See, folks, editorial work ain’t no accident.)

I want all aspiring authors to know that when I was at Bantam, I was forced to decline the reprint rights to Chris’s brilliant novel BLOODSUCKING FIENDS. We already had Tom Robbins on our list (and thank god for that!). So when you get a rejection letter that says something like “it’s not right for us at present,” that may actually be the literal truth. In Chris’s case, back then, it certainly was, because airbody could see the fun and affability in his voice: we just didn’t have room for him in the grand scheme of things. Thank god I migrated to Avon, where the reprint rights had eventually landed, so to make creative amends and help Chris on his richly deserved climb to the next rung.

You never know. Never. But most any schlub can recognize real talent when it’s shoved in hisser face: that doesn’t take a genius. Now: what if the talent has already been glorified in another medium besides books? Ah, that’s for next time. See you soon.

Other Adventures:

Part I   Part II   Part III   Part IV   Part VI

26 Responses to Adventures In Editing, Part V

  1. debooker says:

    Reblogged this on Booker's Blog and commented:
    Step up, sit down, and read about one editor’s adventures in editing. If you are a writer, it is worth your time, and if you are a reader, it is also worth you time. And if you don’t do either, well, then, shame on you.

  2. Elizabeth Bourne says:

    That was a lovely read, and inspirational. I came to Moore via Lamb, which I adored. I’m so pleased to know you worked with him on it.

  3. Interesting and inspiring. I’m neither an editor nor writer, but I have a question. Since you did read all of TR’s works previously, instead of cramming those three days, why couldn’t you have just gone with the formulation of everything you knew, felt, and had let simmer about him for all the years. Why was it necessary to know the details of his books, and not simply how they effected you for all the years that you had loved his work? Are the details as important as the lingering effects?

    • Tom Dupree says:

      That’s a good observation. I didn’t really think about it. I just felt I needed to review somehow before I actually sat down with the author. I’m analyzing long after the fact, but perhaps it was because so much of my reading had been so long ago, and because TR influenced enough successors (I would argue even Chris Moore) that I wanted to make sure I appreciated the particular stuff that came from the source. For example, COWGIRLS is one of the, if not *the*, first sentient novels: it knows it’s a fictional story, it refers to itself. This has been done since, but I can’t recall a previous example. (Maybe somebody out there can help.) But I hadn’t read it in almost *twenty years*. And as I wrote upstairs (exaggerated a bit to try and make you laugh, but there’s definitely a germ of truth), I couldn’t anticipate the brain damage caused by so many cascading images. I really wanted TR to think me worthy of working with him. Like John Lennon, I hoped I passed the audition. (I had no way of knowing what a nice, fun, informal guy he really is, but now I do.)

      • Most likely, I would have done the same and gone all out. It is admirable that you did. I suppose there is a difference between the person that presents as a fan, or admirer of an author’s work, and one presenting more as a scholar. In your position, you had to be the scholar. But I hope you were able to impart the raw love you had of his work too.

      • I’ve been think about your “sentient” comment all day. It has been bothering me because I was sure that I knew of another, even earlier one. And then it hit me, well at least a character. The semester before last I was taking a women in medieval literature class, and we read Chaucer’s “Troilus and Cressida.” Chaucer’s Cressida, is cognizant of her infamy in literature, and knows she will always be known for her “betrayal” of Troilus, throughout all of literature.

  4. Tom Dupree says:

    One might also suggest that Judas Iscariot was aware of his future infamy in the same way, but to argue that, one would either (1) have to have just seen JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, which is chock full o’ holes, and/or (2) posit that Judas is only a character in literature, and I think nobody wants to go there right now. I’m referring not to a sentient character, but to a “sentient” novel (of course this is only a literary illusion; similarly, nobody really thinks a magician literally saws a lady in half). I do not recall a previous self-aware story. That’s something new. At least it was in 1976.

    • Tom Dupree says:

      There’s nothing new under the sun, is there? I’ve just read Richard Brautigan’s TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA, pubbed in 1967 (appropriately enough, on the recommendation of none other than Tom Robbins in an interview). It is sentient as well, knows it’s a “novel,” and refers back to itself. Without disparaging Tom’s work in the slightest, that has to be the inspiration for COWGIRLS’ cheerful self-reference.

  5. bdh63 says:

    I remember these books all fondly but in that vague, 20-year-ago way you describe. Perhaps I should revisit them. I like their through-the-looking glass qualities. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  6. artmoscow says:

    That may sound as a stupid question from someone not even distantly aware of what the profession is about, but still: is it possible to put an estimate on the editor’s contribution to the “finished product” of a novel, as a percentage? Like, 5% for author A and 10% for author B?

    • Tom Dupree says:

      There’s no such thing as a “stupid question”: if you’re asking it at all, you’re trying to improve your knowledge. What you just asked was an irrational question. That means you’re trying to place a numerical ratio on something that’s creative, ephemeral, empirically resistant to the scientific method. As I intimated upstairs, I think each individual author — no, each individual book — will fall somewhere between 99% author and 1% editor. In other words, I don’t think you can ever be so precise about the editorial function. But that was indeed an interesting thought experiment, so thanks for proposing it.

      • artmoscow says:

        Seeking knowledge is one thing, idle curiosity quite another. Being a professional in another area, I am often asked questions that are coming from the latter. My curiosity was not idle, of that I am certain. Thank you for coming back to me!

  7. Nika says:

    Tom Robbins is quoted so often in our house that he could be mistaken for a family member. Enjoyed your insights into his character.

  8. Sean Breslin says:

    Great read.

  9. It’s really interesting to read about what an editor does, especially in working with a well-established writer. Thanks for the insights!

  10. […] Adventures In Editing, Part V: Wait, how the hell can you have an “adventure” in editing?! You’re dotting the I’s and and crossing the T’s, not saving the Arc of the Covenant from fucking Nazis! […]

    • Tom Dupree says:

      Only thing I know for sure about you is that you haven’t read any of my posts, because you have no idea what an editor does. By the way, it’s “Ark,” and wait, how the hell can you have an inanimate object fucking a single Nazi, let alone more than one? (Yes, I’m joking too. No offense meant. Ok, a little offense meant.)

  11. simpklu says:

    Reblogged this on Simpklu and commented:
    An insightful article which ends on an encouraging note especially for any writer who has received a letter of rejection.

  12. 1crumb says:

    How funny. I stumbled on this blodge today, but I’ve been thinking about Tom Robbins myself in the past few days: specifically, how I was caught reading Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by my mother. It was my second ever go at grown up fiction, and I was full of confidence from the success of reading my first novel and the wonder of finding it actually contained a story. This time, not so lucky. I was smacked across the back of my legs and bawled out. When ‘Tom’ and I finally hooked up – with Skinny Legs and All – in my late teens, I was not disappointed. He was worth the wait.

  13. seatkin34 says:

    As a (hopefully) future editor from Jackson, MS myself, this was inspiring. Any words of advice for a fledgling wanting to break into the industry?

    • Tom Dupree says:


      Naw, I kid because I love. Why don’t you try instead to build up some credibility back home first? For example, there’s PORTICO magazine. There’s the University Press of Mississippi. There’s the Jackson Free Press. They’re all in your very own town and are quite legit. Why not knock on some doors that don’t require a plane ticket?

      Once I had an assistant who surveyed the book-pubbing scene and began considering going back to school, maybe to get a law degree. I said, “[NAME REDACTED], the world doesn’t need another lawyer. But it can always use an editor.” Guess what? That’s what s/he is now!

      • seatkin34 says:

        Thanks. Believe I will. I’ve got some contacts in those places so I’ll see if they can’t direct me to someone who will talk to me and maybe arrange something. Just needed a kick in the butt to get going.

  14. brainsnorts says:

    I have decided that I will allow you to be my editor. Now, if I can just get an agent to pick up my novel. Yeah, that part.

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