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.