Interviewed by Thomas Sanders
Three characters in this story, the narrator, Liam, and Henry, work in academia. Others, Bobby Cooper, Ruthie, and the narrator work in publishing. How has your experience teaching at the University of Texas, Austin and editing the O. Henry Prize Stories influenced your own fiction?
I’ve worked in academia and publishing, academia for about 30 years teaching at UT Austin and elsewhere, and in publishing all the way from a job in college textbooks at Harper & Row, as it was then when I was a college drop-out in the 1960s, through to the present moment. I went to Bennington College and so every winter I had to find a job during the Non-Resident Term. I worked at the University of Chicago Press and Grove Press, and when I graduated I got a job at Grove Press. I worked as a freelance copy-editor for years in New York and when I lived upstate, and then for the Menil Foundation, which is in Houston. As series editor of The O. Henry Prize Stories, I’m responsible for delivering a complete manuscript and I participate fully in the production of the book. This is a great pleasure because of the people I work with at Anchor and because I love making books. Since these are the two fields I feel confident about, I used them in the story. It’s handy because I don’t have to worry about being inaccurate.
Living in the age of Submittable but having worked at a small magazine that only accepted physical submissions (and only if they included SASE), I appreciated your description of receiving and reading ink-and-paper manuscripts. Have you, like the narrator, encountered eccentric manuscript packaging? Would you care to describe any of the odd and/or ingenious packaging techniques you’ve seen?
When I worked at Grove Press, I read unsolicited manuscripts, which came in all kinds of envelopes and paper bags. There was a whole room with shelves up to the ceiling of unsolicited manuscripts. My late agent Wendy Weil sent her manuscripts out in bright robin’s-egg-blue boxes. I think most agents tried to have an easily identifiable box in the days when paper manuscripts were going around to publishers. “Unsolicited” meant without an agent, so I didn’t deal with clean manuscripts in pretty boxes. Often, the manuscripts I read had obviously been read elsewhere and had food and coffee stains and who knows what other kinds of stains. It was expensive to have someone type a manuscript and pretty hellish to do it yourself. Some writers put a piece of hair or a scrap of paper or something, toward the end of a manuscript to test how much had actually been read.
The title of your story immediately brought to mind the 1981 movie Escape from New York as well as Zadie Smith’s story of the same name. To my eye, your story has little in common with the movie or Smith’s short story (other than a character leaving New York). That said, I wondered: have you seen the movie or read the story? How did you settle on the title for this story?
I haven’t seen the movie (though I remember laughing at the title) nor have I read the short story, but I did grow up in New York City. I found it hard to stay and hard to leave. I was born in Brooklyn and we moved to Manhattan when I was about seven. Leaving New York was a long ordeal for me. Everybody’s connected to the place where they grew up, but New York City is a magnet and always has been, even in quieter times when there wasn’t so much money. I lived in Vermont, upstate New York, and spent time in Sweden, but I always ended up back in New York, back in the old neighborhood. When I moved to Texas in 1978 that was the real break. Even then I thought I’d stay away for the winter and return in summer. By then I’d had a few stories published in The New Yorker, and I was warned that it was a risk as a beginning writer not to live right there, not to know people in publishing. I found this very annoying but it might be true.
As the title suggests, New York plays a big role in the narrative. So too Chicago, where the narrator spends a few days with Henry. How and why did you decide to set portions of your story in New York and Chicago? Do you feel that real-world settings have certain advantages or disadvantages compared to fictional locales?
I don’t know Chicago well though I spent two miserable winters there during college, the Non-Resident Term again. Because I knew it a little, I felt comfortable choosing it as the place my characters go for a conference. It isn’t important as a setting the way New York is in that story. I read somewhere about a young writer who found the settings for his novel on Google Earth, which is really an amazing tool. If he knew the setting well but was verifying specific streets or buildings, that’s a great use of technology. I read Patrick Modiano’s work using Google Earth to enrich the fiction, but in his case accuracy down to street addresses is accurate, important, and evocative. But if you’ve never been to a place and don’t know how it smells, what the air feels like in certain weather, then the Googled accuracy is spurious. I feel this false quality in some historical fiction, that it’s all researched and nothing’s really alive. You feel this deadness in the fiction.
Has your work in publishing effected your writing? If so, how? If not, how have you managed to keep publishing and editing separate from your own work?
I’ve never considered how my publishing and editorial work has touched my writing but I’ll try now. There’s a long period of private composition when no one reads what I’m working on. Once a story or novel has been placed, I work easily with editors and production people because of my long experience. I’d say it’s all in all a positive influence, and it’s supported me all these years.
On Sunday mornings the narrator drinks coffee, eats fresh rolls, and reads the New York Times. Do you, like the narrator, have a Sunday morning ritual?
Sunday’s my day off from reading the New York Times. I do read “Social Q’s” online, trying to keep up with what other people are worried about, and I do drink coffee, but no fresh rolls. I usually work on Sunday.