Cal Morgan Returns to Publishing as Executive Editor at Riverhead
In Conversation with a Beloved Editor
Ladies and Gentlemen, Cal Morgan is back. In 2015, the book editor and publisher—not to mention tireless literary innovator who founded and curated Fifty-Two Stories, a weekly “fiction delivery service,” and has championed the voices of writers like Roxane Gay, Lidia Yuknavitch, Jess Walter, Amelia Gray, Jamie Quatro, Mitchell S. Jackson, Porochista Khakpour, etc. etc. etc.—left HarperCollins after 16 years at the company, citing “the need to take a pause, to seed my own garden for a while.” Now, he has returned to publishing as an Executive Editor of Riverhead Books. We asked him a few questions about his time off, his re-entry, and which recent books have captivated his attention.
LH: Why did you leave publishing in the first place?
CM: I wanted to get back to first principles. I’d been an editor for 28 years, since I was 20 years old, and in many ways my last few years had been the most exciting of my career. But I’d also been working so intensely that my life was falling out of balance: I’d left myself too little time to be with friends, to see movies and music, and—especially—to read for pure, personal enjoyment. Taking time off was a way to reconnect with those sources of joy.
LH: Rumor had it you spent a lot of time reading on park benches—is this true? What were you reading?
CM: Yes—park benches, street corners, wherever I could borrow a little sunlight. And I tried to read as widely as possible, making up for lost time. I’ve been soaking up everything from big mainstream fiction to indie poetry and first novels, from history to music writing to social criticism. I consciously avoided assigning myself a reading list—mostly I just shopped my own shelves—but sometimes two books, read back to back, spoke to each other in unexpected ways: It was interesting to find parallels in novels as different as Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, or to study Marilynne Robinson’s craft in Housekeeping after a fresh (re)read of James Wood’s How Fiction Works.
LH: What did you miss most about the publishing world? Was there anything unexpected in that?
CM: What I missed, every day, was the great privilege of working with authors; no surprise there. What I didn’t expect was how warmly they’d cheer my decision to take some time away. It’s no accident that novelists are known for empathy.
LH: What did you… miss the least?
CM: The morning commute.
LH: Before this opportunity with Riverhead, were there any moments in which whole other careers opened up to you as possibilities?
CM: I wouldn’t call it a career, but this year I’ve been working with two smart young filmmakers to develop a feature-length documentary film on Jerry Lee Lewis, the last of the first-wave rock and roll pioneers who’s still performing. It’s a chance to learn a whole new storytelling language—while capturing a figure who’s been called “American music’s most Faulknerian artist.”
LH: So, why Riverhead? Favorite recent books of theirs?
CM: Riverhead’s list is one of the most diverse and exciting in American publishing, and their books have been highlights in my reading year, from Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao (long overdue) to Mohsin Hamid’s luminous, heartbreaking Exit West, which feels like an essential novel for this historical moment. But the real attraction, to me, is the obvious devotion the Riverhead team brings to the publishing process. You can tell how much they care about their books, and the proof is in the sustained, innovative, even playful work they do to bring them to readers. It’s the kind of support every editor dreams of offering to new authors.
LH: What were the best books you read on your break?
CM: Besides those I’ve already mentioned, let me single out The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang (Unnamed Press), an elegant, unsettling novel of family dysfunction that never relaxes its hold. Other standouts: Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, Daniel Mark Epstein’s strangely moving Lincoln and Whitman.
LH: I know you’re also a music aficionado, so—what are your favorite albums right now?
CM: I’m knocked out by Oklahoma Lottery by Karen Jonas, from 2014—a near-perfect, deeply American album about hardship and love. Jonas has a gorgeous, sorrowful voice, but it’s her writing, full of Roger Miller wit and Carson McCullers storytelling, that keeps me coming back. I’ll never get tired of Neko Case’s swirling, incandescent The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. And “Stepchild,” the Dylan song Jerry Lee covers on his latest album, is true and hard as bedrock.
LH: Which projects are you most proud of having edited, and/or who are some of your favorite writers to work with?
CM: That’s the kind of question it’s unwise to answer in public, like Which of your friends do you love the most? What I can do is express my profound gratitude for the sheer range of work I’ve been privileged to publish, by novelists like Jess Walter and Lidia Yuknavitch, voices of conscience like Roxane Gay and Amber Tamblyn, biographers like Pat McGilligan and Michael Tisserand, and multi-instrumentalists like Tom Piazza, Blake Butler, and Molly Crabapple. If you had all day, I’d name them all.