Interview with a Gatekeeper: Colin Dickerman Isn’t As Shy As He Thinks
Kerri Arsenault Talks to FSG’s Newest Vice President
Colin Dickerman and I talked over a period of almost ten months, the latest at a cheesy hotel bar near his apartment and near Flatiron Books, where until recently he worked as Editorial Director; on September 5, he announced a move to Farrar, Straus & Giroux as Vice President and Executive Editor.
His new commute, a few extra blocks, won’t add much stress to his new position. In fact, Dickerman is a pretty relaxed guy. He grew up in rural Vermont where his father worked as a doctor and his mother worked as a mother. He attended a “shitty” elementary school and an equally terrible high school and says he didn’t learn much of anything there. “When I went to college, it was a rude awakening. In a good way. Everyone was so smart and knew way more than I did.” Although urbanized around the edges now, a small town, no-nonsense New England vibe underscores his personality and provides a rural perspective not many NYC editors have. His short shuttles to and from work, however, are about to speed up; former Vice President Joe Biden’s memoir, an author who needs no introduction, is set to publish in November.
We commiserate about our aging lower backs; learning how to ski in New England (“it was freezing, icy, and rocky!” he says); and gardening, which he doesn’t have the patience for. “I tend to be pretty results-oriented, I just want to make the thing. Forget about the process. I have a vision of what I want something to look like, like sometimes I knit, but the process is not enjoyable. I just want the finished product. I don’t find that process relaxing. Gardening would be the same way; I’d be like, where’s my fucking zucchini?!” Yet he does have the patience for working with writers: “I couldn’t imagine doing any other job” and watching bad movies: “I find them relaxing and funny. That Halle Barry one where her son gets kidnapped? It’s going to be two hours of ridiculous pleasure.”
Dickerman began his publishing career after graduating as an English major “along with everybody else” from Amherst College. Caryl Phillips, writer in residence his senior year at Amherst, mentioned that his publisher, Knopf, was “looking for somebody.” So Dickerman faxed Knopf his resume and soon thereafter, Knopf brought him in to interview for a receptionist position. Dickerman failed the typing test and failed at getting the job. “I thought, fuck this! I can’t even get a receptionist job!” With no job and no real plan, after graduation he drove across the country with a friend, and when he returned to New York, he found out the person Knopf hired instead of him “didn’t work out” and he was offered the position. “Even though my typing skills had not improved,” he says.
Being second choice, it turned out, was not such a bad deal. He was tasked not only as the receptionist, but also with assisting Gordon Lish, the legendary editor and sometimes controversial teacher, who had come to Knopf from Esquire. Lish was candid in his criticism of much-beloved authors such as Lydia Davis and Philip Roth and some people have compared his teaching style to torture. Lish’s editing style was no less subtle. As Christian Lorentzen wrote in a Paris Review interview, “[Lish’s] collaborations have not always ended amicably.” Dickerman also worked a bit at Knopf with Victoria (“Vicky”) Wilson, a Presidential appointee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, whose authors included Lorrie Moore, William Gass, and Anne Rice. Ash Green, who worked there too and who published Gabriel García Márquez, Vaclav Havel, and Walter Cronkite, gave Dickerman rejection letters to type that were dictated into an actual Dictaphone while he received such luminaries as Julia Child at his receptionist post.
“I also worked at St. Mark’s bookstore at night,” says Dickerman “I was making around $14,500 a year. It was pretty dire at that point.” After some time, he was given an opportunity to move within Knopf and work for Carol Janeway, who was head of international rights and sub-rights. With the new position came a $2,000 a year raise, which still wasn’t enough for him to quit his job at St. Mark’s.
While the experience he gained was invaluable, there wasn’t a lot of room for upward mobility at Knopf at the time. “The editorial assistants weren’t invited to the editorial meetings,” he says. He then got a job at Atlantic Monthly to work for Morgan Entrekin as his assistant and within a week, Dickerman was editing books and not long after, acquiring them. After Entrekin merged Grove Press and Atlantic Monthly Press (to form Grove Atlantic), Dickerman moved to Bloomsbury, then a short detour at Rodale where “it was hard to get them interested in books that weren’t just practical like ‘How to bake 600 great cupcakes.’” Then he made, what someone described to him as “one of the greatest leaps you can make in publishing”; he went from Rodale to Penguin Press and worked under Ann Godoff, who’d created the house’s impressive identity in a rapid, surefooted way with successful acquisitions. After two years there, Dickerman moved to Flatiron Books, the now four-year old division of Macmillian.
Going from publisher to publisher, fiction to nonfiction, literary to commercial books helped Dickerman accumulate experience and wisdom that he will parlay into his new position at FSG, where he will be editing literary fiction, memoir, pop culture, pop science, and narrative history.
Kerri Arsenault: Given that you have worked at both commercial and literary publishers, what are you looking for in a book? And what do you plan to do at FSG?
CD: I’ve been so lucky to be able to edit and publish such a wide range of books. Selfishly, it keeps things interesting for me. And at its heart, I’m always looking for the same thing—a great story, powerfully told. For that reason, there aren’t many kinds of books I categorically reject. I could say I don’t publish celebrity memoirs, because I’m not interested in most of them, but then Carly Simon’s amazing The Boys in the Trees comes along—a truly wonderful, artful book. I wouldn’t say I was particularly interested in nature writing, but I fell in love with James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life the moment I read the proposal. I’m terrified of math, but I’m bringing Alec Wilkinson’s book about learning math from his niece, who is a world-class mathematician over to FSG with me, because who wouldn’t want to go on that journey with Alec Wilkinson?
So I try to hold off distinguishing between literary and commercial at first. I ask myself, is the story great? Is it hard to put down? Do I want to talk about it with everyone? Then I try to figure out what I think it’s worth, how big the audience might be. It’s such an honor to be adding to a list as revered as FSG’s. I’m hoping I’ll be able to bring some great writing on popular subjects that both fits in with and slightly expands what they’re known for. And I’m excited about doing a bit more fiction, too.
What I really like the ability to do is to create a list of books, and to look at that list of books and say, OK, well, here’s one pop science book, here’s one incredible memoir, here is a great narrative history, and here’s the book that I know NPR’s going to be all over. I’ve always found it fun to try to put those pieces together.
KA: Is that different than how other editors are thinking of their lists?
CD: I’m not sure, but there are, sadly a limited number of things that can happen for a book. There’s certain reviews that can happen, and there’s word of mouth from readers and booksellers, and now there’s online stuff. But you don’t ever want to be going in to pitch Science Friday and say, well, here are four science books. What I prefer to do is say, here’s our one science book we love. The truth is, I try to stay involved throughout all the marketing and publicity. So it’s not like I buy a book and pass it over to production and am on to the next thing.
KA: That seems to be a problem in publishing, no? Where books are acquired then shuttled off quickly?
CD: I’ve had jobs like that, and I’ve published great books like that, but it’s just not that fun to do. As an editor who’s had a lot of experience in other areas, I try to be involved in all aspects of books I acquire, even the way they look. I’ve gone as far as to hire my own jacket designers, just because I know some great ones. I think that translates into a better experience for an author. It is maddeningly busy and crazy, but apparently, I can’t have it any other way because it’s where I always end up. I think I’ve always looked for a place, a publisher, where I can indulge most of what interests me.
KA: Like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout?
CD: Yes, that’s one of the happiest publishing stories. I was a huge fan of The White Boy Shuffle when it came out. I just loved his voice, his fierce intelligence. I published a couple of books with him and they didn’t sell very well. I didn’t really care because I felt his voice was important enough, and his vision of the world was unique enough. Again, you can’t build a list on just those books because you’ll go out of business, but I felt like—I don’t want to say I felt like one day he was going to make it big because of course I didn’t know what would happen—I guess I was hopeful.
KA: You cared about his work.
CD: You can’t engage in a book unless you think, this could do something. The worst kind of publishing you can do—and I have been guilty of it (everybody has)—is cynical publishing, where you think, I don’t understand this, but I think there’s an audience for it. That’s never going to work, and then you’ve got a book you’re not proud of that didn’t work. Nothing feels worse than that. I was really committed to Paul [Beatty], and editorially we worked together really well.
The Sellout is a complicated, difficult book about race in America, but it’s funny and sad, too. I think we were publishing at a moment when all that stuff was, not that it’s ever not been there, but it was sort of rising. Did we get lucky? No, I think this was part of the conversation that was happening, but Paul’s been writing about these things for 25 years.
KA: And he’s stayed with you.
CD: He’s loyal to me and I’m loyal to him. It’s a really happy thing to be able to stick with someone and then suddenly see them succeed, there’s just nothing that makes you happier, particularly when the author is so generous.
KA: I want to talk a little bit about publishing in today’s political landscape.
CD: I’ve never published overtly political books. I learn through stories. I published this amazing book last year, A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea, about a Syrian refugee. I thought at first, I’m never going to do this book, because it’s political. Then I read the story and I was like, this book shows you why stories matter. It’s about a young girl who lives in Syria, and they leave and go to Egypt, and then she falls in love. She’s 19, she gets on one of those boats headed to Greece, and another boat rams it, and out of 500 people, 485 of them drowned, and people are swimming up to her and handing her their babies to save. And she watched her fiancé drown right in front of her. Every time I presented this book I would cry. This is a book that speaks to what’s happening today, but it does so through a visceral story. I’m not going to read a policy book about refugees, but I would read this book, and I would recommend it to anyone.
Also, I published Alexandria Lesnevich’s book The Fact of a Body, which came out in May. It’s this unusual mix of memoir and true crime, and gets at all the big questions of truth and storytelling. Can any one story hold the truth, and how does your own experience change the way you view the world? It’s extraordinary. So is that book political? To my mind it’s something that engages those big questions, but through narrative. That’s what I want to do.
Another book I’m publishing in February is called The Kings of Big Spring. It’s by Bryan Mealer, who has traced four generations of his family from Appalachia all the way to Texas, and how they were buffeted by the boom and bust of the Texas oil industry. The book is genius. It’s this absolutely gripping story of this family and what they did to survive. Again, it’s not overtly political, but it speaks to the hardship at the core of many peoples’ experiences in America.
There’s so much stuff coming through my door. I probably get five election proposals a day, still. And again, most of them are books I’m not going to publish, because I’m not going to publish a book about Trump or a book that speaks solely to the political state of this country. I feel like for a book to engage me, it’s got to have a real narrative. But I do think I am expanding on that notion a bit with a wider view of why books matter. In other words, I’m always looking for something that’s got a narrative wedge but tells a bigger story—books that will teach you something painlessly.
KA: That should be your tagline: “Books that teach you something painlessly.”
CD: To be able to sink into a book that is going to teach you something and you know you’re going to love it, nothing’s better.
KA: But what about the Joe Biden book you just edited? Isn’t that a political book?
CD: It’s a personal book, a heartbreaking, beautiful, inspiring story, so it’s not a political memoir. Yes, he’s a famous politician but it’s also a story about his family and his son who was diagnosed with a brain tumor during the time he was deciding whether or not to run for President. He’s irrepressible, amazing. It’s a memoir about grief and faith and finding purpose.
KA: Do you think bigger books like his will help pay for other projects that don’t grab the media in the same way?
CD: Yes, I think that’s always part of balancing a list. The books that you know are going to be big out of the gate can help support smaller books that you want to take a chance on, that have the potential to hit, but are not as obviously commercial.
KA: Speaking of how books can make a difference, what about books that portend to be free speech but might be something else, like hate speech?
CD: Look, free speech and the First Amendment are really hard things to parse, right? I think as an editor you have to make your own call. I’m not interested in giving people… and maybe this sounds very narrow-minded… but if someone is engaging in what I consider hate speech, I’m not going to publish them. I don’t think they should not be published; I just don’t want to spend my time and I don’t want to give them a platform.
No editor is going to say, this book shouldn’t be published. They’re going to say, I don’t want to publish this. I do that all the time, whether it’s something I just don’t like, or I don’t think I can find a market for. For instance, I would never want to publish Ann Coulter. I’m not interested in what she brings to the conversation. She has every right to be published. I just don’t want to be involved. As an editor, are you ever going to get pressure for that? I don’t think I would. I guess if you are passing up something that makes a ton of money for somebody. But I’ve got to be able to sleep at night.
I like to ask myself, 18 months from now does this book contribute to the conversation in a way that’s going to be useful or helpful or interesting?
KA: Are you saying you want your books to go a little further, that there’s more at stake with every book you publish?
CD: Yes. Publishing is a political act, and we can help make change. Also, I don’t think it’s terrible to be filtering things through a slightly finer sieve and be like, this book is fine and someone will publish it, but at the moment I’m just not going to put my effort here. I’m going to wait.
KA: I was watching yesterday a Facebook Live feed where Corey Booker and Elizabeth Kolbert were discussing her book, The Sixth Extinction. I thought, an author is talking about with someone who can actually affect policy.
CD: That’s amazing, when a book actually has the power to change policy. Look, it’s a hard time for everybody. You can either think that it makes what we do feel insignificant, or you can double-down and do what you do better and sharper. It’s easy to fall into the first camp but making books can change the world, so you’ve just got to get into that headspace.
KA: Besides changing the world, you said to me earlier that being an editor is the best job. Why?
CD: Because I feel like it engages so many different ways of thinking. You’re reading something critically, you’re negotiating a contract, there’s a social aspect to it…you’re going out and meeting people. And there is the very intense relationship with an author, which is like part friend, part therapist, part cheerleader, and it’s a very special relationship I find totally fulfilling. And then you’re actually editing with pencil, and that’s another set of skills, and then you’re getting up in front of the sales force and trying to figure out how to pitch this book, and that’s another set of skills. I don’t know. I find it really gratifying, because it’s not like you’re in your office doing your thing and then passing it on. It engages so many ways of thinking and so many ways of being in the world. I don’t know of another job that cuts through all that same stuff.
KA: Someone said they were surprised you would talk to me because you were a little shy.
CD: I am.
KA: Doesn’t seem it to me.
CD: Everyone’s got a slightly different comfort level for the social part of this job, and for me, it wasn’t always the most natural. Look, I’ve been in this business for 26 years. There are agents I would have lunch with every day, like Sarah Burnes. I love her. But you don’t get to do that. So am I out there meeting all the new agents? Not as much as I should be! But when I started in this business I was really shy, and the idea of standing up in front of a room and presenting a book—I couldn’t sleep the night before. It was mortifying, horrifying. And now it’s like, Eh, I’ve been doing it for so long and I know how to do it. I’m a social person, but I like small groups of people. I like one-on-one interactions a lot, which is why I love working with writers. The performative part took me the longest to develop, I think.
KA: A lot of editors are uncomfortable in that publicity role.
CD: I think one of the things that really helped me come out of that, besides the mind-numbing repetition of doing it a million times, is that when you have a book that you really love and you believe in, you’ll do it. It’s not about me, it’s about trying to convey my passion and vision for a book. I’m pretty much of the camp that editors shouldn’t talk too much about themselves, because their whole job is to help someone else’s vision be realized.
KA: But people do want to know about editors, especially writers who may be working with them someday.
CD: I think it’s fine if you want to know about editors, but the whole point of an editor is that you sort of lose yourself in someone else’s project and you become whatever they need you to be. I made the rule that I would never buy a book if I haven’t met the author or at least had a very long phone conversation with them. Because we’re about to spend two or three years together, we better know something about each other, like, do we have the same sense of humor, or do we have the same vision for the book, very simple things. When I have broken that rule, it has not gone well.
KA: What about the mechanics of your work?
CD: I know I’m going to say the same thing everyone says, which is, it always depends on the writer. My goal as an editor is to have a clearly articulated vision with the author of what we think this book can be, and my job is to get that book there. My other goal is to make sure the author feels like they’re on track to get to where we need to be. If that means they call me once a week, great. If that means they call me once a month, even better. They can wait and send me three chapters I’m going to intensively edit, or if they want to write the entire thing before sending it, that’s fine, too. They set the pace.
We’ve got the same goal, and I check in and say, “How are you doing? Do you want to send me an outline? Do you want me to do a line edit on a chapter so you can see what I’m thinking?” It’s kind of gauging what that author needs to feel comfortable, so they’re moving ahead, and so I feel comfortable that’s happening too. I know every editor says it depends, but it depends. It happens every which way and every single permutation in between. Once I’m editing something, then that process is usually the same, which is I’m going through and reading for structural stuff and sort of bigger, high-concept editing, and then line editing and communicating that to the author. That tends to be the same process.
KA: How did you learn to be an editor?
CD: No one ever teaches you how to edit. It’s just instinct. I think it takes a while to feel secure in that, because you’re just doing it, and no one’s watching you, and you’re giving it back to the author like, “I hope that was the right thing.” I don’t know. You do it enough times and you’re like, I know what I’m doing, which is, frankly, why it’s an interesting job. It’s because every relationship with an author is different. If they were all the same, it would be boring. It’s nice to have different ways of working, just like it’s nice to have different kinds of books you’re working on, because that keeps it varied, too.
KA: Authors have to do much more than write, too these days.
CD: It’s interesting, when I think of what we ask of writers now, not only do you have to be a great writer, you have to publicize, you have to go on TV. It’s like, who’s built for that? Those skill sets don’t really intersect. In some ways, it’s the same as being an editor. You have to be able to do this, this, and this, and this, and this. But with a writer it’s even worse because writing is such an interior thing. The things that we request now from our writers, I would never be able to do. I wouldn’t be interviewed on TV. I’d rather do anything else in the world. I just don’t think I could do it. I don’t care what kind of drugs are available. I could not do it. Yet we want these writers to be not only writing a brilliant book, but then writing op-eds about it and going on TV or radio.
KA: Terry Gross?
KA: Can we talk a little about diversity in publishing. And I don’t just mean racial diversity. I mean diversity in class. Diversity in the characters or people in the books themselves. Diversity in publishing itself, like who works in publishing or who can afford to work in publishing.
CD: Look, it’s an absolutely vital, vital question I think we’re all grappling with. I know Macmillan has a whole new diversity initiative, and I don’t know enough about it yet to speak intelligently except to say that John Sargent, the head of our global trade division, is committed to it.
Publishing is one of the worst industries for this, and it’s sort of inexcusable at this point. What you’re saying is exactly right; we need more diverse people to be working here, to bring in more diverse voices. That’s a class thing and it’s a race thing, and it feeds into what we were talking about earlier, the political climate … how it changes what I want to publish, and makes me want to reach out further. I feel like, and I could be wrong, but sometimes diverse perspectives can be more easily accepted in fiction, like there’s more of a market and an interest for a novel from a unique perspective than there is for a collection of essays. But I think that’s changing. It can be a challenge, too, because you have to publish something because you love and understand it.
KA: You mean, you can’t look for the diversity?
CD: You have to absolutely be aware of it, but if you’re looking for diversity just for the sake of it, it’s just a different kind of cynical publishing. It all has to coincide, and it’s got to be like, Oh, here’s a project I believe in, one I love, and it has a unique perspective, or it’s written from somebody with a different background than me. I feel much more curious and open to that than ever, and it’s part of my responsibility to make sure I remain that way.
KA: This all seems to start in the publishing houses themselves. If working in publishing requires an internship or working for very low wages as an assistant, then the only people who will end up working in publishing are people who can afford to make almost no money.
CD: It’s brutal.
KA: And books are not really the biggest moneymaking venture in the world in the first place.
CD: It’s such a challenging industry in many ways, but what’s so frustrating about it is also what makes it exciting, because you never know what’s going to work. If there was a formula for making a bestselling book, we would all follow it. While it’s frustrating not being able to predict a book’s success, it also leaves you with a lot of hope. Again, if it was like, do these seven things and you’re going to get a bestseller, I would love that on one level, but on another level, what fun is that? You buy with your gut, and you publish something because you love it, and you have hope that something’s going to happen. That’s what I tell myself so I can go to sleep at night.
KA: That and many other things, I’m sure.