Interview with a Gatekeeper: Matt Weiland, Lover of Soccer and Talking Rabbits
From Dreams of Italy to the Reality of Studs Terkel
Matt Weiland, Vice President and Senior Editor at W.W. Norton brings to his work the energy and mindset of a midfielder in a soccer match: fast thinking, defensive and offensive-minded, disciplined, unselfish, and a good communicator. In fact, he plays soccer every chance he gets and even tried to recruit me to join his Writers World Cup team, which he founded in 2009. Besides kicking a leather ball around, working alongside some of the best people in the industry, he also writes—a satisfying hat trick if you are Matt Weiland, because those are at least three things he loves to do.
Kerri Arsenault: How did you come to editing?
Matt Weiland: Happenstance. I was kind of miserable in college, and I suppose like anybody else I needed a job to help pay for it. I took a work study job at Columbia University Press, this was in 1988. My main job was to turn the mimeograph machine.
KA: Didn’t desktop publishing exist then?
MW: Yeah, but this was Columbia University Press! It still looked like the 1950s. I loved it right away. There were some great people there who were really good to me, and I liked the work a lot more than my classes. By senior year I was working full-time as the assistant to the Social Sciences editor. I really liked it.
KA: What did you like about it?
MW: I liked seeing a book through time, pass after pass. I remember talking to the Managing Editor—you know, the Managing Editor at a publishing house is always the most amazing person, and the one who knows everything about publishing—and she would show me these heavily marked-up manuscripts. The thing that made a big impression on me was “foul matter,” which is what you’re left with after a manuscript has gone through the process of becoming a book. All the sets of manuscripts and galleys and proofs that are no longer needed are called “foul matter” and are either returned to the author or destroyed. I loved that stuff! I guess I just felt a connection to older forms of publishing. I also liked that everybody had a behind-the-scenes role. There were these people who’d spend so much time helping an author get the manuscript just right, but they were totally behind-the-scenes. I loved that. And of course I found the books really interesting. Like anyone who is 18, I found the books I didn’t have to read for class a hell of a lot more interesting than the Great Books I was supposed to be reading.
KA: What were you studying at Columbia?
MW: Comp lit.
KA: So you were in the general area of literature.
MW: Yeah. I was also deeply affected by my dad, who is an English professor. When I was a teenager we would sit together at the dining room table working on things I’d written for school. He was a brutal editor, a great editor, still one of the best I’ve ever encountered. Partly because we’d be sitting there right next to each other.
KA: A writer doesn’t usually get that proximity to his or her editor.
MW: No. I offer that service but not many people take me up on it [laughs]. It was a great lesson. He’d take out a line that was fine or pretty good and weirdly the piece of writing become much better. My dad was very good at that, and very cutting in his remarks about my writing. I found the experience a great example and powerful lesson.
KA: Were you thinking of your dad when you began at Columbia University Press?
MW: It was just a job. I mean, I wasn’t really thinking about anything. It was this other world that I really liked. But I didn’t like it enough that I didn’t want to quit and leave, which is what I did. I was offered a raise to $13,000/year not long after I graduated from college and I thought, I can’t live on that. I had studied Italian literature, which I loved, and thought, fuck it, I’m going to move to Italy and work in a bakery and search for lost Boccaccio manuscripts. Anyway, after that I quit and temped for a ridiculous amount of money, more money than I had made ever.
KA: Doing what?
MW: I lied my way into legal secretarial work. I think her name was Beverley or Dot—if she ever reads this… thank you! I owe everything to her, because when the temp agency asked, Have you done legal secretarial work? I said, of course I had. Then I got there and discovered the “caption” in a formal legal document is this thing and I didn’t know what it was or how to make it, certainly not on a Selectric typewriter. So I was at sea at this very fancy office on Park Avenue and thinking on day one I had already blown the job. And Beverley or Dot or whoever it was who was sitting next to me, came over and in this conspiratorial whisper said, You don’t know how to do this, do you? I said, no. She said, let me help you. After she taught me what to do, I worked for six weeks and made a ton of money, which I saved to go to Italy.
KA: So you really were following your Italian bakery Boccaccio dream?
MW: Yeah, that was the whole point of doing it. Not long before I went, I called up some friends I had worked with at Columbia University Press to say goodbye. One of them said she had left and taken a job as the Publicity Director at this new house that André Schiffrin, who ran Pantheon for years, was starting, modeled on NPR and PBS, called the New Press. She said, You should come down and check it out. This was 1992.
My dad was a huge Studs Terkel fan and also a great admirer of E.P. Thompson, the historian, so I knew those classic Pantheon books. Particularly Terkel, who I revered and had read when I was blowing off the books I was supposed to read in high school. I knew André Schiffrin was Studs Terkel’s editor, so I said, Yeah I would love to come down and see what you’re doing. I went and I was just lucky. André and I talked for awhile and he said, I don’t have any jobs for you but if you want to come work as an intern, we’d be glad to have you, which meant for free. I had saved up all this money and thought, I could go to Italy later. Here I am in the office of this famous editor who is starting something new and had worked with figures like Terkel, and I thought, What the hell. I’ll stick around and see what happens. About a month later his assistant quit and Schiffrin said, How would you like the job?
KA: What is it you liked about Studs Terkel?
MW: I certainly couldn’t have articulated this when I was 18, but first I loved the sound—American talk. I just found a beat and a rhythm to it, and an incredible mix of characters and people. There’s a vibrancy to those books. And I always find it interesting when people talk about work, particularly when it’s work I know nothing about—which is most work [laughs]. I was powerfully affected by Working, in particular, but also, well, I keep it here [reaches for book]. This is The Good War. It’s what I read when I was 17. That was about work, too, even though it’s about war. It’s one of the absolute great books. It’s also just pure narrative. One of the great things about Studs is that he had a fantastic ear for great storytellers and an ability to prod people into telling their best story, you know? People always ridicule oral history and treat it condescendingly, and sure there’s plenty of mediocre oral history, which is lousy. But Studs is the best, because he’s sitting there for hours listening to people tell stories and waiting until—and I know this because later I worked on some of his books and part of my job was listening to the transcripts—he would jump in, he could tell when someone was saying something that they maybe hadn’t told before or they hadn’t even articulated themselves before. Then he would push them. To me that comes back to being an editor, knowing when somebody is hitting on some really great vein of material they haven’t used before or haven’t realized was so good or whatever. So I loved those books and I was stoked to have a chance to work with him later. I had a very small role but it was a very powerful thing.
KA: Did he perhaps influence the books you acquire?
MW: He really influenced everything. A few years later I went to work in public radio (I’ve had too many damn jobs), based at Minnesota Public Radio, making a national documentary radio series called American RadioWorks. The reporters there were extraordinary, and another great influence, as was a friend of mine in the mid 90s who was deep into the documentary film scene. I saw loads of them, and I realize now I love anything with a documentary feel, any book that feels like a great documentary on a page.
KA: Why documentaries? Do you like the aspect of learning something new?
MW: In a way everything is that. I mean, I never went to graduate school or anything, but I guess part of the pleasure in being an editor is that it is your continuing education in everything. Also the documentary vibe or spirit or impulse often involves a reporter getting out from behind his or her desk or office and out into the world and talking to people. And people are just so interesting and strange and surprising. Often people who, outwardly, might seem inarticulate or might seem to be living narrow lives, given the right reporter and given time, express enormously rich things about their own lives and the worlds they come out of and the people they encounter and the places they’re from. That takes real work, but to me, that’s hugely exciting on the page, and it comes through, I think, because I don’t know what else to call it, a documentarian’s impulse.
KA: That makes me think of Svetlana Alexievich–
MW: –who Norton has published.
KA: –or Joseph Mitchell.
MW: This is Joseph Mitchell’s doorknob [picks up a decades-old New York City public school doorknob from his desk].
MW: This doorknob belonged to him. He’s one of my guiding lights. In 1992, right as I was starting out, Up in the Old Hotel came out. It had a huge effect on me. In fact about ten years after that, when I worked at Granta, I published a photo essay about the things Mitchell collected around New York. In all those years he wasn’t writing, he was walking around the streets of New York collecting things. Here, hang on… [looks for something on the bookshelves] …here, I published this piece, “The Collector,” by Paul Maliszewski and Steve Featherstone, in Granta in 2004. Mitchell used to walk all around New York City and go to abandoned buildings and haul away things like doorknobs and old nails. Then he’d write something on New Yorker letterhead about precisely where it had come from. Check it out [points to photograph in book].
KA: Another doorknob.
MW: He had hundreds of these things. He would collect old railway ties or little tools and put them in Tiffany boxes or pill boxes with a note as to where they had come from.
KA: Like he collected people. But how did you come to own the doorknob?
MW: The photographer, Steve Featherstone, who’s superb, told Mitchell’s daughter, who has all the stuff now, just how passionate I was about Mitchell. She very sweetly gave him one to give to me, for which I am forever grateful.
KA: Speaking of Mitchell’s wanderings around New York City, did you grow up around here?
MW: No, I’m from all over the Midwest. I grew up in Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan. My father taught at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s, and then we moved all over. Mainly I grew up in Minneapolis. It is true I’m interested in pretty much anything about the Midwest. It’s an incredibly under-described part of the country! A lot of the writers I work with seem to come from there.
KA: Like who?
MW: Like Mary Norris, author of Between You & Me—she’s from Cleveland. Philip Connors, whose astonishing first book, Fire Season, I published at Ecco, and whose latest, All the Wrong Places, I published here last year. He’s a proper Minnesotan. And Rachel Corbett, whose extraordinary debut, about Rilke and Rodin and the origins of Letters to a Young Poet, comes out this month. She’s from Iowa. And the reporter Dan Egan, whose book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, about the ecological catastrophe happening right under our noses, comes out in March. He’s from Wisconsin. If you grow up in the Midwest—the 1970s and 80s in my case—there was this powerful sense of the place just sort of emptying out and in decline. Those were the years when Mondale called it the Rust Belt, and somehow I always gravitate to writers who seek to capture it. Not just writers—around the same I did the Mitchell photo essay I did another one by the great photographer Alec Soth, on one metalworking factory in Minnesota and the men and women who work there. God I still love that piece. I just think the, you know, ball bearing factories of the industrial Midwest have a poetry about them that never fades.
KA: So maybe the books you choose reflect the storytelling of Studs Terkel or a Midwestern vibe, and if so, what do you feel about the term “gatekeeper” as it applies to you as an editor? The term as it applies to what gets published or chose?
MW: I don’t feel there’s any shame in that term. I certainly slam the gate an awful lot. But that’s part of the point, saying no to most things. Most people who aren’t in book publishing are surprised to hear that an editor’s job is mainly to read a lot of pretty good things and say no. That’s really the bulk of it. But the point is then to focus on the handful of things every year that you just feel so strongly about that you want everyone to read and that’s the other part of gatekeeping: busting down the gate or hurling it open and running through with your author. That part of it I really love. So I guess the gate works both ways.
I’ve always been particularly keen on debut books, and publishing writers for the first time and working with them over many books. I think that’s one of the supreme pleasures of this work. I especially relish working with writers who thought those gates were always going to be closed to them. Years ago at Granta, I published a book about housing projects, called Estates (in the UK they’re called “estates,” but not in the American sense of the word). It was by a young working-class woman named Lynsey Hanley, who grew up on the largest public housing project in England. Great book. I remember her writing about the “wall in her head” growing up, this idea that if you grow up in a certain way, without books in your household and without many examples of writers around you, in addition to all the other walls that are around you, you erect this big one of your own—that you’re “not the kind of person who does that.” I feel part of my task is to encourage great writers who might not have thought of themselves as a person to write a book, to write it.
KA: How do you do that?
MW: It’s certainly not single-handed. I think of Mary Norris, for example, whose debut, Between You & Me, I published here last year. What a pleasure to introduce as a debut writer someone who had a whole career before turning to write! Mary has worked for nearly 35 years at the New Yorker, and of course there are loads of people within the New Yorker who know how incredibly talented she is. She is one of the great copyeditors of our time! But it was thanks to some of the younger people on the staff, who first encouraged her to write about commas for the website, that she started writing in earnest and people realized, oh, right she’s hilarious, a great stylist who has great stories. They are owed great credit.
KA: How can writers break down the wall they’ve erected for themselves?
MW: People agonize about the steps it takes to cross that divide. But if you can write—well, it’s like dancing; if you can dance, you just gotta get out there and dance. Don’t agonize over pitch letters. I have great faith that the publishing community notices. I worked at literary magazines for many years and one of the glories of magazine editing is that you’re always looking for that next great writer. I have great faith in those who are looking out. I think for young writers agonizing over pitch letters–
KA: Or older writers.
MW: Yeah, new writers of any kind—they shouldn’t agonize over pitch letters. Write the thing itself. Pitch letters, as with proposals, are not really a form. They’re just a tool. Sure, they’re useful in their way, but if you can write a great piece or a great poem or a great story or a great chapter, then keep doing that.
KA: I think new writers do get hung up on those details.
MW: I mean, I’m not saying a good letter isn’t useful. I got an email about three years ago from a concert pianist in Belgium named Leona Francombe. She said she had bought a book I published, The Great War by the cartoon journalist Joe Sacco, a one-of-a-kind book: a wordless, 20-foot-long drawing of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. So I get this email from her and it said she had bought Sacco’s book and loved it and she felt awkward writing, because she spent 30 years essentially playing Schubert for a living but she’d been working for years on this piece of writing about one war seen from an unusual angle, like Joe Sacco’s book was, and would I take a look at it?
She said it was about the Battle of Waterloo as told by a rabbit. I would never have said I was in the market for sentient rabbit fiction, but—you know, it was just a great email. I also liked that she said, “I’m not sure what this is,” which I always think is a great thing to say about a piece of writing. I think often a piece of writing doesn’t jibe with our typical divisions of fiction or nonfiction, or fit into any particular genre or whatever. As any editor would, getting an email like that, I was like, Yeah, send it right on! It was called The Sage of Waterloo, and I loved it from the first paragraph—I thought it was an exceptionally distinctive and very moving book, one that reminded me of Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez books from a long time ago that were fiction on the edge of nonfiction with a slightly philosophical cast of mind and a real engagement with the natural world. And it was short; I love short books. It was 40,000 words, which I think is a beautiful thing. Anyway, happily my colleagues shared my high feelings for it. Though they spent months hopping past my office door after that. (I’m pretty sure they were making fun of me, and maybe they still are…) But I was very proud of that because she had published nothing yet in magazines.
KA: When was this published?
MW: For the 250th anniversary of Waterloo, of course.
KA: You’ll have to remind me when that was.
MW: 2015! And the cover is beautiful. We have a fabulous art department here. This was designed by Charlotte Strick, who is one of the best designers in America.
KA: Let’s get down to the nitty gritty on what we were just talking about with your Waterloo rabbit; what are you looking for, or not looking for in a book?
MW: I think I’ve done my sentient rabbit book for my life.
KA: How do you know what’s going to be a book for you, including that book?
MW: I don’t know ahead of time but I know almost immediately. I can feel it. I’m sure every editor is this way. There’s a feeling—you start trying to turn the pages too quickly, because you get so excited about it. Certainly, it’s a sound on the page thing. I think, strangely, it’s very hard for writers to sound like themselves on the page. That takes a lot of work and I often feel like I really know this person really well, even if they’re not writing about their own life. That person comes through very strongly and I often feel that right there at the beginning if I have passion for a book.
I also love nouns. Not for style, though there’s that too, but it means I really love books that tell me something about people, places, and things, that are very thingy, you know? I almost always respond to writing about a particular place in the world or a job or work that someone does or a group of people. I don’t tend to publish many full-scale biographies, though I am doing Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth book, which is going to be great. Or the Times reporter John Branch’s Boy on Ice, which was a such an incredible story and by such a talented writer, I felt transcended the genre, really. But in general, for biographical books, I love “gang” books, scene books, books about a group of people in a specific time. Those books tend to be shorter, like little chronicles. I love those books that take you into a scene or a group of people or a particular place in time and then get out. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive. I confess I’m a little allergic to the kind of biography that begins with, “It was raining the day so-and-so was born.” I really respect those books but, whew, I just think, we’ve got a long way to go here!
KA: So that’s something you would avoid, then?
MW: I would never rule it out. In the right hands, I love those books, too. I read Robert Caro’s Power Broker when I was about 21 and loved it. I mean, talk about full-scale biography! But I’m not sure that’s the thing I relish publishing most.
KA: You publish mostly nonfiction, right?
MW: Yeah. I used to publish a lot more fiction. Certainly when I was working on The Baffler, Granta and The Paris Review, I worked on a ton and loved it. Over the years I think I’ve just turned more to nonfiction as a reader. I love the idea of doing one or two novels a year that I can really focus on, and have the rest of my list be nonfiction.
In fiction, I’m proud to publish John Lanchester and André Aciman, notably writers who go back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. I do find the novelists I often love best are the ones who may have started out working at a newspaper or the radio. The nonfiction writers I gravitate to are the ones who thought they were going to be novelists. That’s the case with Wendy Stevenson, a reporter and a damn good one, who’s just written her first novel, Paris Metro, which I can’t wait to publish next year.
KA: What’s the difference between a pretty good and a great manuscript? What makes the shift in your mind?
MW: I don’t know but that’s the difference between saying no and saying yes. I have changed my mind about something once, when I was at Granta. Tom Beller, who used to edit Open City magazine, tipped me off about a short piece he was publishing by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. I read the piece, about tipping in New York, and loved it. So I wrote to Saïd and said, if you ever have something longer that might be right for Granta, let me know. Some months later he sent me a long piece about his remarkable family. I don’t know, maybe I had too much to drink that night (or maybe not enough to drink) but I thought it was just really good… So I wrote him back a day or two later saying, thanks anyhow. Then for the next two or three nights I found myself thinking about that piece, talking about it with my wife, and I wrote him a few days later and said, This is really embarrassing, because I tend to trust my first instinct, and I’m sure I’m often wrong but I just keep going, but I can’t get that story out of my head. It was really long, like 15,000 words, and it dragged in some places, but it was an extraordinary piece of writing. So I said, If you haven’t sold it already elsewhere I’d love to work on it together and see if we can make it work for the magazine. Later he told me that no, he hadn’t sold it elsewhere because he had been so depressed that I turned it down and couldn’t bear to send it anywhere else. We worked on it for awhile and when we ran it, that piece got a ton of attention. I hoped to publish the book based on it, but got outbid. Great for him!
KA: So the piece nagged at you.
MW: Yeah, I think it has to nag at you. It has to make you want to talk to the people closest in your life about it. And it’s so subjective. That’s one of the glories of it. I’m sure I’ve turned down loads of things that I would have loved if I had read them a day earlier or a day later, depending on whatever was happening in my life that day or that hour. But that’s ok. That’s how it should be.
KA: There’s got to be a line somewhere. You can’t publish everything.
MW: I’m sure somebody out there has written a fabulous book about a talking rabbit obsessed by some other war, but now I’m probably not the editor for that. I think you have to just trust your instinct and trust that little quiver when a manuscript feels so vivid, so fresh, so original, and just so interesting.
KA: I’ve got to believe it’s a practice, too. I mean, you read a lot.
MW: Sure, I hope I’m better at it than I was when I started. Regardless, I can only be honest in my reactions, and believe it’s best that way. Put it this way, I don’t think it’s in the best interest of author and agent and readers for an editor to take on something that he should like, but just isn’t that into. I sometimes find myself saying to agents, I’m glad to hear everyone else is into this, but I’m just not drunk enough on it. I may like the book a lot, but just don’t feel like I’m the one to be charging up the hill with the flag.
KA: Because part of your job is to do that. I mean you have publicity departments, but you have to be the main cheerleader.
MW: I love being a cheerleader. I love honking about stuff. After all that’s what to publish means, “to make public.” You want to go out and make it known! Short of sandwich boards down Fifth Avenue, which I’m sure I’ll do eventually, I like that part of it. But you have to be all-in on the book from the start to do that.
KA: To wear a sandwich board?
MW: Wait, what have I just committed myself to?
KA: Let’s talk about diversity in publishing. In publishing itself and in the books you publish, which may be related.
MW: We need diversity in both.
KA: Let me just say it; the publishing industry is homogenous.
MW: That hasn’t changed significantly in my whole career, alas. But as far as the books themeselves, it’s been exciting in the past few years to see so many proposals from young, black essayists, or to hear someone in an editorial meeting here say, Oh this book will really speak to the huge conversation we’re having about gay identity. But that requires constant attention and work. You can’t just tick off a box. And it’s got to come up through literary magazines, through publishing courses and programs. It also goes beyond race and gender and sexuality to people coming from other parts of the country and from other backgrounds.
KA: Penguin eliminated the need for university degrees. Nan Talese said she hires people based mainly on what they read. Those ideas eliminate some prejudices. Nobody’s come up the perfect answer, but what you are saying is an interesting answer, too.
MW: I was at AWP this year in LA. I’ve been pretty involved in literary magazine work since I was 18, and I can’t remember such a vibrant exhibition hall for new literary magazines. It looked more diverse in every way than I’d seen in ages. That is a very encouraging sign. But then the task is to not let it peter out at the level of literary magazine and micro-publishing house. All that energy and all those good ideas need to be brought into the larger eco-system of writing and books. I want all that dynamism to galvanize all of us. How to do that? I mean, money! Let’s be honest. Money is the answer. Paying young writers, fighting to create a larger market for their writing, so they can continue to write and build an audience before they have to slink away to, you, know, work in finance or do social media for some tech firm.
KA: Then there’s the diversity in publishing offices themselves. You could afford to work as an intern because you had saved all that money, which many don’t or can’t. That seems to be a problem that publishers can only have certain people work in the industry: those who can afford to live in New York City. If you are getting a small paycheck, or in the case of interns, sometimes none at all, it’s almost impossible to work in publishing, at least in New York City.
MW: That was the conversation in the 1990s, too.
KA: Why even bother with internships? Why not just hire these people as assistants or assistant editors?
MW: Here, here! At The Baffler, the magazine I helped edit 20 years ago—it was modeled on the great H.L. Mencken magazines of the teens and twenties—I ran a great piece by Jim Frederick called “The Intern Economy,” decrying this very problem! He was way ahead of his time. I’ll give you a copy and you can solve the problem. [laughs].
KA: What is on your desk now, in terms of your list?
MW: The list of writers I’m publishing next year sounds like the beginning of a joke: a long-haul trucker, a historian, and an anesthesiologist with an MFA walk into a bar… But they’re great books! Also a book about the Alps. I’m from all over the Midwest, places that are really flat, but I’ve spent some time in Northern Italy and passed through the Alps and of course it’s just stunning. It’s also seen some extraordinary people, both real and imagined, pass through—Hannibal and his elephants, Napoleon, Sherlock Holmes wrestling Moriarty, the Italian army’s retreat at Caporetto, Hitler and his generals at Eagle’s Nest, a whole lot of yodelers… I thought of the writer Stephen O’Shea, who wrote a great book called Back to the Front, in which he walked the Western Front of the First World War and wrote both about the war and his own experiences while walking there. So I got in touch with him and just said I have this crazy idea… He said, don’t give this to anyone else, I want to do this book. And he did. It’s called The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi, and it’ll be out in the spring.
KA: You handle a lot of what you call “general interest” nonfiction books.
MW: First of all, I think “general interest” is a lousy phrase for such a glorious, wonderful, fabulous thing. It’s a shame we don’t have anything more particular, especially since “nonfiction” is already sad, like the best thing we can say about it that it’s not fiction. Fundamentally, I think general-interest nonfiction is really simple. It’s a piece of writing intended for readers who aren’t necessarily already interested in the subject. What could be better? The fact is, if you spend any time on a bus or in a public library, it’s incredibly galvanizing as an editor because you see people not just reading, but reading all kinds of things. Sure, reading in all sorts of forms. Great! Go crazy! Whatever you like! But reading books that you might not expect that particular person to be interested in. To me that is a wonderful thing. We shouldn’t forget there are plenty of readers for every book. The task is finding them, which is harder than ever. But that’s my problem, not the writer’s.
KA: “General” and “Interest” two of the most boring words…
MW: Yes, two of most boring words in the English language but for the most exciting, wonderful, lasting, important thing.
KA: You need to come up with a new phrase or word.
MW: Yeah, right after I solve the diversity-in-publishing problem, I’ll solve the “get a better word for general-interest books” problem. You know, I’m happy with just calling it a good book. Certainly my task is to describe it in more particular ways than that and be more convincing, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with “a really good book” as a descriptive name.
KA: You’ve been in publishing in 25 years. Has your job itself changed or evolved?
MW: No, I mostly file and photocopy, really [laughs]. Shuffling paper around my desk [he shuffles a manuscript]. It’s pretty much the same.
KA: What’s your most frequent editorial comment on those papers, speaking of not changing?
MW: I often channel the memory of a waiter at an Italian restaurant in south Brooklyn, who years ago paused when I repeated my order (thinking he hadn’t heard me) and said, “Yeah. You said dat already.”
KA: I understand you are also an advocate of the well-made paragraph. Could you talk about that?
MW: There are many editors who I really admire, friends of mine, too, who talk about their love of great sentences. I like good sentences as much as the next guy—but I’m a paragraph man, through and through.
KA: It’s the unit of composition.
MW: Yeah, and it has movement to it. I relish velocity and narrative drive in fiction and nonfiction. The paragraph is where you do that, and it’s not simply putting a bunch of good sentences together. There’s something else that happens at the molecular level of a good paragraph. It’s beyond me to characterize what that is, but the best writers do it. They also craft paragraph after paragraph that fit together in a way that hurtles the reader along. Even if they’re moving slowly. I often use music in talking with writers about a manuscript I’m editing; I listen to both post-punk with a great deal of velocity and to a lot of early chamber music that feels very slow, but both of them, to switch to prose terms, feel to me like they are built on great paragraphs. They have a really fine structure, sometimes sinewy, sometimes thick. The point is, they can be of any kind, but paragraphs rule!
KA: Great tagline; “paragraphs rule.”
MW: I sound like I’m twelve. Maybe I always sound like I’m twelve.
KA: Speaking of, what is fun about your job? What really gives you joy?
MW: Coming here and hanging out with chums at Norton. The readers and people I love best in the business happen to be in these halls, so I count myself really lucky to be among them. These are people I’ve known for a long time and wanted to work with for ages. And I love all the meetings that people in publishing complain about—launch meetings, marketing meetings, jacket meetings, sales conference… Really anytime you’re given the chance as an editor to rattle on about why you love a book, just what kind of a duck it is, and who else you think might like it. There are plenty of editors better than me at presenting books, I’m sure. But man I love doing it. In any case, you’ve got to have a good time to enjoy this work. There’s too much filing [laughs].
KA: We haven’t talked about how you work with your authors.
MW: That’s what I suppose I love best: the interchange between writer and editor that runs in parallel or in tandem with editing the book. It’s a weird job. You are strangely intimate with the writers. I often feel like a tailor. I’m right there. Really close! And I’ve become very friendly with the writers I’ve published over the years. Writing a book is really really hard for a lot of writers and I find part of the fun for me is reminding writers that yeah, it’s misery.
KA: That’s fun for you? Reminding writers that writing is misery?
MW: Yeah, because it is. Because we are in it together throughout the process and what comes after. And what often doesn’t. Remember, most books don’t do particularly well in the marketplace and as an editor I know what the writer put into that book, often for years and through many drafts. I know it’s not fun for a writer to see my scrawled BORED HERE or REALLY BORED HERE repeatedly in the margins. On the other hand, I’m with them. Part of my job is saying these kinds of things in the hopes that no reviewer will say them in print. I’m trying to give them that response so they can fix it or change it or tell me to fuck off. I’m wrong all the time, I’m sure.
Editing State by State with Sean Wilsey was one of the best editing experiences I’ve ever had. There were 50 writers on the 50 states—from Alabama by George Packer to Wyoming by Alexandra Fuller, and we divvied them up 25 each. It was insane because the book was due the same month my wife and I were expecting our child. But somehow we managed, and I’m really proud of the book we ended up with. One of the great pieces in the book was Josh Ferris’s Florida piece, about having grown up in Key West and all the things he learned from the dishwashers and cooks and waitresses at the crummy diner where he worked as a kid. But there was a piece of it that stuck out to me. I said, look I think we should cut this part. He said, you’re crazy, because he thought that section was the kernel for the whole piece even if it didn’t connect with the other parts. I read it again and thought, yeah, ok maybe he’s right. I don’t know. Ok, fine, let’s keep it.
That book was reviewed all over the place, and almost every piece not only mentioned Josh’s Florida piece as a stand-out, but pointed to that particular section as one of the high points of the whole book. It’s a reminder that often the best writing has gangly bits, but that’s what makes them distinctive. As much as an editor might be inclined to tidy things up and concentrate on making the arc of the narrative as tight and as forceful and as clear and convincing as possible, there are things that can stick out and make it better.