Interview: Gary Fisketjon, Editor

I must admit a little bit of hero worship here. Years ago, when I first started trying to build a writing career, I heard the old bit of advice to look at my favorite authors and find who their editors and agents are. I don’t remember where I read that adage or if someone told me that, but it’s a great way to target people in the industry. So I made my list of favorite contemporary authors and went about trying to discover who was the editor behind these books I loved so much.

I was shocked to find out that the overwhelming majority, I think about 80 or 85% of my favorite authors, all worked with one man: Gary Fisketjon. Over a lengthy career in publishing, Fisketjon has worked with many of the greats. And he’s not at all content to rest on his past lists, but rather, he’s eager and excited about the work he has coming out in the next year from Knopf. I was thrilled at Fisketjon’s generosity as he spent a great deal of time talking to us about his background, his approach to editing, and the books he has forthcoming.

Slushpile: Please tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up? Where were you educated?

Fisketjon: Grew up on a mink ranch in Oregon, went to the University of San Francisco in the early seventies and then transferred to Williams College in Massachusetts, having been inspired by a variety of teachers along to way to become interested in literature.

Slushpile: How did you develop such a love of literature and books?

Fisketjon: My mother was an astonishing if secretive reader, and as well as those teachers I had some innate attraction to books that only got better the longer I indulged it.

Slushpile: How did you get your first job in publishing?

Fisketjon: Having despaired of grad school for a variety of reasons and needing to get out of working in the Alaskan fisheries for other reasons, I suddenly recalled that two Williams friends had gone on to the so-called publishing course at Radcliffe (now at Columbia). Somehow, the concept of working in publishing had never come up before. So off I went, and soon drifted down to New York with my classmates at the end of the summer, quickly got lucky by landing a job at the wrong place and then, about six months later, at Random House, which turned out to be the right place.

Slushpile: As an editor, one of your most famous alliances was with Raymond Carver. I’m assuming you are the Gary immortalized in the list of friends in the poem “My Boat.” What one aspect of Carver, the man, not the writer, that you wish people knew about?

Fisketjon: Well, he and Tom McGuane were my literary heroes in college, and amazingly both become my friends and writers I worked with. I’d reviewed Ray’s Furious Seasons (published by Capra Press) for The Village Voice, and this led to our finally meeting once he moved from El Paso to Syracuse near the beginning of what he called his new life or second chance.

“My Boat” expresses what a generous, accepting, and engaged friend he was, how his great stores of sorrow never blinkered his interest in what others were going through or compromised his exhilaration at someone else’s success or happiness. Having been through a very rough mill himself, he was about the least judgmental person I’ve ever met. Loved nothing more than laughing, gossiping, fishing, eating good simple food especially if that meant breakfast any time of day, having a good time. We should all be so lucky.

Slushpile: I say this as an unabashed Carver fanatic, but it seems to me that his legacy has been tarnished somewhat by the legions of bad Carver imitations that followed in his wake. I often find readers today who say that Carver’s work is clich?, but in my opinion, that’s because he created the clich?. It’s like after Hendrix, every guitar player in the world had to have a wah-wah pedal, a fuzzbox, and tons of feedback. Do you think Raymond Carver is afforded the proper critical acclaim for his contribution to the short story or does he suffer a backlash due to the hoards of imitators?

Fisketjon: Maybe, but it’s famously the sincerest form of flattery, and I’ve never seen anyone imitated to the degree he was. I tend to think that such failures would throw into high relief how good he really was, how deceptively difficult his apparently simple style of writing, since he made what was his alone work as well as any writer every has.

Slushpile: In 1984, you launched the Vintage Contemporaries series. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City was the first title in the series, correct? Or was it Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter? I’ve heard conflicting reports mentioning both those titles.

Fisketjon: No, Jay’s book was the first original in that series, launched in September of 1984 along with reprints of books by Peter Matthiessen, Tom McGuane, Paula Marshall, Jim Crumley, Janet Hobhouse and, of course, Ray.

Slushpile: Can you describe your own personal tastes? Looking at the young, urban writers such as Jay McInerney and later, Bret Easton Ellis, they are vastly different than some of your other writers such as Cormac McCarthy. What attracts your attention? What do you like to see in work you are considering?

Fisketjon: The only way I’d characterize my taste is to say that I look for original, accomplished work and hope that I’m not blind to recognizing it because of some absurd set of prejudices or preferences. I’ve been accused to preferring novels that feature coke-snorting yuppies, or hard-drinking cowboys, or any number of types I don’t have any particular fondness for, but I’ve never seen how Jeanette Winterson, whose work I immediately fell in love with, connects except in that general way to Mark Spragg, about whom I feel the same way. Editors who think they know what good fiction has to be are a real danger, since only writers can figure out and then execute that, and then only one at the time.

Slushpile: I happen to think McInerney’s Brightness Falls is one of the better novels of its decade. Why do you think McInerney suffered the kind of backlash he did?

Fisketjon: It’s beyond bizarre. In the decade (roughly) before Bright Lights, only two serious writers?John Irving and Mary Gordon?came to popular success out of, respectively, obscurity or nowhere, so you’d think that Jay’s success would’ve been heralded, and it was for a time; after all, he was a serious reader and writer who’d paid his dues, at the age of thirty hardly an overnight success.

But when Bret and Tama and others?which I might point out also included writers who couldn’t as easily be tossed in the same category?then enjoyed their own success, suddenly it was as if some golden age?a dead age, in my view, when serious writers couldn’t get read in hardback or even reprinted in paperback, much less make a living at it?had been corrupted.

Also, the media would rather get two stories for the price of one: “Here’s an overnight success?” then gives way to. “What happened to him?” This is another case, perhaps, of, “Careful what you pray for,” or of ?”There’s no free lunch.” At any rate, whomever this syndrome afflicts, it?’s outrageously unfair. Jay himself has often said that part of this ire stems from the fact that he enjoyed his success too much?to which I say, “Why not?” He earned it, and also helped pave the way for a bunch of other writers. Certain critics seem to me to have made a career of this unartful dodging, such as a prominent woman at The New York Times who has suggested in reviews of Jay’s new books that she admired the previous one only to be appalled by what has come next, when in fact she’s hated them all. If you can’t even hate honestly, what does that say about you?

Slushpile: Knopf, like most of the major publishers, no longer accepts unsolicited, un-agented submissions. Do you ever fear that you might be missing some great new writer with this policy?

Fisketjon: Not true. We get scores, possibly hundreds, of them every week and log countless hours considering them?not, perhaps, to the satisfaction of those submitting them, but surely to my satisfaction, and surely more than any baseball-minded fool would get if he were to walk up to Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park and demand a try-out. Aspiring writers always tell me that agents are less accommodating in this respect, but about that you’d have to ask an agent.

Slushpile: How does an agent pitch a manuscript to you?

Fisketjon: I don’t care about pitches, don’t much like to hear them except along the lines of what the author’s writing background and credentials are.

Slushpile: How many pitches do you receive in an average week?

Fisketjon: Varies wildly, but far too many e-mail submissions from people who thereby testify they couldn’t find an agent; and given how poor most of the agented submissions are, that’s hardly encouraging. This is all a big catch-22, but who said life was fair?

Slushpile: How many, on average, of those pitches do you actually agree to publish?

Fisketjon: One in a million, more or less.

Slushpile: How do you determine the advance offered to an author? Obviously, you take into account the market conditions, past performance of the author, audience of the book, etc. But what other types of information do you use to determine an advance?

Fisketjon: Whatever I’ve learned in twenty-seven years of doing this. You might as well ask a mechanic how he can tell how much it will cost to fix a hypothetical car.

Slushpile: For a company the size of Knopf (and Random House), the advances can get quite large and even run into the millions of dollars. Do you have financial help on the larger deals or do you handle the contracts and advances all yourself?

Fisketjon: Even though I plea-bargained out of math in high school, I can handle profit-and-loss statements and the like, but I’ve always relied on financial people (almost always, and ignorantly, described as suits or bean-counters) to help me do what I do.

Slushpile: How do you balance the advance given to one author and the advance given to another? Do you have an overall budget for X amount that you have to make last the year and you divvy out that advances from that pot?

Fisketjon: Nope. We first decide whether we want to publish a book, then whether we can afford it?or, rather, at what point only a fool determined to lose money would go any higher.

Slushpile: Let’s say that an agent interests you in my book and you agree to take it on for publication. What happens next?

Fisketjon: I edit it, and then we publish it?a process not much simpler than building a house, and one that involves an ever-widening group of people first within the company and then without, ultimately people over whom we have no control whatsoever.

Slushpile: You have said in other interviews that you may take as much as an hour to get through five pages of a manuscript. Are you the only editor to work with your authors or do you have assistants that handle more mechanical aspects while you may focus more on plot, character development, overall theme, etc?

Fisketjon: I have no idea. Certainly I’d be lost without a hugely effective and patient assistant, that’s for sure.

Slushpile: How closely do you expect your authors to stay in contact? Suppose I’m a first-time writer who signs a deal with you for a non-fiction project. Do you like to stay in contact on a regular basis, with interim drafts sent in for your approval? Or do you take more of a hands-off approach and just wait until your authors present a relatively final copy for your review?

Fisketjon: This depends entirely on the nature of the writer. Most of the writers I work with tend to forge ahead until they can forge no more without some feedback.

Slushpile: How long can the revision process for a novel take? What is the shortest amount of time you’ve ever seen?

Fisketjon: Can’t remember, and never thought about this before. If it takes me, on average, an hour to do five pages, and since I scribble a lot on the pages, it’s likely to take any author a few weeks to wade through the typescript and make up his or her mind and to come up with the solutions or corrections that only authors are capable of.

Slushpile: How many editors are with you at Knopf? If I pick up a Knopf book at the store, how likely is it that you edited it?

Fisketjon: A dozen or so. Therefore I’d guess it’s somewhere below ten percent, depending on the sort of book you’re picking up.

Slushpile: Stephen King recently took the publishing industry to task when he wrote, “Dull or dopey: These days that’s pretty much your choice at the bookstore … It’s a jungle out there, baby, and in a world where the corporate bottom line is god … the strong survive but the worthy often do not.” Do you agree with King’s critique? Do you think the industry is doing a good job at finding new voices, at pushing interesting writers, at growing careers? Or is it all about the bottom line now?

Fisketjon: I certainly don’t think King is simple-minded, though that remark obviously is. In fact, I understand that he has made profit-sharing deals that increase his income about standard publishing arrangements, and that’s fine by me. Why should he want to make less money? And since in business terms publishing is a ridiculous enterprise, with at most ten-percent return on investment even in the best of times, should we then make him and like-minded commentators happy by pretending we worked for a charity or a foundation and go entirely out of business, whether in art or commerce, overnight? Or should I ask my assistant, or the guys in the mailroom, or the copyeditor who just had a child, or anyone who for choosing to work in publishing is doomed to living in one of the world’s most expensive cities at a wage well below any other profession, to take a pay-cut in order to make Stephen King happier with the way we conduct ourselves? Last I heard, he was doing pretty well financially, living exactly as he wishes in Maine. Give me a break.

Slushpile: What would you like to see more of in the manuscripts you read? What do you think young writers need to do more of in their writing?

Fisketjon: Quality. Reading, thinking, writing?until they know what they’re doing.

Slushpile: What is the craziest or funniest thing anyone has done to get you to read their manuscript?

Fisketjon: This approach never works with me, since this job is not my idea of a joke or a party-trick.

Slushpile: You helped introduce Donna Tartt to the literary world. She was a first-time novelist who received a large advance for a book that was more literary than your normal bestseller. And The Secret History (one of my favorite books) dealt with classics students studying ancient philosophers and arcane research. At the time, this created a huge buzz in the publishing industry. But now, due to the success of The Da Vinci Code, it’s become quite common for first-time novelists with books about esoteric subject matter to cash huge checks. How do you think The Secret History would be received if it were released today? Would there be any difference?

Fisketjon: It’s a great book and would therefore work very well whenever it was published. It also helps that she didn’t write it in order to get rich, or to cash in on some trend; she simply meant to write the best book she possibly could, and spent a decade doing it. But only a fool would suggest that no one out there sniffs the wind and decides to copy a successful book. They do, and always fail.

Slushpile: How exactly does one edit Cormac McCarthy? What is it like working with him?

Fisketjon: Same as one edits anyone else, and with enormous pleasure and gratitude, surprise and awe?the same things any of his readers experience, only more intensely. Whether with Cormac or some new writer nobody’s ever heard of, an editor ought always to remember what a privilege this task really is.

Slushpile: McCarthy’s protection of his privacy is well-documented. How do you communicate with him? Do you ever see him in real life or do you just communicate via telephone and correspondence?

Fisketjon: Same way as one communicates with anyone who lives on the other side of the country. In person whenever possible, otherwise by phone.

Slushpile: Can you tell us anything about McCarthy’s new novel, No Country for Old Men, due to be released in July?

Fisketjon: On the one hand, it makes a Formula-One race car seem like a wheelchair; on the other, it’s a profound book about change and loss, regret and responsibility. Everything else I think about it you’ll soon be able to read on the flap copy, and I’m not about to type that out all over again.

Slushpile: Can you tell us anything about Bret Easton Ellis’ new novel, Lunar Park, scheduled for release in August?

Fisketjon: Far and away the best book he’s ever written, and a hell of an education for anyone who believes he or she has seen all there is that fiction can offer. My sixteen-year-old son, who’s very well read, just sent me a note saying that it’s one of his favorite books ever.

Slushpile: What other books do you have coming out soon that you would like people to hear about?

Fisketjon: Andy Delbanco’s Melville: His World and His WorkArthur & George [January 2006], which will explode his readership here and delight and inform anyone who reads it. Jay McInerney’ The Good Life [January 2006], which shares some characters with Brightness Falls and is, I think, his best novel yet. Stephen Wright’s The Amalgamation Polka [February 2006], a Civil War novel unlike any other that will finally gain him the readership his cult-following knows he has long deserved. A phenomenally humane book called Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap [February 2006], ostensibly about music but more about life and dreams we all share with people often thought to have nothing at all in common with us. Bill Barich’s follow-up, nearly thirty years later, to his classic Laughing in the Hills, with a book called A Fine Place to Daydream that’s set in the world of Irish racing. A strong second novel called Pike’s Folly by Mike Heppner, who is surely one of the most interesting young writers out there.

This takes us up through next April, and in the next four months I’ll be honored to publish story collections by Tom McGuane, Haruki Murakami, and Alix Ohlin, and novels by the Mississippian Steve Yarbrough, the Frenchman Michel Houellebecq, and a newcomer to my list, Richard Grant, who has written a truly astonishing novel about World War II.

That’s it up to next September, with books on the next list by Richard Ford, Richard Russo, William Kittredge, Dennis Bock, Joshua Furst, and who knows who else.

Slushpile: What do you think beginning and aspiring authors need to work on the most? Is there a problem that you see repeatedly with new authors?

Fisketjon: Their ability to write, to edit themselves, to re-write, edit themselves again, to try again, all while trying to maintain some distance that might enable them to determine whether any of it makes any sense. Just scribbling away won’t get the job done, not for anybody. If at the height of his power Ray Carver would go through over a dozen drafts of a story, why should someone just starting out think it’s any easier than that?

Slushpile: This might just be my own personal perspective, but it seems to me that in the late seventies and eighties, there was this great camaraderie of writers. People like Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, the Wolffs, Thomas McGuane, Barry Hannah, etc. There really seemed to be a movement, a grouping, like the Lost Generation in Paris. Do you see any similar group or clique or movement (or however we should term it) today?

Fisketjon: I imagine one could construct grouping around people who happen to live in Brooklyn, or to write large, post-modern novels, but frankly I’ve always been leery to grouping any good writers together because they’re all, by definition in my view, unique, and because there’s never been a so-called group that I couldn’t have blown holes in. Writers can be great friends with other writers, but that’s as far as it goes in my view. The ones you mention happen to be friends of mine, each doing work that’s completely distinctive.

Slushpile: What do you think of the recent reports that Gordon Lish contemplating a return to the publishing industry? How will he affect the literary landscape?

Fisketjon: Gordon brought an almost unparalleled degree of passion to the enterprise of publishing fiction. He was a hero and mentor to me, and to a great many writers and editors. I wish him every success with whatever he hopes to do, and there’s no telling.

Slushpile: Are writers better behaved these days or is it just that nostalgia and sentimentality color how we view the legends of people like Carver and Barry Hannah and so we focus on all their famous (and infamous) exploits? What writers are the great personalities and individuals of today?

Fisketjon: Not a subject of any real interest to me. I would’ve loved John Berryman’s work just as much if he hadn’t led a sorrowful life and ended up jumping off a bridge.

Slushpile: Many aspiring authors struggle with understanding the decisions made by editors and publishing companies. Although this isn’t really your area, the mystery genre is probably the best example. An aspiring author will go to the mystery section of his local bookstore and he’ll look at the literally hundreds of cop novels on the shelf. And aside from some cosmetic changes here and there, almost all of these police novels are basically interchangeable. And if there are this many cop novels on the shelf, then there are thousands of cop novels that get rejected. What the aspiring author struggles to understand is: what makes one cop novel better than another? So many of them are cleanly written, competently plotted, and are acceptably professional, but what is the quality that makes this one worth publishing and that one worth rejecting?

Fisketjon: Alas, I know absolutely nothing about cop novels as a genre. But I suspect that they’re as a rule treated no differently than any other book, and that the best tend to get published and the rest rejected. One might bear in mind that there are many writers who think their own book is superior to the supposed competition; they then need to find someone else, starting with an agent, who happens to agree, and all is right with the world.

Slushpile: I personally would like to see more books like Rupert Thomson’s The Insult and The Book of Revelation. Novels that have a serious mystery component, but are far more literary than the usual pot boiler. Do you see many new books along these lines?

Fisketjon: Not that I’ve noticed, though Graham Swift lately wrote an excellent novel, The Light of Day, that might fit this bill; that said, I’d be surprised if he wrote another.

Slushpile: This is, admittedly, almost an impossible question to answer. But for the sake of discussion, give me the recipe for a book that you will want to publish. What ingredients do you want to see?

Fisketjon: Well, I’d like to be able to fly. Tell me how I’d go about doing such a thing. Obviously, this to me is entirely impossible to answer. I can hardly imagine what some dedicated soul has spent years and years dreaming up and accomplishing.

Slushpile: There are a handful of names that people usually associate you with: Carver, Tartt, McInerney, Ford, Josephine Hart, and so forth. What author or authors have you worked with that you wish got more attention?

Fisketjon: I didn’t work with Josephine Hart, though I liked Damage a lot. The second question? I could go on for paragraphs. To restrict myself only to the last couple years would be an insult to those whose books came out a few years earlier. So the simple answer is, All of them.

Slushpile: Once again, this may just be from my personal perspective, but it seems to me that Knopf really dominated the literary market in the eighties and nineties. Knopf’s influence on the industry was even seen in book cover designs. I remember working at Square Books and a fellow employee was asking me to find a particular book and I was struggling to locate it. He said, “It’s not a Knopf book, but it’s got a Knopf dust jacket,” and I instantly knew which title he meant. Given today’s multi-media, conglomerate-driven world, do you think one publishing company is going to be able to dominate in this manner again?

Fisketjon: Much as I wish it were true, I don’t think we ever dominated the literary marketplace, though we sure tried as hard as we could to give some wonderful books the best possible chance of success in a world crowded with books that no one specifically wants. That’s a process that includes making good choices, editing and producing the books well, designing good covers and making good indexes, coming up with good promotion and advertising and publicity schemes, you name it, and never thinking that enough care and thought is really enough, believing instead you can never ever do enough or sell enough, that if you met your goals then maybe they weren’t set high enough.

Slushpile: If you could live in one literary locale (such as Faulkner’s Oxford, Hemingway’s Key West, Joyce’s Dublin, Fitzgerald’s New York, etc), which one would it be?

Fisketjon: Most of these are probably better places to visit than to live it, but I’ve had great times in Key West and continue to in Oxford, would like to go to Dublin again, and so on and so forth. I can’t say, however, that I’ve ever made a pilgrimage per se, unless it was along some route I was already traveling. It’s great fun to see a place you’ve enjoyed reading about, but visiting and reading are two different activities altogether. Mostly I like to be somewhere outside of New York City.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring writers struggling to break into print?

Fisketjon: The one they themselves come up with.

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