What Helped Norman Rush Write Subtle Bodies? His Wife, His Editor, and His Cymbalta.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 6 2013 6:30 AM

Norman Rush and Ann Close

The Slate Book Review author-editor conversation.

Knopf editor Ann Close and author Norman Rush.
Knopf editor Ann Close and author Norman Rush.

Photos by Michael Lionstar

Ann Close has been editing Norman Rush since his first book, Whites, in 1986. The editor and the novelist emailed recently about Rush’s new novel, Subtle Bodies, out this month from Knopf.

Ann Close: Our relationship has had a magical quality for me right from the beginning. We met one night at a dinner given by the author Tom Disch shortly after you and your wife Elsa had returned from Botswana where you were Peace Corps Country Directors for five years. The evening was fun and funny, and exciting in some indefinable way. I don’t think I’ve ever heard your side of that night.

Norman Rush: Yes, that was a vivid evening for me, too. I was full of stories about Africa. Overflowing, you might say. And an odd phenomenon was that both Elsa and I were finding that no one asked about our experiences of the last five years. At least not beyond the basics, along the lines of, “Are you glad you went?” I think that what was fascinating to me was understandably categorized by others as something like vacation snapshots I had in my wallet.

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Close: At that point, you had had a couple of the stories that would later be collected in Whites published in The New Yorker, which I learned during the evening. I had a pile of old New Yorkers in my apartment, so I went through them when I got home and found “Bruns,” which opens the collection. I thought it was a perfect story, so perfect that I read it again. Still perfect. I got up early the next morning, read it once more, and felt the same, so I immediately called your agent Andrew Wylie, who sent me two more stories and an outline of a novel, which turned out to be Mating, and we signed you up.

Rush: I was in Gaborone when I got a letter from Andrew proposing to represent me. It was exciting. He’d seen a story in The New Yorker. Speaking of writer/agent relationships, I’d had an agent before Andrew. She’d handled a novel, a weird political bildungsroman that she’d undoubtedly sent to every possible publishing house, but, fortunately (I think now) she’d failed to find a taker. We hadn’t been in touch since that failure, but I was still under the impression I had an agent, so thought that as a courtesy I’d let her know that our working relationship was officially over. I knew she’d have no reason to mind, but was surprised at the brevity of the reply that came on her letterhead: “I didn’t know we had a relationship.”

Close: As I discovered when working on the full Whites manuscript, you didn’t need very much editing. Your sentences are so inimitably yours, they’re not easy to edit, except to note repetitions, or to point out that something’s hard to get. I do remember having an argument with you over the ending of “Official Americans,” because I thought it wasn’t clear enough. You won, of course, but you did tell me later that you’d gotten a couple of letters asking for clarification when it came out in The New Yorker. I remember gloating a little over those letters.

Rush: As an editee, I’m aware that I present a number of quirks. Over time, we’ve converged on a via media that works excellently. In a general way, I’ve resisted standard punctuation if it seems to get in the way of an effect I wanted. Our battles over the placement of commas have pretty much ended with a happy compromise. Although I like semicolons, I don’t like them in my own fiction. I can’t justify this prejudice except to say that it has something to do with flow. I read everything aloud until it sounds right to me, and what a semicolon, or dash, does, often doesn’t sound right read aloud. It occurs to me that it took Elsa and you both to curb my inclination to write insanely long scenes.

Close: Although I had published the stories, which were themselves wonderful, nothing could have prepared me for the sweep and pleasure of reading Mating. As I remember you first gave me a section that left me stranded in the middle of the narrator’s gripping journey through the desert, and I didn’t know how I could wait for the next installment.

Rush: An unforgettable moment in our adaptation to each other occurred when you returned a manuscript copy of the first part of Mating with a blizzard of green check marks in the margins. I interpreted them as suggestions to delete those passages. Very alarming, as these passages were some of my favorites! As it turned out, the green checks were markers for some of your favorite passages.

Close: Once long after the book was published, I found the outline of the novel you’d submitted and I was amazed at how accurate it was. This had a funny consequence, because Subtle Bodies had changed somewhat from its outline, and I missed a major thrust of the book the first time through since I was anticipating a different turn of events.

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