Read Donna Tartt’s Philippic Against Standardization

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 11 2013 1:03 PM

Donna Tartt and Michael Pietsch

The Slate Book Review author-editor conversation.

Donna Tartt / Michael Pietsch
Donna Tartt and Michael Pietsch.

Beowulf Sheehan / Deborah Feingold

Michael Pietsch, now CEO of the Hachette Book Group, acquired the book that would become Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in 2008, when he was the publisher of Little, Brown. The Goldfinch marks Pietsch and Tartt’s first book together, after her previous novels The Secret History and The Little Friend were published by Knopf. In this conversation, the novelist and her editor discuss the author-editor relationship, the danger of talking about books before they’re finished, and the “philippic against standardization” Tartt sent her copy editor.

Michael Pietsch: What expectations did you bring to working with an editor on The Secret History?

Donna Tartt: Quite honestly I was frightened and suspicious. I'd been assured, at age 21 or so, by a well-known editor who saw the first part of The Secret History in what was basically its final form, that it would never be published because "no woman has ever written a successful novel from a male point of view." Then too, it was the age of Raymond Carver and minimalism. The Secret History was highly unfashionable, in terms of both style and subject matter. So, even though the novel had received warm support from early readers like Joe McGinnis and Arturo Vivante and Bret Ellis, I was afraid that whoever bought it was going to want to carve it down into something that was more like other literary debuts being published at the time. Happily Gary Fisketjon appreciated The Secret History on its own terms and didn't try to re-mold it into something it wasn't.  He's a very hands-on editor but at the same time he really does want you to do what you want to do.  

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What about you? Tell me about the first book you edited.

Pietsch: Ha! It was a work of medical instruction that had been through two edits before it was given to me. I was nearly fired for my entire lack of understanding of how much work goes into writing a book and how sensitive the writer might be about the tenor of a recent college graduate’s pedantic suggestions. Fortunately I survived to sharpen my pencil another day.

Tartt: Do you work with all writers the way you work with me? (Which is to say, not really commenting until you have the whole manuscript in hand.) Or is it different with different writers?

Pietsch: Every book is different and the editor’s job is always the same: to work with the writer in the way they want to be supported, to understand as well as possible what it is the writer has set out to do, and to point out any places where the editor believes that the author has not lived up to the expectations they have created. It’s an intimate process, and an extraordinary trust to be allowed to see a writer’s work before it goes out into the world.

Every edit is different. Some writers like to show a chapter at a time or even individual scenes, as they go, for comment; I’ve worked with writers who wanted to read a passage over the phone just after they completed it. Others want to write in total privacy, not revealing a single thing until it’s finished. Sometimes editing consists primarily of a letter asking questions about plot elements, or about pacing, or character, and sometimes it’s entirely line-by-line comments on language. I love Nabokov’s Paris Review interview where he describes hurling down “thunderous stets” in response to “suggestions.” Editing is only useful if the writer finds it to be. And some writers really don’t want an editor’s help at all. Martin Amis told me once that he’d rather have his own mistakes than an editor’s fixes—an opinion that any writer is entitled to!

Tartt: I'm with Martin Amis on that. I'd always rather stand or fall on my own mistakes. There's nothing worse than looking back, in a published book, at a line edit or a copy edit that you felt queasy about and didn't want to take, but took anyway. But then again: There's nothing like having a sympathetic reader who asks the right questions, who understands what you're trying to achieve and only wants to make it better. The best fixes are seamless—solutions that are in plain sight but you haven't seen yourself, that someone else has to point out to you.

Pietsch: The editor works in disappearing ink. If a writer takes a suggestion, it becomes part of her creation. If not, it never happened. The editor’s work is and always should be invisible.

Most writers I know have more than one editor, beyond the one who works for the publishing company that has invested in their book—a small cadre whose advice on the manuscript they solicit and listen to. Do you have such a group?

Tartt: No not a group, though I have one or two people whose opinion I trust. It's important—especially in the excruciating middle stage of writing a book, and especially when you write books which take as long to write as I do—to have someone who will tell you midstream the rough truth about whether something works, or doesn't. But I don't show unpublished work around a lot. At school, my earliest and most crucial readers were really just that—readers. They were enthusiastic, they encouraged me, but didn't supply a lot of direction or criticism. I felt that it was enough just to interest readers on the most basic level—I knew that I was on track as long as people stayed interested in the story and kept asking: "Where's the next chapter of your book?"

Do you ever have people showing you very rough drafts? Or running the idea of a book by you before they start writing it? I often long to talk out a book informally, in the beginning stages, before I begin to write—to feel my way towards my story by talking it out to a sympathetic listener—but there's always the danger of talking the book away. Or, of becoming discouraged by one's own ill-formed ideas, poorly expressed.

Pietsch: I don’t see many very rough drafts. Sometimes a writer will talk about a plot idea. Michael Connelly told me his idea for The Lincoln Lawyer’s main character years before he found the story that made the character work.

Tartt: Did he talk about the character as character? Was he trying his way to find a story by talking about the character? That's exactly what I mean, when I say I think it might sometimes be helpful, early on, to talk about an idea or a story before it's committed to paper, before one even starts to write.

Pietsch: Michael was telling me about an idea he had for writing a legal thriller, featuring this unusual kind of lawyer unique to L.A., one whose office is in the back of a car because he needs to get to so many far-flung courthouses. All I could say at the time was: “That sounds great!” The character embodied the place. And writing legal thrillers, in addition to his great police detective thrillers, seemed well worth trying for a writer of his talent

Sometimes a writer will show me a big section early on, to get a sense of how I think the story is going.

Tartt: For me—showing a half-finished manuscript is tricky. Just as a bird will get spooked and abandon her eggs if some outside party comes around and makes too much noise or pokes around the nest too intrusively—well, that's what it's like for me if I show work too early and I get a lot of editorial suggestions at the wrong time. Even if you need, and want, a second opinion, it can be dangerous to have people telling you what they think you ought to add, or cut, before you've even finished telling your story. One loses heart; one loses energy and interest. Or at least I do.

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