The Book Business

Six Questions for Cal Morgan

Our Board Chair, Cal Morgan, is a new Executive Editor at Riverhead Books. In this interview from a few years ago, he talks about how books draw us in, his love of editing, and what he hopes to accomplish at the Center. 

The books you have worked on are so varied—everything from Lidia Yuknavich’s amazing and boundary-breaking novel, The Small Backs of Children, through Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, to Rick Bragg’s book about Jerry Lee Lewis. So what makes a book a Cal Morgan book?


It’s kind of you to mention those three books, which have been so defining in my life in the past few years. What I love about all three, and about most of the books I fall in love with—whether I’m lucky enough to publish them, or just to discover them in a bookstore—is that they manage to do two opposite things equally well: they reach out, and they draw us in. What they use to reach out is the boldness of their voice, the music of their words, the confidence of their vision. What draws us in is their observation, their empathy, their generosity of spirit. 


You attend so many readings and lit events. Why do you feel this is an important part of your job?


Not nearly as many as it seems! Most nights and weekends, in truth, I’m home reading or editing or live-tweeting my iPod. But around eight years ago, when I became editorial director of Harper Perennial, I began to work with a whole array of young writers who were actively sharing their writing, in rough or finished form, at venues like KGB or the Franklin Park Reading Series, at great new indie bookstores like McNally and Greenlight and Word, and at The Center for Fiction. It’s thrilling to be in the room as they audition new work—and a great opportunity to catch people early in their careers.


Is there a part of your job that you love most—acquisition, hands-on editing, getting word out about a book you love?


The parts I love—which amount to nearly the entire process—are the parts that involve helping authors find their way forward. I love working with writers to decide what they want to accomplish with a new work, which can mean everything from talking through new story ideas to refining the structure and voice. I’m a very passionate editor on the page, trusting—sometimes delusionally, I’m sure—that a novel’s success may turn on a single comma. And then I love the feeling when all of that investment, and all the resultant delight in the finished product, pays off as you go out to share the book with the world—in house, online, over Thanksgiving dinner with your family.  


What advice would you give to a writer starting out?


Read. And learn everything you can about writing.


To an aspiring young editor?


Read. And learn everything you can about writing.


And finally, we can't help asking, what made you take on the somewhat daunting job as our new Board Chair? What do you love about The Center for Fiction and what are your hopes for its future?


We’re in a golden age of fiction, I think. It drives our conversation, it underlies other art forms, it restores our capacity to wonder. And The Center is the only organization that extends a common, dedicated space to writers and readers alike to practice, share, and celebrate that art—not for profit but because we love it. We’ve been doing it for almost two hundred years, but new members are discovering us every day. And I’m excited about what they’ll find when they get here.







Calvert D. Morgan Jr. is an Executive Editor at Riverhead Books. Formerly at HarperCollins, Cal worked with writers Jess Walter, Roxane Gay, Tom Piazza, and many more. He is the Board Chairman for The Center for Fiction.