Writers on Writing

Daniel Menaker, interviewed by Dawn Raffel

In his memoir, the acclaimed author and editor reflects on William Shawn's New Yorker, the inner sanctum of the fiction department, finding his voice as a writer, making his way in the world, and simply refusing to quit


Daniel Menaker is ambidextrously talented, gifted both as an editor and writer. He’s perhaps better known for the former, having worked for 26 years at The New Yorker —he was skating on thin ice as a fact-checker and copy editor until legendary fiction editor William Maxwell persuaded William Shawn to move his protégé to the fiction department. In 1994, during the Tina Brown regime, Menaker went to Random House as a senior editor, and after a short stint at HarperCollins, returned to Random as Executive Editor-in-Chief (he left in 2007). The dozens of writers with whom he's worked include Alice Munro (“the literary love of my life, friendly and elusive at the same time,” he writes on his website), George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, David Foster Wallace, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Pauline Kael, Mavis Gallant, and Elizabeth Strout.

 

Menaker has also written some extremely good books, including two story collections; a novel, The Treatment; and a book about the art of conversation, A Good Talk. His newest, My Mistake, is a wry, moving memoir, with a deceptively simple year-by-year structure. He writes with refreshing candor about professional “mistakes” that were often, in fact, felicitous or hilarious. He also lays bare his personal life, including the devastating death of his brother at age 29, his long, happy marriage to writer and editor Katherine Bouton, and his battle with cancer.

 

Menaker recently sat down for a very good talk indeed:

 

For all the so-called mistakes, you've had an extraordinary career.  What is the secret? Is it persistence?

 

Yeah, I think it is persistence. It's refusal to give up, even when I sort of sandbagged myself. I was just thinking on the subway on the way down, you know, I don't have to work. But I like to work and I seem not to be able to take it easy. So yes, I think the reversals I've had, personal and professional, seem to have eventually led to determination to overcome them, and to some extent I guess I have.

 

I love when you said you were asked to leave The New Yorker and you just didn't.

 

Well, I was not asked to leave—I was asked to find another job. And that seemed to give me a little bit of an opening to hang around. Little by little I made myself useful. I learned what I should have learned before, and oddly enough calmed down after the tragedy in my family. I began to realize that things don't happen immediately just because I'm ambitious and think I know what I'm doing. So I learned copy editing, I learned proofreading, and I started writing. After a year or so of having been asked to look for another job—which I did, and tried hard—I was suffered to stay. Then with the help of William Maxwell, it turned into something more positive than just being tolerated.

 

So how grateful are you that you didn't find another job?

 

I'm not so sure that the answer is as obvious as it seems. I don't know that it wouldn't have been better for me to leave. I think that's one of the problems with an institution like The New Yorker, although it may be a little bit less cult-like now. Nevertheless, it's held up as something one would never want to leave. There was a syndrome of hanging around. 

 

I was personally obsessed with The New Yorker; that's why I came to New York.

 

There you go. 

 

For a very long time, everything that was written about the William Shawn years was sort of a hagiography, with the exception of Renata Adler's Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker, and she really paid a price for being critical. Recently, I have seen more measured assessments.  Would you care to comment on Shawn's legacy?

 

Well, sure. I probably don't take quite enough pains to give Shawn his due in the book because I'm, you know, a whore in trying to be entertaining. Shawn inherited a vibrant, interesting, distinctive property from [Harold] Ross, especially with Catherine White as the fiction editor. The magazine had begun already to have more weight.

 

I think there was a kind of competition, very subdued, very tamped down, between Shawn and Gus Lobrano, who was a very important fiction editor. He was evidently enormously well-liked, smart, funny, and literate, but wasn't—as I understand it—a politician, and didn't navigate, whereas Shawn did. I think he wanted the job; I think he, in his subtle and quiet way, if there is such a thing as a campaign for someone who would disdain such a word, probably did campaign.

 

I think Shawn persuaded Ross to begin to run some of the longer, multi-part pieces that The New Yorker became famous for. I forget whether James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time and Rachel Carson's The Silent Spring were under Ross or Shawn, but those are the kinds of things that made an already distinguished magazine seem central and got everybody talking. 

 

Shawn was a genius. He suspected that people idolized him and also made fun of him, which we all did. So he wanted the job, he got the job, and he began to start what I consider to be a psychological journey of mastery and slavery at the same time. He seemed to subjugate even his own ego and his own stature to the glory of the magazine. He put the magazine first. The way he treated writers was often so ingratiating that it was a seduction process. And of course writers are very susceptible to praise. Little by little, because their own best interests were served by idolizing Shawn, and because they really did idolize Shawn, he became sort of a mini-emperor in his domain.

 

Now, it's true that anyone who runs a magazine of any quality for any length of time becomes legendary within the magazine. But Shawn went further than that. Everybody deferred to him. You always needed to know what he thought about the smallest thing. But he also became a slave to it, from what I could tell; he became captured by his own image. I think he was in some ways both a master and a victim of this cult.  Sometimes when we find our best place it becomes not only a place where we can do what we do well but a kind of prison. And I always thought of Shawn as being in a kind of prison.

 

So the best place is a prison too.

 

Yes. That's why I say I'm not sure what would have happened to me if I'd left. I do believe that what we think of as decisions and choices are in fact not. Ultimately, they're what we were going to do. The past, as I wrote in a really embarrassing book of sayings, which I never show to anybody—the past is the definition of inevitability.

 

So you think you were destined to stay there?

 

It's not a matter of destined, it's a matter of—I think we're not the authors of our own skills; I just don't think so.

 

Interesting.

 

I mean, I look at some of the writing I've done—good or bad, it doesn't matter—and I can't believe that I wrote it because it doesn't seem like the scattered, inattentive, jumpy person I am. It seems made. You must have had the same feeling.

 

Well, I'm smarter on the page than I am in real life.

 

Everybody should be. Because you're policing yourself. But I've seen things I wrote thirty years ago, and I don't know they're by me. I'm reading some review or something and I say, "Hey, this is pretty good." And then I say, "Oh, I see; I wrote it."   

 

Can you talk about William Maxwell? I think people have written about him only with great fondness and admiration.

 

There are some detractors. I believe that if you had spoken to John Cheever late in his career, he would have been fairly negative because Maxwell began to turn down his stories, when, in his opinion—and for what it's worth, my opinion—they became not as good as they used to be. 

 

The New Yorker fiction department was pretty well-known for taking writers along, up to a certain point and a certain age, with the exception of Isaac Singer, Mavis Gallant…a psychologist once said to me that when you first write, you write with the saturation of youth, and that was very telling to me. 

 

Anyway, Cheever and others began to get turned down more often. Harold Brodkey was not happy with Maxwell. But that's all just to say that I think your impression is correct, that he was generally revered. And I think, having worked with him closely, for good reason. And I fear that his writing is not recognized as it should be, partly because he had this split personality of writer and editor. It's something I’ve thought about a lot: People want to give credit to people who take the plunge and become writers. Even if you don't like their work, you say, "This person is leading this isolated, introspective, often agonizing life, doesn't have an office to go to, can't gossip about colleagues…" There is respect for the commitment of being a full-time writer or artist that I think people who split their attention don't get.  And I think Maxwell may be one of those.

 

Your own work received critical acclaim but it should have received more.

 

Thank you.

 

Was it hard to write fiction while you were at The New Yorker?  Was it helpful or was it intimidating?

 

Both. Although it wasn’t so intimidating because, as with any institution, the sort of scuttlebutt among copy editors and checkers is that so-and-so can't write and so-and-so gets everything wrong. Some pieces were basically rewritten because they came in in such disarray. You can't publish The Fire Next Time every week; it just isn't available.

 

No, and I think every writer knows that editors fix a lot. But the fiction…

 

No, no. I mean, with 250 stories coming in a week, you were going to get a fairly finished product when you decided to take it. There weren't a lot of fixer-uppers, I'll tell you. But we were famous for cutting last paragraphs because often a writer will try to explain what they've already shown.

 

I think that's the most common edit!

 

Because writers feel like they haven't done what they're supposed to do, and they have.

 

Right, and it's kind of like, "I got it."

 

But working at The New Yorker did interfere with my writing for awhile, until the din of other people's voices became more like white noise and I began, especially with the help of Pauline Kael, to find out the way I spoke and the way I wrote.

 

Maxwell published four or five stories by me at the beginning that I look back on with some amount of shame. But I think he saw something in me that he liked, both as a person and as a writer and editor. I realize this is grandiose but I'm going to say it anyway: He may have been looking for a protégé.

 

It sounds like he was.

 

It never occurred to me, until about two years ago when I started writing this book, that there was something in it for him. As I become more senior I felt the same way toward certain people who worked with me—that they might say some good things about me later on.   

 

Why write the memoir now?  You've written several works of fiction, you've written a book about conversation; why a memoir?

 

Well, probably the immediate catalyst was a cancer diagnosis. I'm alright now [knocking on wood] and just had a CT scan last week: no evidence of disease.  That milestone is not in the book because it happened too late, but thank goodness it happened. It made me take stock of my life. And as I took stock of it I thought, "Okay, well I'll write the stock down." The proposal was rejected by almost everyone.

 

I was really interested to see that you published some of the rejections on Huffpo.   

 

I got in such trouble for it.

 

I thought it was great. Why did you do it?  

 

Yeats, on his tombstone, says, "Cast a cold Eye/On Life, on Death/Horseman, pass by." I saw that tombstone in Sligo, and I think the diagnosis and reaching a certain stage in life, and also probably a certain amount of defensive self-effacement led me to think, "Well, they don't like it, they don't like it." I mean, I have this illness I have to deal with and life seems to me to be a series of ironies. And so I don't mind being rejected; I've rejected so many people myself. And I'm not sure I wouldn't have rejected my own book proposal if I had seen it. The book, good or bad, is vastly different from the proposal.    

 

The proposal is a ridiculous thing. Honestly, how do you know what the book is until you write it? 

 

Especially for a memoir. Oh, I want to talk about Pauline Kael. I don't know if I made this clear: Working with Pauline Kael, even though she eventually fired me as her editor, gave me a living demonstration of someone paying attention to her voice. She would cup her ear almost like an old-fashioned radio singer and read her columns aloud. She was trying to detect a false note or a good note.... Proposals. Memoirs. I think I unconsciously cut up the book in the way I did partly because of the fragmentation of attention that social media is causing. I decided to do it in short sections.

 

I was going to ask you about that. I haven't done an exhaustive study but I haven't seen anybody structure a memoir in quite that way.

 

Neither have I, and I'm proud of it. But I also think it's a kind of concession, or surrender, to bite-size. But I looked at the proposal and it was so tedious, with these phony transitions and I thought, "I don't want to do this as a long narrative because it's boring me. No wonder they turned it down." 

 

You're very, very frank in this memoir about everything from your family to The New Yorker to Random House and HarperCollins; are you getting any heat for it?

 

None yet, except from certain people who wished to be in it more!

 

You know, Boris Kachka told me the same thing!

 

Did he? How funny. People are shameless!

 

It's like that old complaint, the food was terrible and there wasn't enough of it.

 

Tina Brown and I had an exchange by email where I asked to speak to her because I wanted to try to not soften my impression of her. As I say in the book, I quite liked her. But she said no, she was saving it for her own memoir. Then she said—and this really pissed me off—"Daaahn, I'm sure yours will be quite funny." So I said to myself, "We'll see how funny you think it is."

 

Oh, God.

 

The only dishy part of the whole book was about trying to work with her. And she's really smart. I mean, it's none of my business but I wanted to put her in an isolation booth somewhere and cut her off from all the idolaters and favor-seekers and make her think, because she's really smart.

 

I've had bosses like that, where you're just trying to get in a sound bite. They are smart but they hear maybe every third word.

 

Yeah. A lot of people say she was great for The New Yorker because she busted up the old template. Well, first of all you'd have to be a real moron not to publish good things in The New Yorker because people still wanted to publish there. So big whoop. I mean she got people in and got photography in and all that stuff. But it was so chaotic that I think it may not have been worth it.

 

I think David [Remnick] is doing a much better job. I wish he'd do more long-form journalism, but I understand the parameters he's working under. And I look forward to The New Yorker every week now. I truly do.   

 

I was interested, when you talked about acquiring George Saunders' first book, that you didn't really know what a P&L [profit and loss sheet] was, and were kind of like, how many of these should we print? Could somebody get away with that now?  

 

I think it could still be done. I think there are even lower-downs who every now and then have a kind of intuitive grasp.  

 

When you look back, who are you proudest of publishing?

 

Maybe Lucia Perillo, a poet. And Elizabeth Strout. I'm proud of everybody I published. I'm proud of The Orientalist, Tom Reiss's book. And proud of Billy Collins.

 

Most of your talk about mistakes is humorous, but there is the very heartbreaking accident involving your brother. To what extent do you feel that's colored what you've done?

 

Hugely. I was talking to someone the other day and I realized, "Okay, this is the third time I've written about it." It's like Maxwell, in a way, with the death of his mother. God help us, it's material.   

 

It becomes a central obsession.

 

But it's also material to be worked with. It's material to be worked with on the page and it's material to be worked with in your soul. If you're serious and you're a writer you'll do it both ways. I think it colored my writing, I think it colored my comportment at The New Yorker and elsewhere, and I had to work that out. It was like inadvertently staining a white shirt you're wearing and then, with one washing after another, including psychoanalysis, finally beginning to work out the stain.

 

Gina Centrello [his boss at Random House] once handed me a fiction manuscript that she had gotten and said, "You'll like this, Dan. It's dark." And then she laughed.  So she sort of nailed me. And I think that's part of the answer to that question. It was all I could do, as editor-in-chief for the four or five years that I did it, to suppress the iconoclasm I felt. I just wanted to make fun of myself and other people all the time.  But I realized that if you're trying to "lead," you can't do that. The adolescent has to be confined for awhile. So people would ask me questions that were hilarious and I would answer them seriously. Or I'd go to sales conference and talk about books that I didn't like as if I liked them. That suppression of a certain rebellious heritage from my family was very difficult for me. I notice I tend to be a little more provocative now that I'm out of corporate life. I don't know why I haven't provoked you; I should have by now!

 

Are you still writing fiction?

 

Yes. I've written a story that I think is maybe the best thing I've ever written. But I don't dare show it to anyone right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photo © Katherine Bouton

 

Daniel Menaker's new book is My Mistake, a memoir. He is also the author of a novel,The Treatment, two story collections, and A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation. He was a fiction editor at The New Yorker during the William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, and Tina Brown years, and was later the Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House. His reviews and other writings have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York TimesSlate, and The Barnes & Noble Review.