If I recall correctly, in his interview with the Paris Review
, Vladimir Nabokov was asked something like, ‘Do you ever find yourself surprised by your characters?’ To which he said (again, I’m paraphrasing), ‘My characters are galley slaves. They do exactly as I tell them.’
I suppose if we all wrote and thought like Nabokov, there would be little need for editors. But I, for one, do not write or think like that. My characters climb up out of the murk of my subconscious, and most of the time, I have only the most fleeting notion of who they are when they make themselves known. In my second novel, the father, Addie, began to make himself known to me on a road outside of Iowa City, best as I can recall, on a desolate, snowy day.
I had a job at the time driving the Iowa City Press-Citizen around the countryside. It’s a vast and lonesome countryside. Farms separated by miles sometimes. There was a barn, which was barn red, and from its roof hung a curtain of long and dangerous-looking icicles. Dressed in overalls and flannel, with a face almost if not completely obscured by his hat, the man I presumed to be the farmer stood in the drive. He may have been anything but isolated and desolate, but that was the picture I got.
I imagined a man in a place like that bored or drunk or both, and completely on his own, using a high-powered rifle to shoot down the icicles, one by one. But it was a long time after that that Addie became more clear to me. Addie in his final incarnation didn’t have a barn. But the question of a man, based on strong men that I knew, being alone and driving himself bats with guilt and regret was one that fascinated me.
What this has to do with editing is this: in order to explore this man and his world, he needed other people and that led to his son Jack. The eponymous second son. My original incarnation of Jack was as a sort of latter day Jack Kerouac with a lot of Jay McInerny thrown in. When I first met the editor who eventually bought the book a year or more after our first meeting, she said pretty much point-blank that she loved half the book and hated half the book. She felt the McInerny-ish stuff was derivative and rang false, and made some suggestions.
For whatever reason, I didn’t get offended that she hated half the book. During this conversation, my mind began to churn away at the possibilities inherent in her suggestions. Things that I likely would never have come up with on my own.
I thought about it a while and came to the conclusion that she was probably right. I started messing around with some of those churning ideas and liked what I came up with. I threw myself into the revision and felt the kind of joy you tend to feel when you think you’re writing well. (Even if you’re not.) When you’re so immersed in the story you’re writing it feels like reading someone else’s story. When I finished, it felt like the novel worked in a way that it never had before.
A piece of that novel appeared in The New Yorker, and I remember quite fondly (I was living in New York at the time), the meeting I had with Alice Quinn, and going over the story line by line and her wonderful suggestions–these were of a lesser severity: word choices, small, particular things. In my own mind, it’d be fabulous to have that kind of attention to everything I write.
I know there are plenty of other writers who don’t share that sentiment. And I can only envy their ability to know exactly what they’re trying to do and simultaneously do it.
For me a good editor is like a good therapist, in a way. In the same fashion that a therapist can listen to your own personal narrative, then stop you and say, ‘This is what I’m hearing…,’ which is often not what you think you’re saying. This is the point where I find myself slapping myself in the forehead for not seeing what should have been plain as the nose on my face. Which I guess is the point of that cliche–you can’t actually see the nose on your face without looking into a mirror.
I tend to get my best ideas with other people. And seldom do wholly formed narrative ideas arrive in my mental inbox. A good editor can look at a manuscript and say, ‘This world you’ve created is really vivid, but it also seems to me really closed. Maybe you want to let some air in,’ or something like that, and because I’ve been so focused on driving west, it hasn’t occurred to me to glance out the side window or in the mirror.For me, a good editor can help to tease out things that I may not have necessarily–in plumbing the murk of my subconscious–even noticed I was doing.
Which is not to say that one ought to take every suggestion an editor makes. Or take them all exactly as the editor says. My experience has been that an editor will make general comments and then be surprised where they take me.
I’m sure there are times when I’ve taken suggestions I shouldn’t have. But I don’t really know. There is something to be said for a rangy and wild novel, like Moby-Dick, in which the wonders lie not so much in the plot, but the plot as it relates to the accretion of all the other things the author has thrown in.
I may go back and reread The Sunlight Dialogues one day. I still have that 1970’s era mass market paperback edition–clearly, I liked it enough to buy every other John Gardner book I could find. Maybe it will turn out that I can’t stand it. Maybe it will turn out that I admire the ranginess of it in a way I couldn’t when I was 19 or 20.