A Conversation with Elisabeth Schmitz
They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,
The intellectual sweetness of those lines
That cut through time or cross it withershins.
W. B. Yeats
In her role as vice president and editorial director at Grove Atlantic, Elisabeth Schmitz has commanded the admiration and trust of hundreds of writers, publishing colleagues, and aspiring literary editors. We recently met at our NYC neighborhood restaurant, Community Food and Juice, to talk about editing, publishing, and the literary passion fostered by Grove Atlantic under the intrepid leadership of its publisher, Morgan Entrekin. In truth, our conversation began more than a decade ago, when Elisabeth generously responded to a fan note I’d written to her from my perch as an editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf. Several of her writers and publishing colleagues have since chimed in. Michael Thomas, Charles Frazier, Lily King, Jamie Quatro, Christine Schutt, Mary-Beth Hughes, Francisco Goldman, Cree LeFavour, and Josh Weil are writers Elisabeth has edited. Leigh Feldman is the literary agent who sold Cold Mountain to Grove in 1995. Lauren Wein, now an executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, worked with Elisabeth at Grove Atlantic for fourteen years. Gary Fisketjon, vice president and editor-at-large at Alfred A. Knopf, was my boss and mentor who first encouraged me to write to this editor I’d so admired from afar. Katie Raissian is her associate.
Liz Van Hoose: You and I first had lunch the week after Michael Thomas’s debut novel, Man Gone Down, appeared on the cover of the New York Times Review. I still marvel at all of the narrative layers of that novel—the explicit nods to the high Modernism of Ralph Ellison and T. S. Eliot, the interweaving of time and history in what amounts to a quintessential twenty-first-century American tale: solitary Brooklynite seeks heap of cash to save his marriage. It’s by no means an easy read, but it’s utterly compelling. I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that Man Gone Down is a major antecedent to the recent bestsellers in this historical time-warping vein—novels like A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
Elisabeth Schmitz: Man Gone Down was a unique acquisition. I had it for quite a long time before I bought it. There were some early butterflies around here, as it was an intellectually challenging, dense book. I finally had to say, I know it might be hard, but we really need to publish this. I cannot let it go. I think it is a masterwork.
Liz Van Hoose: That was the era of the Jonathans—Lethem, Foer, Franzen—so there was no shortage of Brooklyn lad lit on the shelves. I remember thinking Man Gone Down was even bigger and more richly complex, yet calmer in its narrative register—at once utterly contemporary in story and evocative of another era in tone. You generously gave me a privileged glimpse into how an editor might publish a book with obvious, lasting literary merits that defied categorization.
Michael Thomas: A lot of it was chance and good fortune. Meeting Elise Cannon in graduate school. Having Elisabeth as an editor. Morgan, as a publisher, being trusting. Kim Wylie supporting it at PGW. There is the notion that there is only so much room for black books on the shelves, and Man Gone Down wasn’t explicitly a black novel—several editors had told me this in their rejection letters. But everyone at Grove was incredibly supportive of the book and my budding career—very helpful, very kind.
Liz Van Hoose: This notion you mentioned sounds like grossly limited reasoning. I can’t imagine Elisabeth even thinking in those terms.
Michael Thomas: She thought of those terms as a scratching post—a way of considering the difficulties ahead rather than a naive desire to prune or change something. Morgan was the same way: Who is the right person to read this? It’s an issue that goes back to James Baldwin and Frederick Douglass. Are you familiar with James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man? It’s a beautiful, elegant, first-person narrative. It was published as a memoir, but it’s really a novel—an episodic journey that impacts many people, black and white, Cuban, jazz pianists, classical pianists.
Liz Van Hoose: Was it an inspiration to you for Man Gone Down?
Michael Thomas: Yes. It has that nineteenth-century Emersonian language and operates, for lack of a better term, high and low; it’s accessible on the page, and the more you know about the topic alluded to in the writing, the deeper and richer the book becomes.
Liz Van Hoose: The chief objective of literary fiction.
Michael Thomas: If you know the Bible, the blues, the Bhagavad Gita, then Baldwin and Eliot become very different. It’s a more powerful experience if you understand the cultural underpinnings of the call and response in “Sonny’s Blues,” of the cycles and peaks in Eliot’s “The Four Quartets.”
Liz Van Hoose: Or of the rhapsodic flights in Man Gone Down. Did you sense Elisabeth’s passion for your book when you met her?
Michael Thomas: Yes, I did. I heard it when we talked on the phone, and all along, up to and beyond the publication—a great believer in a way I’m not a believer.
Elisabeth Schmitz: It was named one of the “Ten Best Books of 2007” by the Times, and one of the five best novels of the year. It was the only original paperback on the list. The others were all hardcover.
Liz Van Hoose: And then, two years later, Michael Thomas won the International Impac Dublin Literary Award for the novel—which the Times said was the best thing that could happen for a new literary voice, short of being selected for Oprah’s book club. These slow-burning successes—where a critical mass of high-caliber readers slowly accrue—these are a tonic to literary editors.
Elisabeth Schmitz: Oh, yes. In some ways it can be almost more rewarding when a book builds and builds over time with critical attention, awards and readers’ recommendations. I love the promise of longevity that kind of arc signals for a book. But the fast blockbusters make such riveting news stories when they happen.
Liz Van Hoose: Helen Macdonald’s bestselling memoir H Is for Hawk, most recently.
Elisabeth Schmitz: I was not the primary editor on it. I bought the book on proposal at the same time Dan Franklin at Cape in England did. Helen is based in the U.K., of course.
Liz Van Hoose: Did you have a conversation?
Elisabeth Schmitz: We wrote and we had conversations, but after Helen delivered the whole manuscript, there was very little further editing. I read the complete manuscript the same day it went into production in London. Dan is known for being a great editor. He said to me, this has never happened in my career, where I have a book in which hardly a word needs to be changed. When I read the finished draft, I knew what he meant.
Liz Van Hoose: You’ve said elsewhere that Grove has to take risks in order to thrive. I’ve wondered if that spirit of risk-taking carries through from the business end to the editorial aims—if writers feel more encouraged to take risks with their work at Grove than they might elsewhere. Which in turn would weave a certain degree of iconoclasm into every aspect of publication and promotion. It seems unlikely H Is for Hawk could have succeeded at one of the big-five publishers—if only because all of their promotional resources are tied up with the surefire titles to fulfill the demands of their shareholders.
Elisabeth Schmitz: I imagine that might be true but I don’t know; I’ve never worked at one of them. First of all, you know that nobody else in the U.S. bid on Hawk? Everybody thought I was out of my tree.
Liz Van Hoose: Did everyone at Grove think you were out of your tree?
Elisabeth Schmitz: Oh, pretty much. But this is the difference now, as opposed to twenty years ago: I can be told I’m out of my tree and may still go ahead. Back then I might have let myself be talked out of it.
Liz Van Hoose: Twenty years ago you were about to publish Cold Mountain. Your tastes have since been proven.
Elisabeth Schmitz: As you said, Grove’s affinity for risk-taking is important. We have to take risks on books that no one else sees or that need a lot of work.
Liz Van Hoose: H Is for Hawk belonged in the former category, then?
Elisabeth Schmitz: The proposal was exquisite. Helen Macdonald is an unbelievable writer. She was a poet, and she writes so beautifully. But could another publisher have done it the way we did? It wasn’t an easy book to launch here, even after it was a bestseller in England.
Liz Van Hoose: How did you get it going?
Elisabeth Schmitz: We started by sending it to literary nature writers—Jim Harrison, Rick Bass—and they loved it. The blurbs started coming in fast. Even so, it took a minute for it to find traction in America. Helen started her hardcover tour in Vermont and Saratoga! We had a couple of big early breaks. One was the New Yorker. Kathryn Schulz had read the English edition and wrote the book up in their end-of-year issue before our publication. And very early on I bumped into Vogue‘s Valerie Steiker at the National Book Awards. I said, Valerie, I sent you a book about a month ago, and you really need to read it. She called me the next day to say she wanted to run an excerpt. That is unusual for Vogue. And then the Times Book Review ran their cover review before our pub date.
Liz Van Hoose: People say these stories are ancient history, but I would wager they happen once every year. Again, it seems to me that the fairytale nearly always involves an independent press.
Elisabeth Schmitz: I’m not sure every corporate house would have the patience, time or space to build H Is for Hawk the way we did.
Liz Van Hoose: It must help that you’ve been patiently advocating untested literary works from the very start of your career, when you were scouting books for film at Warner Bros. and then for foreign publishers at Maria B. Campbell Associates. One could say you’ve built a sterling reputation on the temerity of your excellent taste and convictions.
Elisabeth Schmitz: Working at Maria Campbell’s was a seminal start. It was exciting to read and fall in love with manuscripts at such an early stage of a book’s life. To share your enthusiasm with the acquiring editor and, of course, with the international editors.
Liz Van Hoose: I love imagining those young literary editors whose books you championed thirty years ago—now they are august editors who remember all that you did for their books.
Gary Fisketjon: I’d heard about Elisabeth because she was working with Maria Campbell. I knew how good she was in the whole foreign market area of publishing. We had foreign publishing friends in common and liked the same people.
Liz Van Hoose: Before that, she was working as a film scout, reporting on a sea of books that hardly ever made it to Hollywood. She once mentioned how thrilling it was when her report on Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life did lead to something. How was it for you as the editor of that memoir—you were at Grove Atlantic then, right? How was it seeing this memoir you’d published find a champion at Warner Bros.?
Gary Fisketjon: There was no Grove aspect; it was just Atlantic Monthly Press then. When we published This Boy’s Life, I couldn’t name a bunch of successful books that were anything like it. Not too many people had read Harry Crews’s A Childhood—a fabulous book, but nobody knew anything about it.
Liz Van Hoose: Stop-Time by Frank Conroy.
Gary Fisketjon: There was Stop-Time, and Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Childhood. And Geoffrey’s book about their father, The Duke of Deception. But then suddenly, with This Boy’s Life, the spigot was wide open.
Liz Van Hoose: Elisabeth was one of the people turning the handle. And again for Jeanette Winterson’s novel Written on the Body, only by then you’d moved on to Knopf, and she’d moved on to Maria Campbell’s shop.
Gary Fisketjon: I knew that she was very big on both books.
Elisabeth Schmitz: I love working in the international publishing realm. To discover book editors around the world with similar tastes is enormously gratifying. Some of my closest friends are the ones who shared my early enthusiasms. There’s no bond like shared literary taste. I knew Morgan because I covered the Grove list for Maria Campbell. When there was an opening as rights director with a chance to edit as well, I made the jump.
Liz Van Hoose: So you were working in foreign rights at Grove when you acquired your first book.
Elisabeth Schmitz: My model at the time was Carol Janeway, rights director and executive editor at Knopf. I think she was the only one doing both at the time. I hugely admired her.
Leigh Feldman: My mentor, Liz Darhansoff, represented all those Southern authors—Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Dori Sanders. When I started out, her clients recommended writers to me and that’s how Charles Frazier came to us, through Kaye Gibbons. She wanted to see if the young person in the office who was starting to take on projects would be interested in reading a first novel, Cold Mountain.
Liz Van Hoose: So Kaye Gibbons shipped the manuscript of Charles Frazier’s unfinished novel to you?
Leigh Feldman: No, no. His wife Katherine—Charles is much more of an introvert, and she’s much more social bee, and she ran into Kaye Gibbons in the carpool line and said, my husband’s working on a novel. And Kaye said, I’ll try my agent’s assistant, who is starting to take on projects. And that’s how it came to me. It came as a partial, yes. And it was amazing. It was already incredibly evolved, not a rough draft at all by the time it reached me.
Liz Van Hoose: When you drew up your list of prospective editors, how did you arrive at Elisabeth, who’d never acquired or edited a book before?
Leigh Feldman: Elisabeth was a good friend of mine from her days as a scout. I had witnessed her previous passion for books that Liz had represented—books that were beautifully written, and Southern. I wanted to submit to Grove and she was a peer, someone I trusted and knew had literary tastes and appreciated beautiful language and a wonderful story.
Liz Van Hoose: Had you seen her reports—those manuscript evaluations that literary scouts write up for their clients?
Leigh Feldman: No, I didn’t see her reports. I mean, to be honest with you, my instincts were that she would be a great editor for Cold Mountain, but I didn’t literally know it. I knew how smart she was, but I had never seen her edit anything. It was just instincts and friendship, which is a lot of what publishing is. Trust, instincts, friendship—we’re in this together, you and I are peers and let’s see if we can show the older folk that we can do something good.
Liz Van Hoose: There is an audacity to this that’s very inspiring.
Leigh Feldman: Well, also think about Morgan and his crew. Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis and those guys.
Liz Van Hoose: The so-called literary brat pack: the authors of Bright Lights, Big City and American Psycho—and their editor, too: Gary Fisketjon. It was a small world.
Leigh Feldman: That was the coolest you got in publishing at the time. It was really intimidating. Elisabeth and I are similar in that, from a personality point of view, both of us have some underlying intellectual capacity that we knew when to hide and knew when to show.
Elisabeth Schmitz: Fascinating! I’m not sure I knew I was hiding capacities, intellectual or otherwise, but Leigh is a wise woman and we made a good team for Cold Mountain.
Liz Van Hoose: The story goes that Elisabeth read this partial novel manuscript and said to Morgan, we have to publish this. So he skipped the holiday party he was supposed to attend that night, and ultimately Grove put together the largest offer they’d ever made.
Leigh Feldman: Right. It was a pre-empt.
Liz Van Hoose: A preempt being an offer that would take the book off the table—which at $100,000 must have been a no-brainer.
Leigh Feldman: Well, the offer was ninety. I went screaming back to Liz Darhansoff, oh, my God, ninety, but let me get them to a hundred. And she counseled, let’s offer them amusement park rights and they can have it for ten thousand more. She coached me word by word. I called back shaking and said I had my heart set on a hundred. And Morgan said okay. They had world rights—all the translation rights.
Liz Van Hoose: Did they have merchandizing rights, too?
Leigh Feldman: No, no, the amusement park line was a joke. Because if you read the book it’s so much the antithesis of something you would have in a Dollywood.
Liz Van Hoose: It was such a smashing success, I could well imagine a Cold Mountain attraction in Gatlinburg.
Leigh Feldman: Yeah, yeah, get shot while you ride the roller coaster, fun times with the drunken preacher. Anyway, I couldn’t believe it. I was thirty years old.
Charles Frazier: It was the first book Elisabeth was full editor on, and one of the first books that Leigh was the full agent on, and it was my first novel. So, it was three first timers, in a sense. Elisabeth and I did all the editing of that book without ever having met face to face.
Elisabeth Schmitz: Cold Mountain was my only editorial project at the time. I’ll never have that single experience again. I could spend all my extra time on that one book. I remember Bettina Schrewe came over to my house. Do you know Bettina?
Liz Van Hoose: From afar, and with great admiration. She has excellent taste and influence as a literary scout. When I became an acquiring editor, I learned soon enough that if I fell in love with a submission that skewed toward the literary—if Bettina, too, happened to fall in love it, I had a fighting chance.
Elisabeth Schmitz: Yes. She has superb taste. Bettina came over one night to pick up a book and I had drafts of Cold Mountain pages taped all over the brick walls of my apartment. She was quite amused, as I remember.
Lauren Wein: I was Elisabeth’s foreign rights assistant and had a vague sense that she was editing this book on the side, which I didn’t really know anything about. I was clueless and twenty-one. An author photo came in the mail. It was a picture of Charles Frazier and his dog. Elisabeth said, I feel like I know him so well. It was 1996. There was no Google. I thought, oh, this is what she’s been working on. That was my introduction to being an editorial assistant. Watching somebody become something that they didn’t know they were—it was not a typical introduction to a career.
Elisabeth Schmitz: There was no email, so we spent hours and hours and hours on the telephone.
Liz Van Hoose: Did you write editorial letters?
Elisabeth Schmitz: We wrote letters, but we never met during the editing process. There was something pure about that. Now authors will fly to New York when the book is on submission to meet with potential editors. I always want to say, I’d be happy to meet you but it’s really all about your words on the page. If I fall in love with a manuscript, I’m pretty sure I’ll get along with its author.
Lauren Wein: What is amazing to me is that they trusted themselves. The two of them, having never done this before. What gave Elisabeth the feeling of authority and confidence that she had to do this process? And humility. It’s all there.
Elisabeth Schmitz: Happily, we had Vintage on board very early. We’d pretty quickly had an auction between Picador and Vintage when the book was finished.
Liz Van Hoose: Vintage paid $300,000 for the paperback rights?
Elisabeth Schmitz: Yes. Those were the days when editors were still buying paperback rights and we were still selling them. Having Vintage on board from the start was a boon. It was almost as though we had two sales forces on this debut novel. Everywhere our sales reps went, booksellers would say, Vintage reps are talking about it too!
Gary Fisketjon: At the Random House sales conference, everybody was talking about Cold Mountain even though the Vintage publication wasn’t on that season’s list.
Leigh Feldman: Everyone in the publishing community was rooting for us. There was no ill will. It felt very under-doggie: the literary Southern novel; the first-time editor; Grove, which was definitely considered a small press; and my background at a small boutique literary agency. I boarded a plane to Florida and there was a man reading a galley. I wondered, what is that guy doing with a galley of Cold Mountain? It was the owner of a bookstore on the Upper East Side and he was blown away by it. That’s when it dawned on me that maybe this would be special. And then the novel won the National Book Award. It was ecstasy. It was a dream.
Elisabeth Schmitz: It became the number one New York Times bestseller the weekend I got married. At our rehearsal dinner, George’s father—who’s English and had never been to a rehearsal dinner in his life, and yet suddenly had to not only host one but deliver a speech—said, I can’t tell if the wedding is a distraction from her publishing career, or if Cold Mountain is a distraction from her wedding?
Liz Van Hoose: You were quite distracted at your wedding by that first book that you’d ever bought.
Elisabeth Schmitz: I do think it’s kind of interesting that my career, at this moment, seems bookended by big debuts—Cold Mountain and H Is For Hawk. There are others in the middle there, Peace like a River for one, and long-term authors such as Lily King, whom I’ve been working with for twenty-two years, who have had a more traditional, old-fashioned publishing arc. Lily was awarded a Barnes & Noble Discover Prize for her first book, The Pleasing Hour, which sold in five countries—a nice success. With each new book her reach grew. And then Father of the Rain, the last one before her biggest book, Euphoria, did really well.
Lily King: Elisabeth acquired my first novel in 1998.
Liz Van Hoose: Not long after she published Cold Mountain.
Lily King: Cold Mountain was still on the bestseller list.
Liz Van Hoose: So she already had a stellar reputation as an editor and champion of great literary work.
Lily King: Well, it’s tricky, because I have known her since I was fifteen. But we had fallen completely fell out of touch. I didn’t even know that she had become an editor of literary books. My mother was in touch with her mother and so when it came time for me to find an agent, she suggested, why don’t you call Elisabeth Schmitz? I’d vaguely heard that she’d worked in film, so I didn’t think that she and I would have much to talk about in terms of agents. Needless to say, it took me an incredibly long time to find an agent.
Liz Van Hoose: But then you found Wendy Weil, one of the great luminaries of the business.
Lily King: When Wendy sat me down for lunch, she pulled out a pad of paper to make a list of nine or ten potential editors. She said, I think we should send your novel to Elisabeth Schmitz. I was like, great! There was a five-way auction for the book, and one editor said, I think this is perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing. I imagine many writers probably want to hear that, but I did not. Elisabeth explained what she thought we should do. She was ready to get right to work. That conversation sold me on her.
Liz Van Hoose: In publishing we talk about the love letters editors write to woo authors to our houses.
Lily King: I remember that phone call and that was it. Elisabeth made so much sense when we talked. We met each other on this intellectual plane that we had never explored twenty years earlier.
Elisabeth Schmitz: I wanted Lily to have many options from the start and she sure did. I think five houses offered on The Pleasing Hour. The night before she decided, we talked for hours.
Charles Frazier: For a while there, one of the things that helped was a phone call now and then, saying, how’s it going? Because when you work on a book for years with no real expectation that you’ll ever even publish it, just to have a reminder that somebody’s actually waiting, expecting you to get on with it, helps that happen. Over the first two or three exchanges back and forth, we developed confidence in each other.
Jamie Quatro: One of my favorite things about the way Elisabeth edits is that she calls on the phone. She’ll point out not just places that need work but places she loves in equal measure.
Liz Van Hoose: Is that how you first met, hearing her read your powerful words back to you?
Jamie Quatro: No, we actually have a sweet story. It was in 2011, at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I was at the Blue Chair Cafe reading workshop stories, and this beautiful woman sat down next to me. She had a manuscript in front of her, too. We exchanged hellos, but then I noticed that she had great arms. I was thinking, god, yeah, what do you do for your arms? We talked about working out and then she went back to her manuscripts and I went back to mine. There was no more talk. Later, I attended a publishing panel and she was up there with Gary Fisketjon. I realized then that she was an editor, and we talked about Christine Schutt, because she had just signed Christine for Prosperous Friends and Christine was my teacher at Sewanee. But I never approached Elisabeth about my own work. I had a bunch of stories and an agent. I didn’t even think I was in the realm of having a manuscript ready to show anybody. So then fast-forward a couple of months and my agent decided the collection was ready to go out. As you know, it went to auction, and I wanted to go meet the bidding editors in New York. Elisabeth was our very last meeting. I walked into the office and she said, I remember you—this book is yours? I sat down on her couch and looked up, and behind her desk was this giant picture of Barry Hannah. Barry Hannah had an important influence on me and my work, and his son Poe had given me his cigarette lighter that same day I met Elisabeth. So it was this big coming full circle, a magical, supposed-to-be moment that I was destined to be in this house.
Christine Schutt: Elisabeth wanted to buy Florida, my first novel. She and two other people were bidding on it. I should have gone with Elisabeth then. Later, I saw her at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and told her what I was working on. She was there at my reading, where I covered a couple of sections of Prosperous Friends, and she was very enthusiastic.
Liz Van Hoose: The legendary editor Robert Gottlieb once described himself as an overnight reader. He doesn’t go into great detail on that first read; he makes the phone call to give the author his initial impressions, then circles back a few weeks later with more detailed notes. Is this something you’re able to do with your writers on the phone?
Elisabeth Schmitz: I’m incredibly admiring of his doing that. I can’t do it very often. In fact, Lily will tell you she didn’t hear back from me for a week after sending me Euphoria. Even when she did, I went right into the nitty gritty. The ideal way to edit a book, in many ways, is not to know what’s coming and approach it as if you’re a reader. I don’t like rushing through a manuscript in twenty-four hours because I never want to give up on that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to read a book for the first time. You don’t get that first read back.
Liz Van Hoose: So your impulse to edit is driven in part by the need to document that primal reading experience.
Elisabeth Schmitz: I know I’m really loving a book—a submission—if I start editing it right away. That’s one of my tests for discerning when I want to buy a book: if I can’t stop myself from reaching for my pencil and starting to comment on it, then not only do I think that it’s worth it, but I know how to work with it.
Mary-Beth Hughes: Elisabeth bought my first book, which was a novel, Wavemaker II. She thinks about how a reader enters a book and then again how a reader leaves a book. So crucial, the beginnings and endings are, and she has a real gift for these.
Elisabeth Schmitz: The beginnings and endings are important. Lily King and I worked a lot on the ending of Euphoria.
Liz Van Hoose: I was shocked by that ending, useless for the rest of the day.
Elisabeth Schmitz: “Full Fathom Five”? It’s a page some people would read right over. There are a number of layers in there. We had some interesting last-minute dilemmas that arose.
Lilly King: I had rewritten the second-to-last scene to have this dramatic act happen when Bankson is on the boat, and Elisabeth did not want that to happen. I stuck to my side and she stuck to her side, and we had this very last go-round when I was at a car dealer, getting my car repaired, and she was about to hit the print button. She called me up and said, please reconsider the finger—that was our code word for it. I broke down at the very last minute after holding on for months and months. I got rid of the finger.
Liz Van Hoose: What was the scene? Now I need to know.
Lily King: Oh, what happened in the scene? You know how the Tam have that tradition of cutting off their fingers for grief, when they lose somebody? I had Bankson cut off a finger on the boat.
Liz Van Hoose: Oh, my. That would have changed everything. I think I agree with Elisabeth.
Lily King: At the car dealership, I had to start rewriting that scene about the finger.
Charles Frazier: On the first phone call I had with Elisabeth and Morgan, they asked about the ending and I said, it’s not written, I haven’t decided, but I can tell you what really happened: Inman was killed in a gun fight. There was a long pause, and then, noooo. But they never argued for one second when I decided I needed to do it that way, because the whole book had been written with my knowing that’s what really happened—it was built into the character. They were totally supportive.
Francisco Goldman: She doesn’t get in the way of an author’s vision. She tries to get inside that vision and understand why it’s driving the book. There is a quote that I used as a bit of a guide when I was writing Say Her Name. It comes from Maurice Blanchot, about Kafka: “Art is primarily a consciousness of unhappiness, not its compensation. Kafka’s rigor, his fidelity to the work’s demand, his fidelity to the demands of grief, spared him that paradise of fictions where so many weak artists, whom life has disappointed, find satisfaction.” That seemed to me the most perfect expression of what I was trying to do, and of the battle that had emerged.
Liz Van Hoose: Another publisher might have insisted on a more sanguine conclusion to Say Her Name.
Francisco Goldman: Early on, there was the suggestion that the book should have a more uplifting ending—that life goes on with the birth of my goddaughter. To me, that happy ending would have been a compensation, right? Fidelity to the work’s demand is also fidelity to the demands of grief.
Liz Van Hoose: So Morgan knew how resistant you were to this kind of conclusion. How did he respond?
Francisco Goldman: He said, all right, we’re giving this to Elisabeth and whatever she says goes. He knew I respected her. So she read it, and she came back to me and she said, this is completely perfect, the way it’s structured. I loved her greatly for that.
Elisabeth Schmitz: Honestly, I was conflicted over whether Say Her Name should be called a novel. So much of it is true. I’d hoped we could do what much of Europe does and not label it as one genre or another. When Deborah Treisman took an excerpt for the New Yorker, she published it as “Personal Narrative.”
Liz Van Hoose: I recently returned to The Divine Husband, and it became clear to me then why Say Her Name needed to be a novel and not a memoir. The quest structure, the question of whose story is the authentic one, and how the telling of the story changes the story—these seem to me to be essential parts of both works, and entirely the domain of fiction.
Francisco Goldman: Yes, it was always a novel to me, because it was always about the structure. To me, novels are a search for how to tell the story. The novel itself is the expression of that search. It’s not about the content or anything you’re specifically trying to say; it’s all about your search for how to say it. Elisabeth intuitively saw—in a fluidly architectural way, the way someone might write music or something—how I had found the structure for this book. The structure in many respects alleviates grief itself in that back-and-forth pacing between the past and the present. The book was also, as you said, a quest. It was a quest to get as close to Aura as I could, and as close to her death as I could. That’s another reason it could never be nonfiction, because I didn’t care about anyone else’s opinion. In nonfiction, you have to respect what other people say. And this was only between me and Aura. It was her version and my version. Her version of her own life and her notebooks and everything she told me. Her imagination was one hundred percent her own, and it was something we lost forever aside from the bits of writing she left.
Elisabeth Schmitz: I’ve always been interested in that line between memoir and fiction. I edit memoir the same way that I do fiction. It needs to be as beautifully written and have the same kind of narrative development, and the biggest problems in both forms fall along the same fault lines—where a passage is not believable, where a part is inauthentic. When a writer comes back from an edit and says, but that’s exactly how it happened, my response is that, true to life or not, the moment is not working within the confines of the walls you’ve built for this work.
Cree LeFavour: A famous writer once said, there’s the book you need to write and there’s the book you need to publish, and they aren’t necessarily the same thing. Especially with memoir, you first need to write the book you need to write. I needed to write this giant, complicated, erratic book. But then, to get to the point where it’s a book a reader wants to read, or a publisher wants to publish, there is a whole other set of criteria.
Liz Van Hoose: If you’re putting yourself out there—as you said, writing the book you need to write—then I imagine this vulnerability and open-ended process of creation is what forms the amazing sentences, the standard-bearers for the rest of the work. Ideally, the editorial process brings the entire book up to that level.
Cree LeFavour: The memoir is triply complicated because, of course, when someone is editing your memoir, they’re editing you. It’s not just your creation; it’s your personal character. Elisabeth is so generous with her compliments, so encouraging, that I was completely willing to go along and trust her.
Liz Van Hoose: Some of Elisabeth’s books are works I first saw on submission a couple of years prior. In these instances I always marvel at the felicity of tone in the final version—from the very outset, from page one. This kind of editing she does must resonate across the entire manuscript.
Cree LeFavour: She actually had me change the tone of my memoir a great deal. I was trying not to have this dark book I was writing be my tale of woe, so my instinct was to narrate it from a snarky, self-deprecating position. Elisabeth’s sense was that snark can only go so far. She had me pull back on it in the interest of having my reader come along.
Liz Van Hoose: How did you tackle this tonal aspect?
Cree LeFavour: In the margins she would mark the places where she thought I was being obnoxious. She’d write, “Maybe too much?” I would be prepared for these comments because I would meet with her for hours every time she handed a draft back. She is unsparing on a page—she doesn’t let things slide at all—but her toughness as an editor is more palatable because of her personal manner.
Josh Weil: There is something very forthright and honest about her. When she’s enthusiastic about something, she lets you know it, but she never blows smoke up your butt.
Charles Frazier: We talked about structure, because Cold Mountain is essentially episodic, the Inman part especially. We focused on fine-tuning and tweaking the pace. There was some shifting of pieces around that gave a book that’s told in a fairly leisurely fashion a greater sense of forward momentum. Also, the fact that Ada and Ruby were always going to be the survivors put them in a primary position in my mind, in terms of the narrative—they’re the characters who change. The last thing I wanted was for Ada to somehow become the girlfriend, or that kind of love interest. She and Ruby needed to absolutely carry their weight in terms of the storytelling. So there were lots of conversations about the weighting of things. When you’re working with somebody who does really understand what you’re trying to do, having those conversations we had helped me understand what I had done in a much clearer way, so that my revisions were more on point, because I was seeing the book through her eyes and not just my own.
Josh Weil: Elisabeth asked me to link the stories in The New Valley with some threads that were split—pull it all together as a book a little bit more. There was a commune that played a large role in the second novella but wasn’t existent in the third or the first. And in the first novella, there was a point when I wanted to show the main character’s particular isolation—how close and how easy it would have been for somebody else who didn’t have his personality to reach out and find connection with people. The commune became something that he could witness from afar, as a world that didn’t fit with his. By bringing the commune that was in the second novella into the first segment of the book, I was also deepening an aspect of character I felt I needed to deepen.
Jamie Quatro: All of the stories in I Want to Show You More had been published. Of course, journal editors are only looking at each individual piece, whereas Elisabeth was looking at the book as a whole and how the stories altogether would have an arc. “Here” and “Georgia the Whole Time” are about the same woman dying of cancer. Those two stories had nothing to do with one another when they were published in journals. They were different types of cancer in different families. She and I together made those two families align. I had to kill off a couple kids, do some math to make sure that everything lined up with years and ages and dates. The three little flash pieces—”Imperfections,” “You Look Like Jesus,” and “Relatives Of God” were originally one story, “A Triptych in Agony.” We put “Relatives Of God” at the very end. It has that last line that’s recursive, reflexive: “We watched our children. Our children, in glances, watched us.” I think that was a brilliant move, and it might have been Elisabeth’s editorial suggestion to split those three up.
Josh Weil: The present story in The Great Glass Sea relied on a lengthy and deep back story for its emotional content. At the same time, there was a great deal of world-building that needed to happen because it was an unfamiliar terrain. Much of our work together involved figuring what we could move—even just a paragraph—in order to keep the beginning from being bogged down by flashback. It was incredibly complex, since moving one piece has ripple effects on the rest. Can we move this paragraph, or information from this paragraph? Can that come on page 180 instead of 80?
Liz Van Hoose: How long was the first draft of The Great Glass Sea?
Josh Weil: The first draft that Elisabeth saw was somewhere around 600 pages. She took it on knowing that it was long and complex. She read a draft and gave me her large thoughts on it. We met over lunch, and the key to that meeting was that she was enthusiastic and fully behind it, so I trusted her instincts tremendously. She then gave the book to an outside editor, Josh McCall, who wrote up a fourteen-page, single-spaced letter. Elisabeth had talked with him beforehand, so he was able to go into specifics based on his own impressions while taking into account what he knew of her feelings about the book. Then she and I had an in-depth discussion on the phone about what he had given me. I wrote the next draft, and she worked quite closely with me after that.
Liz Van Hoose: So part of the work with this outside editor was to focus on streamlining and tightening the narrative?
Josh Weil: It was, although the novel grew longer after my having worked with him. After that draft, I remember Elisabeth saying, we can’t make this any longer. Every time we talked about solutions, she’d say, well, we’ve got to find a solution that makes this no longer.
Liz Van Hoose: In the film Genius, based on Scott Berg’s book about legendary editor Maxwell Perkins and Thomas Wolfe, there is a scene much beloved by editors about their work together on Of Time and the River. Perkins suggested that Wolfe touch on the emotional effect of the death of Eugene Gant’s father, so Wolfe wrote something like fifty pages on the matter: the doctor, the deathbed, everything. Perkins deemed the writing so good that he had to include it, so the process of editing made the book grow longer even though manuscript originally clocked in at three thousand pages.
Josh Weil: Wow!
Liz Van Hoose: I’m interested in this idea of the generative power of the editorial relationship; amidst the tightening and culling, there is the creation of more, new extraordinary writing.
Josh Weil: Yes, absolutely. It’s one of the great joys of editing and working with an editor. You’re trying to do many things with each change. So, for instance, when Elisabeth was wanting to tie the three novellas together a little more tightly in The New Valley, I didn’t just create threads that I could drop in. Knowing that there were elements that needed to be strengthened, I would look at how I could make a solution to those problems in a way that would lend itself to becoming a thread that could run through all three parts of the book. It’s such a game, such a puzzle at the editing point. Sometimes you’re making a change that’s going to tighten something up, but at the same time, it’s leaving room for something else to expand. You might wind up with a longer work—a longer but tighter work.
Mary-Beth Hughes: Elisabeth has an agile and precise literary imagination. When she enters a story or a novel, it’s with tremendous experience and knowledge, as well as a very graceful focus on the work at hand. She also has a very light touch, so if she marks a passage that she thinks might be problematic or confusing, it’s almost always that she’s opening up a question. I have such faith in her, both faith in her intentions and faith in her intelligence, that I never ever second-guess what’s happening. Which is great because I think that second-guessing can be—probably I’m guessing—an exhausting waste of energy: is this suggestion accurate, does this note have any meaning? I never have to do that with Elisabeth.
Jamie Quatro: She’s extraordinarily good at asking the right questions. And probing—you can’t get away with any laziness with Elisabeth, with any lazy word choices. She knows not only how to pinpoint whether you need to expand or distill for clarity, but also how to look at the psychology beneath what’s happening. In her editorial process, she’s always asking why, and she always honors and respects the author’s voice and the author’s ideas first.
Michael Thomas: With Man Gone Down she didn’t articulate my reality back to me. She trusted that I knew what I was talking about.
Liz Van Hoose: Did you sense that she knew what you were talking about?
Michael Thomas: Sometimes, yes; sometimes, no. I don’t mean intellectually, or that she couldn’t understand. She picked up on many of the allusions, and when she didn’t, she was interested to learn. I would give her a story or a sentence, play a piece of music, explain a baseball rule.
Francisco Goldman: She’s a magician at the level of the line. Her editing gets close to the sentences like nobody I’ve ever seen. She makes sensitive insights where maybe what you think you’re saying isn’t quite coming across and might even be misinterpreted. She senses what it is you want that line to express and points it out to you. I remember being impressed with that—the most incredible sensitivity, not only to the language itself and where it’s good, and where it falls short of itself, but to the whole nervous system underneath the language. She’s incredibly alive to that. I have the most complete faith in it.
Liz Van Hoose: It’s the holy grail of editing, to convey so much in a brief question or a scribble.
Francisco Goldman: Yes, absolutely, she is the holy grail of editing. It’s like having another living presence inside the text working with you. Suddenly all those little marks on the page have a consciousness that’s not your own consciousness but is working in tandem with yours.
Liz Van Hoose: I’ve long harbored the notion of the editor’s art as a craft you first witness over the shoulder of a great editor—if you’re lucky enough to be in the company of great editors—and then enact yourself.
Elisabeth Schmitz: You know it better than anyone. When it comes to editing, it’s book by book, author by author. Every experience is different—it’s so contextual. There are no rules.
Liz Van Hoose: I used to pore over Gary Fisketjon’s line edits when I was his assistant. When Binky Urban, who represented many of his authors, encouraged me to try my own hand at one of her clients’ novels coming up on his list, I tried to channel my sense of the text through what I imagined his approach might be. I thought of it as editorial osmosis, particularly after he instructed me to switch over from green pencil to green pen.
Gary Fisketjon: Well, it’s strange because I very rarely have ever seen an edited manuscript from somebody else.
Liz Van Hoose: So you didn’t have an apprentice experience with the people you worked for early in your career? Editing was something you figured out as you went along?
Gary Fisketjon: Editing is not something that you need to be trained to do because every book is different, as every writer is different. You figure out what that writer needs. I was certainly impressed by how people like Anne Freedgood and Joe Fox would go about it at Random House, but that doesn’t mean I looked to see what they did. I’d edited Jay McInerney’s work when we were at school and worked on a literary magazine. I had a good editorial relationship with Gore Vidal early on—he said, I’ve never had anybody edit me before because everybody is too scared of me. So he liked it.
Liz Van Hoose: Were you pretty well confident in your abilities by the time you worked with him? If there is a perception that authors don’t want to be edited and you’re a young editor, how do you know to respond to text?
Gary Fisketjon: I’ll just say, I’m doing my job and you do your job. All I want is for you to look at these notes I’m giving you. I’m not making changes. I don’t do that because it’s not my book. I’m just showing you where it seems to me that it isn’t as good as it could be.
Elisabeth Schmitz: I don’t make changes in an author’s work. I read very closely and make suggestions in as close to the author’s tone as possible. When it’s returned, I prefer to see a clean copy so that I can read it straight through afresh. More frequently now, I’ll work on edits in tandem with my long-term associate editor, Katie Raissian, which gives us all the huge benefit of a new pair of eyes.
Lauren Wein: I definitely have adopted a number of Elisabeth’s methods. Many of my flourishes are her flourishes, I realize. Squiggly lines, underlines, and brackets.
Liz Van Hoose: What do they mean?
Lauren Wein: The squiggly lines basically delineate something weak or awkward that could be stronger. Something that’s in brackets really doesn’t need to be there, but it’s not so offensive and egregious that it requires a cross-out. If it’s offensive and egregious, it gets a strike-through. Checkmarks for lines that she loves, which I still use. And then it’s constant marginalia, constant questions about anything. I think I took her editorial lexicon without even knowing it. How would I know how to do this if I hadn’t read all of those edited manuscripts by Elisabeth? Of course, you’re always bringing your own sensibility to it. It is an apprenticeship, yes, but there is a certain engagement, a granular engagement with the text that is really like a dialogue. All of my books from high school and college are marked with that dialogue with somebody I will never meet and is probably dead. So maybe I would have approached manuscripts the way I do now regardless of where I started editing. I do think that seeing somebody do it in real time for a book that’s not yet done made me realize that this dialogue, this engagement, can make a huge difference. It is useful and necessary. Some say, well, people don’t edit anymore. Maybe some people don’t. But that’s definitely not in my experience, not at all. I’ve never . . .
Liz Van Hoose: Not edited.
Lauren Wein: Yes, and I’ve never worked with an editor who doesn’t edit. What I learned most, watching Elisabeth, is that it’s not about being right, it’s not about having the answers. It is about asking the right questions. You have to really be available to the work in order to do that.
Gary Fisketjon: The great thing is, as an editor, you’re editing stuff you like already. You’re not trying to transform it; you’re trying to bring out every good thing that’s there.
Elisabeth Schmitz: I’ve noticed that many of the great, career-long editors morphed through the initial editing as the youngster, then became more managerial and then returned to the editing again at the end. Right now I’m at the height of that managerial mode. There was a time when I’d go to the public library or the New York Society Library for a week and edit a book. I can’t do that anymore. Now I’m working with Katie, in a closer relationship than I’ve ever had. We experiment with every book: I might do the first edit; she’ll do the second. Sometimes if it’s busy, she might do the first and I do the second, and then we decide who does the last read.
Lily King: Katie’s additional perspective enabled Elisabeth and me to have conversations we might not otherwise have had. The more feedback, the better.
Mary-Beth Hughes: With The Loved Ones, I had trouble with the last sentence. I had written myself to a state of exhaustion, head down on the table, and I had this image in my mind of Elisabeth and Katie playing badminton with this tiny, delicate thing. Back and forth, back and forth. She’ll get it; she’ll get there. And indeed, I finally did. They were a whisper in the air, a suggestion that this could work out, that it was really already there.
Katie Raissian: We’ll both read the manuscript together at the acquisition stage and have conversations about it there and then. We usually synch up uncannily well. On the occasions when I take the lead on the editing, Elisabeth is always in orbit. Sometimes she’ll complete a line edit and I’ll add comments to her notes. She’ll do the same for me. It was interesting when you said that you were instructed to work in pen. I did one edit in pen and Elisabeth suggested maybe pencil instead, because then it’s easier and it’s less overwhelming for an author to look at. So I said, alright, I’ll try it out, and I haven’t looked back.
Lauren Wein: It was always a pencil. In fact, I only recently started using a pen and I feel dirty, every time I do it.
Gary Fisketjon: For years it was pencils because we were pre-word processors. You have to sharpen the pencils all the time and it’s the middle of the night, and the pencil tip snaps and it’s like a gun going off. So moving to pen was a great luxury. I would never go back. As much as pencils are beautiful things.
Katie Raissian: Elisabeth is of the mindset that an author should see all of the questions, have all the flags raised before publication, just in case. After all, we’ve taken on the books because we love we them and see their potential. The most important thing is that you’re getting the book in the very best shape possible. So that when it goes out into the world, it’s going for its strongest shot. I love that Grove encourages, and Elisabeth in particular encourages, the line edit and the rounds. Sometimes we’ll move something out of a season in order to give a book the time it needs to reach its best form.
Lauren Wein: At Grove, they would rather get it to its best possible place. That usually determines the schedule, in my memory.
Liz Van Hoose: I can easily imagine other editors at another houses being forced to say, but we’ve already scheduled it, so we have to just publish it.
Lauren Wein: There’s not so much of that at Grove.
Elisabeth Schmitz: We don’t publish books that we don’t think are ready. There’s no problem in moving one a month or a season or a year or more if the book needs more time to get it right. It’s a luxury, I know. We’re lucky to have the flexibility.
Gary Fisketjon: For me, the first go is the only go. I don’t ever look back and say, oh, what did so-and-so do with that? Because it’s not my book. I’ve fulfilled my obligation when those pages go off. If I didn’t make my case successfully the first go-round, wouldn’t the same results occur in the second one?
Liz Van Hoose: I once recounted to Elisabeth the time you caught me comparing my line edits to an author’s revised manuscript, checking to see what he’d done with them. You reprimanded me never to do that: I’d given my piece, and I must trust the author to do what he will with my notes. Elisabeth thought that was fascinating—even a couple of years later, she said to me at a party, is it true that Gary doesn’t look at his authors’ revisions after he’s edited them? I remember thinking, gee, it is rather audacious not to review a book again before it goes into production.
Gary Fisketjon: So Elisabeth sends her pages to the author and then it comes back? And then the author has to go through another set of suggestions from somebody else? I trust the copyeditor to find things that I’m too stupid to have questioned, so the author already has a second level of scrutiny coming, therefore I don’t feel I have any reason to erect yet another.
Liz Van Hoose: I sense that Grove is often working with their authors earlier in the process, so the writers are receiving feedback sooner in the writing than your authors might be.
Gary Fisketjon: No, I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case. Certainly Elisabeth’s approach demands a lot from the writer. And herself, too!
Josh Weil: I know with the last round of The Great Glass Sea, I reached a point where I was going to puke if I had to do any more work on the book. I think we both felt happy with it. But even after it had gone into copyediting, Elisabeth was still thinking about it, still talking with me about it.
Lauren Wein: You go through a book once or twice, and you have your machete and you’re clearing away all the obvious brush. The next time, you see more that needs to be addressed. You could keep doing that forever. I now work closely with Drenka Willen.
Liz Van Hoose: The editor who’s published more Nobel Prize-winning writers than anyone in history.
Lauren Wein: Yes, and hers is another editorial sensibility altogether—except that there is a similar impulse to go through a work an infinite number of times, always finding more to do. You can always see something. There’s the question of improvability. Is anything ever perfect?
Charles Frazier: Elisabeth would send me marked up pages, I would do my best on those, and then we’d have a phone call to go over her reaction to what I had done. We’d had many, many, many of those phone calls, and I thought we were getting close to when it needed to be wrapped up—there was even a production schedule—and she still had fine-tuning in mind. Over the course of a weekend, we spent fifteen or sixteen hours talking, page to page. She would say, alright, let’s revisit page so and so—that sentence brings me to a stop, let’s talk about that sentence. It was the most collaborative, most enjoyable process.
Lily King: I think some of the most joyful days of my writing career have been sitting at my table with my little headset on, so I’m hands-free in Maine and Elisabeth is in New York, and we go at it page by page by page. It takes sometimes two or three full working days. Sometimes, if it’s late enough, she can be making the changes right there on the official draft on her computer. We have so much fun.
Charles Frazier: I recently looked at some short stories for a competition, and I said to a couple of the really good writers: Go over this with an absolute fine-tooth comb, because right now it still all feels fluidy, but once it goes, it’s gone. You realize that it goes from being fluid to being fixed in an instant.
Liz Van Hoose: Do you remember the feeling when you returned the page proofs and that final window to make changes had closed?
Charles Frazier: At a writer event recently, I read one little section from Cold Mountain. There were some people in the audience that had the book open and were reading along, and I changed the sentence of what I was reading. Half a dozen heads popped up: Wait, that’s not what my book says.
Mary-Beth Hughes: There is a moment, after the book is done, that Elisabeth gathers all the people from marketing, publicity, and design into her office and hands you over. But she stays very much involved, and she’s a wizard at the publishing end.
Elisabeth Schmitz: I think editors need and are happy to be involved with the whole publishing process. Of course, art, publicity, sales and marketing all need to do their jobs unfettered but if we can help them, why wouldn’t we? We can’t afford to step away the minute the edit is done. There’s nobody more passionate and knowledgeable about the book than we are. If we can help present the book to the sales force, the booksellers, the critics, the readers—we should.
Josh Weil: At Grove they work closely with the author all the way through. So with the cover I don’t just get a veto; I actually get to talk with the cover designer. Elisabeth is always going to bat for me and for the book.
Elisabeth Schmitz: It’s incredible how emotional you can get, even over the cover.
Liz Van Hoose: The painting on Euphoria is positively stirring.
Elisabeth Schmitz: You know what that is? It’s not a painting. That’s a photograph of a rainbow gumtree, which is the tree growing in the middle of Bankson’s hut. I fell so hard in love with that when I first saw it, chills up and down. It was everything I had hoped for: completely unusual and yet relevant. I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous to send an author a jacket because I thought, I won’t know who Lily is if she doesn’t like this! I won’t know how we’ve worked together for twenty years!
Liz Van Hoose: Did you tell her what it was?
Elisabeth Schmitz: No. I sent her the cover. I remember exactly where I was standing at Grove when I texted it to her, and she came back thirty-five seconds later, saying, I love it, this is my dream cover, what I’ve wanted for twenty years on the cover of my book. I wrote back, do you know what it is? And she said, a rainbow gumtree, of course!
Lily King: I fell madly in love with the cover as fast as she did. And then we had to fight for it because there were many people who didn’t feel that way.
Elisabeth Schmitz: There were some critical voices who hoped for something more historical looking, more illustrative of the time period and hinting of the story within. We spent three months pursuing other possibilities. Photographs, historical archives and illustrations of Margaret Mead, the territory of New Guinea and countless sepia-toned images of boats afloat off beaches.
Lily King: Elisabeth said, let them go through it, we’ll wait them out. Of course, nothing else was right, and finally we got our way.
Elisabeth Schmitz: The book has now sold over 50,000 copies in the Hudson News stands alone. They’re selling it not only in the books section but among the chocolate bars—bright red and green candy bars—in the airports.
Liz Van Hoose: Incredible! So harried chocolate lovers across the nation are picking up this beautifully packaged book and finding, on the back, the promise of a story that was inspired by the life of Margaret Mead. How did you know that this would appeal?
Elisabeth Schmitz: Can I tell you, this was a huge discussion—how we were going to present the book. We thought, some people are going to be fascinated by Margaret Mead, some people are going to be intimidated, some uninterested. So early on, we presented it in different ways to different groups of people. Honestly, I don’t think I would have thought to send a galley to Paula McLain if not for Lily’s agent, Julie Barer. I admire Paula greatly—I bid on her first book. But she was such a mega-blockbuster success after The Paris Wife. And then she became one of our biggest early supporters of Euphoria.
Liz Van Hoose: Paula McLain’s enthusiasm for Euphoria sent a powerful signal to her millions of fans. Marketing departments call this “targeting a readership.”
Elisabeth Schmitz: Everybody wants the best for a book they love. One major bookseller thought we were selling Cold Mountain short by not tapping into the huge Civil War market with our blue Smoky Mountains book jacket. They said, this is a Civil War book. Civil War books sell really well; you’ve got to make it appeal to a Civil War readership. I would sit in these meetings, in the back, weeping. Just weeping at the mock-ups of floating Confederate flags and cannons and soldiers against our beautiful blue Smokies. Everybody knew how I felt.
Liz Van Hoose: What did you do?
Elisabeth Schmitz: Same thing I did with Euphoria. I told myself, it’s not going to happen, but I’m going to be quiet while they run through the possibilities. We have to take it seriously, when a major bookseller tells us we’re limiting our readership. In the end we took our risk and didn’t change it. The store perhaps didn’t take as many copies as they might have at the get-go, but ultimately Cold Mountain sold very well for everybody.
Liz Van Hoose: So who were the bellwethers?
Elisabeth Schmitz: I believe it was the indies, but everyone rallied soon enough.
Liz Van Hoose: I was an intern at the Sewanee Review the summer the paperback for Cold Mountain rolled out. The editors there devoted the top shelf of a narrow bookcase to trade books under consideration for review. There was, at the time, an unspoken sentiment that the New York literary scene was not to be taken very seriously. But a hardcover copy of Cold Mountain was there and so was Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Ultimately, Frazier’s novel attained passing mention long after publication—in an omnibus review of Civil War books, actually.
Elisabeth Schmitz: That’s really interesting. If you look up the review for Cold Mountain in the New York Times Book Review, you’ll find it toward the back. The review was by James Polk, who runs an independent bookstore in upstate New York. It was a brilliant two-column review. “A Whitmanesque foray into America,” he called it.
Liz Van Hoose: How close to publication did that New York Times Book Review coverage happen?
Elisabeth Schmitz: Pretty late as I remember.
Liz Van Hoose: This omnibus review appeared in the Sewanee Review in 2000.
Elisabeth Schmitz: Well, not that late.
Liz Van Hoose: And yet Cold Mountain was a runaway literary bestseller. The late reviews and the slower support of the chain bookstores couldn’t stop this tidal wave of enthusiasm you’d built up all over the literary and publishing community.
Elisabeth Schmitz: We work hard together to build that early enthusiasm. We’ll sit down and say, okay, we want to send galleys to all of these people for blurbs, so who has the connections? And we divide up the list. Writing letters to potential supporters is invaluable. We often send a letter on top of a letter on top of a letter. So there might be the publisher’s letter and the editor’s letter and the author’s handwritten note, all of which convey our different personalities and how we like it for different reasons.
Jamie Quatro: I loved how Elisabeth went about soliciting blurbs. She reached out to me and said, make a list of your dream authors to blurb this collection and write them hand-written notes. We had a great response. Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I’ll receive these form letters from other people’s editors or agents, saying, here’s my client’s book, would you consider blurbing it? I have never, to this day, received a personal handwritten letter in the mail from an author asking for a blurb.
Liz Van Hoose: It must be strange to be asked to serve as an early reader on a book while you’re hard at work on your own writing—writing that no one else has yet read. How is it, thinking of Elisabeth when you’re writing something new? Do you think of her first and foremost as a reader?
Josh Weil: I don’t think of her as a reader, honestly. It’s a writer-editor relationship. Like many writers, I think of myself as the reader.
Mary-Beth Hughes: When I first sketched out a scene I was writing, I had gone to tea with a bunch of deep dog lovers and I wanted my character to be someone who might upset them a little bit. So I opened up with a long inner monologue about this character’s feelings about a dog. I may have possibly warranted brackets on that sort of thing. Elisabeth gently called me on whether I could open a book with a diatribe about how awful dogs were.
Liz Van Hoose: So the dog…
Mary-Beth Hughes: The dog took a backseat, literally.
Christine Schutt: I don’t think about my reader while I’m writing.
Liz Van Hoose: Do you think about your editor?
Christine Schutt: No. Most of the time I’m thinking about me—could I read this out loud and be comfortable?
Liz Van Hoose: As your own sort of crucible?
Christine Schutt: I do think, oh, everyone’s gonna cry over a dead dog. I do think things like that, in terms of trying to get effects. I would like very much to be heartbreaking. When I’m writing, I’m writing usually to meet people, to meet them or to match them, or to take up the things I’ve loved and find a place for them. That was particularly true in Florida. I wanted to use all my heroes—Elizabeth Bishop, for example. If I thought about the reader, I think I wouldn’t let myself aim as high. Elisabeth is genuinely sympathetic to what I’m doing. She is a smarter reader, I’d say that. She has more books behind her, and she knows a great prose stylist when she encounters him or encounters her, and she appreciates the literature on a higher level. There is a lighter kind of fiction that’s written—it has a literary patina, but it doesn’t hold up. When you say, who are you writing for? I’m writing for myself and anybody else who is a difficult reader. Anybody else who is asking questions of, why this word, why not that word?
Michael Thomas: I’m writing to my own head. I didn’t try to publish until later in life, so I never got in the habit of writing to people.
Charles Frazier: When you think about the number of copies Cold Mountain sold, as somebody said to me one time, to sell that many books, you have to sell books to people who don’t read books.
Mary-Beth Hughes: With my last novel, The Loved Ones, I had a lot of material and a lot of parts I had worked on, and I pieced together what I thought was a reasonable number of pages and sold it to Elisabeth as a partial novel, which I’d never done before. I felt like this novel was so difficult for me that it would make a difference to have her responses to the unfinished versions. She took it on and it was a very different interaction for us. The book was due maybe two years later. I took her deadlines to heart. She would see a finished draft and then there would be a draft incorporating her notes. We would meet in the interim between those two big stages. Elisabeth would ask me very broad, balanced questions that would send my thinking in the right direction. For instance, I had a character who was unwittingly and then unwillingly part of an embezzlement scheme. The salient aspect of his nature was that he would never fully understand what the scheme was until the end of the book. It became clear to me that I needed to know what it was. I had done research-reading about finance, but after Elisabeth talked to me about it—again, in her incredibly graceful way—it dawned on me that I should gather more information about finance and embezzlement. Elisabeth, in her expert approach, made me think I had thought it all myself.
Liz Van Hoose: I imagine her planting a little seed and watching this giant garden grow very quickly.
Mary-Beth Hughes: Yes, and she has such a faith that that will happen. I can’t tell you how important that can be, especially when my faith is much more in the vein of wild beliefs.
Katie Raissian: The writer’s career is something that Elisabeth definitely subscribes to and believes in—their arc, their vision, their body of work. Grove is a place where a writer can publish an epic novel, and follow it with a collection of short stories, follow it with maybe a novella, and then go back into an epic story. She has lifelong relationships with so many authors.
Michael Thomas: I’m now writing a work of nonfiction. It’s peaceful and loving and generous—that Eliot line, “the purification of the motive.”
Liz Van Hoose: Post-catharsis.
Michael Thomas: I don’t want to get somebody back or show somebody up, so it’s hard to get up in the morning. Elisabeth understood before I did that it could be difficult. What I thought would take six to eight weeks is taking six to eight years, and Grove has been great. Other publishing houses would have released me from my contract. I send Elisabeth pages and ask, am I crazy? And she says, no.
Christine Schutt: I’m working on something new—it takes me a long time—and I am sending this to Elisabeth in a way that I never sent Prosperous Friends. I keep on thinking it’s supposed to be shorter, or that it might be over, or then of course I think it might be failed. You can get stuck. So I am asking her to look and see if the parts should be shuffled around. This is the first time I’ve ever sent something in this condition, and I’m not sure what she’s going make of it at all. I’m excited.
Jamie Quatro: It’s amazing to me that I could send Elisabeth a short story and she would not only read it and have feedback for me, but call me about it. I’ve talked to other writers, and it’s unheard of that an editor would call and edit and talk about a work when it isn’t even a book she’s yet bought. That speaks to Grove’s cultivation of authors. It isn’t about each book; it’s about that long-term relationship.
Michael Thomas: It’s a dirty world out there in publishing. Elisabeth is a woman in the business with knowledge of how it works. She has stayed with Grove; she is somebody who believes in what she’s doing. It gives me faith that there are people out there like that. But that’s off the record.
Liz Van Hoose: Oh, but I would so very much like to record what you’ve just said.
Michael Thomas: Consult your Eliot for that: “Shabby equipment always deteriorating/In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.” I will say that Elisabeth is loyal.
Mary-Beth Hughes: I was at a dinner not that long ago with a pretty famous editor. She was describing all the tricks she’s come up with for having to get through writer meetings—take them to a museum, a movie. It was really funny. But I never feel that with Elisabeth. She seems to love what she does and be fond of the people she does it with. For The Loved Ones I went to the Winter Institute with her. Morgan loves to find these wild, wonderful, local restaurants, so we were being delivered by van to one of those and as we pulled up to the place, a crowd of booksellers were standing outside. This van was so crazily awkward in the way vans can be. Elisabeth was climbing out of the backseat and I saw her for a moment when I looked back, and she’s greeting all these booksellers and she’s framed in this open door, grinning from ear to ear. I thought, oh my God, she’s celestial.
Lily King: A year or so ago, I met several of her authors. We were in a room together with Elisabeth, and I realized: we all think that she loves us best.
Jamie Quatro: She is so proud of us and our books—she loves to promote her authors. It makes you want to write the hell out of whatever you’re doing for her. Just this summer, she spent an entire day with me, ten hours straight.
Liz Van Hoose: You toured Lookout Mountain together.
Jamie Quatro: She wanted to see where I Want to Show You More was set. She’d been editing these stories, and reading these stories, and talking about these stories, but she’d never been here.
Liz Van Hoose: Where did you go?
Jamie Quatro: To show her the little sign that said, “58 South.”
Liz Van Hoose: Of course!
Jamie Quatro: That’s the story where the narrator says, “Dying is like driving south up a mountain.” I said, there it is, the sign that sparked that story. There is nobody else on the planet with whom I would be more delighted to share where my story started than Elisabeth.