An Interview with Robert Weil

  • By Ronald K.L. Collins
  • April 5, 2016

A renowned book editor discusses his life in publishing


 

“As an editor you can get up in the morning and change the world with the books that you publish.”

— Robert Weil (2011)




He is one of the very best in the publishing business. And yet, it is more than a business to him — it is a literary calling. He is consumed by his love of writing. Whether in his office or at home, paper is his preferred medium. He is Robert Weil, editor-in-chief and publishing director of Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton & Company. He has been in the book-publishing business since 1978. Weil’s books have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Bancroft Prize. He has also worked with seven MacArthur Fellows. His list of distinguished authors is far too long to repeat here.

You once said: “My biggest inspiration for editing comes from my love of music and opera, the sound of language and the structure of language: it's all in the ear, in the melodies of words.” How does one write for the ear? Can you give us some pointers?

I wish I could provide a succinct or useful reply, but I’m not sure there are, in fact, pointers. Why do some writers have a better style than others? I think the same things holds true for editors. I cannot tell you why some editors have that ability to hear the scan or meter of words on the page. Perhaps it is a gift or a talent that is intrinsic. I only wish I could draw or paint, but I just do not possess such gifts, though I can appreciate great design. The same thing may hold true for language. When I edit a sentence or a paragraph, I listen to the flow of the words to hear whether something might be wrong or out of place. If something sounds odd, I’ll then try to fix it. As an editor, I feel I’m a bit of a mime in that I can mimic people’s styles, but I can only do this on the page. With another medium, a moviegoer is amazed at how well Meryl Streep, for example, can inhabit the voice and movements and intonations of Julia Child. I suspect editors can act in a similar way, though only through the writing.

At the same time that opera librettists have taught me about dialogue, so too have a few of the novelists I’ve been fortunate to work with. In particular, I can think of Henry Roth and Allan Gurganus, whose genius in both cases helped me to learn so much about my own craft.

You worked hard to secure the rights to António Lobo Antunes’ novel What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire? (W.W. Norton, 2008, translated by Gregory Rabassa). In a 2008 speech you gave at New York University, you were rather uninhibited in your praise of his work: “Reading Lobo Antunes’ fiction, particularly this novel, is like becoming hypnotically entranced by Wagner.” You went on to add that this novel about a live-on-the-Dionysian-edge female impersonator had an “orgasmic” quality in the “way that language can stimulate the highest pleasure receptors of our overloaded human brain.” What was it about this novel that so excited your literary passion?

The Portuguese writer António Lobo Antunes is considered one of the world’s most spectacularly gifted novelists, but he is difficult to read, but so thrillingly worth the effort. His prose does indeed come across like poetry, which is why it is such a challenge to translate. António can indeed inhabit the personality of his characters, as in the case of the drag queen in What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? The cadences are there, and they are hypnotic, just like the expansive swirls of symphonic music. Moreover, António can do something so few writers can do: He can create stream-of-consciousness prose that duplicates on the page the thought processes of the human mind. Just imagine a passage that goes on for pages in which the private thoughts of a character come to life or are brilliantly reified on the page!

Would it be fair to say that, at least in some significant respects, your style of editing is (for lack of a better description) somewhat old-fashioned?

I have no idea whether my style is old-fashioned or not. There have always been editors who lovingly line edit. (I was just on a panel recently with three other editors who are superb line editors.) And there are those who acquire and delegate the editing to others, whether it be a subaltern or a copyeditor. Acquisitions editors are considered rainmakers, so their job is highly important, but I have to think that line editing is excellent business and attracts new and desirable writers to one’s stable.

I gather you do many of your manuscript edits by marking on paper instead of doing it digitally with track changes. Is that true?

So many of us, hardly only in publishing, spend all day on the computer. I cannot abide the computer in the evening or on weekends or on vacations when I edit. I work much better with the words on the page. I can easily do track changes on a computer for, say, a chapter or 30 pages, but I cannot handle a work of manuscript length on the computer. In this sense, I suspect I’m old-fashioned, since many of my younger colleagues only edit on the computer. Then again, I know a very gifted editor in his thirties, Tom Mayer, who still prefers to edit manuscripts by hand. I only wish I could convert to the computer because, by all accounts, my handwriting is execrable.

I have been told that sometimes when you edit a manuscript, you pen the word evoke in the margins. True?

Yes, you’ve done your surveillance well, because I am prone to overuse the word “evoke.” But maybe it’s not overuse, because even the best of writers always need to expand on occasion and amplify a work that appears confining or straitened. These “evokes” might only require an additional clause, in, say, how a character looks, or how Buenos Aires first appeared to a musician arriving for the first time in this Euro-centric South American city.

What is happening to book publishing in America? Is the book dying? Are bookstores becoming obsolete? What about the ongoing demise of book reviews in newspapers? Can the past be saved? Should it?

Book publishing is hardly dying, though new forms have changed the way we recognize the business. When I first entered publishing in 1978, maybe 20,000 bookstore buyers attended our annual book convention. I don’t know the number now, but it could be 2,000 to 3,000. So many individual bookstores have disappeared, which saddens me. When one orders a book, he or she cannot feel the texture of that book before buying a copy. I also feel that the explosion of social media has challenged our concentration, so that many people find it overly challenging to read a full book.

You mention the demise of book reviews in newspapers, which is a great concern. In the old days, there was a so-called “trampoline” of national reviewers at newspapers who would regularly review your books. You could count on as many as 30 or 40 original reviews from newspapers all across the country. And there were devoted book editors on even the smallest newspapers. None of this exists anymore, so one has to have people who can master social media, where so many books now get started. But it’s great to adapt, and one must not yearn in Cherry Orchard-fashion for a past that can no longer exist.

I cannot imagine that books, in whatever form, will ever go way, and I actually remain highly optimistic about the future of book publishing. Even though I am now 60, I do not seek to recreate the past but try to embrace the future in all kinds of ways. In many cases, however, that would mean just presenting the kind of quality books I’ve always done with the assumption that they will inevitably find their path in a new world.

Four years ago, you stated, “E-books are nothing to fear, but to embrace as part of what we are doing.” Many authors believe just the opposite. Why do you think they are wrong?

Since I made that comment, e-book use seems to have leveled off. Not as many people convert to reading e-books, and in many genres, as in serious history or biography, there remains a strong demand for so-called print books. I am quite pleased that we seem to be reaching a status quo, whereby there are some readers who will only read books on their devices, while many, like me, prefer the printed book. I do not think that authors should be alarmed at this stage, and there are many — I can think of, say, Mary Beard — whose online presence helps build both her print and e-book readers.

In 2011, you re-launched the Liveright imprint. What prompted that, and what more do you hope to do with it in the coming years?

The idea to re-launch Liveright, a house that was originally begun by Horace Liveright in 1917, was solely that of Norton’s chairman, Drake McFeely. He asked me if I would consider starting it under his guidance. I felt honored and agreed. To be candid, I don’t set goals. I strive to publish great books, and as you mentioned at the beginning, books that can actually make a difference and, as bromidic as it sounds, actually change the world in which we live. But there are things that continue to excite me, among them writers who are great stylists and stories about the underdogs of life, as in Antonio Lobo Antunes’ novel about a Lisbon drag queen on the skids.

I also see myself as somewhat of a publishing contrarian in that I’m not drawn to the most commercial subjects, to what everyone else is trying to do. If I fall flat on my face by being five years ahead of the curve, so be it. Being an editor is like being in show business: Risks are inherent to our business, as is failure. I continue, though, to be surprised that I’m still able to find a receptive audience, but the formula, as it were, since publishing can never be a formula, seems to be working. As tempting as the thought is at times, I’m not about to hang up my editorial cleats for the moment.

What in your view moves a writer from the “good” category to the “great” category?

Transcendence.

Years before the renewed interest in Patricia Highsmith and the movie “Carol,” you took it upon yourself to bring her works back into print, including The Complete Ripley Novels, The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, Nothing That Meets the Eye: The Uncollected Stories of Patricia Highsmith, and Patricia Highsmith Selected Novels and Short Stories. Why your interest in this writer?

I first began to pursue the works of Patricia Highsmith five years after her death, just after I came to Norton in 1999. I felt that her novels were neglected and that she was, indeed, a great American writer, someone who had anticipated many of the cultural and sexual themes that pervade television and movies by decades. Her estate was controlled by her Swiss publisher, Diogenes, and I called the rights people almost weekly for nearly one year. I did not annoy the receptionists and the assistants, who were always nice, but I just said I was hoping to get an answer. I hoped to acquire 14 novels and short stories that were out of print at the time. In the end, Diogenes acceded to Norton’s entreaties, and we proved to be an ideal partner and collaborator.

I might add that one of my favorite Highsmith novels is The Price of Salt (1952), a very “un-Highsmithian” novel in that it does not involve murder. I was ecstatic to see that The Price of Salt was finally made into a stunning film, this being “Carol,” which received several Academy Award nominations. I’ve also been working with Carol Bemis in our College Division at Norton to create a “Norton Critical Edition” of The Price of Salt that professors can assign to students. “The novel of a love society forbids,” as was touted in the original publication, will now enter the American academy over 60 years later in a canonical form. I suspect the very “talented Miss Highsmith,” as her biographer Joan Schenkar has immortalized her, would be very pleased.

Poetry: A few years ago, Liveright published a collection of poems by Bertolt Brecht. Why?

Bertolt Brecht has always fascinated and inspired me, but, sadly, too many American readers only know him for his plays, not for his poetry, which is greatly esteemed in Germany. Many people there consider him Germany’s greatest 20th-century poet. In the case of Brecht’s Love Poems, I had the opportunity to work with Brecht’s sole surviving child, Barbara Brecht-Schall, who sadly died in 2015. We worked together on her excellent introduction, which the New York Times quoted in its obituary. While Mrs. Brecht-Schall is now gone, the good news is that the two translators, David Constantine and Tom Kuhn, whom she appointed to translate all of Brecht’s poems into English, continue to work on this epic project. I would expect that The Poems of Bertolt Brecht will appear in a few years in a complete and definitive form.

In 2015, you published The Complete Works of Primo Levi (all 3,000 pages, replete with an intro by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison). Levi, of course, was the Auschwitz survivor and famed author of such works as If This Is a Man (1947) and The Periodic Table (1975). Your parents, if I may, were German and Jewish. How, if at all, did that factor into the story of why you devoted the time and energy you did (and it must have been considerable) to breathe new life to Levi’s works? Or to come at it from a different angle: What moved you to undertake this project?

Last year, we published The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by the heroic Ann Goldstein, who is also Elena Ferrante’s translator. It was a project that I also launched in 1999 (must have been a good year!) just after I came to Norton. I had always been entranced and stunned by Levi’s writing. His first memoir, If This Is a Man, may be one of the most “human” or insightfully human books I have ever read, while his memoir, The Periodic Table, has a language and a conceit which, in my opinion, positions it as one of the most original memoirs of the 20th century. I first read Levi in the 1980s and was hopeful that I could one day get to publish him. But he died prematurely in 1987, and there appeared no chance that I could work with him. However, in 1997, I learned that his Italian publisher, Einaudi, had put out his Complete Works, so I decided during that time that we would try to duplicate what the Italians had done. Of course, I never imagined that the rights would take six or so years to gather and that we would have to re-translate 13 of the 14 books, and have the original one revised. But again, I have no regrets.

As to my parents, I am just not sure if this was a deciding factor. Indeed, both were born in Germany, while my mother was raised in Sweden. Perhaps I have a heightened awareness of the Holocaust, but it is Levi’s language and insights that draw me in as a reader. He teaches me what it means to be human, and this is a lesson that is meant for everyone. Levi is a universal writer, and these three volumes are presented for a wide and variegated public.

In what ways is Terrence Holt’s Internal Medicine (Liveright, 2014) your kind of book? What about it captured you?

I’m amazed at how well you know my list. Indeed, Dr. Holt’s Internal Medicine is very much my kind of book. It is a collection of nine stories by a practicing gerontologist. Holt actually began his career as a writing professor, and one of his early students was Junot Diaz. Almost in mid-life, he decided to become a doctor, so now he writes with the craft of a consummate stylist, with the acumen of a physician, and with a heart that seems to communicate as well as any other writer the inevitable sorrows that accompany life. Virgil speaks in the Aeneid of “the tears of things,” and Terry’s stories embody this Virgilian “lacrimae rerum” as sensitively and as humanly as anyone.

You work with some of your authors for years to help shape the structure and style of their work. Tell us about that.

In truth, I often go through several drafts with the writers I work with. Often, they do not have enough confidence in a first draft: They rely too much on quotations, they tend to use their impressive research as a crutch, believing that this is what the reader wants to absorb. At other times, they are, especially in the case of nonfiction or history or biography, too reliant on chronology. We carefully go over the first draft, often line by line, then chapter by chapter. I encourage them to think of every chapter as a short story, in that it must have the right beginning and, when possible, a gripping or dramatic end. If there are parts to the book’s structure, they should imagine each part as if it were an opera or musical, so that the reader can take a pause, in the same way that concertgoers break for an intermission.

It’s amazing to see the improvement in drafts. When the second or final draft comes in, it can literally take your breath away. The writer has then lived up to the highest of his or her abilities. And often, I encourage writers to read great fiction while they are rewriting so that they can absorb pacing and style from some of the masters.

You publish a lot of history. In fact, it might even be said that every nonfiction work you publish has some significant historical component.

I was a history major in college so I still have a propensity to publish history and biography, but hardly every nonfiction work I publish is essentially historical. I’m proud of the scientific works that I’ve shepherded through, the philosophical and journalistic works that have come to life, as well as the photographic and visual works that use images and photographs rather than the word.

After Jerome Charyn published his historical novel, I Am Abraham (Liveright, 2014), he said: “Robert Weil…had me revise every other line, [he] sought a perfection I did not have.” Forgive me, but are you really that interventionist?

Jerry Charyn is just being modest. He actually achieved a perfection that seems immanent to the text. It’s hard not to gasp at the language and the human drama that he creates (I almost said evoked!) in that last chapter set in Richmond, when President Lincoln comes down to visit the fallen city. The language here soars, just as it did in Charyn’s The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson when the reclusive poet is near death. Charyn has an uncanny ability to inhabit the voices and personalities of many famous people. He’s a ventriloquist disguised as a novelist. Both of us had terrific experiences working on three novels. Charyn deserves to be recognized as one of America’s greatest comic novelists (the French see him this way, so it’s time America comes around).

Dare tell us: Who are some of your favorite literary agents? And why?

I like and greatly admire dozens of agents. Unlike many publishers, I genuinely see them as my friends. The best agents are the ones who will work with the editor and publisher in actually publishing the book. It’s lonely to publish a book. The writer requires the help of the editor, the publicist, and the agent. It’s impossible for me to name my favorite agents, as that list would require a new interview. But I do recall how grateful I always am when Gloria Loomis, an inestimably brilliant and effective agent, works with me on a book. I have the complete confidence that Gloria will make sure that the book gets reviewed in all the right places. I feel she is always out there positioning the book with the public in all the right ways. She is never shy, and I am so grateful.

Gloria, however, is hardly alone, for someone like Faith Childs, with whom I’ve worked with for years on many projects, including Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hemingses of Monticello, feels like a partner whenever you get the chance to work with her on a book. I really believe that anyone looking for the right agent should not only question how much money an agent can get, but how eagerly an agent will help out with the publication process.

Was Norman Mailer really a great writer, or was he really greatly overrated?

Mailer captured the exuberant, lush, effusive tone of mid-century U.S.A. as well as any American writer. He was machismo personified, and his style was so effervescent and often genius-like. I’m not sure, though, how he will endure into the 21st century.

What two or three pre-20th-century fiction writers do you enjoy reading?

If you want to learn how to read a short story, read those of Guy de Maupassant (Sandra Smith’s new translation is superb). De Maupassant seems, at least to me, to be the originator of the modern short story, though I’m just now familiarizing myself with the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis. He was almost contemporaneous with Maupassant, and his short stories bring late-19th-century Rio de Janeiro to vibrant life (Margaret Jull Costa is currently translating them). And then there’s Nathaniel Hawthorne, a 19th-century writer who speaks to the dilemmas of 21st-century America far better than, say, Herman Melville, who represents the empyrean heights of American literary exceptionalism. The Scarlet Letter contains lessons that are played out every day in contemporary America, and Hawthorne has never seemed as germane as he does today. (I know my author Ruth Franklin concurs with me here.)

But let’s not limit ourselves to great fiction. If one wants to glean insights into the popularity of Donald Trump, for example, one must read Niccolò Machiavelli, especially as interpreted by Alan Ryan in his slender volume on the great Florentine. And then there is Ryan’s masterpiece, On Politics: A History of Political Thought.

What do you yearn to do that you have yet to do?

I imagine a world where I no longer have to fret about all those stacks of manuscripts that await me every weekend and vacation. They can seem like a real burden, but in all truth, I really don’t yearn to do anything in the future that I have not already done. To paraphrase Lou Gehrig, one of my boyhood heroes (and I know this does not sound very literary), I often consider myself the luckiest man alive to have been able to work with the kinds of people I have conspired with in the past. I honestly don’t intend to do anything differently.

[Photo by Calvin Reid, Publishers Weekly.]

Ronald K.L. Collins is a member of the Independent's board of directors.

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