Friday, November 14, 2008
Lawrence Kessenich: Behind the Scenes at Houghton Mifflin.
Lawrence Kessenich: Behind the Scenes at Houghton Mifflin.
With Doug Holder
Lawrence Kessenich was an editor at the prestigious Boston publishing house Houghton Mifflin. Kessenich, 58, attended the MFA program at U/Mass Amherst, lived near Emily Dickinson’s house, and encountered such poets as: Joe Langland, Donald Junkins, and James Tate. When he didn’t secure a teaching assistant position he was forced to drop out and applied to the Radcliff Publishing Seminar, attending in the summer of 1978. During his time at Houghton Mifflin, Kessenich recruited W. P. Kinsella author of “Shoeless Joe,” Rick Boyer’s “Billingsgate Shoal”, a mystery that won an Edgar Award for best mystery novel of the year, “Confessions of Taoist on Wall Street,”by David Payne, and “Selected Poems of Anne Sexton,” edited by Diane Middlebrook,. Kessenich was the editor for Terry McMillan’s first book “Mama,” as well. I spoke with him on my Somerville Community Access TV Show: “ Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: After you graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1974, you told me you “meandered” throughout your twenties. What did you do? Is meandering a good thing?
Lawrence Kessenich: It was good for me. At the end of college I was interested in the theatre. I started doing amateur theatre. I basically spent my twenties applying to graduate schools. I was accepted into a theatre program, but at the last minute decided it wasn’t for me. I was starting to write a lot at that point. I put together some short stories that I had written, and applied to 5 or 6 programs. I didn’t get into any of them. At that time I started writing more poetry and so the next time I applied, I applied in poetry. I got into three different programs and chose the one at U/Mass Amherst. I have always been attracted to Massachusetts. They had a very good program at U/Mass. Donald Junkins, was the head of the writing program at that time. But I ran out of money, and I didn’t get a teaching assistantship. So I had to leave.
DH: How did you support yourself in your twenties?
LK: I had all sorts of odd jobs. I worked in a hospital and assisted in autopsies—that was an interesting experience. I worked at an art supply store, a U Haul dealership, etc…
DH: You attended the Radcliffe Publishing Course in the 70’s. Was it sort of like a boot camp for getting into the publishing industry?
LK: That’s a pretty good description. It’s six weeks and it is very intense. I went 25 years ago, I think it has been around for sixty years now. They bring in a lot of people from the publishing business, it is just not theoretical. You hear from people who do it on a day-to-day basis. They do some recruiting. It does give you contacts in the publishing industry. I almost got a job in New York but I decided I couldn’t live in New York on the salary they offered. I eventually got the job at Houghton Mifflin from someone I met at the course.
DH: But you originally wanted to be a writer and now you found yourself on the road to being an editor.
LK: I sort of had an epiphany when I left U/Mass. I thought maybe I was more suited to be the helper than the person who actually creates the stuff. I thought maybe I was more suited to be in the background. It turned out I was pretty good at it…it was a good role for me. But eventually I did want to become a writer myself. I did a little, but it is hard when you are an editor. There are only a handful of people who do it.
DH: William Maxwell of The New Yorker did it.
LK: Yeah and Toni Morrison, Michael Korda.
DH: Did the famous editor of Hemingway and Thomas Wolff, Maxwell Perkins, write?
LK: Absolutely not. He was a pure editor. He was sort of my idol.
DH: Your first job at Houghton Mifflin was editorial assistant to Robie Macauley, a well-known name in the literary world. He was the first serious fiction editor at Playboy. He must have had a few stories from the Mansion, right?
LK: He was there in the 60’s and was able to pay writers $2,000 a short story. In that era you could live on $6,000 a year. He literally supported, sometimes well-known writers, by publishing two or three of their stories in Playboy. So it was a tremendously powerful position, and he got to know a lot of writers very well.
At one time he decided to take a trip to Europe with his wife. The boss asked: “ Well, what are you going to do?” He replied: “Well we are going here and there. While I am there I am going to visit Nabokov, etc…” He knew all these writers abroad. His boss said” Oh, well, we will pay for that.” They wanted him to maintain contacts with these writers.
DH: You say you had to “acquire” novels in order to get ahead. How does one go about doing that?
LK: Well, for novels or nonfiction—you basically read articles. When you are starting out agents won’t talk to you. So you talk to other people, read literary magazines, the smaller magazines, where the authors aren’t necessarily well known. There is a magazine in the publishing trade called: “Publisher’s Weekly.” I discovered the author W.P. Kinsella who wrote “Shoeless Joe” there. The reviews appear in PW before the book is even out. So I happened to read this review of a Canadian anthology of short stories. There was a one sentence description of Kinsella’s story: “ An Iowa farmer builds a playing field in his cornfield in order to invoke his baseball hero Shoeless Joe Jackson.” It sounded wonderful. I’m from the Midwest, and I like sports. I was young and naïve and I didn’t know much about publishing. I figured that fourteen editors would write to him as soon as they saw it. So I decided I was going to write him right away. I asked him if he ever had written a novel. Nobody wants to start with short stories. It happens once in a while but it’s rare.
The Canadian anthology was going to be in the store. And this will give you an idea how little money you make in publishing: I was so poor I didn’t feel I could buy the book, so I went into a bookstore in Harvard Square and read the story. I was just thrilled. He wrote back and said: “ I’d love to write a novel. I tried several times but I didn’t have any luck. I told him to send me everything he had ever written, which at that time were two books of short stories, a beginning novel, etc… I read all of it, but I pretty much came back to the original short story. This was the story that became “Shoeless Joe,” and the subsequent movie “Field of Dreams.” He had an idea about baseball stories. I said that it was great, but that he should start with the first short story and go from there. He responded: “ No, I don’t want to do that.” He had another way he wanted to write it. So about three months later I get about ninety pages of the novel. And honestly, it was terrible. It felt like it wasn’t even the same writer. I worked up my courage and said: “ Look, I don’t think it is working this way. I think you should start with that short story and go from there.” And once he did that it took off. I never told him I was just an assistant editor.
DH: Nan Talese promoted you to editor. She had the misfortune to publish James Frey’s ill-fated memoir. How can an editor guard against phony memoirs, etc…?
LK: What can you do? You’d have to know the person’s life. People usually have some form of credentials…so there is an element of trust.
DH: You were Terry McMillan’s editor for her first book “Mama.” It was chose from the slush pile. Are slush piles extinct today?
LK: Yeah. Pretty much. It has to come through an editor or an agent. It’s a matter of time an expense. It was a fulltime job. I think publishers want to use interns for other things. Publishing houses run on a pretty small margin, so when they do get interns they use them on things that have to be done. The slush pile is a problem because it is huge; anything can get in there. If you get it through an editor or an agent the file is much smaller.
I think it is now shifted to the agents. They now get the slush pile.
DH: Do agents seek quality work or just work that will sell?
LK: They have the same problems as publishing houses. They can’t invest a lot of time in things that won’t sell. I think there are a lot more agents out there that are more idealistic than people realize. If there is something they love, but are not sure if people are going to buy it, they probably will go to bat for it.
DH: You worked with Diane Middlebrook on the “Selected Poems of Anne Sexton.” What role did you plav—did you select any of the poems?
LK: No. I wish I could of because she was one of my favorite poets. I was there as a representative in the publishing house. I made sure that when the manuscript was turned in they did the right things with it: like cover design, inside design, and I was the intermediary between anyone else they had to deal with.
DH: In an interview with Lois Ames, Sexton’s and Sylvia Plath’s social worker, and author of the intro to Plath’s “Bell Jar,” Ames told me she tried to do a biography of Plath but ran into a lot of trouble with the family. Did this happen to Middlebrook?
LK: It took years for Diane to write “Anne Sexton: A Biography.” But during that time she called me up and said: “You are never going to believe what I have--- the tapes of Sexton’s sessions with her therapist.” “Well” I said. “This will guarantee that the book will be controversial if nothing else." And it certainly was and the family was very upset. This fact didn’t come out until the book was published.
--- Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update