Looking Back on CWIM: The 2001 Edition
Agent Steven Malk Chats with Editor Richard Jackson...
Today is my last look back at CWIM and I'm happy to end with an excerpt from an article we called "Listen In: An Agent Chats with Richard Jackson."
A few days ago when I posted part of my interview with Judy Blume and in the excerpt she mentioned Dick Jackson, who was her first editor in the late '60s. In his article on Richard Jackson, which was more like eavesdropping on a conversation, agent Steven Malk recalls "The first time I spoke to Richard Jackson, I was 22, and I had just started to represent books. I was having a hard time getting editors to return my calls, much less have lengthy conversations with me." But Richard Jackson called Steve to inquire about a portfolio and the two struck up both a working relationship and a friendship, and, Steve said in the article, "I've been lucky to have him mentor me through my first years in publishing."
Here's part of their conversation:
So what do you think makes a good voice?
True voice comes from somewhere inside the writer or inside the character. I always ask, Why should I be listening to this person? I want the story and the characters to provide the answer.
It's a hard thing to define, but you know it when you see it.
Yes, or when you don't. I think because I read with difficulty, I read with my ear. If a manuscript catches my attention at all, I know it's because I'm hearing it.
I've heard you talk about the fact that you're sometimes drawn to subjects that you hate.
Well, I'm definitely not drawn to writing I hate. But it appeals to me to examine hateful subjects from a social point of view. I don't like guns, but I've published several books in which guns are prominent. Hatred doesn't mean that I can't bear to think about disturbing facts or fantasies of human nature. I am drawn to the challenge of enabling other people to think about them.
So you like to learn from the books you publish?
Yes. That's why I edit the books that I publish, as in immerse myself in them. Because I want to learn from them. I want to understand them. I want books to challenge me to think about things in new and different ways.
One of the things that you mention to me a lot as one of your primary concerns is how much you care about the characters, and how much of a connection you feel to the characters. Can you discuss that?
I really have to feel some kind of curiosity about or sympathy for the characters. Which doesn't mean that every character has to be good. There are some great bad characters. But you have to understand their motivations.
Do you find that a lot of writers try and cater their work to the market and to different trends?
Writers often ask me about trends. My only answer is: Forget about them! By the time you get your trendy book written, the trend is finished. I understand the compulsion to identify a market, but not at the sacrifice of what you, the writer, have that's personal which you can bring to your book. The only attention I pay to trends is that I try to avoid them.
I find that when people tell me that they wrote their manuscript because the topic is hot, it makes me want to reject it on the spot.
Absolutely. There is a kind of snobbishness about this, I suppose--another thing people associate me with. It may look like snobbishness, but I consider it interest in personal daring. I want people to do something personal. Reading is very personal; books are personal objects. And I think that whatever's in it should come from somewhere inside the writer, not from the latest low-flying fad.
What are some other common mistakes that you see writers make?
I see writers trying to be teacherly through a first-person voice. If you've got an 11 year-old character and suddenly you have a 38-year-old perception popping out of her mouth, that is troublesome and turns me off. Basically, I'm not for little nuggets of truth. Some people can do them, disguise them, but most people come across sounding judgmental and purposeful, and I can just see kids' eyes rolling. Fiction should illuminate, not educate.