Tuesday, August 10, 2010

THE CARE AND FEEDING OF WRITERS

During the 20’s and 30’s, a group of promising American writers enjoyed the attention and encouragement of a major American editor named Maxwell Perkins. Perkins, who worked with Scribner’s Publishing, discovered and nurtured notable authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie K. Rawlings, and, later, John Marquand, Erskine Caldwell, James Jones…
Perkins could often divine how an author should proceed with his work better than the author. He was the quintessential editor, and post-modern writers lament that an editor like Perkins, a man who offered his authors consideration and friendship, plus impeccable editing, no longer exists. Most writers complain that there are no personal relationships between editors and writers. Perkins possessed critical ability and empathy. He carved out almost 100,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL and still maintained the respect of, and friendship with, Wolfe.
Over a month ago, Isabel Anders and I successfully placed a collaborative manuscript entitled CHANT OF DEATH with Gary Entsminger, editor of Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado. Gary’s initial comments about our work were more than heartening—he enthusiastically embraced our mystery and wrapped both arms around us with unusual (in the editing field) courtesy and considerable confidence in our writing. Isabel has characterized Gary as unlike any editor she has EVER encountered in her experiences as a writer and an editor.
A native of Virginia, Gary has the charm and engaging manner of a gentleman Virginian and has shown us the same kind of interest and thoughtfulness Maxwell Perkins showed his authors back in the early 20th century. Of course, Isabel and I know we’re not in the same league with the notable authors mentioned above, but we’ve advanced big steps forward in developing confidence as writers because of Gary’s nurturing.
Gary has authored many books himself (unlike Max Perkins who wasn’t a writer) and his latest writings are highly unusual. With artist and book designer, Susan Elliott (about whom I recently blogged), Gary has published OPHELIA’S GHOST, a novel that explores UFO’s, parallel universes, and anthropology—which are among Gary’s interests. He and Susan also published a book entitled REMEMBERING THE PARABLES, which presents a system for learning Jesus’ parables by heart, as an example of how to use the ancient Art of Memory.
Gary has written book reviews, technical articles and books, has worked as a free-lancer, and is deeply immersed in environmentalism. He’s also a consummate guitarist and mandolin player, and has made CD’s of his music, which you can find at Pinyon-Publishing.com. In his spare time, he’s a skilled computer programmer and has produced computer software that “helps students understand patterns of biodiversity.”
Here’s an interview I had with this amazing latter-day Maxwell Perkins and “man for all seasons” who is so inured to the care and feeding of authors.

INTERVIEW WITH GARY ENTSMINGER:

DIANE: What do you look for in the manuscripts you receive from authors seeking a publisher?

GARY: Good writing... OK, that's the too easy answer... I look for projects with heart. By that I mean projects where the writer cares about what she's writing about. Our modern culture is saturated with books, music, movies, and art that try to imitate someone else. That doesn't interest me much. I like our differences. And to me, that's where great art lies.

DIANE: I know you like poetry and often write it yourself. Do you prefer publishing books of a certain genre?  

GARY: Yes, poetry was my first love. In college, for example, I only wanted to write poems. I read fiction and in many different genres of non-fiction (history, science, nature, mathematics, religion, etc.), but poems had my heart. Then I learned abruptly after college that it was a lot easier to make a living writing prose, especially non-fiction, so that in its various journalistic, scientific, and technical guises commanded my attention for the next two decades.  I wrote for, edited, and published with several major publishers (e.g., Prentice-Hall). Throughout that time, I continued to read voraciously as always, but it wasn't until a few years ago that my interest in writing poetry resurfaced, along with a sudden urge to write a novel.

When Susan and I started Pinyon Publishing, we decided not to solicit any manuscripts. We wanted to see what came to us. So we published a novel, then something clicked, and we were suddenly offered a fine book of poems to publish (Dabney Stuart's TABLES). From there, as suddenly, a second book of poems appeared, then a novel, a book of non-fiction, and we realized we were doing what we set out to do: publish well-written books that we liked and that we felt had heart.

DIANE: An editor of a small press who attended the Sewanee Writer’s Conference a few years ago said that most of the manuscripts her press receives nowadays require little editing. Are the manuscripts you receive in good form and free of grammatical and spelling errors, etc.? How much editing do you normally have to do?

GARY: It depends on what she means by 'editing?' Most books that we've received have been punctuated well, use good grammar, and are mostly free of obvious errors. Most writers use software with spell checkers, and most writers do this basic copy editing before they submit manuscripts.

But the more interesting type of editing remains, of trying to understand what the writer is trying to do with her story. So editing could mean 'suggesting alternative wording,' or cutting or adding here, and so on. 

Recently, we received a fine manuscript of haikus (SPILLED MILK by Gary Hotham). The manuscript was everything you'd want from a book of haiku. But as I reread the poems, I thought I was hearing a story, that the haiku had an underlying order, different from the order that now appeared in the book. So after consulting with Gary about reordering the poems, I changed the order and divided the poems into sections. Later, a reviewer noticed the importance of the order (for the story) as well. We were all satisfied.

DIANE: I spoke of Maxwell Perkins’ friendships with authors in the blog above and how I perceive that you are much like him. Does your thoughtfulness influence the manner in which you reject manuscripts as well? Do you send form rejections, or do you often critique those manuscripts before returning them to the author?

GARY: Although I think it could be useful to comment on every manuscript we reject, I've decided not to, primarily because I don't want to mislead writers into thinking that because I commented on the book I want eventually to publish it.  However, if it's a manuscript that I think we can publish after some revision, then I try to help by making suggestions if I can.  Some books really are riding high already and don't need much help.

DIANE: How many books does Pinyon publish each year? Any plans for expansion?

GARY: We're currently publishing six-ten books a year, with one book a month perhaps our optimal size.  We're scheduled now into 2011. So I think we're on track and we're still having fun. That's important!

DIANE: The famous runner, George Sheehan, who wrote RUNNING AND BEING, said that poets, saints, philosophers, and athletes are the most enlightened humans. What do you think of his remark?

GARY: I like it because his list contains some of my favorite people. But I'm not sure I'd agree. I do think some people appear more enlightened than others, and I think their attention to their minds and bodies, their appreciation of life, their presence in their daily tasks, and their thoughtfulness and selflessness are key. I can imagine almost any person paying this kind of attention to their work or play, whatever it is. 

DIANE: Your novel writing seems highly spiritual. Are you affiliated with any religious denomination?

GARY: I grew up in a Christian environment. Both of my parents attended church all of their lives. My brother, JW, and I also were part of the regular Sunday ritual into college. I retain much of the ethical wisdom I acquired in childhood: speak the truth, love your neighbor, and so on.

Since childhood I've learned that the marvelous ethical system I learned from my parents wasn't part of any particular religion or church denomination. Many religions have shared these loving common values throughout recorded history.  What my continual immersion in learning about these religions tells me is the spiritual part underlying these religions is what counts. And that spiritual component seems to have many names.

DIANE: Why did you become an editor?

GARY: In 1984, I was out of college, out of work, and trying to decide whether to teach (high school) or write. I had two job offers that summer: one teaching, one editing a computer journal (Micro Cornucopia). I chose the journal, and it's been writing, editing, and (now) publishing ever since.

DIANE: How do your interests in literature and computer programming interface?

GARY: Although they sound very different, they do share some interesting qualities. Besides the obvious writing and editing parts (one writes a computer program in a computer language instead of a spoken language), writing and programming both require solving certain problems. A program has an algorithm. A novel has a plot. Sometimes the program doesn't work. It's buggy! Sometimes the story or poem doesn't work.

DIANE:  Do you think that publishing houses in the U.S. will become extinct and e-books will become the wave of the future in the publishing industry?

GARY: Good question. And one I've been researching recently. At this point, e-books come in plastic and have batteries. To me, they're no fun to cuddle up with in bed. But we live in a world where people enjoy electronic devices, often the smaller the better. To venture a guess, I think the book reader (Kindle, iPad, etc.) will evolve into a book-TV device. You'll be able to pause while reading to watch a movie or a commercial, or order a pizza. You'll be able to photograph yourself reading (or will it be called 'watching?').

DIANE: What books do you think aspiring writers should read?

GARY: Any good book. But that's another easy answer. Better perhaps: books that are at least somewhat similar to what they want to write.  If you want to write poems, then read a few good poets. Ditto for novels or books about plants or wildlife. Read them not to imitate them but to see what else has been done in the field that interests you. You might even find someone has already written the book you thought you wanted to write. That would be fun.

DIANE: What advice do you have for authors submitting their work to you? Or to any publishing house?

GARY: For us: First, submit a thoughtful short query describing your book or project.  If that sounds interesting, we'll ask to see something else, a little longer, and we go from there. It's also very helpful if the writer has some idea who might want to read his book or how he thinks we should promote it. It's also wonderful if the writer has some plans to promote his own book. The more a writer thinks about the book as a project, the better chance he'll have to publish it with us or anyone else.

DIANE: Are you writing another book?

GARY: You bet. Always writing. Currently, Susan and I are deep into our second novel, FALL OF '33, which is a follow-up to OPHELIA'S GHOST.

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