Editors are indispensable for writers, whether beginners or professionals. When writers dive into a subject, they can’t help getting too close to see the forest for the trees. They can’t easily step back, like a painter from the canvas, to get a fresh perspective. That’s where the editor (also called writing coach or book doctor) has to come in and cast a critical, but supportive glance at things. Ghostwriters, by contrast, are indispensable only for people who can’t or wont do the work of writing their story themselves. Readers are often unaware that a book wasn’t written by its presumed author; and they are almost never aware of the editors at work behind the scene. Their shadow existence can sometimes be found in the acknowledgment section of a book. Sometimes, when a famous author has died, you may learn that he was “made”
by his editor (Thomas Wolfe and Scribner editor Max Perkins are a famous example).
I don’t mind this shadow existence as an editor, and I have always rejected work offers that asked for a ghostwriter. It felt plain wrong to do a piece of writing that was not my own creative idea, but someone else’s. Roman Polanski’s 2010 movie, The Ghost Writer, based on the suspenseful novel by Robert Harris, is an example of the dangerous job of writing a book for someone else.
What I like is helping others to find their voice on the page. First-timers as well as seasoned writers can have trouble finding their voice, i.e. finding the right voice for a particular story or character they have in mind. What is meant by “voice”? I’d say “voice” means tapping a chord that vibrates something true and authentic. Helping the writer find, maintain and fine-tune this chord is my work.
Two Writers, Eighty and Ninety-Seven Years of Age
Right now, two very different writing clients of mine have finished and published a book, and both happen to be seniors. Al Hirshen is an eighty year-old first-time writer with a memoir: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man. Gabriella Mautner is an award-winning author in English and German who is ninety-seven. Her latest novel is Victor Nameless.
Working With Al
At the start of our work together, Al joined a workshop I gave in my village: “Harvesting your Life.” It was meant to encourage people to leave a written legacy for family and friends. Al was able to test some of his stories in the group, but he had already outgrown the “family harvest” and was seriously aiming for a bigger audience and a book.
What do you need in order to write a memoir? First, a good memory. Next, a good story to tell. You type up everything you want to remember and there it is, your first draft. Al had a first draft of five hundred pages when I came in—stories about his life as a civil rights and poverty lawyer, an international consultant, world traveler and would-be Hollywood producer. We had to sift through the pack, slim it down, decide what was the best stuff, then look at each story in detail: where was it too short, where was it too long and detailed, perhaps too personal for a wider audience, or too complicated for readers who were neither lawyers nor politicians.
Early on I noticed that Al wrote the way he spoke, as if dictating his memories into a tape recorder, adding thoughts as they came and forgetting that a sentence must end in time. This made us look at the rhythm and flow of sentences and paragraphs, speeding and pausing. (Gertrude Stein has taught us the difference between a sentence and a paragraph: Listen to your dog drinking from his bowl, she would say, and you’ll know the difference!) But a text is like a dance. You need to master the steps and turns in a way that one doesn’t notice them as such. One notices the dance—something that wants to be fluid, elegant, and fun to watch. The same with writing: there is technique, a lot of technique, but that has to become invisible and only show the personal touch, the special turn, the unique voice of the author.
The special turns in Al’s storytelling were his side-remarks, the way he would drop playfulness into the narrative. When he is a boy in his dad’s candy store in the Bronx, for example, he tells us: “The secret of a good egg cream soda was the order in which you put the ingredients into the glass.” And then adds: “I will continue to keep that secret.”
When he works as a waiter in the Catskills from age fifteen to pay for college, he describes a particularly exciting tradition at a place where
99 % of the guests are Jewish, namely lobster night. “Yes, you read that correctly, “ he throws into the text. Lobster night!
Or, having just landed a dream job in the Carter Administration, when it’s all still hush-hush, but his name is already in the Washington Post, Al remarks: “Welcome to Washington DC, Al Hirshen.”
As a lawyer with the San Francisco Housing Authority, he speaks at a raucous public meeting where the head of the Tenants Union, a tough welfare mother, rushes up to protect him from thugs by wielding an ice-pick. “She was the real thing,” Al comments.
Or when he discovers the extent of segregation still existing in the late 60s, in Las Vegas, he says, “Wow, I never had a clue that there were two Las Vegas cities, one for whites, the other for blacks.” As his editor, I would not have dreamed of taking out the “Wow!”
On the contrary: I loved Al’s deadpan Jewish humor and encouraged it wherever I could. We both enjoyed doing hard work together, sometimes going over a chapter again and again until it was just right. And sometimes I said, “Al, why not add another joke to this story? I mean, it’s the Catskills, I am sure you remember one.” And he did. “Question: Why do seagulls fly over the sea? Answer: If they flew over the bay they’d be bagels.”
Working With Gabriella
I had met German-born Gabriella Mautner at a literary salon in San Francisco, and made fast friends with her. Both of us were writers without a homeland, writing in English as our second or third language. I read her books and admired her craft. Gabriella is a survivor; her own flight from the Gestapo, crossing Europe in the attempt to reach Switzerland, is a harrowing story which she published in 1985 as a novel, Lovers and Fugitives. When she showed me her latest novel manuscript, she wanted my feedback, and we started working together. Our work was a writer’s dialogue about primarily concept and structure, and the question of how to turn an unusual Holocaust story into a novel for today’s readers.
Victor Nameless is set, not at Germany’s extermination camps, but in the Soviet Union. A young German-Jewish musician is deported to Poland after Kristallnacht and becomes a prisoner, sent from one Russian labor camp to another. After his release he gets lost deep in the belly of Russia—a refugee without papers or name. In a hypnotic tale of survival against all odds, Victor is kept alive by the pact he made with a young Jewish woman, Tatyana, with whom he had fallen in love just before his deportation—a promise to carry a torch for each other through the dark times of war and persecution.
A True Story
Gabriella’s novel is based on a true story, told to her by a friend shortly after the war. It contains the shocking fact that after an odyssey of seven years, in 1947, the young German musician finds his way back to Western Europe, and in Meran, Italy, happens to recognize his Tatyana at the window of a sanatorium.
Part of our work on Victor Nameless was to bring in the second voice, Tatyana’s, telling the story of her own unlikely survival partly in diary form—her joining the partisans, fleeing to Venice, trying to hide out in plain sight and getting betrayed. There was no “voice” problem for Gabriella: both Victor and Tatyana were solid from the start, as if the author had directly channeled her characters. But the two strands of the story had to be woven together, and the next challenge was how to present a relationship reborn from the ashes of devastation. How to keep up the suspense of whether these two troubled lovers will make it, after all?
There was of course also the usual editor’s work on the language as such. Every writer, myself included, has favorite words of the moment (or time period), and we are rarely aware of the repetition, unless an editor picks up on it, or we run the manuscript through a search engine for those words. It’s amazing how often words like strange, miraculous, eerie, wonderful beg to be changed or eliminated, together with other unnecessary or stereotypical or used-up adjectives, adverbs, verbs and nouns that have sneaked in, unnoticed.
The work with Gabriella got me deeply engaged over a number of years, especially as I began to realize the relevance of this novel for the present time. Victor Nameless is not only another important reminder of the Holocaust—Victor is also a stand-in for the millions of refugees today, wandering through alien countries without money, means of communication, or proof of their identity.
Do It Yourself Publishing
In the case of both these books, self-publishing was the obvious way to go because of the urgencies of the authors’ age, the often endless process of finding an agent and publisher, compared to the speedy process of Amazon-Kindle DIY publishing. Self-publishing comes with the advantages of keeping creative control over every detail —page proofs, deciding on the cover design, writing the back copy and author’s profile, designing the inside look, and all other details of bookmaking. As the editor, I had the privilege of being a helper and guide (and at times, devil’s advocate) in these choices. I enjoyed walking along throughout the entire production process until the books were out in the fall.
And then, finally, I had the pleasure of being the editor, coach, “book doctor,” mentor and friend, who had nothing more to do than look on with pride as both authors faced their first excited audiences. A short time later, I heard in a radio interview how Al said, “I would never have believed that a dyslexic person like me could fall in love… with editing.”