The Natural Bridge Three-Part Interview #6– Editor Thomas Beller

Meghan Daum

Thomas Beller

Adrian Brune

What are the particular pleasures involved in editing Meghan’s work?At no time do you have to separate yourself from your highest standards. I think the impulse toward self-improvement has become debased and literalized by self-help — but there is the feeling, when reading, that you want your game elevated by the mind you are engaging. And Meghan brings that in her work, fiction and essays both.

How would you describe your style of editing (e.g.,“pencil intensive,” “laid-back,” “strategic”)?

In Meghan’s case, it was mostly just pursuing her and convincing her that it would be worth doing her first book with what was then a small, unproven press. I read her first novel in MS form, and in that case, my feedback had to do with how she could strengthen the book, which characters needed further attention, what motives needed to be explicated or thought through.

What qualities in essays do you value above all others?

This question in general strikes me as curious: do you segregate your expectations of an essay, fiction, “creative non-fiction,” etcetera? I don’t. I mostly want to be engaged, intrigued, educated, provoked, soothed, even lulled, snuggled, slapped, the whole range, in sum or in part. Find something worth having a relationship with. It doesn’t have to be entirely happy. It just has to be engaging.

What is the best manuscript you’ve ever passed on?

I haven’t reviewed many unsolicited manuscripts. Editorial regrets: I was sent a galley of Jumpa Lahari’s first collection for a blurb. Never got around to reading it until years later. Also, I fought against publishing Sam Lypsite’s first story, if you could call it that, which was called “Shed.” Robert Bingham was pro, I was con. As the spirit of Open City was that if any of the three of us loved something we put it in, it went in. It’s traumatizing. In Open City #3, from 1993. I understand my position in that case, but in the long view Bingham was obviously right. He later got Sam to let Open City publish his first collection, Venus Drive, the book that came before Meghan’s.

Can you describe a turning point in your career as an editor that came with the success of a book? Or a turning point in your understanding of the art and craft of editing?

The least interesting of all the answers that float into my thoughts: When Edward St. Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, was nominated for a Booker Prize, I was elated. But later, the experience gave me pause. I’m sure it has to do with the general coldness of him, his Englishness, the stark cruelty in his books, which I was responsible for bringing to America. We took Mother’s Milk before his English publisher; they printed their book from our files. But somehow after the Booker happened, as gratifying as it was as an editor, I thought to myself I should really be spending more energy on my writing and less on doing Open City. Or to put it another way, the fact that Open City was taking more and more of my energy dawned on me around then. And the limits of being a professional editor, while not being paid as one, also started to assert itself. But that is also when I became a parent. You can only support so many children.

But that is a bit dour, as an answer. I think the larger truth might have to do with my own vision of myself as an amateur. Almost more of an enthusiast than an editor. Certainly much more as writer than an editor. I went into editing Open City because I wanted to express my enthusiasms, give voice to them, in the form of publishing new work I liked. The alternative would have been to write reviews, to become a literary citizen in that way. But my criticism, if you can call it that, never brought out the best in me as a writer. Almost the opposite. I thrive on not being an expert, so I thought best to avoid trying to express myself as one. Open City was, for me, a very social enterprise — I was attracted to the work of my friends and was friends with the authors of work I was attracted to. Or that is how I wished it to be. Aand in many ways, that wish was fulfilled. It got complicated with Daniel Pinchbeck, with whom I started the whole thing, and Robert Bingham, who joined us early on and facilitated a lot of the growth with both money and his talent for the enterprise of editing and publishing. I often make the parallel to a band — why do bands break up? Similar tensions with us. But the friendship element was paramount. In that sense, Meghan’s gift — to me, and to her readers — is to embody in her books the smart, prickly, at times pain in the ass but always interesting friend with whom, and through whose eyes, the world becomes interesting. What more can you ask?