A BOOKISH LIFE
In the third grade, I read Jack London’s Call of the Wild, and I’ve been reading a book ever since.
My first legit employment at age fifteen was as a page at the Racine Public Library, looking out over frigid Lake Michigan. I shelved books and learned the Dewey Decimal System.
Even before being hired, I knew that library branch well. My mother, sisters and I were regular visitors. Now, in my new job, I had even greater access to rows and rows of wonderful, as yet unread books. I worked with a great group of library pages, and also got to know the smart, prickly crew of librarians, among whom Norma Deck was the most intimidating and fearsome. A reference librarian who enjoyed snapping orders, I couldn’t resist giving it back to her. We became friends for many years.
As senior year ended at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a totally mad Finnish friend browbeat me into agreeing to emigrate to New York City after graduation. I had been working on the staff of Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl, and thinking I might be interested in state politics but my friend berated me, “What are you, an idiot? We have no choice. We must move to New York.”
I told everyone I was moving. I wasn’t a total Midwestern rube. At seventeen years old, high up in the green hills of Germany’s Black Forest, I had worked in a children's home run by authoritarian vegetarian hippies before hitchhiking to the south of France. A few years later, I got malaria and was interrogated in a mud hut by men with machine guns when visiting my sister’s Peace Corps post deep in the Camerounian jungle. But I’d never before been to New York City.
It turned out my Finnish friend wasn’t coming—he hadn’t graduated or something—but I went anyway. Traveling with just a trunk, I arrived at artist Danny Bodner’s Broome Street loft, just off the Bowery. There was a wildly uproarious party going on. A drunken literary agent fell down a ladder. This was a fantastic introduction to New York City.
I secured employment as a customer service representative for an educational textbook company. Perhaps I could have been better at this job. When a phone caller had a complaint or request, I immediately gave them whatever they wanted. It made conversations pleasanter. This job wasn’t for me: sometimes I'd fall asleep sitting up at my desk and no one would notice.
Not long after, my friend Stacey talked me into moving with her to Spain, where the demand for English teachers was great. At this time, I was ill-suited to teaching but quite adept at reading…in particular, long classic novels.
I worked less than I might have and saved my earnings to purchase expensive paperbacks at Madrid's English language bookstore. I bought the fattest English books possible, providing a better word per peseta ratio. Lounging in sunny Madrid’s gorgeous Retiro Park, I read Don Quixote in four days, Anna Karenina in five.
I returned to New York, briefly working as a "Gay [furniture] Mover." Soon after came my entry into New York commercial book publishing. I may have been the last person to get a job from a listing in the New York Times. It was for an editorial assistant position at Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster, working for two editors, Linda Marrow, specializing in romances, Jane Chelius in mysteries. My obsessive reading at last came in handy.
I liked commercial fiction. And that I had in my youth consumed with relish everything from "Rockford Files" novelizations to Raymond Chandler put me in good standing. I was in! I worked there eight years, editing mysteries and books of every sort: true crime, horror, romance, business books. I managed the Zane Grey backlist. Writers I worked with there include Edgar-nominated L.L. Enger.
After that, I abridged books for audio. I freelance edited for publishers, fortunate to edit a slew of swashbuckling pirate books. I did projects of various sorts for literary agencies—in particular, for the incredible Robin Rue at the Anita Diamant Agency. I learned about finances there.
I wrote a few articles. In the midst of the Internet bubble, I worked at iUniverse.com, an early e-publishing site utilizing print on demand technology. Among the many reasons this job was interesting was that my boss Kenzi Sugihara and I did a dog and pony show at all the major literary agencies, and I got to meet many impressive heavyhitters.
I spent more than two decades working at the major commercial book publishers, editing truly fantastic authors, among them:
Regan Books/HarperCollins: Douglas Coupland, Gregory Maguire, Barry Sears (The Zone), Marilu Henner, Nancy C. Turner, Robert McKee
Penguin Random House: Gerry Adams, Caleb Carr, Jonathan Kellerman, Nancy Pickard, Judith Dupre, Gail Godwin, Anne Perry, Nancy Horan, Wilfrid Sheed, Rita Mae Brown, Sir Hugh Thomas, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
At my Alibi eBook line at PRH, I was proud to publish two Thrillerfest nominees for Best eBook novel: Robert McClure’s Deadly Lullaby, and Richard Thomas’ Disintegration.
Some years ago, after just six months on the job as a newbie editorial assistant at Pocket Books, my first acquisition was found in the slush pile: a humor book for dogs. I’ve been fortunate in the years since to edit every sort of book—from historical dramas to blood-soaked thrillers to erudite non-fiction on Egyptian antiquities.
An author I recently had lunch with dismissed something I said about reading, by saying, “But you’re a book addict.” I suppose I am, and I love to make what’s good even better.