Over the course of his career, Helferich worked at John Wiley and Sons, Prentice Hall, Facts on File, Hearst Books and Doubleday. He left Wiley in 2002 and now lives in Mexico, where he just finished writing his first book, Humboldt's Cosmos.
PW: You've worked in publishing for 25 years, most recently as v-p, publisher of general interest books, at Wiley. Did you want to write a book all along?
Gerard Helferich: I did, very much so. And my wife, Teresa Nicholas, who was a v-p of production at Crown for a number of years, always had the same goal. As we got closer to 50, we started to realize that if we were ever going to try to achieve this, why were we waiting any longer? Two years ago, one of our very close friends died prematurely, and that got us thinking generally about the passing of time and the uncertainty of the future. We had long, fulfilling careers in publishing. We thought if we were ever going to be serious about this, it was time to do it.
PW: What kinds of books did you edit and publish?
GH: All nonfiction, and it varied from reference books at Facts on File to more general books. At Wiley, we did narrative nonfiction, popular history, popular science, that kind of thing.
PW: How many books do you think you've edited?
GH: I edited books for 17 years. I did about 20 books a year, so that's about 340 books.
PW: Why isn't Humboldt better known? The most recent biography of him was written 30 years ago, and you write that he was an international celebrity of his day.
GH: Part of it is that he never had one really big paradigm-changing discovery. He had such a wide-ranging curiosity. He laid the groundwork in all these different fields: geology, oceanography, climatology, geomagnetism. He has the anonymity of a great teacher. His contribution really was more in setting the stage for other people. I'm hoping the book will remind people of who Humboldt was and all the great contributions he made, not only in the sciences but also in other areas. He was a great liberal and was ahead of his time in thinking about slavery and ethnic discrimination, and he was a political democrat.
PW: How did it feel to be edited after having edited all those books?
GH: It was a good experience. I didn't know what it would be like to be on the other side of the desk. But Brendan [Cahill, at Gotham] is a good editor. He did what I always hoped to do as an editor, and that is to help me make the book as good as it could be, but still leaving me with the impression that it was my book and that his role was to facilitate the book, not impose his own stamp on it.
PW: Do you miss being in the thick of the publishing world, or do you like being removed down in Mexico?
GH: I miss friends and colleagues. But I don't miss New York, to tell you the truth. I was ready for a quieter life. Our house here is on the grounds of an old hacienda. We hear church bells and donkeys.
PW: You have climbed the publishing ladder, from editorial assistant all the way up to publisher. What was your favorite position?
GH: My years at Facts on File were very happy years. It was a great group of people, and I had tremendous respect for the people I was working for. I was there at a point when the company was growing rapidly and it was successful. Wiley was also a very good place. The company has a lot of good people. We were starting to sign up bigger authors when I was there and do more general kinds of books, and that was an exciting period. Of course, being Lindy Hess's editorial assistant [at Doubleday in the early 1980s] was a lot of fun, too.