Al Silverman retired in 1998 from 30 years in publishing, first as CEO of Book-of-the-Month Club and then editor and publisher of Viking, and now divides his time between an apartment in Manhattan and a house in Westchester, N.Y. He spoke with PW by phone about his new book, It's Not Over 'Til It's Over.
PW: You just retired a few years ago, so what prompted you to write a book?
AS: Soon after I turned in my badge at Viking, I met up with Peter Mayer and he said I should write a book for him about the great sports events of the 20th century. I was editor of Sport magazine through the 1960s to the early '70s. I haven't written a real book for 30 years, but before that I wrote something like 10 as a kid. In a way, Peter was giving me a gift: a second childhood.
PW: How is it you ended up going from Sport magazine to book publishing?
AS: Ed Fitzgerald had been my mentor at Sport, and when he left and went to the Literary Guild in 1960, I took over as editor of the magazine. Axel Rosin, who was editor of BOMC, was friendly with Ed and saw he had made that transition splendidly, so when the time came around to look for someone at BOMC in the fall of 1972, they called me.
PW: So, there was a network in place?
AS: Yes. Actually, there was also another fellow who came out of Sport, as well. His name was Irv Goodman, and he later became a major figure at the Literary Guild and was President of Viking in the '70s and '80s, before I was there.
PW: How was your career at Viking different from BOMC?
AS: I started out at Viking as a general editor and later became publisher and editor-in-chief. The thrill was working for the first time in my life with writers, which you don't do at Book-of-the-Month Club. At Viking, I was given great writers to work with, including William Kennedy, Robertson Davies and Saul Bellow.
PW: Did any of the writers you worked with influence your writing in this book?
AS: Don DeLillo—and his great book Underworld, which he opened with an amazing scene at the Polo Grounds. It is something I also depict in my book. He had an amazing thing going with that and I thought I had to be careful not to lay hands on his work. DeLillo was Nan Graham's writer, but I met him on a few occasions and he gave me a business card that I used to keep in my wallet. Besides his name, the only thing DeLillo's card says is "I don't want to talk about it." He was an inspiration.
PW: Previously you had written I Am Third with football great Gale Sayers, which later became the hit movie Brian's Song, yet you stopped writing books?
AS: For the next several years I was reading all the time and I didn't want to confuse the two disciplines of reading and writing. I didn't think I could be a good editor or a good sniffer out of books and do that and try to write at the same time. I wanted to be totally involved in reading the book. It was my sense of obligation to my new profession.
PW: How did you take to being edited after all that time?
AS: Having worked with many good writers, I appreciated anything editors could do to help my manuscript. Peter was a good editor. Once I finished everything, I also went to a friend of mine, William Zinsser, who wrote On Writing Well, and he was between books and agreed to line edit and cut. He was great. I owe him a huge favor. At first Peter just wanted baseball stories, but it was coming up to 1998 and everyone was thinking about the millennium and I convinced him to pick the 13 sports stories that were most apt and thrilling. When I started this book, I was doing a lot of research on each chapter and talking to as many participants as I could. I overrespected my research in the sense that I wanted to get everything in, and it took me four years to complete.