Distinguished members of New York's trade publishing community packed the auditorium at the TimesCenter in Manhattan on Thursday, December 5, to hear a who's who of authors remember Random House publisher Susan Kamil, who died on September 8 at 69, suddenly and of complications from lung cancer.
Kamil, whose more than 30 years with Random House ended with her at the top of its eponymous imprint—where she was named editor-in-chief in 2008, and executive v-p and publisher in 2010—and all related imprints, was best known as an incisive, influential editor, and Thursday's roster proved that point. Authors Ruth Reichl, Salman Rushdie, Allegra Goodman, Hannah Tinti, Gary Shteyngart, Sophie Kinsella, Hisham Matar, and Elizabeth Strout all came out, some from across the country or Atlantic, to remember their editor; George Saunders, who could not attend the service, had Kamil's successor, Andy Ward, read a prepared statement.
Random House president and publisher Gina Centrello began the service by introducing a major theme in Kamil's life: music. "Susan and I always joked that our respective roles of editor and publisher were to be the back-up singers for our authors," Centrello said. "She was more than a colleague to me, she was a true friend, a sounding board, a trusted confidant. She was the cool girl, with the beautiful voice, and I was thrilled just to stand beside her playing the tambourine. Susan’s magic was that she made all of us better just by being there with us and for us."
Centrello added: "If I am at all successful today it is due in large part to Susan’s guiding hand. About 15 years ago, I was appointed publisher of Random House. Prior to this, all of my experience as a publisher had been in commercial publishing. Literary publishing was a different world—a very different world. And I was floundering. But then the literary gods sent me Susan Kamil, an editor with exquisite taste, flair, and gravitas. The literary community believed in Susan, and Susan believed in me. And then I started believing in myself."
Besides music, Kamil's wit, cool, editorial savvy, and, above all, selflessness and generosity toward all those she worked with were the running themes of the evening. Reichl kicked off the authorial remembrances with a joke, introducing herself as Shteyngart, that became a running gag made by subsequent authors throughout the program in an effort to keep things light; Rushdie and Goodman both joked about the "loopy," "chicken-scratch" handwriting with which Kamil delivered her editorial insights. But most of the speakers choked up at least once in delivering their memorials; when Tinti, following her remarks, asked the audience to snap along with her as she sang a solo rendition of the jazz-blues love song "My Love Is," the tears in the auditorium were audible.
"It's not true that everybody needs an editor. What everybody needs is a Susan Kamil. And each time we're tempted to say there will never be another Susan, we should bite our tongues," Reichl said in her remarks. "Even more than an editor, Susan was an impassioned mentor, and over the course of her career, she trained a legion of young Susan Kamils. I think that is what she would consider her legacy. As far as I'm concerned, there couldn't be a better one."
Shteyngart, speaking of how he coped with Kamil's loss as a non-religious man, said he turned, of course, to literature, and specifically to his favorite novel, Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin: "Pnin slowly walked under solemn pines," Shteyngart quoted. "The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended the destinies of the quick." He mused on this: "That's a vision I would like to believe in for Susan—for all of us." He added: "We were so lucky to have her—as an editor, as a colleague, as a friend. And now, Nabokov's democracy of ghosts is fortunate to have her."