As an editor I'm looking for what I'm not looking for," Gary Fisketjon says as he leans back in his chair and raises his legs up onto the surface of his neat-as-a-pin desk. His hands fiddle with the sole of his shoe in place of a cigarette. Photographs of the Tennessee farmhouse where his wife lives and where he stays one week out of every four patrol the perimeter beneath the desk's glass top. "I'm coming back to Dixie and you," says the poster above his head.
"Any codification of taste is a horrible thing and begets other horrible things like the notion of an avant-garde," remarks the 47-year-old editor-at-large of Alfred A. Knopf. For years a certain kind of celebrity stuck fast to him for the company he kept with an avant-garde of sorts, his pals Jay McInerney, Brett Easton Ellis and the like. But it's what he wasn't looking for that interests PW today, specifically a manuscript, one among many brought to read on the return leg of a weekend car journey made with his son and a friend. The Canadian agent Denise Bukowski had submitted it just before Frankfurt last year. "It sounded interesting, but agents say a lot of things and that doesn't make them true. If a book is not wonderful for me, then I'm not wonderful for it." He entertained no great hopes.
After he read the first page, Fisketjon told his travelling companions that he'd be shocked if he didn't buy it.
The manuscript was by a 36-year-old Toronto writer named Dennis Bock, whose first book, Olympia, a collection of linked stories, had been published by Doubleday Canada in 1998 and subsequently by Bloomsbury in the U.K. and the U.S. Although some had won prizes when they first appeared in magazines, the book, like so many debuts, had sunk without trace. Now Fisketjon is determined to make sure the same does not happen to the novel. The Ash Garden is being launched in September with an announced printing of 60,000 copies. The reader's editions Knopf handed out at BEA bear a letter from the editor asserting that "for fear of any little sin of omission or inattention I decided not to publish anything else on this list." He can't remember the last time he flew solo like this, but then the novel's subject matter commands all the special attention it can get. As Fisketjon says, "This book deals with a very large conundrum that hasn't much been dealt with in fiction." That conundrum is Hiroshima and the concept of necessary evil.
The central characters are Emiko, who loses childhood, family and half her face to the bomb when she is six; Anton, a young German scientist who finds his way to Los Alamos with a crucial piece to the puzzle that is the making of the bomb; and Sophie, a teenager pushed on to a train by her Jewish family, whose journey takes her from Europe to Canada, where she becomes Anton's wife.
The novel does not read like a book written by a relatively young man. It takes the characters from the 1940s to the 1990s, from youth to old age. Their lives intersect in Hiroshima, where Anton is sent after the war to measure the bomb's effects; in New York, where he and Sophie spend many years and where Emiko comes to have her face rebuilt in the early days of plastic surgery; and finally in Canada, where Anton and Sophie seek a kind of reconciliation in later life. The story weaves in and out of past and present, first person and third person, as themes about knowing and remembering, home and homelessness, and the fine line between dream and nightmare reverberate through place and time.
Fisketjon insists that "fiction is not meant to discuss or recapitulate the events of the war. That's history's job. The writer has to know the difference between a story and a back story, as [the screenwriter] Bob Towne used to say. Fiction is meant to create people who are shaped by those events. Like so many, I thought I had figured things out about Hiroshima, but the book made me wonder, How do you reach a decision about a thing like that? How do you balance what's justifiable? There are things that can be debated but cannot be decided. There is a weird unease underlying this notion that lends itself to fiction."
Fisketjon is one of three editors who had a hand in cultivating The Ash Garden. Liz Calder, at Bloomsbury, bought it sight unseen in a two-book contract and is publishing it as a lead title this fall. She sent Bock a couple of pages of editorial comment, but her greatest contribution was her faith.
It was Phyllis Bruce, at HarperCollins Canada, who helped shape and "who lived through many drafts," Fisketjon acknowledges. By the time he saw the manuscript, everything of a general nature "felt right." What remained was some of "the stuff I usually do, to be a glorified schoolmarm, to make sure the dialogue coheres, the sentences make sense... thousands of tiny things.
"But the idea that there is conceptual editing versus line editing is bullshit," he continues. "You don't do one or the other. I don't see how you can make an informed general observation without knowing every particular. My job is to seek out places where there is a downfall in the writing, the characterization, the punctuation that breaks the spell.
"I tell these writers that I don't want to feel embarrassed 20 years from now about something that shouldn't be there. If I can give an extra close scrutiny, that's the very least they deserve. When I worked at Atlantic Monthly I had to dole out manuscripts, but that's not my way. You know how a book works only when you get inside it."
After we meet, PW asks to see the first half-dozen manuscript pages marked up by Fisketjon. Riffling through the old-fashioned spidery cursive, there are comments, deletions, substitutions, textual moves, minor grammatical corrections up and down each page. Each is small. Together, they add up.
"Everybody seems to like it, but it must be maddening," he confesses. "I don't care what they do, except I want them to look and make sure these things I'm seeing are wrong. There's a very clear line. It's always the writer's book. They make the decision. You, the editor, are just a trespasser."
Years ago Fisketjon was quoted as saying that editing is about trust. "Yes, the writers have to trust that I don't have a frustrated writing gene that I'm working out at their expense. And I have to trust them to want to finish their job."
Publishing a book well is how any editor best finishes his job, Fisketjon says. "You do everything as best you can to make as certain as you can that you give the book the best chance not to disappear. Too many of the damned things are being published. I'm wary of the fall, when we put out godless amounts of crap. It's so easy to get lost. You need to catch some luck."
Fisketjon learned about luck—and its corollary, timing—when as a young editor under the Random House roof he founded Vintage Contemporaries. "In those days, nobody gave a damn about writers like Ray Carver or Don DeLillo. Vintage didn't want me to fool around doing a contemporary series, but I wanted to pick them up. Things change when the obvious moment arrives. You have to figure out what's obvious. There are no great blinding discoveries."
One of the best known instances of seeing the moment was the publication of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses. "I was one of the people standing around when gold was discovered. It was my great good fortune," Fisketjon shrugs.
He was working at Atlantic Monthly, but from his days at Random he "lived in awe of Cormac's editor, Albert Erskine. But Cormac wasn't being given his due. It was one of those cases of received wisdom that the writer might be great but the books never sell.
"I told Binky [Urban, of ICM] about him, but also told her I wouldn't get between Cormac and Albert. But if Random couldn't do it...." Shortly afterward, Fisketjon left Atlantic for Knopf and the support of Sonny Mehta. "The other side said, maybe you guys can do it better." So Fisketjon took on the project and Mehta pulled out all the marketing stops. Fisketjon insists, "We could have worked magic with Cormac before Horses. Here was Mt. Rushmore. How come everybody thought it was a billboard?"
Knopf's editor-at-large says he learned many publishing lessons from Howard Cady in his very first job at Morrow; from Anne Freedgood and Joe Fox, "models of what an editor should be;" from Bob Loomis ("ditto"); from Barbara Wilson ("a model of a copy editor"); and from his boss. He has also learned from Frankfurt: "for all the pissing and moaning, it's Christmastime in the publishing calendar. You get to see people doing a lot better job of what you yourself want to do. . . . And for all the hue and cry about the business, I think it's gotten better than in the late '70s when I began. The structural problems haven't entirely been solved but Auld Lang Syne was no good in my view." He admits, though, that "it's been very hard to break things out during the last five years. If you're dealing with a product nobody wants, you have to have people who are very good at selling it." That's why two pictures of Richard Howorth's Oxford, Miss., store Square Books adorn Fisketjon's wall.
As the conversation winds down, PW asks if he has any advice he'd like to impart to younger editors. Fisketjon is quiet for a moment, then replies, "Work harder. It's self-invention. My father used to say that there are three ways of doing things, the right way, the wrong way and his way. A little consensus sometimes goes too long a way. You have to have people who've figured that out. You have to make that third way."