PW: What made you want to tackle the subject of In Praise of Nepotism?
Adam Bellow: I had simply noticed that there's a great deal of hypocrisy surrounding the issue of nepotism. People condemn it publicly, but privately they seem to practice it as much as they can get away with. In my career as an editor, I've always been attracted to subjects that are fault-line subjects, topics that don't get looked at normally because they appear to be closed or settled. Usually underlying those supposedly settled questions is a moral divide, an issue that people don't want to look at because it raises very challenging and difficult moral questions, and when you poke your finger into them, people tend to scream.
PW: You mention in the book that creative clans rarely emerge from writers. How do you see yourself in that picture?
AB: Literature has always been a solitary calling. Most writers consider their books their "real" children. They don't typically encourage their offspring to follow in the literary tradition. In the last 20 or 30 years, with the emergence of a mass market for fiction and nonfiction, and the emergence also of a celebrity-driven economy, it's become possible to franchise your family name. This partly explains the increase in family succession. I started out in my 20s wanting to be a writer of fiction. I found that I was not able to meet my own standards. Some people might assume that the son of a famous writer [Saul] has a big ego, but in fact what I have is a big superego. So I hit a wall in that regard early in my career. Fortunately I was able to find a way to be a writer that did not put me in competition with my father. I consider myself to be on a sort of parallel track.
PW: What makes nepotism different in the U.S. than elsewhere?
AB: Nepotism is a basic instinct, like sex and aggression. Other societies have long since come to terms with this. America is unique in its rejection of this basic drive for ideological reasons. This means that we have to engage in a great deal of hypocrisy in order to conceal from ourselves the extent to which nepotism actually goes on in our society.
PW: What was it like to go from book editing to writing a book?
AB: It gave me a much better appreciation for how hard it is to write a book. I'm much more sympathetic to my own authors than I was a few years ago.
PW: Did anything about the process surprise you?
AB: I said to a friend of mine, "I always knew I had a chip on my shoulder, but I didn't know how big and heavy it was until I saw how big and heavy a book I'd written." I knew that I would face a good deal of skepticism as the son of a writer who dared to write a book myself, and I found that, like many second-generation successors, we feel we have not just to meet expectations but to exceed them.
PW: How long did it take?
AB: Four years. It was like giving myself a Ph.D. in nepotism which I couldn't have obtained from any university.
PW: There's a lot of information here—biology, all kinds of history, etc. Anything good left out?
AB: It was awfully painful. I cut out hundreds of pages. The manuscript was well over 800 pages and the cutting was very, very painful. It gave me a new sense for what the writers go through. As an editor I'm used to getting a manuscript and saying, "Look, this is too long—just cut it in half and send it to me next month," and I really never gave it a second thought.
PW: Did your editor have to go after to you to do that?
AB: Oh, he had to help me because I couldn't see it anymore. I was so connected to the material and so interested in everything that with all my training and experience as an editor, it was hard for me to see what was not necessary.