She Reads THE
CORNELIA BESSIE: I also had a
wonderful publishing experience.
First I should say that Michael and I always had a game
that we played when we were bored. This game was as follows: If you had read WAR AND PEACE in manuscript, would you have known it was a great book? Or
would you have said, Well do this, Mr. Tolstoy, but would you please remove a
hundred pages of manuscript?
So: on my second or third day Im sitting in this
office, looking out at the green fields of Readers Digest in Pleasantville, and
there is on my desk sat an almost impossible-to-decipher typescript. I started reading,
and on page five I thought, I dont believe this. I have spent years in a
first-rate publishing house and have almost never met literature. And then, at The
Readers Digest, on my second day, there it was: literature.
It was Lampedusas THE LEOPARD.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: My God. And it
MICHAEL BESSIE: Well, not yet.
CORNELIA BESSIE: I knew nobody.
There was this odd thing: I had been hired, and was hired by seeing everyone, including
both Wallaces [Dewitt and Lila Atcheson Wallace, owners]
separately. I mean, here I was, not a very high-up person. I went down to see my boss, who
was a lovely man, and said, This thing has happened. Heres
literature. And he smiled and said, Dont give it to anyone else.
Give it to me. He took it home, came back in the morning, and said, Come into
my office. Im going to give you a lesson in publishing. He called the
Book-of-the-Month Club and said, Have you seen this book? Yes.
Have you declined it? Yes. He said: Recall it. He
could say that to the Book-of-the-Month Club; and he did. They recalled it; they did it; we
did it, and the book took off.
Now, The Readers Digest Book Club polls its
readership on what they like and they dont like. Just before I left, a year later,
my boss and I had a giggling fit: because THE LEOPARD polled third
from the bottom of Readers Digest books! But he and I were very proud of
ourselves for having done it. (Laughs)
MICHAEL BESSIE: Let me intrude here
just to say that Cornelias had the experience, and Ive observed it also: if
the Readers Digest did nothing else, it developed skills, as Cornelia has
said. I have yet to see any book that Ive had anything to do with that wasnt,
if not improved by the condensation, at least not destroyed.
CORNELIA BESSIE: They have a really
extraordinary technique. You dont get the book: any more than the movie The
English Patient is THE ENGLISH PATIENT; but you get a smell....
She Reads TO KILL A
CORNELIA BESSIE: There was another
moment. I went to my then-boss and said, Ive just read a very pretty book.
Its quiet, its charming; it probably wont do anything in the trade
because its quiet, but I like it a lot: will you read it? He read it, and
said, Yes, lets do it. It was a book called TO KILL A
MOCKINGBIRD [by Harper Lee], which sold hundreds of thousands
I read the book in manuscript -- you got them in proof or
in manuscript, so you had to make up your mind before you knew anything...
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Theres a
very nice expression on your face as you tell that story.
CORNELIA BESSIE: Well, it was fun.
(Laughs) Its a very quiet book, it wont go anywhere, but its
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: After THE LEOPARD, its a one-two punch, isnt it.
CORNELIA BESSIE: It does show you
that there is something, whatever that instinct is, that is the editorial
instinct. You know. Its like falling in love. You know when youre barely
into the book that something special is going on.