George Garrett, man of letters and friend, had suggested I ought to
have a conversation with Sam Vaughan. Vaughan had published several of
his books, I learned (though not first from Garrett), and had written
the following: But the finest historical novel I ever read arrived in
two great boxes of manuscript written by George Garrett, poet,
short-story writer, novelist, and teacher. George had written novels
before, but nothing quite prepared me for the masterpiece that was DEATH
OF THE FOX.
The courage it required, indeed audacity, for this young American
Southerner to take on Raleigh, Elizabeths captain
. For me it was
an exposure to two kinds of minds: the Elizabethan, so full of cunning
and guile but so often in search of options and answers, none of them
easy, in fact for wisdom; and the mind of a man, the author, who, in the
Southern tradition, loves the past and seeks to recompose it, through
fact and invention, in myth and song and smell, capable of re-creating
the very humanity of those who walked the earth before us.
I asked George Garrett how he came to publish DEATH OF
THE FOX with Sam Vaughan.
GEORGE GARRETT: Well, do you want the long
story, or the short?
KATHERINE McNAMARA: I want the long story.
GEORGE GARRETT: I had written a novel called DO,
LORD, REMEMBER ME. Gillen Aitken was then my agent in England. He
had placed it with somebody, Ive forgotten who. Meanwhile, it was
placed in the United States with Charles Duell, of Duell, Sloan and
Pearce, a very nice little publishing house. Candida Donadio was my
agent at the time, but that book I sold myself. Mr. Duell was a very
handsome, very elegant old-fashioned deal-maker. We met at the Yale Club
bar to discuss the book.
Now, this book is red-neck-rowdy. I had no idea why
this man with his elegant accent, his hat and umbrella; very nice, but
the classic Yalie: I had no idea why he would be the least bit
interested, other than the fact that he was going out with my cousin.
But in a way, Duell, Sloan was an obvious place to send it, because Mr.
Duell had published most of Erskine Caldwell, so red-neck-rowdy was what
he liked. He was the last one there. Sloan and Pearce had vanished. It
was a one-man operation, with a nice list, a small Knopf, so to speak.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: This was the early 60s?
GEORGE GARRETT: Must have been. I had written
it in 1960, and had turned it in 1961,
and Aitken had placed it pretty quickly. No, he didnt, actually.
The problem was, it was a very long book. I looked at it and suddenly
realized that it could be cut exactly in half. Everyone was happy
then. All I did was cut the comedy out of the story. It became very
tragic. I managed to use some of the comedy in KING OF
BABYLON, many years later.
Okay. Weve done it: it exists in a version half as
long. Mr. Duell accepted it. It was rowdier than it is now; he had seen
the English edition.
Everything was going along fine. Then, the following
thing happens: Mr. Duell suddenly calls me here at the University of
Virginia, where I was teaching, and says, Guess what? A very large
publisher, which has no trade list at all, but publishes magazines,
wants to buy Duell, Sloan, and Pearce. It was Better Homes and
Gardens. Their whole operation became known as Meredith Press. They
had offered him, as he told me on the phone, a lifetime job there, and
the ability to continue to publish his own list, under them, of anything
that he wanted: with one exception: theyre not going to
publish this god-damn rowdy red-necked novel. He said, Now, heres
the deal. I will not accept their offer. I want to publish this. If you
want to do it. Its up to you. Heres the rest of the deal: If you
accept this idea, I will return the book to you. I will promise
to publish, sight unseen, the next book you write: anything that
you want to do. You just tell me a subject on the phone, right now, and
the contract will be in the mail before the day is over.
I thought for a minute and I said, How about
something about Sir Walter Raleigh. He said, Okay. And I got, a
couple of days later, a contract that said something about Sir Walter
Raleigh, for a larger advance than I had ever had before. He also said
that I was free to shop DO, LORD around if I
could do anything with it, which we doubted. On the other hand, all he
had was the new topic, and they couldnt turn that down; they had made
that arrangement with him. I got the advance and commitment to publish
this new novel. I thought, Thats fine. What could happen to Duell?
Well, Candida said, Ill send the book around.
The first place she sent it was to Sam Vaughan, at Doubleday. The story
he told me at the time hes more dignified about it than I am; hes
a very dignified guy was that the book was accepted and went
immediately into production. I didnt have much comment from him, just
from the copy editor. He did comment about one thing. He had seen a Rabelaisian
scene that is entirely based on flatulence, and it had to be cut
because, he said, Mr. Nelson Doubleday suffers from flatulence, and
we dont allow any books published here that have farts in them. Its
just a house policy. So youve got to take the fart out.
Well, this was my first experience of editing by him.
I said, How about a very loud sneeze? Okay, then a loud sneeze
it will be. If only I hadnt sneezed begins
the chapter in the Doubleday version.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Excellent. We can make an
historical note about the Bowdlerization.
GEORGE GARRETT: Well, this has an end. LSU
[Louisiana State University Press] brought out DO, LORD,
REMEMBER ME, in their series Voices of the South. I said, Would
you guys mind doing the English edition instead of the American? and
they said, Sure, not thinking there was any difference. So, the
only one that exists now is the flatulent version.
I didnt have much to do with Sam. In the interim I
talked to some people in publishing, who said, Well, hes a really
remarkable person, in several ways. One of them is that he is probably
the only person, young or old, in publishing at the minute, who
says what he means and means what he says. You can take whatever he says
as gospel. Theres no excuse for paranoia dealing with Vaughan.
Well, I did meet him, after the book was published. He
had sent a letter of congratulations and said hed noticed a few
little things he wished we had had more time to work on, but next
time well do something better. We met in New York. I said, Because
of the fact that it went directly to the copy-editor and you really didnt
have much time to work on it, Im going to ask you a couple of
questions. One of them is, Why did you do this book? Other than the fact
that you like red-neck stories, why in the world did you do this book?
He said, You really want to know? Ill tell you.
He said: I had two young interns very attractive young women;
I had seen them walking up and down the hall. The interns had a room in
the Doubleday building, which he showed me, where they all go and have
coffee in the morning. His interns were annoyed, he said, because all
the others, working for other editors, had stories about the wonderful
manuscripts coming over from Candida Donadio, and they never got
any. They asked him why, and he said he didnt know why he never got
any manuscripts from Candida Donadio, but that, if he ever did get one,
he promised that he would publish it like that, sight unseen.
And, sure enough, in came a manuscript from Candida, and it went to him.
There was another factor as well, he said. We made
much more money on the Eisenhower papers which was the big thing
that he had edited in this quarter than we had anticipated, and
so we were caught in a complicated tax bind, because we didnt pay
enough. We had made a guess, and it was way off. We were so successful
that we desperately needed some paper losses, right now. This came like
a wonderful blessing to our publishing house.
I said, As I understand it, you people classify
writers as either prestige or profitable. What sort of niche
do you have in mind for me, Mr. Vaughan?
And he said, Neither one, neither one. He said, At
the moment, I think of you as a tax loss writer. Dont put on a
long face. Somewhere, at any given moment, theres always a publisher
desperately needing a paper tax-loss. You could go right through life
being valuable. He may have said other things, but that one sort of
KATHERINE McNAMARA: This may be the truest
insight into publishing economics Ive heard from anybody.
GEORGE GARRETT: Well, I accepted it as absolute
truth. He may not remember it exactly that way. Then, there was the
question, What next? And whatever it was I had in mind interested no one
at Doubleday, so we amiably parted company.
Meanwhile, I had finished a version, a draft, of the
Raleigh book [which became DEATH OF THE FOX,
first volume of the trilogy] and turned it in to Mr. Duell.
But, by the time I turned it in, Mr. Duell was dead.
His assistant, a young man named Ralph Woodward, had been absorbed into
Meredith Press. And I had lost Candida ... we had just sort of drifted
apart. I was agent-less, and had not kept up with the fact that Duell
was dead. Meredith had quit doing fiction, so this would be their only
work of fiction in years. This was later in the 60s.
They said, Were going to publish it, but if you want to send
review copies out youre going to have to come to New York, wrap them
yourself, mail em out. All were going to do is print and bind.
Therell be this big stack of books. Its up to you, after that.
They also wanted their money back.
The manuscript kicked around for a while. A man named
Perry Knowlton, my editor at Scribners when I had done a collection
of stories there, years before, had become an agent, and ran Curtis
Brown. I thought, Well, Id better have one. So I went to see him.
Perry Knowlton sent it around to various people. There were many
rejections. It was a rough and raw draft, and some people just cant
see how youre going to take that and turn it into something.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Theres nothing like an
editor with no imagination.
GEORGE GARRETT: They say, This is not ready
to go to the printer. Thats right: but its going to be.
Im working on it right now. I just wanted you to see the lines.
Ten or twelve publishers turned it down. I really
thought nothing was going to happen. Then Knowlton called me and said he
had had a call from Gottlieb [Robert Gottlieb, editor, later
editor-in-chief, at Knopf, then of The New Yorker]. Gottlieb had
heard about it. Gottlieb said, Im sort of an expert on Raleigh and
the Renaissance, and if this book has any merit at all, I would really
like to do it. So send it to me, and I can give you a prompt response.
Well, no prompt response. Nothing. I was to find out
much later that, almost the same time he received the manuscript, he
went on jury duty, and it was a long case. Eight, ten, twelve weeks went
by. Meanwhile, summer had come, and we were at a remote ranch, the
children, Susan, and I. Susans parents had set us up at a very
expensive, wonderful ranch deep in the heart of Teton National Park. The
only other ones in the park were the Rockefellers. The nearest real
phone was in Moose, Wyoming. I got a message that Mr. Knowlton in New
York was calling me, and I should call back immediately. The only way to
do that was to drive down to Moose.
I drove down from the mountains thinking this through.
He wouldnt bother me, knowing I was out here in the deep boonies,
if it wasnt he must have gotten good news to tell me, otherwise I
wouldnt have to come down here all the way, twelve miles, and contact
him. It turned out not to be that way at all. What Gottlieb had said
was, he liked the structure, the general design of the book was
perfectly fine, the content was okay: it was just the language.
It was terrible. I said, Ill change all the words!
So, that was that. Perry then said, Well, what do
you think we ought to do with this? I said, I dont know. Seems
to me like the last thing in the world hed want, but why not send it
back to Sam Vaughan? He was at least friendly. Knowlton said, Oh,
this is probably not a Doubleday-type book. I said, Well, lets
try it anyway.
So he sent it over there, with no explanation. Vaughan
read it and said he would like to do it. We did that one together. And
the next one, too [THE SUCCESSION]. He was more
helpful, in a way, with that one, because we didnt have many big
changes to make on the first one. Didnt have to change all the words.
Not long ago I wrote this incident up, and I was
trying to think of a way to bug Gottlieb, if he should ever stumble on
it. Theres a book by Frederick Busch, just out, called LETTERS
TO A FICTION WRITER. Letters about all kinds of things. Some of
them are real letters, like Flannery OConnor to John Hawkes, and some
are made up, and some are to students. Towards the end of the piece I
wrote, I tell that story about rejection, and describe what happened and
how it really makes me angry again, so I get my guns and drive out into
the country and set up a lot of bottles and cans and imagine Im
blowing Gottlieb away. Thinking, Some day, someones going to say,
Hey, somebodys out there who wants to blow your head off! And,
with the world the way it is, it could make someone nervous.
KATHERINE MCNAMARA: You probably dont want
to publish that. Although, you already did.
GEORGE GARRETT: Its already out.
quite put that way. This makes me sound like a very violent person.
So, Sam and I did those two books [DO,
LORD, REMEMBER ME and DEATH OF THE FOX], and we did a book of
three novellas, called THE MAGIC STRIPTEASE, and
then we did THE SUCCESSION [second volume in
the Elizabethan trilogy]. He then plugged me in to Bill Strachan
[see Archipelago, Vol. 2, No. 3],
to write introductions to a series of Anchor paperbacks. This was an
annual of poetry and fiction by people from the Associated Writing
Programs, people like Barry Hannah and Carolyn Forché; many, many
people. Strachan was a young editor at Anchor Books then. Sam Vaughan
said, Here, do these with George. I dont think Strachan had a
lot to say about it, but he was very nice. There were eleven intros
before the series died, and four of them were done at Anchor.
I was working on the last book [ENTERED
FROM THE SUN, third novel in the trilogy]. Sam was by then
publisher of Doubleday. They had a big dust-up there, and he ended up
taking early retirement; he didnt tell me any details about it. But I
was stuck there, though I didnt have to be.
By this time, Jane Gelfman was my agent. Doubleday had
hired Herman Golub from somewhere; Harpers. We didnt owe them
anything, at this point. Jane and I went to lunch with Golub and Steve
Rubin, whos now the big gun over there, I guess, and he said, Let
us do this book. Finish up your trilogy with us, and well show you
how we can publish it really well. As if they hadnt been trying
too hard before that.
It was up to me. Jane said, Theyll probably do
as well as anybody else. But she didnt get along with Golub at all.
I ended up publisher-less. The book came out in hard-cover, and I could
see what was happening. The Germans had come in by then [Bertelsmann A.G.
bought Doubleday]. Golub left there pretty soon afterward. But, he
and the agent had fought, and, while he was extremely nice to be with,
he really wasnt interested in the book. Meanwhile, Morrow had put the
first two volumes in paper; but they dropped that line. Ive got boxes
of those books.
Then, Cork [Corliss] Smith brought all three of the
Elizabethan novels in paper. Then he brought out WHISTLING
IN THE DARK. Then he retired, but he went back, and he was the
one who brought out KING OF BABYLON.
George Garrett is the author
of a number of books: poetry, essays, short stories, novels. He is Henry
Hoynes Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. He
has contributed to Recommended Reading for Archipelago.
(Selected) Works by George Garrett:
George Garrett, KING OF THE MOUNTAIN (Charles Scribners
, DO, LORD, REMEMBER ME (Doubleday, 1965)
, DEATH OF THE FOX (1971)
, THE SUCCESSION (1983)
, ENTERED FROM THE SUN (1990)
, THE MAGIC STRIPTEASE (1973)
, AN EVENING PERFORMANCE (1985)
, WHISTLING IN THE DARK (Harcourt Brace, 1992)
, THE KING OF BABYLON SHALL NOT COME AGAINST YOU
, BAD MAN BLUES: A Portable George Garrett
(Dallas: Southern Methodist Univ. Press, 1998)
Frederick Busch, ed. LETTERS TO A FICTION WRITER (W.W.
Norton, June 1999)
A Conversation with Samuel S. Vaughan
A Conversation with William Strachan,
Archipelago, Vol. 2, No. 4