c o n v e r s a t i o n

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, Elizabeth’s 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, I’ve 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 didn’t, 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. We’ve 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: they’re not going to publish this god-damn rowdy red-necked novel. He said, “Now, here’s the deal. I will not accept their offer. I want to publish this. If you want to do it. It’s up to you. Here’s 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 couldn’t turn that down; they had made that arrangement with him. I got the advance and commitment to publish this new novel. I thought, That’s fine. What could happen to Duell?

Well, Candida said, “I’ll send the book around.” The first place she sent it was to Sam Vaughan, at Doubleday. The story he told me at the time — he’s more dignified about it than I am; he’s a very dignified guy — was that the book was accepted and went immediately into production. I didn’t 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 don’t allow any books published here that have farts in them. It’s just a house policy. So you’ve 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 hadn’t 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 didn’t have much to do with Sam. In the interim I talked to some people in publishing, who said, “Well, he’s 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. There’s 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 he’d noticed a few little things he wished we had had more time to work on, but “next time we’ll 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 didn’t have much time to work on it, I’m 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? I’ll 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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. Don’t put on a long face. Somewhere, at any given moment, there’s 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 stuck.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: This may be the truest insight into publishing economics I’ve 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, “We’re going to publish it, but if you want to send review copies out you’re going to have to come to New York, wrap them yourself, mail ’em out. All we’re going to do is print and bind. There’ll be this big stack of books. It’s 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 Scribner’s when I had done a collection of stories there, years before, had become an agent, and ran Curtis Brown. I thought, Well, I’d 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 can’t see how you’re going to take that and turn it into something.

KATHERINE McNAMARA: There’s nothing like an editor with no imagination.

GEORGE GARRETT: They say, “This is not ready to go to the printer.” That’s right: but it’s going to be. I’m 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, “I’m 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. Susan’s 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 wouldn’t bother me, knowing I was out here in the deep boonies, if it wasn’t — he must have gotten good news to tell me, otherwise I wouldn’t 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, “I’ll 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 don’t know. Seems to me like the last thing in the world he’d 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, let’s 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 didn’t have many big changes to make on the first one. Didn’t 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. There’s 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 O’Connor 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 I’m blowing Gottlieb away. Thinking, Some day, someone’s going to say, ‘Hey, somebody’s 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 don’t want to publish that. Although, you already did.

GEORGE GARRETT: It’s already out. It isn’t 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 don’t 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 didn’t tell me any details about it. But I was stuck there, though I didn’t have to be.

By this time, Jane Gelfman was my agent. Doubleday had hired Herman Golub from somewhere; Harper’s. We didn’t owe them anything, at this point. Jane and I went to lunch with Golub and Steve Rubin, who’s now the big gun over there, I guess, and he said, “Let us do this book. Finish up your trilogy with us, and we’ll show you how we can publish it really well.” As if they hadn’t been trying too hard before that.

It was up to me. Jane said, “They’ll probably do as well as anybody else.” But she didn’t 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 wasn’t interested in the book. Meanwhile, Morrow had put the first two volumes in paper; but they dropped that line. I’ve 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 Scribner’s Sons, 1957)

——, DO, LORD, REMEMBER ME (Doubleday, 1965)

——, DEATH OF THE FOX (1971)





——, WHISTLING IN THE DARK (Harcourt Brace, 1992)


——, 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)

See also:

A Conversation with Samuel S. Vaughan
A Conversation with William Strachan, Archipelago, Vol. 2, No. 4


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