Daniel Menaker doesn’t waste time in signaling his penchant for self-deprecation. The title of his wise, playful, deeply felt new memoir is My Mistake. And the memoirist, no mere tease, is happy to detail the errors he’s made during his life and his celebrated career as fiction editor of The New Yorker, publisher at Random House, and author of novels, stories, and essays.
Most of the blunders recounted by Menaker aren’t too dire, but he remains haunted by the inadvertent role he played in his only sibling’s untimely death. During a game of touch football in 1967, he challenged his older brother, Mike, to play backfield despite Mike’s bad knees, and from there everything went horribly amiss: Mike, then twenty-nine, sustained an injury that led to knee surgery, and this surgery led to a fatal blood infection called septicemia.
For all of Menaker’s mistakes, great and small, readers of My Mistake will likely feel that he got a lot more right than wrong. His memoir takes us from a red-diaper childhood in Greenwich Village through teenage summers on a colorful uncle’s Berkshires guest camp and an education at Swarthmore in the early sixties; it recounts his professional mentoring by the legendary William Maxwell and William Shawn, his office politics with Tina Brown and Harry Evans, and the editing of some of the great authors of our age. Menaker, who, at seventy-two, has written five other books, is an expert at turning those proverbial life-lemons into lemonades; his description of his protracted recent struggle with lung cancer, for example, winds up being one of the memoir’s most inspiring and invigorating sections.
Since finishing My Mistake, Menaker has been working on a series of thematically linked stories, and during an early December break in his current “self-financed” book tour, he answered each question I catapulted at him by telephone.
In My Mistake you say that writing a memoir was a means for you to take stock of your life while facing possible death, pondering what you call “the Great Temporariness.”
The book came about through a really weird route. The proposal for it was vastly different from the finished product. Fourteen people rejected it. I posted the rejections on the Huffington Post, and got in terrible trouble for that with my agent. I didn’t care—I’m too old to care about that shit. I just thought it was funny. And then somebody made an offer, but he was let go from the publishing house, or left, shortly after he acquired my book. I like to think there was no causal connection!
I’m not a big fan of the present tense, but it functions well in My Mistake.
Memoir is such a vexed form and category, for any number of reasons. I can’t even count how many reasons there are for not writing a memoir. People are not in it, or they are in it, they’re pissed off, your memory is wrong—there are all sorts of land mines. With a book that doesn’t have anything truly remarkable in it—I wasn’t captured and sexually violated for ten years, I wasn’t a jihadist, I didn’t go into outer space—I had to figure out how I could make this more immediate. It’s a kind of gadget to use the present tense, but it felt right. And it helped me to put myself—or pretend to myself that I was putting myself—back in the moment. It was a sort of shoehorn back into the past.
Had you read other memoirs that impressed you?
Wrinkles, by Charles Simmons, a memoir-like novel, may have had an effect on me. It’s epigrammatic, practically. Another influence was Dorothy Gallagher, a writer whom I edited and published. She wrote two fabulous books of personal essays: How I Came into My Inheritance and Strangers in the House. What happens is that retroactively you see the little rivulets of influence that go into what you do.
I have to ask about the novel Primary Colors, which you edited. You really weren’t aware of the secret identity of its author while you were working on it? Did you know Joe Klein, the bashful “Anonymous,” at the time?
I had met Joe, but I had no idea it was him. Not until the day before the announcement. I edited it through his agent. And I didn’t think it was important. I loved the idea that people didn’t know who Anonymous was. It reinforced the education I got at Swarthmore, which was very much explicative. You didn’t care who wrote a poem, you just read it. Of course, now—historically and biographically—I care who wrote what, but at the time it seemed to me a kind of ideal approach to text, shorn of ego—here’s the object. I’m not sure that Primary Colors is a great work of art. I do know that it’s an awfully good novel, and it was a pleasure to have all the author complications cut away. So that was a sort of purist, graduate-school approach to something that was a commercial publication, but it was great fun.
You describe a phenomenon in your memoir that you call “writer-editor transference.” Was this a common occurrence for you? Did you have a lot of instances of “transference” with writers?
I never didn’t have an instance of it. And as a writer, try as I might to be aware of this impulse of regressive parental transference, I have never successfully avoided a certain amount of that childlike need for attention. It might be impossible to avoid it.
Were there ever cases in which the transference was flipped the other way, in which the editor wanted the writer’s approval, or where a writer tried to “run you” as the editor?
Nope. I think it’s truly structural. It doesn’t have to do with me or with the writer—once the book is acquired or once the short story is bought, the editor becomes like a teacher, but with only one student. The editor becomes the locus of the writer’s preliminary concerns and anxieties.
Certainly your feelings about your brother’s death have stayed with you and remain charged. You’ve written about this tragedy in your short fiction twice before. How different was it to render it now, decades later, in a memoir?
It mirrors, without my having realized it until recently, what William Maxwell did with the death of his mother, which he revisited two or three times in his fiction. Trauma, and its lasting effects on a person psychologically and then later literarily—they’re material. Like a comic looks at his problems and thinks, That’s material. There’s a kind of iciness about it—a sense of, I can use this. That’s why writers are always a little weird. If they’re not actively thinking in a divided way, then they may be storing observations for later. When I worked with Alice Munro, I had this sense about her, though she’s the most delightful person in the whole world. She was observing things, and had probably observed things her whole life. And used them.
But with all your writing about it, clearly you’ve gained a lot.
It has reaffirmed my belief that the past is the definition of inevitability. I had no choice but to do what I did with my brother during the touch football game, which was to goad him slightly. He had no choice but to take up the goad and to do what he did. And so I’m kind of at peace with it. It led to a lot of trouble, sadness, real emotional problems. But you work on them. I’m a worker. I work on stuff with myself, and sometimes I get the job done and sometimes I don’t.
Some of my favorite parts of your memoir are your hard-won bits of wisdom about writing. As you write at one point about actors—“When you ‘indicate’ while delivering lines, you show you are aware that you’re acting and the audience will register the effect, the artificiality of what you’re doing. A lot of prose writers similarly indicate. They don’t trust the facts and their objective observations to carry the weight of their attitudes and judgments. But they do carry that weight …”
This, I think, is at the heart of writing, and of editing. It is essentially not much more than the old show-don’t-tell cliché. In fiction and nonfiction, a lot of writers fail to understand that feeling automatically infuses description, narration, and dialogue. They make the mistake of explicitly indicating—almost instructing—what the reader should feel. Of course, doing so lessens the chance that the reader will indeed feel it.
My Mistake has been very disciplined by other readers. What they did—what a good editor does—is make your text the way you really would have wanted it to be if you had been doing it on your most disciplined, best day. It’s like Michelangelo looking at a piece of marble. There’s a shape inside it. And one of the ways to get that shape out in a text is to have editors who try to put themselves in your shoes and figure out what you’re trying to do, where you may have succeeded—and where you may not have.
Do you edit short stories the same way you do novels?
A short story is more like a single space than a number of spaces—a full-blown narrative with plots and subplots and so on. So when you edit a story, it’s better to regard it as a space that the reader will experience all at once, like a big painting, rather than something that will develop over time. Of course, it takes time to read a story, but it’s a much, much shorter time than with a novel or a nonfiction book. So in a way, it’s more spatial than linear. A practical editing result of this philosophy—just to give one example—is that the editor and writer must cast a pretty cold or at least strict eye on lengthy digressions. In novels, lengthy digressions, if they’re good and if they ultimately play well into the whole work’s themes, are not only fun but can be crucial.
I’m curious about a remark you make in My Mistake about bigotry’s malignant influence: “It will take me years to purge most of the racism and homophobia that I inhale in the fifties at Nyack High School … Honestly? These hateful reflexes remain in me to this day, like a splinter or buckshot under the skin which never works its way out.”
Right. There’s no rational counterpart to it—it doesn’t have to do with thinking. It’s kneejerk. This is a problem that plagues society, so why not admit it? I think I’ve come as far as I can go, and much further than most people, in purging it. It’s like a scar—it may heal, but it’s still palpable. It’s still visible. Let’s say you have a mean, abusive father. You don’t get rid of that. You may master it, you may come to terms with it, you may even forgive him and may even lead a wonderful life—but he can’t be gone from your life. He’s in there. Remember the TV ad for Ragu spaghetti sauce? A father says, in this Italian accent, “To make-a the good sauce, you gotta have the right spices!” And his son says, “It’s in there.” “And you’ve gotta put some love in the sauce, too!” And the son says, “It’s in there, Pop!” So we’re all like a big sauce. Everything’s in there. Nothing goes away.
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