undefinedOutside the Esquire offices, in New York, ca. 1970. Photo by Bud Lee.

 

It’s the custom for editors to keep a low profile and to underplay any changes they may make to an author’s manuscript. Gordon Lish is a different animal. Not since Maxwell Perkins has an editor been so famous—or notorious—as a sculptor of other people’s prose. As fiction editor of Esquire from 1969 to 1977, then as an editor at Knopf and of The Quarterly until 1995, Lish worked closely with many of the most daring writers of the past fifty years, including Harold Brodkey, Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Barry Hannah, and Joy Williams. In an interview with this magazine in 2004, Hannah said, “Gordon Lish was a genius editor. A deep friend and mentor. He taught me how to write short stories. He would cross out everything so there’d be like three lines left, and he would be right.” 

His collaborations have not always ended ami­cably. His editorial relationship with Carver ceased ­after three books. When Lish donated his papers to the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington, they indeed showed that he had drastically cut, and often rewritten, some of Carver’s best loved stories. For the Collected Stories, published in 2009, Carver’s widow printed some of them in both edited and unedited versions. The critical reaction was divided. In the New York Times Book Review, Stephen King described the ­effect on one ­story as “a total ­rewrite . . . a cheat”; in The New York Review of Books, Giles Harvey wrote that the publication of Carver’s ­unedited stories “has not done Carver any favors. Rather, it has inadvertently pointed up the editorial genius of Gordon Lish.” 

More than a dozen books have appeared under Lish’s own name—­including the novels Dear Mr. Capote (1983), Peru (1986), and Zimzum (1993). These have won Lish a small but passionate cult following as a writer of recursive and often very funny prose. For decades he taught legendary classes in fiction, both at institutions such as Yale and Columbia and in private sessions in New York and across America. Though he titled one of his books Arcade, or, How to Write a Novel (1999), he, like Socrates, never put his teachings on paper. They ­survive in his students, many of whom are now prominent writers and teachers of fiction, among them Christine Schutt, Sam Lipsyte, Gary Lutz, and Ben Marcus. 

Lish was born in 1934 in Hewlett, New York, the son of a hat manu­facturer and a housewife. In early childhood he was afflicted with acute ­psoriasis, a condition that has persisted all his life. After being kicked out of Andover, he spent the rest of his teens and twenties working in radio and at odd jobs in New York; Pampa, Texas; and Tucson, where he eventually ­received a B.A. from the University of Arizona. Even now he has retained the smooth baritone and cultured vowels of a 1950s disc jockey. After his first marriage, to Frances Fokes, ended in divorce, he married Barbara Works; he lives in the Upper East Side apartment that he shared with his second wife until her death from ALS in 1994. The interview was conducted in his living room, over several long sessions that began in the spring of 2010 and ended last September. Often we would be interrupted by phone calls from Lish’s friends and former students, some of them seeking advice on the finishing stages of their books. He was a convivial host, offering his interviewer bottles of beer and a large brass pot for use as an ashtray. 

Christian Lorentzen

INTERVIEWER

Do you consider yourself a writer or an editor? 

LISH

I’m not a writer. I’ve no stake in my being thought a writer. Yet if I do write, I want it to be as exacting as I can make it. I want whatever I doodle to be well doodled. Most of the writing I’ve done has been under other names, as a ghostwriter, to maintain my family. Or else by writing potboilers. Not that such endeavors could necessarily be told apart.

INTERVIEWER

For example?

LISH

The only one I admit to is called Coming Out of the Ice, which Harcourt, I think it was, published in 1979. It concerns Victor Herman, who, in his teens, was taken to Russia by his communist family—this in the thirties. After a while, the mother and children wanted to come back to the States. Victor’s father had collected his family’s passports and Victor and his siblings were stuck in Russia. He went on to achieve fame as the Lindbergh of Russia by his having parachuted from an airplane at a record height—an altitude greater than theretofore had been jumped from—and come down chewing on an apple, a rather sporty feat that caught the attention of the American press. He thereafter spent seventeen years in the gulags. Herman was repatriated during Ford’s term, Kissinger having intervened. Harcourt had a contract with him for his story, and I was called in and I checked with Bill Buckley, asking who could tell me if the guy was kosher. Buckley phoned so-and-so, and she said, Doesn’t look right to me. I agreed to do the work anyway, desperate to make the fee. It was sixty thousand dollars. I went out to Detroit to interview Victor maybe six weekends. Herman was a man in his sixties, and he seemed to relish the bitter cold while he was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt. It was as though his having lived in Siberia, seventy-five degrees below zero, had conditioned him for such weather. I can sit from seven in the morning to seven at night without urinating. Victor seemed ­eager to prove he could do the same. We sat in a motel room, Victor declining a break. That was also impressive. In the end, I had to make up a lot of the book because Victor’s account was, to my mind, preposterous. I made up a character I called Red, a Finn, who proved critical in seeing to Victor’s survival, teaching him, for example, how, for food, to trap rats in the latrine. About three years after I finished the book—Victor didn’t live long after this—Victor phoned me to say, You’re not gonna believe it, you’re not gonna believe it! Red has turned up!

INTERVIEWER

Before you were a ghostwriter or an editor, you were in radio.

LISH

I auditioned to be an announcer at NBC when I was about sixteen. I was given an audition by Pat Kelly, then chief of announcers. He went along with me in great kindness. My aim was ridiculous. I had been thrown out of Andover. 

INTERVIEWER

How did you get kicked out of Andover?

LISH

Fighting, fighting. Some fellow, or fellows, called me a dirty Jew, and I was a fighter. A small, a little, fighter. Kelly said, We don’t take people who haven’t been to college. I said, I’m not going to college. He said, Well, go out to the lobby and look in the back of Broadcasting Magazine for a want ad and find someplace as far from New York as you can. I saw an ad for Pampa, Texas, and thought, That’s around where California is, so isn’t that far away enough? I went to my father’s office and after a couple of phone calls, I was hired that day and flew out to Pampa, after having first gone to J. Press to dress myself accordingly, figuring I was quite the fellow now. Nothing could have been sillier.

“I want whatever I doodle to be well doodled.”

INTERVIEWER

So you got the job?

LISH

I did. And stayed and stayed, and then, owing to my skin, had to come back to New York. It was then that I was put on ACTH for pretty terrible psoriasis. ACTH prefigured cortisone, so far as I know, and hydrocortisone. It saved my bacon. A couple of injections and I was on the way to what I had never before seen—clear skin. I also ended up in the bughouse in White Plains, possibly as the result of the steroid therapy. Something similar ­became the subject of a New Yorker article and a movie called Bigger Than Life. James Mason was in it as a schoolteacher given cortisone for some disorder and who then winds up quite wacked out. But then, as I aged, I think I preferred thinking I had been authentically psychotic and that the ACTH was merely coincidental. I suppose I wanted to be as crazy as the next one. Maybe crazier. After eight months in the mental place, I was given ACTH again. It was then that I got jobs on radio in New Haven and here in New York. I was a disc jockey, first at a restaurant called Johnny Johnston’s Charcoal Room on Forty-Fifth and Second—this in the fifties. Thereafter, I was moved to the studio out in Livingston, New Jersey, and broadcast from twelve till two in the morning, trying to mimic Jean Shepherd, who was, by my lights, the most interesting person on radio. He would improvise thoroughly charming tales. I found his work riveting, simply riveting. Then he went into television and that didn’t pan out for him, couldn’t quite ­effect the magic he enacted so ingeniously on radio. I tried to copy Shepherd’s manner, but failed utterly. Passed out one night—it turned out by reason of my having developed hypokalemia owing to the ACTH. So then I was taken out to Tucson as an invalid. Was told I had to live there for the sun and aridity. I was nineteen and I was informed I had to remain in Tucson and keep myself out of doors as much as could be managed. I worked as a wrangler at a dude ranch for a while, and then sought a job in radio. A woman I’d seen on local TV interviewed me, and I was hired to do wake-up radio for the NBC affiliate. I married the woman but never showed up for the job. That’s Frances—Frances Fokes. She had done very well at Wellesley. That was our form of contact. My father had wanted my sister to attend Wellesley, but she did not, and he was heartbroken by this. So here it was, a kind of supplemental gesture on my part—I’ll furnish you a daughter-in-law who’s gone to Wellesley. The marriage lasted eight or nine years and produced three children, Jennifer, Rebecca, and Ethan. We lived on chicken backs and beans. Frances had a program of her own, an interview show around noon, and she was also a salesperson at the station. But I, having notions that married women should properly be supported, encouraged her to quit and for us to rely on what I could make as a door-to-door health-insurance salesman—this, it later became clear, for what was not an entirely legitimate outfit.

INTERVIEWER

Were you successful?

LISH

I was, until I panicked and sent a certified letter to the company indicating that I had become aware of practices that were not in keeping with propriety and that I was resigning. I was scared to death I would be sent to jail. I was being driven around by two guys in a pink, radically tail-finned Plymouth. We would raid the impoverished neighborhoods on the outskirts of Tucson, signing up anybody in sight and pocketing all of the first premium—premiums which had to be paid in cash. We’d save a dollar to send to the company and keep the rest. There was, I suppose, no evidence of there being any company.

INTERVIEWER

Did it ever make it back to you when these people made claims?

LISH

I was long gone in no time at all. I got out of there and got on the road. I had been smitten with Kerouac, as I had been with Salinger, and had taken it all in without any sense that this indeed was fiction. I ate it up, and wanted to place myself among, or between, Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. Truly.