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Elizabeth McCracken
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  Susan Kamil, Editorial Director of the Dial Press, is one of today's most respected book editors. Her love of publishing and her authors is downright infectious, and it quickly becomes clear when you meet her that the pure joy she takes in her job is the key to her success. Among her recent triumphs are The Giant's House, Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp, and Susannah Lessard's The Architect of Desire.

BOLD TYPE:

How did you discover Elizabeth?

SUSAN KAMIL:

Actually, an agent sent me Elizabeth; it was very simple. I was still at Random House, and this agent by the name of Henry Dunow had just come from the Iowa Writer's Workshop. He'd come back on the plane with a collection of short stories from Elizabeth McCracken, who was attending the workshop. He has since said to me that he remembers reading the collection on the plane and not being able to sit still--having to get up and run around the aisles, because he knew right away that he was reading a writer who was really unique.

I remember reading the first story, called "It's Bad Luck to Die." It was about a sort of middle class Jewish girl from Des Moines who was about six feet tall. And she goes with her pals to get a little tattoo, on a lark.

The guy who runs the tattoo place, Tiny, is an older, querulous kind of a guy. Tiny considers himself a great artist in the tattoo area. They fall in love--a very peculiar love story. Even then. She becomes--her body becomes--his canvas for all of his art. And because there's a difference in ages, obviously the end of the story is that Tiny dies.

She is left with her body tattooed up to the neck with his extraordinary, extraordinary work. It's like she considers herself a living love letter. I just burst into tears. And how could I not acquire a writer that made me cry with a story like that? The rest of the collection is just as good and just as unique.

BOLD TYPE:

Where do you think Elizabeth fits in the realm of contemporary American fiction?

SUSAN KAMIL:

Well, Daphne Merkin wrote this amazing review of Elizabeth for The New Yorker, and really understood her work. She said that she reminded her of Carson McCullers -- more of the southern gothic. As it turns out, Carson McCullers is Elizabeth's favorite writer. Daphne likens her to a bunch of southern writers: Harper Lee, Marjorie Keller, Carson McCullers and Walker Percy. Elizabeth really got that; she really thought that was where she belonged. And I think she does. She's in a certain gothic tradition, except for the fact that she turns it on its head, with the kind of no-nonsense, straightforward literary voice that is romantic and at the same time extremely clear. She isn't really like anybody I've ever read before. Not ever.

BOLD TYPE:

You had gone through several revisions with this book. Tell me about the process of editing it.

SUSAN KAMIL:

Well, it was a joy from beginning to end, because she's like a tuning fork. The editorial process with Elizabeth is very simple; she really knows what she wants. She's the very best kind of an author to edit, because she doesn't look to me to be a tuning fork for her. She's very clear about what she wants to achieve.

Now, Elizabeth has a tendency as a writer to be a little oblique. And my job as an editor is say to her, "You know, it's not clear. What you're trying to say isn't clear," and to isolate the areas for her that I feel she's being a little too oblique. And that's not difficult at all.

BOLD TYPE:

For a first time novelist, she's received so much critical acclaim. How do you think that's affected her?

SUSAN KAMIL:

Well, I don't know whether this was a rationalization or not, but after the National Book Awards, Elizabeth called me the next morning and said that in a way, she was happy that she hadn't won. Because of the immense burden that would have been put on her after only writing a first novel, it would've been very difficult for her. Coming from anybody else, I would think it would be a little coy. But not from Elizabeth. She's very, very self-aware and she's very honest.

And, in a way, I'm glad, too, that it didn't win. She has so many books ahead of her. I thought that Ship Fever, the winner, was a wonderful collection, and each one of the writers that was nominated were great. Just the fact that she was recognized like that is a gift and she's very graciously accepted it and moved on.

BOLD TYPE:

Did you expect that the book would get the kind of attention that it has?

SUSAN KAMIL:

I expected it was going to get a lot of attention, but I didn't expect that people were really going to understand it as well as they did. Did I expect that she was going to be nominated? No. I really did not. But the thing that is so gratifying for me is that people recognize what she is and how unique she is. There's some part of me as her editor--and I love her very much--that I feel like she's my secret. I still feel like she's my secret. In fact, the world knows about her now, but I still feel like she's my secret.

I think that there's something, and I was talking to her about this, there's something about the way she writes: the intimacy of it makes whoever reads her feel like she's their secret. That they then can either choose to share or just keep to themselves. But her voice is too unique and her vision of the world is too singular, and I think that we were just very fortunate that the book got into the hands of the right people, that they read it and responded to it.

And yes, now she's on every best book of '96 list. She's gotten the Salon Award. This is a happy, happy publishing story.

BOLD TYPE:

What do you hope for her in the future?

SUSAN KAMIL:

I hope that her audience is ever on the increase, because I think that a writer like this should be read by as many people as possible. She is perfectly poised for her next book, which I think is only going to increase her visibility. And it is our job to keep our attention on how to widen that audience with every book. I think that she's a star. My job as her editor is to protect her, and she will grow at her own pace. The Giant's House is in first person and she's brilliant at the first person. I know that the next novel is going to be in the third person, and that's going to be very interesting to see. Because it's going to give her much wider canvas to play with. And I think she'll certainly rise up to it. But ironically enough, you know and I know that the first person is the hardest to pull off. And she does it admirably.

BOLD TYPE:

It's absolutely amazing to watch her read.

SUSAN KAMIL:

Yes. You really get the humor of her work when she reads to an audience.

BOLD TYPE:

And just her incredible love and command of language. Who do you see that can compare? Elizabeth McCracken in ten years will comparable to who?

SUSAN KAMIL:

(LONG PAUSE) Maybe a writer like Anne Tyler. I know Elizabeth's been compared to Alice Hoffman. I myself thought of Illumination Night, which is my favorite Alice Hoffman novel, when I read The Giant's House. Elizabeth is not whimsical. Elizabeth is magical. So I would say that I think that she the potential to be as big as Anne Tyler. It depends on what she wants to write about. But she is a fierce romantic. And I think that feeling in her prose is never going to go away.

The next book, I think, is going to be about family. And how somebody busts open--a family member who has not been in the family for sixty years is brought back as an Alzheimer's victim. How that return detonates action in the family. It will be very, very interesting. And pretty wonderful.

BOLD TYPE:

You called her a fierce romantic. I really like Katherine Dunn's quote about how Elizabeth is a "true romantic, not the sloppy, gushy kind that lie to themselves." I thought that was accurate.

SUSAN KAMIL:

Oh, yeah. She understands pain. And she understands isolation. And she understands what it means to be an outsider. All her stories are about the need for compassion in one way, shape or form. You easily believe that this librarian can be in love with this child--you can make that emotional equivalent because she makes it easy for you. Because she herself has no baggage about it. I mean, she's just as clear-eyed as she can be. She personally has a very strong sense of family and love and I think that's informed all of her work, and will continue to.

BOLD TYPE:

One of the things that Bill Thomas said when I asked him about the current state of literature was that he felt that the novel was in serious trouble. I'm curious as to what you think.

SUSAN KAMIL:

I think the novel is in great shape. I mean, you may look at the best seller list and see it Oprah-inspired. But that doesn't negate the fact that the shelves that are filled with novels and people are going out and buying them and talking about them. And so no, I don't think the state of the novel is dismal at all. As long as we can have a writer like Elizabeth McCracken at age 30 publish The Giant's House, to this sort of attention, this sort of acclaim, I have to say, the state of the novel is just fine.

BOLD TYPE:

The theme of this issue is "New Voices." Who else among other young writers do find daring and original?

SUSAN KAMIL:

Jeff Eugenides I think is brilliant. I was just thinking about the Granta issue. It was an interesting thing, reading the Granta, because I read it from beginning to end to see who was going to pop out. Oh, I think that Juno Diaz is fantastic. I think--well, Dorothy isn't young, but I think Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina is going to last much after we are gone. Susanna Kaysen's work I like. Kevin Canty is a great writer, I mean, he's terrific. Oh, The Last Days of the Dogmen, Brad Watson's wonderful collection of short stories. Wonderful. If you think about Kevin Canty or you think about Elizabeth McCracken, or Jeff Eugenides--they don't come along that often. They really and truly don't.

BOLD TYPE:

What do you look for when you acquire a book?

SUSAN KAMIL:

I don't buy very much fiction. I only buy fiction that I feel very, very secure in going out on the street corner and grabbing anybody by the lapels, and shoving it in their face. Saying, "You must, must read this book." I mean, I can't publish what I really don't love. And publishing these days, especially with a first novel, you have to get the galley into the hands of everybody you know. You have to keep on them to read it. And you need a lot of love to keep you going during a process that can be like rolling a rock up a hill. So, if there's a criteria for my buying fiction, that's it. I have to love it.

BOLD TYPE:

What do you like most about your job?

SUSAN KAMIL:

What I like most about my job is working with authors, of course. And then I really love publishing. I really love the creative process, watching a book grow. I love that. I love picking up the phone and calling somebody at the New York Times Book Review. And calling Celia McGee at The Observer. And calling x, y and z to make sure they've read a book. And then hearing the response back and then taking that response and turning it into something bigger and better. You can't just sort of be passive, because if you're passive, you're fucked. And you can quote me on that. (LAUGHS) It's always a lot of work. But it is really worth it.

BOLD TYPE:

What trends do you see happening in fiction and literary non-fiction?

SUSAN KAMIL:

Well, what I'm ever hopeful about is that we might find a way to make the trade paperback original novel work again. Because the prices of production are outrageous. I mean, do you think it makes me happy to charge $25 for a novel? It does not. And do I think that it prohibits 50 percent or 75 percent of an audience for such a book to go out and read it? Absolutely. Yet every time somebody tries the trade paperback original, it fails. Every single publisher over the past ten years has tried the original literary trade paperback novel. They don't get reviewed, and the reviewing media is the thing that is driving these books. And so that's the real problem.

BOLD TYPE:

What do you think of all of the recent literary memoirs? You have really been quite successful with them this past year.

SUSAN KAMIL:

Everybody is talking about literary memoirs, but in fact, they've been around for quite awhile. And I know a reporter from a distinguished publication who called and asked about memoirs by women and why was this a trend? I said to him that was bullshit--there've been memoirs forever.

I think that narrative non-fiction is a very exciting field now. And I suppose the memoir would fall into that. There's some very exciting writing being done in that area, like Susanna Kaysen's memoir Girl Interrupted, like Drinking: A Love Story, like Susannah Lessard's The Architect of Desire, like Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, like the upcoming Kathryn Harrison memoir, which is being published by Random House.

BOLD TYPE:

Any final thoughts?

SUSAN KAMIL:

Well, at the moment, publishing is at the mercy of the doom-and-gloom-sayers. It's no secret that all publishers are suffering from an extremely flat consumer market. But it's also true that publishing goes in cycles. There're many really exciting books being published in this new year and doubtless the cycle will flip from down to up in short order. Bottom line: even at 3 o'clock in the morning when I can't sleep because I'm anxiety-ridden about sales, and schedules and the like, I think about. . .well, I think about Elizabeth McCracken and I'm here to tell you it's worth it.
 
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