Julie Grau spoke at the New York Public Library's tribute to Nuala O'Faolain on June 24, 2008. These are her remarks.July 21, 2008
Some time in 1997, Michael Jacobs, who was then working as an agent for New Island Books in Dublin, handed me a big fat volume that was the collected opinion columns of a woman who wrote for the Irish Times. Michael told me not to bother reading the columns, but to read the author's introduction to the work. In spite of myself--because of course we editors are trained to uncover the reasons not to publish a book as quickly as possible--I was reeled in by the crystalline, unapologetic voice of this "accidental memoir." I soon found that I loved it, in fact, and wanted to publish it, but was beaten back by certain executive opinions who didn't feel quite as bullish as I did about the book's prospects. That I ceded to those views and didn't put up a howling fight is a great regret of mine, but when Are You Somebody? went to # 1 on the New York Times bestseller list it also gave me the greatest "I told you so" of my career.
"Go get that writer!" I was told by the same folks who'd passed on the chance at publishing Nuala the first time around. But I wasn't one to stand on ceremony, so go after her I did with the full force of the house behind me. And, after reading 100 pages of her first attempt at fiction and an intense, dazzling meeting in which it was never quite clear which one of us was doing the auditioning, I did in fact acquire Nuala O'Faolain's next work for our list. Shortly after, Nuala called me at my office.
"Are you well, Julie?" she asked.
"Yes, I'm fine, thanks," I said.
"No--I mean, are you well, are you a healthy person?" she said.
"Sure...yes...I'm fine, I'm healthy," I replied.
"Well, good! Because every day I want you to come to your office and ask yourself, 'What can I do for Nuala today?'"
I might have thought that was a peculiar little joke for a while, but soon it became clear to me that that was no joke. Ours was not to be a typical editorial relationship. At first, Nuala tested me--tested my devotion to her, my loyalty, my ability to fight on her behalf in publishing meetings. She also tested my breaking point--when I'd push back and let her know she'd crossed a line. In the early days, I didn't have the temerity to go up against Nuala very often and mostly, really, I wanted to prove myself worthy of her, I wanted to show her I could keep pace with her brilliance and stamina and fortitude. So I'd read the prodigious output that came out of her printer--draft after draft after draft. She was tireless and un-self-conscious and had the work ethic of a newspaper columnist who was used to generating several hundred words a day. Except with Nuala it could be more like thousands of words each day. She was a dogged, miraculous reviser too. Often I'd see work that was very rough survive several drafts--and it would be maddening, because I'd felt she'd chosen to ignore my diligent comments--when suddenly in its fifth or sixth incarnation, in due course, these same pages would be breathtakingly transformed into gold.
So in those early years, she would test me and I'd strive to pass each test--because could there be a better feeling for a youngish editor than the approbation of a writer you admired with your whole heart, a person who prevailed over a childhood of terrific adversity and deprivation through sheer intellectual grit to become an academic and a journalist, an opinion-maker, a feminist, a memoirist, a novelist--a somebody--whose life and survival was a singular testament to the transformative power of literature?
She'd ask me to meet her for lunch, for dinner, to discuss her work. She'd never want to hear about other writers, other books--when I was with her, she was my one and only. She'd make somewhat nasty, casually mean comments--maybe I was dim, but I was never sure if it was her intention to be so cutting toward me or if it was a vestige of her childhood. I only knew I didn't want to find myself in her crosshairs.
In no time the boundaries blurred--she'd ask me to come shopping with her to help her choose clothes for a book tour--and tell me to follow her into the dressing room so we could keep talking. I lost my discomfort at such moments surprisingly quickly--which is more about Nuala's famous candor and her ability to disarm those around her than it is about my unflappability. One Valentine's Day, before Nuala met John, she and I shared a candlelit dinner at an Italian restaurant full to capacity with lovers, where, in very close proximity, we watched Tatum O'Neal open a jewelry box from her hopeful suitor and clocked her disappointment with its contents. Of course Nuala's play-by-play made us both weep from stifled laughter.
She asked me to come to the west of Ireland to work with her on the final draft of My Dream of You. She didn't really need me there, we could have spoken on the phone or written each other emails, but I recognized that she was throwing down a gauntlet. How far would I go for her? Could she make me fly across the Atlantic, leave friends and family behind and devote five days to her exclusively? Of course she could. I got on a plane to Shannon and entered Nuala's beloved Barrtra--I understood that by making this trip I was meeting her particular needs, but I also realized that on some level I was being rewarded for all the tests I'd previously passed. We walked the misty, lush country lanes down to the Atlantic Ocean, with Molly and Roger, two wonderful dogs, beside us, and we'd talk about the novel. She pointed out the seals' sleek heads bobbing in the waves, the lichen that was disappearing from the rocks. She educated me about traveler culture. She drove me to see the marvelous grottoes and shrines tucked into the green hills of County Clare. We took steam baths in the spa at Lisdoonvarna. I read the pages as they came out of her printer, and we'd talk endlessly about the work. We took every meal together. She marvelled aloud that I wasn't getting on her nerves.
On our last day together, we went into a dress shop in Cork. Luckily there was only space for one in the fitting room. But the sales ladies recognized her instantly and swarmed around her, making a fuss, asking for an autograph, and I had a glimpse of the folk hero status she enjoyed at home. My memories of that trip, however it came about, are cherished ones--all the more so now.
I went on to publish two more of Nuala's books--a second volume of her memoirs and an unconventional biography of a turn-of-the-century Irish émigré who became a mythically glamorous international criminal. In between I killed a novel she stubbornly tried to bring to life more than once. Writing that letter, knowing how it would cut Nuala to the quick, was perhaps the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my professional life. It was also, though, a measure of how I'd grown, under her inimitable tutelage.
Years later, when she was very sick, she wrote to me in an email: "I've talked to you very often recently, especially at night. Mostly laughing at this or that. Other people might not realise it, but I loved every minute of knowing you, including when I'd let you/me down." I was sitting at my desk when I read those lines and burst into tears. I was instantly choked with regret. How could I have failed to appreciate fully every moment with her? Why did I let time go by when we weren't closely in touch? Did I not understand that she was utterly, uniquely gifted as a human being--difficult, oh yes, she could be very difficult and complicated and demanding, but she was so worth knowing. What a privilege it was to be her editor and publisher, to have passed the tests, to have been able to make her laugh, and to have a held a place in her memories of happy times--as she has in mine.