A Conversation with Spiegel & Grau editors Christopher Jackson and Mike Mezzo

November 1, 2007

What's it like to be at a start-up? What are the challenges, the benefits?

Chris: When I started my last job – at Crown, another corner of the Random House empire – I remember the terror of the empty desk, stepping into a large, bustling imprint with no books of my own, just me, a clean desk, and a depressingly sparse rolodex (this was back when people actually used rolodexes). I’d come to Crown from a small trade division of a scientific and technical publisher, and I had to figure out how to adapt my editorial style to fit in. This time around, it’s very different: my (and our) first days here were spent not just trying to buy new projects but also helping craft a mission statement, looking at drafts of logo designs, and having lots of meeting with agents and writers about what was going to distinguish us from other houses. So many editors (including me on my bad days) worry about how their impulses and interests and tastes conflict with those of the publisher they work for; the trick, I’ve found in the past, is to find as many points of intersection as possible between what you love and what the house does best (or, failing that, to subvert their mission with covert acts of editorial subterfuge, sneaking books onto the list while no one’s looking, which is sort of a doomed enterprise). But what’s exciting about joining S&G is that the books I bring in will help define the company, thereby building a house (or a room in Cindy and Julie’s house) ideally suited for the books I want to publish.

Mike: It’s true, being part of a new company is a tremendous luxury and privilege—everything moves forward, anything feels possible, and every decision we all make will contribute to the evolving identity of what is such an exciting venture. Of course, I must admit to being a little intimidated at times. I basically grew up (so to speak) at Little, Brown and Company; I started as an intern and left as an associate editor, and was incredibly fortunate to see the books I published there enjoy great critical and commercial success. But as a younger editor at an established house, you tend to build your own list by playing to the house’s strengths. At a start-up, the house’s strengths reflect your own as a member of the team. So it is a little intimidating but mostly invigorating because I know that the passion I feel for the books I edit here will be compounded by the passion we all feel in creating this new publishing division.

You both are exposed to so many great new writers and books. What trends in literature or publishing are most exciting for you to be a part of/pursuing in your positions at Spiegel & Grau?

Mike: What’s more interesting to me than chasing trends is thinking about the topics readers might be interested to learn more about that aren’t represented well in the bookstore. When a book satisfies a public interest in a way that no other book can or does, there’s potential for a real breakout. I’ve noticed, in terms of fiction, increasingly readers want to be transported—I know I do. The books that really make an impact on me have stories that are surprising, eventful, and imaginative—the best novels are wild rides, they’re adventurous, and they’re challenging. It’s what I loved immediately about A Fraction of the Whole, the first novel I’m publishing on the S&G list. It isn’t enough, in my opinion, for a writer to be able to craft a perfectly lovely sentence; he or she also has to captivate. And it seems the more interesting narrative nonfiction I’ve seen recently endeavors to make a point or an observation about the world through first-hand experience. I think it’s natural that this form of storytelling is becoming more popular. It’s a way for a reader to truly live vicariously through the author—to climb a mountain, live in a different community, open a bakery, or whatever the case may be.

Chris: I agree about the continuing rise of first-person nonfiction narrative, but it’s a mixed blessing. One of the themes in Lee Siegel’s new book Against the Machine (which we’re also publishing in the spring!) is the trend toward packaging and performing acts that were previously in the realm of privacy – homemade youtube videos and reality tv are obvious cases, but the burgeoning sub-genre of experiential nonfiction can sometimes showcase the same exhibitionist impulse. I think first-person, immersive journalism can be great but, as Lee argues, the problem is when self-dramatization hides a lack of self-knowledge, or when the sensationalism of self-disclosure overwhelms honest exploration. This is the problem – as you noted – with trends. When Hunter S. Thompson (or Matt Taibbi or, you know, Michel Montaigne) writes from a subjective, first-person p.o.v., it’s brilliant because they’re brilliant. If a lesser writer does it, not so much. So it’s best to wait for the geniuses (or near-geniuses) to do whatever it is they want to do, even if it feels un-trendy, rather than trying to follow-up a genius’s innovation with a second-rate writer’s rip-off. Which seems sort of obvious, but every cultural form is littered with time-wasting rip-offs and some of the dumbest decisions of my publishing life have come when I’ve succumbed to the trend-chasing temptation, so it’s not like my hands are clean. But I will go and sin no more!

Speaking of your favorite writers, then, who would both of you loved to have edited, living or dead?

Mike: I would have loved to have been the editor to introduce a book like White Teeth to the world; it’s hilarious, smart, and endlessly entertaining, and I remember reading it for the first time and thinking: “This is the kind of writer I want to work with.” I could say the same for The Ice Storm by Rick Moody, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem, anything at all by David Sedaris, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Verificationist by Donald Antrim, and a lot of other obvious books.

Chris: Since Mike mentioned some living writers, I’ll mention a dead one: I just finished the great Arnold Rampersad bio of Ralph Ellison, and I would’ve loved to have worked on Invisible Man, which was brilliant and sui generis and, as we all know, one of the most influential books in 20th-century American lit. It combined modernist technique and folk idiom and was full of ideas about politics and culture and identity, all held together by an incredibly entertaining picaresque – and that remains in my mind the model of the sort of book I love to work on, books that offer interesting technique and style and provocative ideas, bundled in great storytelling. And the Ellison that labored for years over Invisible Man is the kind of writer I’m always looking for: intellectually and artistically restless, someone who wants more than anything to create something different from anything that has ever been written before, whether it’s a novel or narrative journalism or history or humor. That’s what makes Ellison so special to me, for all his possible faults as a human (which Rampersad’s book also gets into): he was committed to creating something original and necessary. That may also be part of the reason he never finished a second novel, of course, but still, that first one was a doozy.