Sunday in the Park
July 13, 2012
Max Perkins isn’t exactly a name folks associate with anything or anyone. Unless you are a geek of a certain ilk. The ilk of ink.
I was introduced to him well, actually his work somewhere around the time I became editor of this paper in the late ’80s. I had loved being a reporter, investigating a topic, interviewing sources, following leads and finally putting it all together in a story that explained or revealed or surprised the reader.
I had always been blessed to have good editors. Folks who took time to prune my prose when facts were required or nudge me to "dig deeper." Or even bluntly say, "I don’t think you have story here … yet."
When I made the shift from writing full time to editing full time and writing only occasionally, I was out of sorts. I was lamenting about this shift, and how grinding the editor role was, when someone said, "But remember how important Perkins’ work was. He might have single-handedly changed the face of modern literature." And I started reading about the former New York Times reporter who became a literary editor and was, eventually, allowed to find a few fresh voices to develop and introduce to the reading public.
Two of those writers became friends he lent money to, and encouraged in their complicated personal stories. Max Perkins took the gin-soaked pages he received from Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and wrung out the overwritten phrases until the sparse prose remained. He chopped the sentences and inverted ideas. He stuck by the fledging authors until they became literary giants. His work allowed the authors’ intent and talent to become polished and presentable.
I understood. My job was to get out of the way of my ego and help writers find their own voices and then shape their unruly ramblings to show their hard work and remarkable talent to the reader. I stayed in awe of the process all my years in that job. But I am best being edited, not editing. And I continue to have had thoughtful editors take my work and ferret out the nonsense and look for the soul.
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I have known Carole DeSanti’s editorial work for a decade, maybe more. She is a literary legendary lioness. She has taken undiscovered authors and catapulted them to best-seller success. Names like Terry McMillan, Melissa Bank, Marisha Pessl. Their titles range from "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" to "The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing" to "Special Topics in Calamity Physics." I have been in awe of her discoveries and her careful work.
She turns out to be a lifelong friend of a brilliant, creative, wacky friend of mine. And last night, when she read from a brand-new book entitled "The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R." in the tiny outdoor patio of the iconic King’s English bookstore in Salt Lake City, it was a magical moment.
And here’s the delicious part: This time the author was DeSanti herself. Between and beneath all the projects she has worked on she has been quietly writing about the interior life of a fascinating woman, sneaking away to Paris and buying books to research the period and having a secret interior life of her own.
We were taken to Paris in the late 1800s where there are beautiful bordellos filled with beautiful women in absinthe-soaked days and nights, in a city that doesn’t yet know it is preparing to burn. The writing was clean, the narrative rich and the characters were introduced to create a desire in the reader/listener to know them better. Much better.
After, at the book signing, with her friend Robin Whitney of the wildly creative firm Whitney Advertising here in Park City, she was charming and rather surprised to find herself the one being promoted. She is proud of her work but used to focusing the spotlight on others. In my brief exchange with her, I knew right away what I wanted was an absinthe-soaked evening where she would share all the secrets of her talents and tales of lives she has shaped and created and then edited out altogether.
"Are you ever going to write a book?" I hear that question often these days. And I have pat/flip answers that all translate to some version of … later. When would I find time? And which story line would I pursue historical fiction based on my wacky family, or a tale of Park City from mining metal to minding the mettle of the folks who stayed? Maybe a novel in a magical realistic world, or a travel/murder mystery in the national parks. But I think about it. I do.
Meeting someone doing such remarkable work, bringing powerful voices to be heard in a world filled with words but little literary-worthy content, was a treat. A craftsperson who has taken the bold, brave step, to place her own authentic voice out on the shelves. I am in awe.
I am hoping for a bit of rain this weekend so I can edit my life to travel to Paris, amid the petticoats and high-button boots, and the taste of rich chocolates and red wines. It seems a rather dreamy way to spend this Sunday in the Park …
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.