Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Essential Role of Great Editors

At the close of Coates’ recent interview with Chris Hayes, the host asks him if he’s working on a new book. The dodge Coates gives, not wanting to discuss a project-in-process, ends up being a terrific toast to the necessity of sharp, tough early readers and editors:

I do, I do have a writing project and I love you people so much, let me tell you how much I love you. I was due on this writing project two weeks ago, it was like two weeks ago and yet I'm here with you. How much love is in my heart? Here I am. I do, man and I do and what I'll say is, I love it and it's the hardest thing ever. Writing is so ... I want to talk really, I don't know if they're people who want to be writers, who are writers in the building. But I just want to talk really quickly about that process. And about specifically working with [my editor] Chris [Jackson], who is magnificent. I give him shit all the time but he's actually magnificent, best editor and publisher, excuse me, make sure I get his title right.

I have a note that one day, we should have put it in "We Were Eight Years in Power," and the note is, I wrote "Between the World and Me" four times. And every time I would submit a draft to Chris and he'd be like, "Hmm, I don't know. I don't know, I don't know." Basically, I had to go and rewrite before we even got to the level of actual line by line editing. So he sent me a note after what must have been the second or third draft. And it's just like 2,000 words about why this does not work. And it was so depressing. I remember getting it at the time, I think you have to understand about "Between the World and Me" is, it's a book that came out of my head. I had artistic inspiration in the sense of James Baldwin, the fact that I had been working through the death of my friend for 14 years at that point.

I had the fact of a black president which was sort of swirling around but I didn't know what that was. Even the idea of a letter came at the very end of the actual process of us working together. And man, I got that note from Chris, 'cause every time you're like, "Okay, I think this is it, I think I got it, I think I got it." And it's go again, go again. And I feel like at that point, I was well-known enough and this is how the industry works. Somebody would have published that draft. It's an inferior draft, it's not the same book. And this is, I've been blessed because this is actually the relationship we have even on this book, man. I turned in a draft about this time last year. Oh, I'm done, we're gonna go to line edits. And Chris took forever to read it as is his way.

But when he did, he wrote, he did a little bit of line edit but he came over to the house and he talked to me about it and it was clear that I had to rewrite the whole thing. This is my third time, I've been writing this book for 10 years, this is my third time rewriting it. But he's not gonna let me embarrass myself. You understand? I think I'm good as a writer, but I actually have much more confidence in the people around me because the people around me, they just gonna tell me, "It's not time. It's not time, don't embarrass yourself." I think a lot of writers, listen, I think talent is really important but I think what I have been blessed with, from the time I was in my mom and my dad's house, you know what I mean? From the period of working for David Carr. From the period when James Bennett ran The Atlantic. I had hard people around me. You know who just pushed. Do it again, go again, go again, go again, go again.

So if you like what you see, and this is why I'm always a little uncomfortable with this, what you are seeing is not some innate thing. What you are seeing is, go again, go again, go again. And that's the spirit I think of certainly good writing and any writing that hopes to be great. The bleeding on the page. And then bleeding again and again. I just tell him this all the time, I'm thankful to have a reader like that who push you in that sort of way.

Alan Burdick on Time

From "The Secret Life of Time," published in The New Yorker:

Years ago, long before I had children or was even married, a friend with children said, “The thing about having kids is that after a while you forget what it was like before you had them.” The idea was shocking. Busy enough with my own life, I couldn’t envisage a future self whose comings and goings were circumscribed, apparently happily, by the wants and needs of people half my size. But that’s what happened. As I grew into the role of parent, I sometimes felt as if I were taking apart a ship and using the planks to build a ship for someone else. I was building a ship across time, out of my time.

Hemon: "The Book of My Lives"

I’ve written before of the penetrating, often funny essays of Aleksandar Hemon, the Bosnian writer who, fortunately for us, calls Chicago home. His new collection, The Book of My Lives, is terrific, whether the subject is gravely serious (war, illness) or much more fun (pick-up soccer with a crew of fellow refugees). 

Here’s one opening paragraph I quite liked from the essay “The Lives of Grandmasters,” which has just been published online as well:

I do not know how old I was when I learned to play chess. I could not have been older than eight, because I still have a chessboard on whose side my father inscribed, with a soldering iron, “Saša Hemon 1972.” I loved the board more than chess — it was one of the first things I owned. Its materiality was enchanting to me: the smell of burnt wood that lingered long after my father had branded it; the rattle of the thickly varnished pieces inside, the smacking sound they made when I put them down, the board’s hollow wooden echo. I can even recall the taste — the queen’s tip was pleasantly suckable; the pawns’ round heads, not unlike nipples, were sweet. The board is still at our place in Sarajevo, and, even if I haven’t played a game on it in decades, it is still my most cherished possession, providing incontrovertible evidence that there once lived a boy who used to be me.

St. Louisans: Hemon, who I’ve heard read in town before, returns this Friday. Don’t miss it.

Remnick: "A Scandal at the Bolshoi Ballet"

Continually impressed by David Remnick, who, between serving as the bloody EIC of The New Yorker, has time not just to bust out whip-smart blog posts on Obama in Israel and Philip Roth, but to pen 11,000-word, richly reported pieces on, say, the Russian ballet. Here’s a characteristically wonderful paragraph:

I lived in Moscow in the last years of the Soviet era, when tickets to the Bolshoi were cheap, and I used to go whenever I could, happily enduring even Grigorovich’s agitprop warhorses “Spartacus” and “Ivan the Terrible.” There was something magical about stepping off the freezing, chaotic streets of the city and settling into a velvet upholstered seat, a million-crystal chandelier twinkling overhead, the balconies crowded with older perfumed women swelling with cultural aspiration and sitting with their adorable pigtailed granddaughters. When the ballet was bad, as it sometimes was, it was still a pleasant escape from newspaper deadlines and the antics of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. When it was good, I was entranced. But now, to watch the dancers from this meagre distance was to see them as if with binoculars: the sinewy weave of a young comer’s quadriceps; the palm-in-the-breeze articulation of a woman’s arm. After a while, one became aware, as well, of the pungent result of increasing exertion. “I don’t understand anything about the ballet,” Chekhov wrote. “All I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses.“

Stirring to John Ashbery

In this New Yorker podcast, the great Jane Mayer talks about food, kitchens, and using evening cooking time to let her mind relax and repair amid heavy reporting assignments: 

Certain things were good to stir with, and certain things were not good to stir with … Certain poetry. I used to stir risotto to “The Four Quartets,” which I thought had a very, very good rhythm. But I made the mistake of one day writing that I stirred my polenta to John Ashbery. When I saw John Ashbery, he was very angry at me. He said, “How can you stir at the stove while reading my poetry? How can you do that? That’s a terrible insult.” I said, “No, it’s the highest praise. I go through many things before I choose what to stir with. And it has to fill my mind.” He was really pissed, I have to say. 

C'mon, Poet.

"A Different Puff Than Yours"

Barack Obama, writing in his early twenties with confidence and style to girlfriend Genevieve Cook, as published in Vanity Fair:

Moments trip gently along over here. Snow caps the bushes in unexpected ways, birds shoot and spin like balls of sound. My feet hum over the dry walks. A storm smoothes the sky, impounding the city lights, returning to us a dull yellow glow. I run every other day at the small indoor track [at Columbia] which slants slightly upward like a plate; I stretch long and slow, twist and shake, the fatigue, the inertia finding home in different parts of the body. I check the time and growl—aargh!—and tumble onto the wheel. And bodies crowd and give off heat, some people are in front and you can hear the patter or plod of the steps behind. You look down to watch your feet, neat unified steps, and you throw back your arms and run after people, and run from them and with them, and sometimes someone will shadow your pace, step for step, and you can hear the person puffing, a different puff than yours, and on a good day they’ll come up alongside and thank you for a good run, for keeping a good pace, and you nod and keep going on your way, but you’re pretty pleased, and your stride gets lighter, the slumber slipping off behind you, into the wake of the past.

Steve Coll Remembers Anthony Shadid

At newyorker.com:

When he came to the Washington Post about a decade ago to serve as a correspondent, I was working as an editor at the paper. I asked a standard job-interview question about his goals in the years ahead, and he provided one of the most striking, emphatic answers I can recall from countless discussions of that type: He intended to move to the Middle East, to chronicle in every dimension possible the upheavals in Arab societies that would inevitably follow the September 11th attacks, and to do nothing else, professionally. If we, the Post, would facilitate this ambition, he would be grateful, but that was the only job he was interested in or would be for years to come, he said. It is rare for anyone—never mind a writer—to possess such clarity. And Shadid carried out his plan exactly as he said he would, just not for the full measure of years that we would have wished.

Harper's: "What happened in Vegas"

An entertaining exchange, which the magazine introduces this way:

From The Lifespan of a Fact, by writer John D’Agata and Jim Fingal, published in February 2012 by W. W. Norton. In 2005, as an intern at The Believer, Fingal began fact-checking D’Agata’s article on the 2002 suicide of Las Vegas teenager Levi Presley. The book is based on emails exchanged by D’Agata and Fingal. The fact-checked article appeared in The Believer in 2010.