52: 597 Fifth Ave Charles Scribner’s Sons
What aspiring novelist doesn’t know about the fabled editor Maxwell Perkins? After leaving The New York Times, Perkins joined Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1910. He found diamonds in the rough, navigated them through the staunch traditionalists at the conservative house, and edited them into books that still hold our imaginations captive today.
Welcome to Reading the City.
Without Perkins, there would be no F. Scott Fitzgerald. A. Scott Berg won a National Book Award for his biography of Perkins, MAX PERKINS: EDITOR OF GENIUS (the film adaptation, GENIUS, starred Colin Firth as Perkins, Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe and Nicole Kidman as Wolfe’s jealous girlfriend). The stalwart defenders of the status quo at Scribner’s weren’t the only ones who hated letting go. Wolfe loved every sentence he wrote. A lot. Perkins had to convince him to kill his darlings, as they say. For Wolfe’s first novel, LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL, he had to kill 90,000 of them.
Every aspiring novelist (including the one now sketching literary sites in Manhattan) dreams of having their own Max Perkins. I first heard about him when I was a child and my father was taking a creative writing class at Columbia University taught by Gordon Lish:
It’s the custom for editors to keep a low profile and to underplay any changes they may make to an author’s manuscript. Gordon Lish is a different animal. Not since Maxwell Perkins has an editor been so famous — or notorious — as a sculptor of other people’s prose. As fiction editor of Esquire from 1969 to 1977, then as an editor at Knopf and of the Quarterly until 1995, Lish worked closely with many of the most daring writers of the past 50 years, including Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, Barry Hannah and Joy Williams. In an interview with the Paris Review in 2004, Hannah said: “Gordon Lish was a genius editor. A deep friend and mentor. He taught me how to write short stories. He would cross out everything so there’d be like three lines left, and he would be right.”
That thing tacked on at the end there about Gordon Lish crossing everything out shaped me when I was a child. It shaped me like a blacksmith’s hammer pounding a molten sheet of metal into a semblance of a blade. My father would come back to Brooklyn, where I was born and raised, and he would inflict everything he learned in class on me. He would make me write short stories so he could cross everything out and tell me why. I didn’t have vodka to numb the pain the way my grown father did, so I had to take it straight.
Max Perkins and his wife Ouisie had five daughters. In the summers his wife and daughters went to Vermont while he stayed in New York to work. When he was away from them, he wrote to one daughter every day in turn. Those letters are a book. My father doesn’t write often. He did send me a card once, a skeleton sitting at a typewriter to remind me “who you are and why you do what you do.”
And it’s true, I write every day. It is the one constant in my life. It is my dream. I have a mountain of manuscripts, including the one I’ve been writing for the past seven years. I just sent it to my agent Anna Sproul-Latimer of Neon Literary. As a lifelong New Yorker in love with the publishing industry, books and writing, I dreamed of having the perfect agent as much as I did of having my own version of Max Perkins. Standing in front of the old Charles Scribner’s Sons today, marveling that it is now a Club Monaco, I thought of her. She sent me a picture of herself this morning, wearing a necklace I made for her. I wear resin bangles and lightning bolt earrings she made for me.
The city is not what it was when I was a child. It’s not what it was seven months ago, when we first started locking down. But it is a new world, inclusive, with voices we wouldn’t have heard from in the past. Those voices come from all over the world, from all walks of life, from brilliant minds we need to meet in the privacy of our own minds, sacred books in our hands.
New York is still the city where voices come to be amplified.
My friend Shannon Stirone sent me a map with 78 locations related to writing in Manhattan. I’m visiting them all to learn about the past, present and future. I’m falling in love with the city again. For location 48, The Grand Central Oyster Bar, click here.