Thursday May 5th, 2011

“There are bad lines in King Lear and it has survived.”

A 1994 interview with famed editor Robert Gottlieb in the Paris Review was passed around online this week. It breaks from the magazine’s normal format. Instead of featuring Gottlieb and an interviewer, It features him and extended comments by a chorus of writers with whom he’s worked, including Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton, Cynthia Ozick, Robert Caro, and others. The whole thing is worth reading, but below are three of my favorite excerpts:


Joe Heller and I have always been on exactly the same wavelength editorially, and the most extraordinary proof of this came up when we were working on Something Happened. It’s a deeply disturbing book about a very conflicted man — a man who is consumed with anxiety and all kinds of serious moral problems — and his name was Bill Slocum. Well, we went through the whole book, and divided it up into chapters and all the rest of it, and at the end of the process I said, Joe, this is going to sound crazy to you but this guy is not a Bill. He said, Oh really, what do you think he is? I said, He’s a Bob. And Joe looked at me and said, He was a Bob, and I changed his name to Bill because I thought you would be offended if I made him a Bob. I said, Oh no, I don’t think he’s anything like me, it’s just that this character is a Bob. So we changed it back. It was absolutely amazing. How did it happen? I don’t know. I suppose our convoluted, neurotic, New York Jewish minds work the same way.

Robert Caro:

In all the hours of working on The Power Broker, Bob never said one nice thing to me — never a single complimentary word, either about the book as a whole or about a single portion of the book. That was also true of my second book, The Path to Power. But then he got soft. When we finished the last page of the last book we worked on, Means of Ascent, he held up the manuscript for a moment and said, slowly, as if he didn’t want to say it, Not bad. Those are the only two complimentary words he has ever said to me, to this day.


I have idiosyncrasies in punctuation, like everybody else. Because one of the formative writers of my life was Henry James, it’s all too easy for me to pepper a text with dashes. Many people don’t like dashes. With Le Carré, I’m always putting commas in, and he’s always taking them out, but we know that about each other. He’ll say, Look, if you absolutely need this one, have it. And I’ll say, Well, I would have liked it, but I guess I can live without it. We accommodate each other. When I was a young firebrand it never occurred to me that I might be wrong, or that I wasn’t going to have my way, or that it wasn’t my job to impose my views. I could get into twenty-minute shouting matches over semicolons, because every semicolon was a matter of life or death. As you grow older you realize that there are bad lines in King Lear and it has survived.