Legendary book editor Jonathan Galassi has been at Farrar, Straus and Giroux since 1986 and is now its president and publisher. So why is his rambunctious, captivating first novel, Muse, being published by a rival?
“Oh, I don’t think it would be kosher for us to publish it,” Galassi says during a call to his office in New York. “It would seem like a strange kind of nepotism. Besides, I’d like to feel that my book is legitimate, that it’s being published because someone liked it, not because they had to.”
Muse is certainly legitimate—and more than likable. In fact, it’s quite funny and revelatory about an almost-lost world of literary publishing. The novel tells the story of a clash of publishing titans—Homer Stern and Sterling Wainwright—waging long-term war over, well, just about everything. But especially over Ida Perkins, a poet as famous as Ernest Hemingway and as enigmatic as J.D. Salinger. The novel’s protagonist is Paul Dukach, a bookish young man who idolizes Perkins and becomes the foremost authority on her life and work and, eventually, a sort of adopted son of both publishers.
Muse is, as Galassi writes in the preface, “a love story. It’s about the good old days, when men were men and women were women and books were books, with glued or even sewn bindings, cloth or paper covers, with beautiful or not-so-beautiful jackets and a musty, dusty, wonderful smell. . . .”
“They say write what you know,” Galassi says regarding the origins of his novel. “The two old-lion publishers are based on people that I did know very well and admired a lot. They were both very engaging and witty people. And they did hate each other. I thought it was a good setup for a look at the publishing business as it used to be.”
“Big egos have big libidos. Having a big ego makes you insufferable in a way, but it also lets you do things, don’t you think?"
As portrayed by Galassi, publishers Stern and Wainwright are anything but madam-librarian type book people. They are operatic in their competitiveness and their libidos. “That’s all drawn from life,” Galassi says. “Big egos have big libidos. Having a big ego makes you insufferable in a way, but it also lets you do things, don’t you think? There’s something kind of heroic in a monstrous way about it.” His portraits of these publishers are, Galassi says, “part of the swashbuckling, lovingly satirical, comedic tone of the book.”
Although he doesn’t quite admit to it, the milder, more diplomatic character of Paul Dukach probably arises from Galassi’s own sensibilities. Galassi is often described as the most gentlemanly editor in the business.
The poet Ida Perkins, however, is pure invention, a character that Galassi clearly loved imagining into life. Muse includes a puckishly inventive “concise bibliography” of Perkins’ work that will make an unsuspecting reading wonder why he has not read any of these inspired works of poetry. It also includes a selection from Perkins’ final collection of poems in which the novel’s protagonist discovers “an onion skin atom bomb” that will alter the balance of power among his contending father figures.
“There’s chutzpah involved in writing those poems,” Galassi admits. “But the thing about the book is that it’s not meant to be realistic. Of course those poems would not be the greatest poems of the century, but there is something that makes them plausible. I loved writing them. They’re not my poems. They’re her poems. They’re in her voice. Part of the fun of it was trying to ventriloquize. It’s all part of this pastiche of literary life, literary culture.”
Galassi, by the way, is a well-regarded poet himself and an accomplished translator of Italian poets Eugenio Montale and Giacomo Leopardi. He was poetry editor of The Paris Review for a decade. His most recent volume of poetry, Left-handed, is a semi-autobiographical exploration of the emotional disruption a middle-aged man experiences as his long-term marriage ends and he falls in love with a younger man.
Galassi says that after finishing Left-handed, “which has a kind of narrative arc,” he felt he should try writing a novel. “I’d always thought I could never do that. I work with all these people who write novels. I admire what they do, and I wondered, are they really a different species from me? So I thought it’s now or never; why not try. It was a challenge to myself.”
Thus in his mid-60s Galassi began to write fiction every day “for as many hours as I could. And then I’d put those pages away and never look at them. I did that for a month. And then I put it away for a year. And then I looked at it a year later and decided I had something to work with. I was going against my own editorial faculty that might have prevented me from letting loose.”
And then the editor got edited. “Robin Dresser, my editor at Knopf, was very critical and very demanding. I found that I had the most difficulty cutting. I didn’t want to let go of this; I didn’t want to let go of that. I had to go against my desire to have pages. But what matters is not how many pages you have but how good they are. This,” Galassi says with a wry laugh, “is what I tell my writers all the time.”
Toward the end of the conversation, the discussion turns to the future of the book, a topic of concern in Galassi’s novel and for Galassi himself. He says that the tsunami of eBooks once predicted to wash away printed books has abated. “eBooks are a big part of our business. But they’re not the whole thing. . . . Books are still books. Many young people really want books as physical objects because book culture is not just about content. It’s an atmosphere, a world of its own, with a physical component. People talk about the ‘erotics of books.’ If you came to my office, you’d see shelves and shelves of books that I’ve worked on and that we’ve published over the years in all their different colors and sizes. Books are beautiful things. They really do furnish a room.”