You don’t have to work in publishing to enjoy Jonathan Galassi’s debut novel, Muse, a story that draws a lot from the writer’s own experience. Galassi is the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and the author of three poetry collections. In his time at FSG, he has ushered some of the most esteemed writers into the literary landscape, including Jonathan Franzen.
There are plenty of recognizable characters in Muse, including Paul Dukach, an editor who appears to share a resemblance with Galassi. But Galassi also has a clear love of words and the types of people, both publishers and authors, who are behind them. He’s concerned with the “romance of reading,” as he writes in the book, and those who “were loyal to their own sometimes twisted yet settled natures, modern in the old-fashioned sense.”
Salon sat down with him in his sunny, spacious Manhattan office to discuss publishing, past and present.
As a former bookseller, I was pleased to see an indie bookseller played a prominent role in the book. Did you work in bookselling?
No, I never have, but I’ve always loved bookstores, and I think booksellers are kind of the unsung heroes of publishing in a way. And when I was first in publishing, as a young editor, I would go around with a friend of mine, who was one of the salespeople, and we would go calling on bookstores, in Connecticut, in Chicago and other places. And, you know, it was such an insight into the actual place that exchange happens. So in the book I decided to make this woman, Morgan Dickerman, be a kind of conscience for the main character.
I want to talk about the history of FSG and how it parallels with the fictional work you’ve created, because many of the characters are clearly based on real people, like Susan Sontag and Roger Straus.
Well, I started out with these two men who are based on my heroes and then everything else is an ascending degree of fictionalization. The writers are supposed to be types more than real people….They’re supposed to represent the types of writers that we’ve worked with here.
Did you worry about how your colleagues would react when creating those characters?
Well, most of the people we’re talking about are dead, so I didn’t really put too much thought into it… But they’re presented in a — I think Michiko Kakutani said a “gently satirical” way. I don’t think there’s anything really terribly devastating in the portrayal of them. I hope not, anyway.
So how much of you is in this book, with Paul’s character?
I think Paul is not me, but he had the situation that I had. In a way, all these characters are in situations that I remember that are real. So then they are different people, but situationally it’s an accurate representation. And Paul was in between these two strong figures who are polar opposites, and there’s a lot of my inner life in Paul, I think.
Have you kept journals throughout your career?
I haven’t really kept journals, no. It’s all from just my impressions and strong memories, and, you know, the mythology of publishing. If you’ve worked in a company for a long time, there’s a mythology that you know by heart, you don’t need to look it up to evoke. It’s there in your blood, as it were.
Absolutely. Ida Perkins, the poet in “Muse,” is wildly famous and appears on the covers of Rolling Stone and Interview and some other magazines, and I’m wondering if you think a poet could ever achieve that level of book sales and notoriety in this day and age?
Well… The book is kind of a counterfactual, you know. So, it posits a universe where this happens, so… it’s not quite real. It’s a poet’s revenge, that’s what it is. It’s not supposed to be real, it’s supposed to be slightly cartoonish in a certain way. And some people have thought, “Well, it’s hard to believe that.” Well you’re not supposed to believe it, you’re supposed to get into a suspension of disbelief that allows you to live in that alternative world a little bit. It’s just like the literary history in the book is kind of potted literary history — this Ida Perkins is slotted into history as if she existed.
So, do you feel like people who are in the publishing world, especially those who’ve been in it a long time, are reading this book differently than someone in, you know, Ohio is, who hasn’t worked in publishing?
Maybe, maybe because they’ve been around and they know the place that a company like FSG has in the universe of publishing, or New Directions, or Random House, whereas to other people it’s probably a little more remote. But I hope that people who aren’t publishing will be interested [laugh] in the lives of these people. It’s really a throwback to another era, a sort of “Mad Men”-style vision of the more personal way of doing business, which is true of so many businesses.
In your first two sentences of your novel, you say, “This is a love story” and then you say, “It’s about the good old days when men were men and women were women.” I’m curious about the first part of that second sentence — I’m wondering what you meant by “when men were men and women were women.”
You could say that Homer Stern is a man’s man in a certain way. He’s a kind of blustery, type A, testosterone-driven character. He’s larger than life in that way. I think I say later on that people’s characters — that today we live in a flat world, and people pivot and they change, whereas people in this story are sort of who they are. Or at least, you’re supposed to start out thinking that, and then eventually maybe you see things in a different light. But it’s about an era where things were defined much more rigidly.
So, in some ways, you exaggerate, as you said, but it is, it was, very much like that.
Yeah, and Ida Perkins is super feminine, in a certain way. And it’s a sort of pastiche of femininity, and again, over time, I think that changes, but it starts out with people like Homer, who are seducers and men’s men, and people like Ida, who are the feminine ideal of a certain type.
Do you think publishing is still at all like that?
No, I don’t think people — I don’t think interesting people are like that anymore. I think we’re more sophisticated now.
You’re a poet yourself, and I’m wondering if you can talk about the process of writing the poems that were in this novel and what that was like.
I had such a ball writing them, because they’re much easier to write than your own poems, because they’re not mine. First of all, they’re clues in the story, they’re clues to who Ida really is. And also, the trick was to try and write something that could — of course, they’re not the greatest poems of the era — but they have maybe something that lets you imagine how they might have been that in this alternate universe. But also they’re not in my own voice, they’re supposed to be in hers, and… it was just part of the challenge of the book. Some people said, “Oh it’s risky to write the poems of the poet,” but, that was the fun of it.
It makes me think of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which is another example of fictionalized–
And Pale Fire, of course. I’ve always loved the poetry in Pale Fire, I think it’s wonderful.
So that was an influence?
It was certainly a benchmark of some sort.
What are the challenges of writing fiction vs. poetry? Did you notice a lot of differences?
Yeah, because poetry is not really fictional. It’s about trying to write something true. You sort of eliminate everything that isn’t true. The only thing you can really say in a poem is what you really, really deeply believe. Poetry is really about your mental state or intellectual, and where you are, and you’re trying to evoke that, explain it to yourself, whatever, you’re trying to dig into it, analyse yourself. I think that’s what happens in poetry. In fiction, first of all, I think you have a lot of different centers of attention, and you’re moving from one place to another. It’s about movement. Poetry’s more static than fiction is. The test for me in writing fiction was to try to open up, to say more, not less. And yet, as I learned, cutting was the most important tool in fiction.
Did you cut a lot out?
Yeah, a lot. I kept thinking, “Oh, is this book going to be long enough?” So that’s maybe one of my own problems. It was hard for me to let go of things, but when I did I was always glad. I missed them until they were off the page, and then I never missed them.
How long did it take you to write this book? I started in 2011 in the summertime, and I just wrote everyday without looking at it, and put it away for a year. And then in 2012 I decided I would go ahead with it. So from the summer 2012 to the summer of 2014 was when I really wrote the bulk of it. So two, two and half years.
Did you find it challenging to balance your writing time with your day job?
Yes, I mean, when I’m doing my day job I can’t write. I have to do it on weekends or summers … But I can’t come home at night and write. I can get up in the mornings sometimes — but my job is demanding, I can’t do both. But, it’s not like it was a burden that I had, it was a joy that I wanted to go to. It was a big challenge, but it was fun.
Did you share the novel while you were writing it with any of your writers that you edit?
No, not really. I had a couple I talked to about it, but I didn’t want to impose it on them. And also, they want me to be their editor. I don’t think they’re so interested in my being their colleague in that way. And I’m just a beginner, too, so I didn’t want to make that part of our relationship.
How did your years of editing come into play as you wrote the novel? Did you find you were revising along the way?
Well, no, that was the challenge. That’s why I did what I did at the beginning — I didn’t want to inhibit myself, I wanted to…give myself permission to write. The real fun of writing is shaping. Once you have the broad material, then you start to sculpt. So then your critical faculties come into play, but you have to get that lump of dough before you have something to work with.
In Muse, you write about an Amazon-like company. What are your thoughts on the future of publishing? Are you optimistic?
I think that I am optimistic because people need to write, and people need to read what other people write. It’s just fundamental to our culture…books are not as smack down in the center of culture as they used to be in the good old days, but they’re very, very important, and they always will be. I think that people who think that publishing is going to become self-publishing, and that this kind of activity is outdated are wrong, because writers need editors to understand them, and interpret their work — because they shouldn’t be doing that. They need other people doing that. So that fundamental activity of editorial activity is still the same as it always was, and that’s not changing.
Many things will change in publishing, and are changing, about formatting, about delivery. Bookstores fill a different function than they used to. In the good old days, people went to bookstores to buy books. Now you have to have an extra reason to go to a bookstore. It’s a cultural adventure to go to a bookstore. It’s not something people decide to do because you can buy your books online. But the discovery element of publishing is something bookstores are absolutely essential for, and a lot of serious readers know that, to be in that atmosphere where they can be open to things.
Do you ever miss how publishing was when you first started out?
Sure, I mean, that’s why I wrote the book! It’s a love letter to my youth, in a way.