In 1973, Richard Todd was a young editor at The Atlantic Monthly. His boss, Atlantic editor-in-chief Bob Manning, had just handed him a manuscript with a note scrawled across the top, “Let’s face it, this fellow can’t write.” The story was about a mass murder in California and its author was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop named Tracy Kidder. Todd disregarded Manning’s comment and worked with Kidder on the piece until it was worthy of publication. Seven years later, Kidder would win the Pulitzer Prize for a book that Todd had edited. The two men have collaborated as editor and writer ever since. In their new book, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, the they share the lessons they’ve learned from one another over the past four decades.
TON managing editor Christie Aschwanden talked with Todd about Kidder, their friendship and the art of nonfiction.
Good Prose describes a decades-long relationship between you and Kidder. How did this relationship develop?
Soul of a New Machine was almost the first book I edited, and so we sort of began together, and we’ve grown together in the business. But the other part of it is that Tracy is unusually open to editing. He’s done what is difficult to do, which is to involve an editor in the process early in the game. It’s great if you can do it, but it takes thick skin.
You recount times when Kidder would just show up at your house for days on end. Your relationship seems to have an unusual closeness.
Yes. You’re right. Maybe too close for comfort, is that what you’re saying?
Does it feel that way?
Well, it’s an exaggeration to say every day, but there are long stretches when we do talk daily. And we don’t go for very long without being in touch. When Tracy’s working on a book, he checks in with me about little steps, or to say things out loud or to read a sentence or something. It’s part of the way we work, and it has been useful. It helps that we’re friends and so there’s other stuff to talk about. But, yeah, it is peculiar, I admit.
One piece of advice that you give to writers is to involve editors early on in the process. But how do you do that these days, when people don’t use the phone like they used to?
Yeah, I guess we’re describing a kind of ideal situation. Some editors just don’t want to see things until they’re further along. And you can’t force yourself on some of them. It just happens that sometimes editors and writers develop a particular association. So it’s a very idiosyncratic thing, I suppose.
What advice would you give to writers who want more guidance or collaboration from their editor?
Writers have to be careful. They don’t want to camp out on their editor’s door. They don’t want to start stalking. But, at the same time, I think writers may be inclined to err in the opposite direction. That is, they may hide a little bit from the editors or feel that they have to have something perfect before they deliver. And with some editors that’s true. I think it tends to be a little truer in magazine writing. With some magazines anyway, you really want to deliver something that you think is absolutely right, because there’s a pack of people there who are ready to rewrite if you don’t.
But if you have one editor that you work with, and that editor is sympathetic, then you can try some stuff out. You have to feel your way. But, especially with books, I think people do tend to make the mistake of hiding under their desk until the editor comes looking for them. I’ve made that mistake. With my previous book, I wish that I’d been in closer touch with the editor before I delivered. Read more »