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Analysis: State of the publishing industry
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Many of our guests on FRESH AIR are writers. Today we're going to talk about
books and the publishing industry with three veteran editors. Jonathan
Galassi is vice president and executive editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Among the authors he's worked with are Scott Turow, Tom Wolfe, Susan Sontag
and Alice McDermott. Galassi has a new collection of his own poetry called
"North Street." Robert Loomis is executive editor and vice president of
Random House, where he's worked since the late 1950s. He has edited William
Styron, Woody Allen, Seymour Hersch, Maya Angelou and Edmund Morris. Michael
Korda has been editor in chief of Simon & Schuster's Trade Division since
1968. He's edited books by Graham Greene, Jackie Collins, Harold Robbins,
Mary Higgins Clark and Presidents Nixon and Reagan. Korda has also written
several best-sellers. His latest book is a memoir about his life in
publishing called "Another Life."
I asked each editor to name a current or recent book they edited that has done
well and what they feel its success says about the state of publishing.
Jonathan Galassi mentioned the new Seamus Heaney translation of the epic poem
"Beowulf", which is believed to date back to the 8th century. I asked him
how it managed to become a best-seller.
Mr. JONATHAN GALASSI (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): Well, a lot of things
happened. It won the Wootbred Book of the Year Prize(ph) in England. It got
ecstatic reviews--Seamus Heaney himself is a very highly regarded and loved
poet who won the Nobel Prize. It's been--had a lot of ribbons pinned on it.
But I think that it's not so exceptional actually, Terry. I think that if you
look at what's published and what breaks into the front of notice, very
regularly there are books of real literary merit that do find big readerships.
It's wonderful. I love it. It's exciting. But I don't think it's totally a
GROSS: What are the other examples you're thinking of?
Mr. GALASSI: Well, a few years ago we had "Birthday Letters" by Ted Hughes,
which was his poems about his marriage to Sylvia Plath. That was another
poetry book that was also--it was number five, I think, on The Times
Bestseller List. So that's another book in this particular category.
GROSS: Bob Loomis, executive editor and vice president of Random House,
what's a current or recent book that you've had on the best-seller list, and
what does that say to you about the state of reading and publishing?
Mr. BOB LOOMIS (Random House): Well, you asked Jonathan about a separate
book, and I'd like to mention Michael Korda's book, because we did his
autobiography in publishing, which was a marvelous book, and we had so much
fun with it, because it was about our business, and people really related to
it. But more recently, a book called "Dutch," which is by Edmund Morris and
it was a biography of Ronald Reagan, which stirred up more storm and more
copy than any book I've ever been involved with. The historians, many of
them, took it to task because Edmund created a character who was a witness
throughout Reagan's life, even though he did not impinge on his life.
GROSS: A fictional character he created.
Mr. LOOMIS: A fictional character. And the political people who felt that
Edmund had had access to Reagan and his White House that no one else had and
he did not, therefore, delve very deeply into things like Iran-Contra. But
the book really is a piece of literature, and it's being read that way now.
We're going to bring it out in Modern Library this next season. It's an
absolutely superb, stunning book and I think Edmund's a genius.
GROSS: This must have been a tough book for you, though, because how many
years was it in the making?
Mr. LOOMIS: Maybe 14 years.
GROSS: OK. So that's a long time to wait for a book, number one. And number
two, I think what was supposed to be a much more conventional biography, and
then years down the road after he had started the book, Edmund Morris decided
to make it a kind of mixture of fiction and biography by adding this fictional
observer. What were your thoughts when he wanted to do that? Did you think,
`Uh-oh, this is going to be a real problem?'
Mr. LOOMIS: I did at first, and then I saw how he was going it. And I knew
it would cause problems, but the fact is that he was able, by this method, to
bring Reagan to life in a way no one else had. None of the other biographies
really got at him as a person, it seemed to me, and understood him the way
Edmund did and I think without that other viewpoint he could have not lived in
the times that--the way he did. He would have been simply regurgitating what
other people saw and wrote and said, and he would be kind of an artistic
rearranger. But this way he was able to really recast and to re-create
Reagan's life. And as long as he kept to the absolute documented truth about
Reagan himself, and all of the historical people around him, I think that he
did no injustice to biography.
But it is changing now. There's a book coming out in England now which is
actually an autobiography of a famous person, but now written by him. And
this sort of thing is going to shake up, I think, conventional biography a
bit, and I think it needed it.
GROSS: Michael Korda, editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, what's a current
or recent book you've had on the best-seller list, and what does that say to
you about the state of publishing and reading?
Mr. MICHAEL KORDA (Simon & Schuster): I guess it could be Mary Higgins
Clark's new novel, which seems to me to suggest that no matter what you do,
people continue to read the same books that they've always liked reading. I
absolutely agree that books like "Beowulf" will come along every once in a
while, and there's a tremendous market for that kind of serious literature if
it's tapped in the right way. But the truth of the matter is, if you go back
and look at the best-seller list in time, people were reading pretty much the
same kind of books in the 1930s and 1940s as they're reading today, and pretty
much the same kind of books and authors were hitting the list.
GROSS: I want to ask you where you think we are in the memoir craze, and I
want to start by reading an excerpt of a book jacket for a recent memoir. I'm
not even going to mention the title, because I don't want to--it's not like
I'm trying to say anything good or bad about this particular book, but it just
seems to me a lot of memoirs, the book jacket blurbs read more like hospital
case studies than literature.
OK, this book tells the story of a wife's search for independence and identity
while living in the shadow of her husband's battle with anorexia. And there's
so many memoirs now where just like the whole subject seems to be about the
person's dysfunction or their sexual abuse or, you know, their weight disorder
or medical disorder or something along those lines. How do you explain that?
Mr. KORDA: Well, I'm sort of disqualified from doing this, because I've
written my memoirs three times...
Mr. LOOMIS: And he had all those problems, didn't you?
Mr. KORDA: ...dividing my life up into different segments. And I expect to
go on writing my memoirs until I'm dead. But that too, it seems to me, fits
into an old, popular mode of book publishing. I can remember reading teary
memoirs, oh, 20, 30 years ago. So there's an enormous curiosity out there
among Americans--this exists hardly at all in the rest of the world--to know
about people's lives and to come away from the book both with a sense of
spiritual hope that person has succeed in overcoming this or that demon and a
sense that however miserable it is, your life is better than their's.
Mr. LOOMIS: There's also a deeper candor here. There's a feeling today that
almost anything goes, and if you will remember back, and perhaps you
can't--the magazines, the True Confessions magazines, they had an enormous
popularity, particularly among women. And, as a matter of fact, many of the
descriptions you just read probably apply to books by women about very, very
personal crises, problems and so forth. And these have always had an appeal,
and now this has sort of turned into a genre in which many, many people who
wouldn't have written a book, frankly, can come along and feel that they can
confess something awful that's happened to themselves and find a market for
it. And if they can write well enough, they probably can find a market.
GROSS: Let me read you something from--this is from a new novel from Francine
Prose called "Blue Angel." And her character is a novelist who hasn't written
a novel in a long time and he's also an English professor. And he's meeting
with his editor. And the editor's trying to talk him out of finishing his
novel and have him do a memoir instead and the editor says, `Have you
considered a memoir. You don't need me to tell you that's what's selling
these days. It has to have the juicy glean, the bloody smell of the truth.
And half the people writing them, well, nothing ever happened to them. Maybe
Mom got drunk once or twice, smacked them around a little. But you, my
friend, you watched your father incinerate himself on national TV. Writers
with childhoods not half so dysfunctional as your's are turning them into gold
Does that ring true to you?
Mr. LOOMIS: Just makes me grit my teeth.
Mr. GALASSI: I think that there has been a kind of vogue for memoirs,
literary memoirs, or quasi literary memoirs in the last 10 years, and it's
still continuing. Actually, Michael's company has the--the current fave is
the Dave Eggers' book.
Mr. KORDA: Yes.
Mr. GALASSI: But I think it feels sort of played out now, to me, that
particular vein. I think the--it feels like surfeit to me.
GROSS: Let me confess something. You know back in--I guess it was the late
'80s, early '90s, I really thought that the memoir was, like, the most
exciting literary form of the moment. This was the era of Tobias Wolff "This
Boy's Life" and John Updike's memoir, "Self-Consciouness." And then more and
more people, without those, you know, kind of literary gifts started writing
memoirs and they seemed to get just more mundane and more about the
dysfunction than the writing and the perception. And I started to feel partly
responsible for the memoir craze as one of the many interviewers who tends to
do interviews with people who have a personal story to tell, because it's a
very fulfilling type of interview. And I started to feel like I was partly
responsible as an interviewer for driving this craze that was starting to head
in the wrong direction.
Mr. KORDA: Actually, I'm sort of in favor for it. I wouldn't go so far,
Terry, as to say that I think that everybody should write a memoir, because
that's going to make far more books than we can publish or read. But on the
whole, I can't think of anything less harmful as a human activity than sitting
down to write a memoir. And even the worst memoir is usually much more
readable than a bad, illiterate or amateur novel. It has to be said that when
people are writing about their own life, even if they're only semiliterate,
they write a lot better than when they're trying to write poetry or fiction.
So I'm rather cheerful about memoirs, actually. And I read a lot of them. I
actually go to the Madison Avenue book shop and sift through them and come
away with bags full of other people's memoirs to read.
Mr. LOOMIS: Is that novel quoting you, Michael, that she just read?
Mr. KORDA: I don't think so.
Mr. LOOMIS: Oh, it sounds like it.
GROSS: My guests are three veteran book editors, Jonathan Galassi, Michael
Korda and Robert Loomis. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the publishing
industry. My guest is Jonathan Galassi, vice president and executive editor
at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Bob Loomis, executive editor and vice president
of Random House, and Michael Korda, editor in chief for Simon & Schuster.
What's the way you think the publishing industry has changed the most, say, in
the past decade?
Mr. GALASSI: Well, one thing that's happened recently in terms of the
selling of books that I find very exciting is the availability of books
through the--the multiplicity of avenues of access to books. The Internet is
one of them, and we're now doing 10 percent of our business on the Internet.
And, you know, not to beat this "Beowulf" drum too much, but last week we sold
3,000 copies of that book through one account alone on the Internet. And a
lot of those sales are added sales. I think Internet is very good for our
kind of publishing. Some of the books that we publish wouldn't necessarily be
available in a lot of books stores, including superstores. And so people who
know what they want can find those books very expeditiously on the Net, and
that's a big change in publishing.
Another change is the fact that very soon books won't really go out of print.
They'll be available, because the technology exists to print very small
quantities of books. So all of a sudden, many distribution problems are being
solved. Books are really universally available now in a way they haven't
been, and that is really revolutionary.
GROSS: Michael Korda, what do you think has changed most in the past decade
in the publishing industry?
Mr. KORDA: Well, I think the thing that's changed the most is that publishing
houses were formerly relatively small. Everybody in the house tended to be on
one or at the most two floors and knew each other by name and by face. And
the editors were regarded as a group of people who had to be cosseted,
protected from the realities of the world, and who were essentially individual
entrepreneurs operating within a publishing house. That's changed very
Publishing has become a much bigger business. Most publishing houses are now
so huge that you can't know or remember the names of almost anybody. And the
editor has sort of descended rapidly down the totem pole, his place, or her
place, having been taken by merchandisers, by planners, by financial
executives, by marketers of one kind or another. That's a huge change and
it's difficult as yet to access whether that's good or bad for the business or
good or bad for writers. I think it's probably, in some respects, bad for
writers. I think writers had a better time of it when the editors had more
leeway, had more capacity for making independent decisions and when they could
more easily stir the organization up around a single book quickly and
personally. That's now a very ponderous process in most publishing houses.
GROSS: Bob Loomis, you're executive editor at Random House, which is a
huge--part of a huge company. I mean, to give our listeners a sense of how
huge, Random House now includes Random House, Times Books, Villard, Knopf,
Crown, Vantage, Pantheon, Schocken, Ballantine, Ivy, Modern Library, Bantam
Doubleday Dell, Delacorte, Anchor, Dial and Clarkson Potter presses. I mean,
this is all under the banner of Bertelsman, the German company...
Mr. LOOMIS: Could you send me a copy of that list?
GROSS: That's what I...
Mr. KORDA: ...(Unintelligible)
GROSS: I mean, can you even remember all of that? And so anyways, all these
companies are now owned by the German company Bertelsman. It's just so
confusing. So, Bob Loomis, as executive editor at Random House, do you feel
that a lot of editorial decisions are now in the hand of other corporate
decision makers in marketing and publicity?
Mr. LOOMIS: Not at all. No, it is that clear cut. To save ourselves, we
try to keep all of these companies that you named separate in some way.
They're editorially separate. They usually have a separate sales force, a
separate advertising company, separate publicity, even separate production, so
that we operate within the larger company as a more or less independent unit.
Obviously the money is another problem I should have mentioned. That is a big
difference in this business. Money does rule, and it never did in the same
way before, because the risks weren't so great. To buy a book now, we often
pay--often pay--far more than it earns back. And so part of our profit that
we make has to go towards making up that loss. A few big books can save you,
but it's pretty hard just to buy big books. And all of us here like big
books, of course, because they're very exciting, but we also like what they
call a mid-list book. Those are almost all my personal favorites. And they
are harder in a way to publish, because they are up against the financial kind
of big boys and the financial budgets and the attention that's paid and the
attention the stores pay, particularly the chains, so that you feel as though
your a stepchild sometimes. At least I do.
But we do try to keep our individual identity and within that group you read,
all those companies are doing variously well. I mean, it's not a homogeneous
thing at all. And I think as long as we do well, we're pretty much let alone.
Don't you find that, Michael?
Mr. KORDA: I think that's an optimistic view.
Mr. LOOMIS: OK.
Mr. KORDA: I hope that will be the case.
Mr. LOOMIS: I hope it will be.
Mr. KORDA: I am very doubtful. I mean, I have--first of all, until some
miracle comes along, and maybe the e-book is going to be it, or maybe the
flowering of--as Jonathan says, Internet book publishing will be it, or maybe
it will be some combination of those two things. What I see are publishing
houses that are becoming huge with enormous support staffs, enormous marketing
staffs, a vast amount of bureaucracy and paperwork--all of them very extensive.
And it remains to be demonstrated that the editors, whatever their input may
be within these structures, can actually produce it and that the American book
business could actually sell enough copies to support these large animals.
In short, I feel about them a little bit the way that an intelligent person
might have felt about the dinosaur had he gone back in time and looked at the
dinosaurs, which is, `Yeah, they look terrific, they're very exciting, they're
big. In their own way they're efficient. But can the landscape, in fact,
support an awful lot of these large animals that eat that much over a long
period of time?' And I'm not sure that that particular point has been
answered. And if it's answered negatively there will be something like a
publishing catastrophe. Because the actual sales of books, the number of
books that are being sold, is not so much larger than it was--if indeed it is
any larger--five years ago or 10 years ago, and yet the companies doing it are
twice the size, three times the size, 10 times the size and with vastly larger
and more expensive staffs.
GROSS: We'll continue this discussion on the second half of the show with
book editors Michael Korda, Robert Loomis and Jonathan Galassi. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Coming up, Stacy Schiff talks about her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of
Vera Nabokov, the wife of Vladimir Nabokov. The book explores the impact the
self-effacing woman had on her husband's work. Also we continue our
discussion with three book editors about the state of the publishing industry.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Let's continue our discussion about the publishing industry. My guests are
three veteran editors: Jonathan Galassi, vice president and executive editor
at Farrar, Straus & Giroux; Robert Loomis, executive editor and vice president
of Random House; and Michael Korda, editor in chief of Simon & Schuster.
When we left off, we were talking about the impact of corporate mergers and
takeovers on the publishing industry. I asked Jonathan Galassi to describe
how that pertains to his company, Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
Mr. GALASSI: We--until about five years ago, Farrar, Straus was one of the
last of small publishers that Michael was talking about, sort of valiantly
struggling on in the--with all the behemoths around us. But we--five years
ago, we became part of the Holtzbrink Group, which is another large German
company with a more modest American presence than the two that my friends here
work for. And so far, I've found that being part of a group, the benefits of
that have far outweighed the difficulties. We have more freedom, we have more
access to cash, etc., so we're in better shape now than we were five years
ago, I think.
Now I understand the reservations that Michael and Bob have about the way
business goes, and you never know how it goes, but I think that the fact is
that publishing in America has come down to five or six of these big
behemoths, and part of it is because of the financial pressure that--the
revolution of rising expectation among authors has created in the publishing
business. That's probably the biggest change in the past 30 years, wouldn't
you two say?
GROSS: Wait, wait. What do you mean by the revolution of rising expectations
Mr. GALASSI: Well, I think when I started out in publishing about 25 years
ago, the amounts of money were much more modest, much more reasonable, even
for the big authors. They weren't expecting to be paid every penny and then
some of what they were going to earn on a book at the moment they signed the
contract, and it wasn't even written. And now, that's very often the case,
and I think that pressure has--it's like a wrestling match. All of a sudden
the author threw the publisher and all of a sudden--it used to be, maybe, the
other way around. It used to seem much more collegial than that. It often
doesn't feel that way now.
GROSS: Well, I think what you're saying relates to what Bob Loomis had said,
that, you know, that there's pressure for really big advances to writers, and
a lot of those books don't earn out the advance. They don't make as much
money as the publisher has paid...
Mr. LOOMIS: Yeah...
GROSS: ...the author for the book. So what's behind that pressure now to
give the really big advance?
Mr. LOOMIS: We've not mentioned one thing, which is--we take for
granted--which is the auction. That didn't exist before. Now we have an
auction for almost any book, any little outline that comes in is sent to five
other houses, and somewhere along the line, some publisher is going to feel
overly excited, or have a special pet feeling for it, or feel that they can do
better with it, and so you will sell it--it will go for a higher price than it
would otherwise, because there's this competition. And we have to buy books.
If we don't buy books, we don't have anything to sell. So we're in these
auctions all the time, and it's like candy with a baby. We all make mistakes,
we all get over-excited and we go ahead and do this.
The proof of why the money on that end has grown so much--look at the number
of agents that exist now, compared to, say, 15 years ago. You could look in
Literary Market Place and there'd be, you know, five or six pages of agents.
I don't know how many there are now--25 or 50, because that end of the
business, selling the book up front, is fairly lucrative with a relatively low
overhead, and if you can get a few good authors, you can do pretty well, so
they have proliferated pretty much at our expense.
Now that's the marketplace. We can't really say that shouldn't happen,
because it does happen. But it's a situation which is very, very difficult to
GROSS: I regret that we're out of time. I want to thank you all for talking
with us about publishing.
Unidentified Man: It's our pleasure.
GROSS: Jonathan Galassi is vice president and executive editor of Farrar,
Straus, Giroux; Robert Loomis is executive editor and vice president of Random
House; and Michael Korda is editor in chief of Simon & Schuster.
Coming up, we meet one of Bob Loomis' authors, Stacy Schiff. Her biography of
Vladimir Nabokov's wife, Vera, won a Pulitzer Prize this year.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Pulitzer-Prize winning author Stacy Schiff discusses
the life of Vera Nabokov, the subject of her biography, "Vera"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Vladimir Nabokov dedicated each of his books to his wife, Vera. One editor
dismissed her as `just a wife.' Stacy Schiff's biography, "Vera," tries to
understand who she really was and what contributions she made to her husband's
writing and reputation. For example, Vera was her husband's secretary and
typist, and helped edit and translate his work. The hardcover edition of
"Vera" was published last year and won a Pulitzer Prize this year; it's just
come out in paperback.
Stacy Schiff is also the author of "Saint-Exupery: A Biography." I asked her
why she chose Vera Nabokov as the subject of her book.
Ms. STACY SCHIFF (Author, "Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov"): I would say,
first and foremost, the Nabokovs seemed to me an astonishing and passionate
love story, and having written about a single life, I was interested in
writing about two intertwined lives. That was the initial appeal. It didn't
hurt that I adored the work of Nabokov and wanted to spend more time with it,
and that Mrs. Nabokov was a figure whom everyone else seemed to have been
writing around, and I was somewhat egged on by that very elusiveness. So
there was--it seemed to me as if there were a great mystery to be solved in
this case, and I think that was a large part of the appeal.
GROSS: How did she emerge in biographies of her husband?
Ms. SCHIFF: She emerged with this very deferential, sort of scrape of the
chair, Terry. There was always this sense of--to the biographer, `Thank you
for asking, but I'd rather excuse myself from this story,' and it was one of
those very telling exits, where you just thought this woman wouldn't be
protesting so much if there really were no story here.
She essentially welcomed the biographers, and then said, `Of course I have no
role in what you're writing about,' and then proceeded, in many cases, to
direct their interviews, which, of course, indicated that she had a great deal
to do with what was going on behind the scenes.
GROSS: Now you write that Mrs. Nabokov once wrote to a friend that a fat
volume could be written on the influence and inspiration a wife brings to bear
on her writing husband. It seems like such a contradiction, her saying that,
and at the same time always saying, `Oh, there's no story about me to tell.'
Ms. SCHIFF: Well, that was one of those little nuggets that eggs the
biographer on. That was, oddly enough, a postcard that she had--that a friend
had written her many, many years later, reminding her of a conversation they
had had in the 1920s just after the Nabokovs marry in Berlin, and the friend
reminded her that at the time she had said that this fat volume could be
written on the wifely inspiration. And of course, when I saw this, I fell
upon it with open arms. Finally, here was some validation that Mrs. Nabokov,
for all of her protests and all of her feints with the--with the biographer,
really did understand her role in the story, or appreciate her role in the
GROSS: Part of what Mrs. Nabokov helped her husband with had to do with the
practicalities of life. She drove, he didn't; she handled the correspondence,
she handled the dickering with publishers and other people over fees and
things like that. She handled a lot of the correspondence. When he taught,
she passed out the papers. There was a lot of thinking that maybe she graded
the papers, too. And at some point, you ask the question, `Did she enjoy
driving, or was she, again, the victim of her own competence?' Talk about that
a little bit. Was he the kind of person who was a brilliant artist but
couldn't really handle the daily practicalities of real life, and she could?
Ms. SCHIFF: Well, there, I think, Terry, the phrase `learned helplessness'
does come to mind. I think most of us, if we could, would be happy to bow out
from some of the practicalities of life. In the case of a writer with the
talent of Nabokov, it made sense for everyone concerned for him to let these
things go or to slough them off on someone else.
Mrs. Nabokov was a willing accomplice in that respect. She, too, thought the
writing came first, so it was no sacrifice to her to drive the car, to grade
the exams, to teach his class in his stead--her husband's stead. She enjoyed
doing these things, because in some sort of saintly way, she knew this was in
the service of a higher good, in the service of the art.
It also helped, I think, that Nabokov was very appreciative. He never for a
minute--or never for too many minutes, anyway--lost sight of what his wife was
doing for him. So there were these great and often very public announcements
of his appreciation, as were, of course, the dedication pages of every book, a
great public encomium to his wife.
GROSS: I think one of the hazards of living with a genius is that, you know,
if you feel your talent can never quite measure up to your partner's talent,
then what's the point of pursuing yours? Better that you should work in the
service of your partner's talent. And that's really a recipe for kind of
self-effacement and living in the shadow of somebody else. You must have
speculated, if Vera Nabokov was not married to Vladimir Nabokov, if she was
not married to a genius, what might she have done on her own?
Ms. SCHIFF: I did think about that a lot, Terry, especially--the
biographer's sort of worst risk is to sort of take his or her subject and move
them into the present, so I thought a lot about what Mrs. Nabokov had become
had she lived today. The intelligence on her part was less, it seems to me, a
creative, artistic intelligence than it was a critical intelligence. She
served her husband beautifully and dutifully as an editor, as a critic, as a
first reader, and I think there was almost--she would almost have become an
academic. There was more of that sort of parsing the prose intelligence than
there was actually creating the work.
Before she meets him, she is a translator, and translates very obscure
Bulgarian prose into Russian, does some translations of Edgar Allan Poe into
Russian, and that, I think--her talents as a translator and as a critic were
her eminent--her preeminent talents, really.
GROSS: Now you say that "Lolita" owes her birth to Vladimir Nabokov, but owes
her life to Mrs. Nabokov, because Mrs. Nabokov saved the manuscript from the
fire. What's the story behind that?
Ms. SCHIFF: Well, Terry, that was one of those things that I thought was an
old canard. There was a rumor afoot that Nabokov had been unhappy with the
novel or unable to have it published, and so he tried to burn it. And as it
turns out, it is true, although it took me quite a bit of scouting to find
someone who was an eyewitness to that moment.
Basically, in about 1949--Nabokov begins work on "Lolita" in late '47--1949,
in Ithaca, New York, probably because he's unhappy with the work, not
necessarily because he's having trouble having it published, since he'd not
yet shown it to any editors, he decides to sacrifice it to a backyard bonfire.
And as he is feeding these pages into a fire that he's set in the Ithaca
backyard in a trash can, Mrs. Nabokov comes storming out of the back door of
the house--or so reports Cornellian, who happened to see this--and starts
fishing the pages from the flames, stomping on them and informing her husband
that we will keep this. And that is the end of this attempted incineration of
what we now know as "Lolita."
It would seem as if Nabokov just didn't--just didn't seem he could get it
right. He didn't yet feel he had the taste and the feel of "Lolita." He
mentions this himself, as having several times tried to incinerate "Lolita."
That's the only attempt that we know of, but there was certainly a long period
of time where he just wasn't sure that he could get it right, this ultimately
American novel written by this recent emigre.
GROSS: What do you know about why Vera Nabokov decided to save "Lolita" from
the fire, what she liked about the writing or the story?
Ms. SCHIFF: I think it was more a sense that this was a story that had
obsessed and would always obsess her husband. There had been a precursor to
"Lolita" in a novella Nabokov had written while still in Europe, called
"Enchanter," which is available in English. And it was clearly something
that was going--that he had to get out of his system. I think it was much
more this sense on her part that this thing had to be written, or it would
just sort of sit there half born and interfere with other things. And for
that reason, her husband needed to get this thing down on paper. I don't
think that in 1947 or 1948, either of the Nabokovs thought this book would
ever be published. I just think it--that there was a sense, particularly on
Vera's part--that it needed to be sort of out of his--out of her husband's
GROSS: This story's about an older man who's obsessed with nymphets,
particularly this one nymphet Lolita. So it is a theme of kind of pedohilia
and I'm wondering if this bothered her or not. If she--if it made her wonder,
well, `What are some of the thoughts that go through my husband's mind? Did
he ever have a taste for young girls? Why is he writing about this subject?'
Ms. SCHIFF: That is something I thought a great deal about, particularly
when, at a fairly early point, I came across a letter of Edmund Wilson's in
which he talks about how Mrs. Nabokov wouldn't let Nabokov's young
son--Dimitri was then 12 years old--read "Tom Sawyer" because it gave him the
wrong ideas about little girls. And, of course, this was years before--a few
years before Nabokov begins to write "Lolita." But you do have to wonder if
she felt that way about "Tom Sawyer," how could she have possibly faced the
manuscript of "Lolita."
The truth is she never publicly makes any reference to having been
uncomfortable with the book. She does write her sister-in-law--and her
sister-in-law is Vladimir's sister living in Geneva--saying we're afraid the
book may have stunned you, but read it to the end. It's a great book. I
mean, she's a little bit defensive about how this book may be received.
Insofar as her husband's eye for female beauty, I think she was very well
aware of it and I don't think that that aspect of the book astonished her in
GROSS: You mean, she was aware that he loved young female beauty or just that
he loved female beauty?
Ms. SCHIFF: I think female beauty in almost every form and I don't think she
would have questioned particularly the age--the application to any particular
age. Throughout Nabokov there's an amazing, luscious revelling in beauty and
I think that that was just something that she took for granted.
GROSS: Was she beautiful?
Ms. SCHIFF: Exceptionally so--as her husband was always quick to point
out--in a very sort of statuesque way--translucent skin, prematurely white
hair, very radiant glow to her at all times. And this was something that was
true in the early days--very pale eyes, very striking eyes, and particularly
later, when she gets to be white-haired with this very, very young-looking
alabaster skin and sort of agelessness because of it all.
GROSS: What were some of the most valuable sources that Vera Nabokov left
around? Did she have a diary that you could use?
Ms. SCHIFF: There was one diary, Terry, which I must say I used to a great
extent all throughout the book. The Nabokovs began a joint diary when
"Lolita" was being published to great acclaim, at long last, which is an event
that they thought was sort of 30 years too late, and they recognized very much
at the outset was about to change their lives. And at that moment sort of
what they called an advanced light of a great--advanced light of a great
event, they begin to keep this book jointly and it's very much the two
handwritings alternating on the page, the two voices alternating on the page.
I think it begins with Nabokov saying: `Vera went out to get a dress--to get
a new dress,' which is what one does when one, you know, is about to
anticipate this great rush of publicity. And the next line, in Vera's
handwriting is Vera came back without a dress. Shopping in Ithaca a disaster.
And it continues in that vain.
Ultimately, Nabokov becomes so inundated with her quest for publicity that
Mrs. Nabokov takes over the diary and the account of "Lolita's" great, good
fortune. And that book is very revealing in the sense that here she is
writing ostensibly about Lolita, but, obviously, all of it filtered through
her sense of Lolita's sudden success. And there are wonderful, wonderful
telling passages in it about how she truly felt about Edmund Wilson, how she
felt about being Jewish at Cornell, all kinds of wonderful little glimmers
that otherwise would have gone unrecorded. But because suddenly "Lolita" had
forced her and her husband into the spotlight, she felt--she found it worth
GROSS: My guest is Stacy Schiff, author of the new biography "Vera: Mrs.
Vladimir Nabokov." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Stacy Schiff. Her Pulitzer-winning biography of Vera
Nabokov, wife of the great writer Vladimir Nabokov just came out in paperback.
What's the most dramatic thing you had to do to get access to information that
Ms. SCHIFF: Oh, I'm so glad you asked that question. There's a moment in
Nabokov's life in 1937, when he is in Paris and Vera is in Berlin and he has
a very passionate affair with a Russian woman in Paris. The letters that he
wrote to that other woman have survived and I knew they existed. Tracking
them down and ultimately getting to read them was certainly by far the most
sort of baroque and difficult I had to do. They belonged to a collector of
letters--a Russian collector who lives in Paris and who dealt with me as if
this was sort of a high-level Mafia job. I mean, he sent--he brought me to
see him in a car driven by someone whose name I wasn't to know. Told me he
would--you know, we would meet at this undisclosed location. I was never to
know where we were going. I was never to ask anyone's names. And all of this
only because I had a document in my possession that, of course, he hoped I was
going to give him in exchange for those letters. So this was all done in
sort of, you know, cloak-and-daggerish in Paris.
We never managed to make that exchange of letters, but we did have these
wonderful sort of subterranean meetings where he would give me a glimpse of
some of the documents and then whisk them away out of the room and out of my
GROSS: Why the big drama?
Ms. SCHIFF: I don't know. I still wonder about it. But I'm delighted to
have been able to see what I did of those documents.
GROSS: What did you learn from those documents?
Ms. SCHIFF: Two things. One of them that the relationship was as
passionate--really as deliriously passionate as it has been painted before.
GROSS: The relationship with the woman he was having an affair with.
Ms. SCHIFF: With the other woman.
Ms. SCHIFF: Exactly. And really that was the one point at which the marriage
almost does dissolve. That was the one mere breaking point for the Nabokovs'
marriage. But also that, you know, to somewhat more reassuring sense for the
mortal among us. There are only so many ways you can phrase a love letter.
These very passionate love letters that Nabokov had written to the other
woman, in 1937, sound almost depressingly like love letters he'd written his
own wife in the 1920s when the two of them had just met.
GROSS: What does that say to you?
Ms. SCHIFF: That there are only so many vocabularies for love for each
person. I don't know. They're very--there are turns of phrase that are
stunningly similar. Even the way Nabokov comported the relationship bear some
resemblance to Vera. And then there are little--for the biographer
anyway--depressing moments. For example, when the Nabokovs were separated in
the 1920s, Vera would always leave her husband a calendar on which he could
mark off the pages during the time that she was gone. Nabokov does the same
for the mistress in the 1930s. He leaves her a little calendar so that she
can count off how many days have gone by until--and how many days will remain
until his return.
GROSS: Did Nabokov have many affairs with other women?
Ms. SCHIFF: That was the only real sort of affair of the heart, I guess you
would call it. In that correspondence, he does confess--unfortunately to the
mistress, not to his wife--to have had a number of sexual encounters earlier
in his marriage. We don't know of Mrs. Nabokov ever knew of those at the
time or if she only found out about those when these love letters surfaced
many years later. After this, there are some flirtations. There's only case
that I was able to document of Nabokov having had a real sort of dalliance
with a student at Wellesley. But the real sort of heart of the difficulty is
this woman in 1937 and that experience is never repeated.
GROSS: How did that relationship end?
Ms. SCHIFF: With Nabokov and a great act of will essentially saying to this
woman that he couldn't see her again. At that point, he and his family were
in the south of France. The woman was in Paris. And he basically stopped and
said I have to go cold turkey--said I just need to go back to my family and
couldn't deal with the idea of having--of being torn between the two forces.
I think it really was an act of will. I think it was extremely difficult for
him to do so and you can hear that--you can hear that sense of being torn
apart very clearly in the letters.
GROSS: Does Vera's contributions to her husband's work in any way diminish
Ms. SCHIFF: I wouldn't have thought so in the sense that the contributions
seem to me to be somewhat ancillary. There is usually someone who performs
these functions, although it's not usually a wife and it's not usually one
person who does all of these things--who serves as, you know, muse and typist
and editor and chauffeurs and everything else. I do think, from some of the
reaction I've had from some prominent Nabokovians, that there are people who
see it that way--that there seems--that the sense of having this much emphasis
on the wife, to their eyes, seems to diminish the accomplishment of the
husband. So I think, yes, the book can be read that way alas. It certainly
wasn't my intention.
GROSS: I would imagine that there are some things that came up during the
course of your research that you could interpret one of two ways, or at least
one of two ways. One way would be, here's this really kind of smart,
talented, capable woman who is the unsung partner of Nabokov. I mean,
everybody knows she was his partner, but I mean her real contributions were
kind of unsung in her time. The other way of looking at it is, you know,
here's this smart, talented, capable woman who ended up in this relationship
where she was relegated to his shadows and was never seen as her own person.
Ms. SCHIFF: I suppose I saw it in the end as something of a paradox that here
was a person who took this highly subservient, very traditional role and turns
it into something which was highly untraditional, who took an almost boring
backseat role and turned it into high art and was happy--clearly happy doing
so. The only complaints--I mean, I kept looking for signs of regret and for
her disappointment. The only complaints really on Mrs. Nabokov's part are
about the amount of work she has to do, which, of course, was a function of
her husband's success which was something that she had been striving for for
So there's really no yearning. I kept looking for these signs of, you know,
yearning of some kind of ambition on her own, which her husband was preventing
her from realizing, and I couldn't find any. So it seemed unfair of me to
project that onto her life. She was a woman who was perfectly capable of
speaking up, of correcting her husband, of jumping in, of running
interference, of asking for credit where credit was due, and I knew that I
didn't have to do this for her. That if there were any of these moments, she
would certainly be the first to speak up. But I listened very carefully for
that sense of downtroddeness or that sense that in some level she had failed
to realize what she wanted and heard only the opposite, heard only this kind
of crowing happiness that what she had seen in her husband in the 1920s had
belatedly, but finally been recognized by the rest of the world. This man was
the great genius of the 20th century in her mind and there were people who
came around to that view before it was all over. And that was really what
Mrs. Nabokov had staked her life on.
GROSS: Well, Stacy Schiff, thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. SCHIFF: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Stacy Schiff's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "Vera: Mrs. Vladimir
Nabokov," just came out in paperback.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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