I could almost be tempted to resent Judith for getting my hopes up. When she signed my copy of her food memoir Never Eat Your Heart Out back in 1997, she inscribed it, "To Matt (our big new talent)...With admiration, Judith."
I was 24, two years at the Reader. She was a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship winner (and later she would garner a Guggenheim). She had been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the house that published Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor, two of my literary idols. She had been reviewed, favorably, in the New York Times. "Big new talent"? "With admiration"? I would have been giddy, except I was incredulous.
It got better (worse). She encouraged me to apply for the NEA myself, telling me that they wouldn't even consider me for a Guggenheim unless I already had the NEA. (Well, of course not.) She dropped tidbits from the literary table -- "They used to call them Toyota grants, because every writer who got one went out and bought a new car." I couldn't hear enough of this sort of thing.
Then, in 2001, she called and asked me, "How would you like an agent?" One of the happier days of my life. I remember just where I stood in the kitchen as we talked on the phone, and my face retains the muscle memory of the goofy grin I sported. I had all sorts of literary aspirations, and I knew that an agent was crucial for getting them realized. Now Judith was offering a reference, the surest route to representation.
I sent the agent some samples. She liked them. When she called, we talked about first, second, and third books. After my first manuscript went out -- a collection of columns I'd written for the Reader about being a young father -- Judith called to advise me. "If Norton offers you $80,000 and FSG offers $50,000, take FSG. It guarantees you a review in the Times, and everybody will pay attention. You'll have a much better chance with the awards people." I swooned and supposed I could make do with $50K.
But FSG didn't offer anything. Neither did Norton. Nor any of the other publishers we tried. The agent detected something missing from the manuscript, some element with enough weight to give it gravitas. She was right, of course, but at the time, I couldn't figure out how to fix it. I sent the agent the raw material for the second book. And a chunk of the third. Nothing came of it. The agent and I parted company.
When, years later, I managed to land a book contract (for far less money), I did have Judith to thank. It was (once again) through the use of her good name that I started on my road to finding a publisher. But I'm 0 for 2 on the NEA, and something of a seasoned veteran on the literary-rejection front. The "big new talent," as it turns out, has nothing on the big old talent.
So as I said, I could almost be tempted to resent her for painting my future in such rosy hues. But only tempted, only almost tempted. Because along with the promises of future glory, she also gave me excellent counsel about the day job, the writing that actually paid.
My first story for the Reader came in at 12,000 words, which editorial promptly slashed to 8000. I'm pretty sure that the 4000 words that didn't make it were all mine -- as opposed to quotations from my interviews. Words I had slaved over, little creative outpourings amid the dry reportage -- this was my audition piece, after all. I was sad to see them go.
"Honey, let the tape recorder do the work." That was her consoling advice. I can see how it might sound like an encouragement toward laziness, or even a dismissal of the writer's craft, sort of like when my wife teases that I am a "word pusher." But it was neither of those things. Rather, it was an acknowledgment that the subject, together with the person who knows about the subject, was the center of the story -- not me, and certainly not my prose. The craft lay in introducing the subject, in providing structure and order to the quotations, in making something clear and focused out of meandering conversations and collected facts. And then getting out of the way.
When I thought about it, I realized that her advice was steering me back to Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker writer who had long been my favorite when it came to long-form journalism. Mitchell didn't use a tape recorder, but he did reel off enormously long and rich quotations from his story subjects. I'll close with a bit from Old Mr. Flood, Mitchell's profile of a 93-year-old seafood lover who had refused to reconcile himself to the certainty of death. I hope Judith will appreciate the joke.
"Mr. Flood snorted again. 'Oh, shut up,' he said. 'Damn your doctor. I tell you what you do. You get right out of here and go over to Libby's oyster house and tell the man you want to eat some of his big oysters. Don't sit down. Stand up at that fine marble bar they got over there, where you can watch the man knife them open. And tell him you intend to drink the oyster liquor; he'll knife them open on the cup shell, so the liquor won't spill. And be sure you get the big ones. Get them so big you'll have to rear back to swallow, the size that most restaurants use for fries and stews; God forgive them, they don't know any better.... And don't put any of that red sauce on them, that cocktail sauce, that mess, that gurry. Ask the man for half a lemon, poke it a time or two to free the juice, and squeeze it over the oysters. And the first one he knifes, pick it up and smell it, the way you'd smell a rose, or a shot of brandy. That briny, seaweedy fragrance will clear your head; it'll make your blood run faster. And don't just eat six; take your time and eat a dozen, eat two dozen, eat three dozen, eat four dozen. And then leave the man a generous tip and buy yourself a fifty-cent cigar and put your hat on the side of your head and take a walk down to Bowling Green. Look at the sky! Isn't it blue? And look at the girls a-tap-tap-tapping past on their pretty little feet! Aren't they just the finest girls you ever saw, the bounciest, the rumpiest, the laughingest? Aren't you ashamed of yourself for even thinking about spending good money on a damned doctor?' "