Galassi says his job is to ensure that FSG stays true to its mission of publishing important voices as effectively as possible. When I asked him what he’d change about his job if he could, he lamented that he doesn’t have as much time to read as he used to; he also wishes he had “more of that immediate engagement with new authors.” Note to readers: If you can find a way to make Galassi’s wishes come true, yours might not be far behind either.
I don’t want to bore you with a lot of questions about your childhood but I am curious if there were any books that had a big impact on you at an early age.
I was a big reader as a kid. I used to go to the little library in the town where we lived in Massachusetts and read voraciously. I read everything. I was in the Weekly Reader children’s book club and I remember loving The Wind in the Willows and Johnny Tremain and books like that. My grandmother was a big reader. She lived in Boston and would come down and bring books like The Alexandria Quartet or The Fall or Passage to India. I remember the romance and the exotic quality of those books. I remember what they looked like, what they felt like. Eventually all of my grandparents’ books ended up in our house, so there were a lot of old books around. It wasn’t that I would sit and read them all. It was more that I would pore over them and feel the textures of them. My grandfather was Italian, so there were all these books about Italy, and I would pore through them and look at the pictures of the different places. I was just very absorbed by books as a way of escape and as something to escape into.
But there was no particular book that altered the direction of your life?
I don’t think I can point to any one book. But I was bookish. I was very unathletic. I had bad eyesight. I was a typical geeky kid. I remember reading The Count of Monte Cristo when I had the mumps or something and just being overwhelmed by the romance of the story. I loved stories that had a medieval or foreign feel. I loved The Golden Warrior and books about the ancient world. I loved all of that stuff. And then I went away to school when I was thirteen and got very interested in languages and poetry. In high school I got interested in everything that I’m interested in now. That’s where I started to write and edit. I was an editor of the school literary magazine. I remember the experience of working with my friends on their writing and how exciting that was to me, and how rewarding it was, even more than my own writing. I felt a real sense of connection to them, and a certain effectiveness. That was a powerful experience. I remember that my best friend, who wasn’t a particularly literary guy—he was a jock, really—wrote a short story that ended up being the best story published in the magazine in our time. I was blown away by the intensity and the power of that story. I got a real thrill out of being present at the creation of somebody else’s work.
Did you teach yourself how to edit?
I guess so. My first job was as an intern in the editorial department at Houghton Mifflin in Boston in 1973. They just sort of threw you into it. Nobody was sitting there and teaching you how to do it. I think you learn it by watching how the people around you work with authors, and it happens almost by osmosis. There are many different styles of editing, too. It’s an apprenticeship. There are courses you can take to learn the mechanics of the business, like the Radcliffe course, but I don’t think they teach you how to edit. Editing is more by-the-hip. You look at a text and ask yourself how it can be improved. One thing I have noticed is that when you’re a younger editor, you’re more intense about it. As you go along, you relax a little. More and more, I feel that the book is the author’s. You give the author your thoughts and it’s up to him or her to decide what to do. One time [Jonathan] Franzen made fun of me about that. He didn’t take some suggestion I had made and I said, “Well, it’s your book,” and he sort of mocked me for that. [Laughter.] But that’s what I really believe. I believe it with poetry, too. The texts are so personal. Yes, there are times when I’ve worked with poets to edit their work, but usually you either buy into what they’re doing or you don’t. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be working with them, and if you do, you realize that they know what they’re doing.
What were the hardest lessons for you to learn when you were a younger editor?
One of the really hard lessons was realizing how much of a crapshoot publishing is—how you can love something and do everything you can for it, and yet fail at connecting it to an audience. Maybe you misjudged it. Maybe it didn’t get the right breaks. One of the hardest things to come to grips with is how important the breaks are. There’s luck in publishing, just like in any human activity. And if you don’t get the right luck—if Mitchi [Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times] writes an uncomprehending review, or if you don’t get the right reviews, or if books aren’t in stores when the reviews come, or whatever the hell it is—it may not happen. That was one of the hardest lessons: how difficult it is to actually be effective.
Another really hard thing is that, as a young editor, each book is like your baby. I remember wanting to publish Peter Schjeldahl’s biography of Frank O’Hara so desperately. I lost it to some other editor who paid more money, and I was melancholy about it for months. Of course the book ended up never being written. [Laughter.] But at the time I felt like a piece of me had somehow been sawn off. I wanted to pour myself into that project so much, and it takes time for that sense of wanting, and identification—which is what publishers live on, really—to relax a little. I see my young editors going through that and I empathize so much. But you have to learn to let go of things. That was a very painful lesson.
But when I was young I had so much reverence for writing. Elizabeth Bishop was my teacher in college—she was my favorite teacher, and I revered her work, and I loved her as a person very, very much—and I remember that when she would invite us over for dinner I would get almost physically ill. It was this combination of conflicting feelings: excitement, discomfort, a sense of unworthiness. It mattered so deeply that it made me almost physically ill. Caring that much was painful. I don’t know if that’s a lesson but it was certainly something where the intensity of my devotion was overwhelming.