Robert Gottlieb edited Caro, le Carré and ‘Catch-22’ but it will be ‘invisible’: NPR
Thomas Victor/Courtesy of Estate of Thomas Victor, LLC/Sony Pictures Classics
At 91, Robert Gottlieb is perhaps the most acclaimed book publisher of his time. He started in 1955 and has worked in publishing ever since – as an editor for Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf and the new yorker. The list of authors he edited includes Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, John le Carré, Katharine Graham, Bill Clinton, Nora Ephron, and Michael Crichton.
“He’s edited and published so many great writers over the last 70 years — and he still does,” says Robert Gottlieb’s daughter, documentary filmmaker Lizzie Gottlieb.
Lizzie Gottlieb’s latest movie, turn every page, focuses on her father’s decades-long publishing relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro. Caro’s bestseller in 1974 The Wealth Broker was an exhaustive examination of how urban planner Robert Moses reshaped New York and how he used and abused power.
Robert Gottlieb says he knew after reading just 15 pages of Caro’s manuscript The Wealth Broker that he had a masterpiece in his hands. Yet it took him a year to edit the book, not because Caro had written badly, but because Caro had written enough to fill two volumes.
“It was impossible that I could publish two volumes on Robert Moses. I remember telling Bob [Caro]”Maybe we can interest readers in a book about Robert Moses, but I can’t interest them in two books,” recalled Robert Gottlieb. “Finally, after years of amicable deliberation, we decided that we would cut 350,000 words from the original manuscript.”
The use and abuse of power is also central to Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro, now 87, is writing the fifth and final volume, and Robert Gottlieb is waiting to edit it.
“I think I was drawn to this story because here are these two guys who have been working together for over 50 years and are really in a race against time to finish their life’s work,” said Lizzie Gottlieb. “And the relationship between them is extremely productive – but also quirky, controversial and dramatic.”
Highlights from the interview with Robert Gottlieb
About the relationship between editor and writer
I can’t think of many cases of writers I’ve worked with whose work I really liked and whose person I didn’t like at all. Some people are more difficult than others, and more needy. It’s a very emotional relationship. A transference takes place as in psychoanalysis. The editor represents many things, and different things for each writer. It’s a financial relationship. It’s a relationship of trust. It’s a technical relationship. It may or may not be close. Some writers don’t want to be social with their editors. Others have to talk to them all the time. And if you’ll let them, I’d like to read you what they wrote on the phone that day. Not for me. So it’s your job, as a service job, to provide the writer with everything you suspect he or she might need and can make the most of.
About his dynamic with Robert Caro
Martha Kaplan/Courtesy Wild Surmise Productions, LLC/Sony Pictures Classics
I don’t really believe there is a power dynamic between author and publisher when the relationship is healthy. Both should be strong, have strong opinions and feel free and safe to express them in the most polite way. We’ve had some disagreements along the way, sure, and we can both be excited about it or through it. But overall, in 50 years of work, I think it’s been productive, enjoyable, except when it’s not. And it’s getting better. And in fact, our relationship has improved over the years. I can therefore say today what I could not have said 50 years ago, that we are friends.
About editing as a service task
Claudia Raschke/Courtesy Wild Surmise Productions, LLC/Sony Pictures Classics
I feel like it’s my job as an editor to make the points I need to make, and then it’s their job to finally agree or disagree. You know, I keep explaining or telling young people who want to be editors that it’s a service job. Our job is to serve the word, serve the author, serve the text. It’s not our book, it’s not my book. This is his book or his book. But it is very rewarding work. And I like the editing process. I like that as an editor. And since I’ve written a lot myself, I’m surprised to love being edited, because that’s the process I love. I don’t care if I’m the editor or the editor. It’s fun and interesting to see how you can make something you think is good even better.
About correcting Bill Clinton’s assumptions about working with an editor
It was in a room full of people—all his assistants and secretaries and who knows who else—and there was only a small part of me. … I think he said something like “Ask any of these people who work for me, and you’ll hear, I’m sure, I’m very good at working,” words like that. And I said, “Actually, Bill, then I don’t work for you. You work for me.” If you can get a silent sob, it was a silent sob in the room, and it went right past it.
We’ve never had any problems. At one point I wrote in the galleys of the book… I wrote: “This is the most boring page I have ever read. And when he replied, when he sent the galleys back, he wrote next to them: “No. Page 632 is even more boring. So you can see what our relationship was. It was truly wonderful, friendly and happy company from start to finish.
By making a name for himself as editor-in-chief of Catch-22
I was really nervous about it because it was such a huge hit and we published about it in such a great way that it was really what got me into the publishing business. And I stayed away from the book. I was always afraid that if I read it again I wouldn’t like it as much as I liked it. And when his 50th birthday came around and there were several celebrations and recognitions and events around it, I thought I’d better read it again because I want to see how I feel about it now in case I got asked. So I re-read it for the first time in 50 years and was incredibly relieved and excited to love it again. And I was a little amused when I came across a passage I didn’t really like and remembered that I really didn’t like it 50 years earlier. And by then the editing process was over and it was too late to do anything about it. So, like I said, I may not be great at it, but I’m consistent.
Whether he wanted more fame as a publisher, such as his name on the cover
Not really. I’ve always wanted to be invisible and inaudible, which is what editors should be. It didn’t work so well for me because for some reason, starting with the success of Catch-22, but for some reason I became known in the industry. Outside of business, no, who cares? No, I never wanted to be. And I upset my publicity managers because people wanted interviews with me and I didn’t want to do them because I thought editors should be invisible and unheard. To work. Shut up. Go for it.
Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.
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