I happened to catch an interview on the radio the other day: it was Terry McDonell, the former top editor of Esquire, Rolling Stone, Outside, and Sports Illustrated, talking about his new book, The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers.
McDonell has worked with many literary writers, cold calling anyone whose writing he admires and offering them assignments. Along the way, he's accumulated some terrific stories, and the most entertaining are (no surprise) about Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson's gonzo journalism made him "a magnet for lofty ideas and bad writing about freak solidarity," McDonell says. "Many admirers sent him page after page of their ramblings in the hope that he would help get them published in the magazine (Rolling Stone)." Finally, HT composed a rejection letter. Satisfying and horrifying, it began like this:
"You worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate shit! Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill in here again!”
Thankfully, he never had the opportunity to send it.
My favorite part of Accidental Life, though, are McDonell's observations about writing and editing. "There is no work like it," McDonell says of writing, "because it is so complicated to know when you are done" (exactly!). This is where an editor comes in; he continues:
"Riffing about writing journalism, Renata Adler wrote, in her novel Speedboat, about giving ‘a piece of sugar to a raccoon, which in its odd fastidiousness would wash that sugar in a brook till there was nothing left.’
Editors can help with that."
That's the image that will stay with me.