Thursday, January 8, 2009

Armistead on Harvey Ginsberg

Armistead sent me the following to share with the readers. His first and former editor, Harvey Ginsberg, passed away in January, Armistead wrote the following for the memorial.

Harvey Ginsberg (1930-2008)

I owe my career as a novelist to Harvey Ginsberg. It was Harvey who, on a trip to California in 1977, spotted my fictional serial in The San Francisco Chronicle and wrote me to suggest that there might be a novel there. This was the sweetest sort of windfall, since I’d already approached my newspaper’s own publishing arm, Chronicle Books, and been told that “Tales of the City” was too parochial for a national audience.

At Harvey’s request I sent him Xerox copies of my first two years of work, and we were off and running. (My $5000 advance was the largest amount of money I had ever received at one time.) Harvey didn’t micro-edit me, but he offered a suggestion that probably rescued me from oblivion: He urged me to remove the murder mystery subplot that I’d invented out of fear that my daily readers might lose interest in the serial. “If you leave it in,” Harvey told me, “the book will be reviewed as a mystery novel and not a comedy of manners, and I don’t think that’s what you want.” He was dead right, of course.

Harvey initially wanted to bind “Tales of the City” with a metal spiral – a stunt that had just worked successfully for Cyra McFadden’s “The Serial,” a compilation of her own storytelling for the Pacific Sun. To my huge relief, the spiral proved too costly for Harper & Row, so I was spared the embarrassment of looking imitative. We ended up with one of the first new oversized trade paperbacks. The cover was whimsical map of San Francisco by Sausalito cartoonist Phil Frank; the back offered a key to most of the major locales in the novel. There was nothing to describe the contents, so the novel sometimes got shelved in the travel section of bookstores. It stills amuses me to think how many horses that may have frightened out there in the streets of middle America.

I may have frightened some of Harvey’s horses as well. He was a buttoned-down old-school kind of guy with highbrow inclinations, and as much as he championed my work I think my particular brand of breezy California faggotry was just too much for him sometimes. I remember his dry-as-tinder response to the photograph I submitted to Harper & Row for publicity purposes: “We’re still recuperating from it, Armistead.” As I recall, my longish blond hair was parted down the middle and I was wearing a tweed sports coat without a shirt of any kind. (C’mon, it was the seventies -- or maybe I’d just been overly influenced by Truman Capote’s debut jacket photo.) On another occasion I suggested to Harvey that perhaps we should let the public know that there were elements of “Tales of the City” that might be – ahem – of interest to the homosexual population. Harvey just sighed deeply and said: “Toujour gai, Armistead. Toujour gai.”

As his obituary made clear, Harvey was a private man, but there are some things about him I can tell you for sure. He was an editor who loved words and language and the process of guiding a young writer to the best possible version of himself. He was blessed with taste and intelligence and fierce loyalty to his writers. “Tales of the City” was hardly an overnight success – we took 25 thousand returns, if I remember correctly – but Harvey was wonderfully gentle about it, assuring me that a good story will eventually find its audience as he ordered me to get back to work. Thirty years and nine novels later I still remember his no-nonsense encouragement. And I’ll be remembering next year, I hope, when a musical version of “Tales of the City” is slated to open on Broadway.

So thank you, Harvey, for sending me off on this great adventure.
And bon voyage yourself.

The following is Harvey's obituary from Publishers Weekly 1/8/09

Harvey Ginsberg, a veteran editor who worked in publishing for more than 40 years, died on December 30 after losing his battle with Parkinson’s. He was 78. Ginsberg worked at G.P. Putnam's Sons, Harper, and William Morrow & Co., among other companies, and edited such authors as John Irving, Saul Bellow, Rita Mae Brown, Thomas Harris, Caleb Carr and Armistead Maupin. A graduate of Harvard, where he was president of the Harvard Advocate, Ginsberg won the Roger Klein Award for Lifetime Editorial Achievement in 1988.

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