I had written five books for Scott Moyers, following him as he moved from editing jobs at Scribner’s to Random House and then to Penguin Press. We worked well together, and in part thanks to his strong editing hand, my last three books had been bestsellers.
So what happened when I finished years of work and sent him the manuscript of my sixth book stunned me. In fact, I was in for a series of surprises.
They began about 18 months ago, after I emailed to him that manuscript, a dual appreciation of Winston Churchill and George Orwell. When I had begun work on it, in 2013, some old friends of mine thought the subject was a bit obscure. Why would anyone care how two long-dead Englishmen, a conservative politician and a socialist journalist who never met, had dealt with the polarized political turmoil of the 1930s and the world war that followed? By 2016, as people on both the American left and right increasingly seemed to favor opinion over fact, the book had become more timely.
But two weeks after I sent him the manuscript, I received a most unhappy e-mail back from him. “I fear that the disconnect over what this book should be might be fundamental,” Scott wrote to me, clearly pained to do so. What I had sent him was exactly the book he had told me not to write. He had warned me, he reminded me, against writing an extended book review that leaned on the weak reed of themes rather than stood on a strong foundation of narrative. I had put the works before the two men, he told me, and that would not do.
There was more. But in short, he pissed all over it. It was not that he disliked it. It was that he fucking hated it. I was taken aback—I had enjoyed the process of researching and writing the book. So, I had expected, a reader would too. No, Scott said, the way you’ve done this doesn’t work.
Partly, I was crushed. But even more, I was puzzled. How could I have been so off in my perception of my manuscript? This wasn’t a hurried work of a few months. For three years, I had steeped myself in Churchill, Orwell, and their times, reading hundreds of books, which were scattered in piles across the floor of my office in the attic of my home in Maine. The biggest of the piles was books by Churchill himself. The second biggest was diaries, memoirs, and collected letters by British politicians and writers of the 1930s and ’40s.
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Scott followed up with a lengthy letter—I think it was about 10 pages—detailing his concerns. I live on an island on the coast of Maine. I received the letter the day before a major snowstorm. A few hours after it arrived, several old trees along the road downed power lines, taking the internet with them.
Cut off from email and other off-island communication, I spent that snowy day reading and rereading Scott’s letter. The next morning dawned crystalline and blue. I climbed into my pickup truck and drove slowly over 15 miles of icy backroads to the library in Blue Hill, on the mainland, where the internet was still working. The whole world was sparkling. I sat down in the sun-splashed reading room of the library, powered up my laptop, and sent a note to my literary agent, Andrew Wylie, asking him if Scott, being so negative, actually wanted to back out of the book altogether. If he really wanted out, then I didn’t want to dive into the job of rewriting it.
Andrew’s reply came flying back, within minutes. (He may be the world’s fastest email replier.) He also knows Scott well. No, Andrew replied, Scott is just trying to emphasize to you how much work you have ahead of you to make this a good book. I found this reassuring. I even felt contented, for reasons I don’t completely understand. If Scott was still on board, well then so was I.
* * *
I spent the next five months, from mid-January to mid-June of 2016, redoing the whole book, rethinking it from top to bottom.
I began by taking his letter and his marked-up version of the manuscript with me to Austin, Texas, where my wife and I were taking a break in February from the long Maine winter. (Austin is a great town for live music, food, and hiking—and its winter feels to me like Maine in the summer.) I sat in the backyard and read and reread Scott’s comments. I didn’t argue with them. Rather, I pondered them. If he thinks that, I would ask myself, how can I address the problem? I underlined sections. At one point he pleaded in a note scrawled in the margin, “If you would only defer to the narrative, you could get away with murder.” I liked that comment so much I typed it across the top of the first page of the second draft, so I would see it every morning as I began my day’s work.
The next surprise, about three weeks into this process, was coming to realize, over the days of thinking about it, that Scott’s criticisms were spot-on. I saw that if I followed his suggestions and revamped the book, with a new structure that emphasized biography and told the stories of the two men chronologically, the book would be much better. I emailed a note to Scott. “You are right,” it said. This wasn’t so much an apology as the beginning of the next phase of work.
“Only a good writer would be able to say that,” he graciously responded.
Next, I disassembled the manuscript. Writing is a lot like carpentry, hammering and sawing and sanding. In this case, I was like a builder taking down a house I had just finished constructing. Scott had persuaded me that my blueprint was off, so I disassembled the whole thing. I stacked my lumber, bricks, window frames, glass, and cement. And then, after a couple more weeks of taking notes on how to do it differently, writing signposts on my new blueprint, I set to reconstruction.
I dug a new foundation, lining it with solid chronology. I wrote a second note to myself at the top of the manuscript: “If it is not chronological, why not?” That is, I would permit myself on occasion to deviate from the march of time, but I needed to articulate a pretty strong reason before doing so.
That brought the third surprise. Making the text follow the order of events was easier than I had expected—and it made more sense. Anecdotes that I had thought could only go in one place, in a discussion of a theme, actually would fit easily into other places, where they fit in time. In fact, they tended to work better when they appeared in the order in which they had occurred in reality. They often slipped in seamlessly, not needing to be hammered in with an introduction or explanation. Like a board prepared for a well-constructed floor, they just slid into place.
The fourth surprise was how much I came to enjoy the rewrite job. In fact, during that time of redrafting, from winter through spring and into summer in 2016, my wife often remarked on how happy I was. When it was time for me to make lunch—usually I’d defrost a homemade soup—I’d come down from my attic office with a smile on my face.
Over the following months the new version of the book fell into place. I still needed help from my “critical readers”—trusted friends with writing skills and different perspectives who also read the manuscript at about this time.
One old friend, a seasoned magazine editor, basically told me that Scott was entirely right: Get out of the way and let the stories tell themselves. Another reader, a San Francisco lawyer specializing in software and communications law, pushed me to patch the holes in the logic of some of my arguments. Two journalist friends, one a writer on secondary education, the other an editor at Politico, helped me think my way through to a new conclusion that wove together the strands of the book—and, oddly enough, took me to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham City Jail,” an essay solidly in the tradition of Orwell’s best commentary. All of them made me think through again what I was trying to say, and why I thought that was important.
In the process, I went back and reread a lot of Churchill and even more of Orwell. The latter was the tougher nut. Churchill’s subject ultimately always was himself, so he lends himself to narrative. Orwell’s subject was the world, so he gave away little of himself in his essays and novels, and not even much in his diaries. In his daily entries there, he was more likely to note the health of his chickens than he was that of his wife, who would die of cancer at an early age, during World War II. But with time I learned to read better between Orwell’s lines. I also went back to the works of Malcolm Muggeridge and other intellectuals and literary journalists of mid-20th century Britain for more context. I think I found what I needed. It felt like good, honest work, like I had not only rebuilt that house but had used an improved design that made it more durable, and easier to use.
* * *
I sent the new manuscript to Scott in June of 2016, a bit over a year ago. This time he loved it.
In July, when I was in New Haven for a few days, I took the train down to New York’s Pennsylvania Station to talk to him, to do some planning, and to celebrate. We met at an ancient steakhouse in midtown Manhattan. It was a summertime Monday, and the joint was empty. Hundreds of clay pipes hung from the low ceiling, one of them supposedly belonging to Abraham Lincoln.
Over our Caesar salads with sliced steak, I asked Scott why he had been so rough on me the previous winter. “Sometimes my job is to be an asshole,” he explained with equanimity. I wasn’t startled at this. At one point on an earlier book, when I told him how stressed I was feeling, he had replied, a bit airily, I thought, “Oh, every good book has at least one nervous breakdown in it.”
Near the end of our lunch, Scott offered one more wise observation about the writing process: “The first draft is for the writer. The second draft is for the editor. The last draft is for the reader.”
At that lunch, he knew how grateful I was to him. Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom is a much better book for his powerful intervention. In retrospect, that first draft was herky-jerky and sometimes portentous. It also frequently was hard to read without rewarding the reader for making the effort. The final version, published in May of this year, pops right along.
That’s not just me who says so. Many reviewers have commented on how cleanly the book is written. So, contrary to my initial expectation, the hardest book for me to write became the easiest one to read. Readers seem to agree, recently putting this dual biography of two long-dead Englishmen on the list of bestsellers in hardcover nonfiction.
Most art has a public face—music is played, paintings are displayed, plays are enacted, movies are filmed and often watched by groups. Books tend to be more private, from one person’s act of writing to another’s act of reading. Most mysterious of all is the hidden middle stage, the offstage act of editing. Yet sometimes it can make all the difference.