Ronald Reagan’s 1987 State of the Union address was surely not the first occasion in which a public official deployed the phrase “mistakes were made” as a means of dissolving the responsibility for a scandal, but his use of it made the sneakily passive “non-apology” a perfect symbol of the near-universal desire to dodge blame for misdeeds, misjudgments, and missed calls.
With his new memoir, My Mistake, writer and editor Daniel Menaker takes a distinctively contrary tack: claiming his errors as firmly as he claims his triumphs, in a story characterized by human fallibility, unforeseen disasters, serendipitous discoveries, lucky meetings, and late-breaking reconsiderations. Along the way he renders an American scene now largely transformed or vanished: the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village; square dancing at guest camps in the country; the “brilliant crazy house” of William Shawn’s New Yorker, and the last pre-Internet decade of book publishing.
Menaker traces in compact, wittily staged scenes a literary life that begins among the leftist Jewish community of 1940s New York (learning folk songs and the principles of copy-editing alike) and opens into a quarter century at The New Yorker, during which he first apprenticed under and then took the role vacated by the legendary fiction editor William Maxwell. He then moved to a book editing job at Random House, where he eventually became executive editor. At the same time, Menaker was publishing his own fiction and essays, developing a sophisticated, trenchantly comic voice (which he draws on in his role as the editor of the Barnes & Noble Review‘s “Grin & Tonic” column). Through its snapshot portraits of family members, publishing icons, and geniuses genial and otherwise, My Mistake delivers an insider’s view into the personalities and institutions that have shaped the contemporary literary scene. The book’s final chapters — in which Menaker reflects on life through the lens of his diagnosis with lung cancer at the age of sixty-one — are a resonant meditation on the seeming accident of our existence, the astonishing fact that there is “something rather than nothing.”
That the book is as conversationally engaging as it is candid and sharp-eyed should come as no surprise: Menaker’s previous book was titled A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of a Conversation. So I was particularly pleased when he agreed to spend a good chunk of a recent morning talking about My Mistake, the nature of introspection and sensitivity in writers, how editors are like parents getting their children dressed for school, and why he thinks all great writers are comedians. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: My first question is a very blunt-instrument one: When did you first hit upon the idea of using “My Mistake” as your title? You don’t just use it there, but as a refrain, ringing the changes on the idea of mistakes, significant and insignificant, mistakes to be worried over, mistakes to be regretted, and those that turn out to not be mistakes but to actually be unconsciously correct decisions.
Daniel Menaker: Well, it came to me sort out of the air — because I guess I reflexively take on responsibility for things that aren’t actually my responsibility, and I think I say that a lot. But as a title for a book, it seemed to arrive totally unannounced.
I think it’s also part of what I have decided to call phony self-effacement — I like to think of myself and sometimes present myself as bumbling around ineffectively or even in a negative way, whereas in fact, inside, I think I am, to quote Wallace Stevens, the Emperor of Ice Cream. So this is all somewhat ironic. Which is an addiction of mine, irony. So My Mistake is supposed to cut both ways. It’s supposed to be serious, just as you say, it’s supposed to be somewhat lighthearted and falsely modest.
BNR: The most obvious example of the serious mistake is your feeling about the moment in which you kind of egged your brother on to play a position in a game of football that you were all playing, and he wound up with an injury with complications that led to his death.
DM: Yeah. I goaded him to play backfield in a game of touch football, and he injured his knee on the very first play and had surgery, a routine surgery, which led to a blood infection which led to his death. I guess I think of it as a mistake of mine, but totally normal and natural, born of an intense sibling rivalry, the kind of thing that kids do. I was pretty young. I was 26; he was 29. I knew he was growing up — he had gotten married, and in the race to maturity was way ahead of me.
That moment was sort of regressive. It’s like instead of 29 and 26, it was like we were 13 and 10, and I was just pissed off, and sort of said, “You do this now; I’m sick of this.” That seems almost like a different person now… If someone else were to tell me of such an incident at an advanced age, like mine, and that he really or she really couldn’t forgive herself, I would say that they were bogged down. I don’t feel bogged down in it. I just feel like it’s something that led to an enormous change in my life.
BNR: So that that moment and its resonating effects become kind of a leitmotif, but it’s not the story of someone who has suffered something that, in and of itself, inescapably wrote the story for the rest of one’s life. As you point out, that’s just an episode — and as you say, there were many, many factors, many aspects of chance that actually came in between. For many of our actions, we don’t know the possible distant consequences of our conversation with someone, or the proverbial train we miss.
DM: And we may never know. We may have consequences that we’re simply not aware of.
You hit on something that I think is really important in the book and in my life, and I think it does stem partly from this incident, and from other serious mistakes I’ve made, which is that it’s not so much a matter of forgiveness; it’s a matter of understanding that the past is the definition of inevitability. It’s not that I really had a choice at that moment NOT to goad him. I goaded him because that’s what I was going to do, and that’s what I did.
And it also leads to something else I say in the book, which is that it’s much easier now for me — as a result of this, and also as a result of the 45 subsequent years — to understand why people screw up and to forgive them, as I must forgive myself. I am really much less judgmental than I used to be, even of people who are rude or disrespectful or whatever. I figure, “Gee, that’s pretty much who they are.”
BNR: There’s a wonderful moment in the book where you have a conversation with the actor and writer Wallace Shawn, who is the son of William Shawn, the former New Yorker editor who was running The New Yorker at the time that you began working there as a fact-checker in 1969… You document wonderfully in the book this the sort of ill-matched relationship between the two of you . As you portray it, you are sort of a grain of sand in the oyster…
DM: Right. [LAUGHS]
BNR: So, years later you have this conversation with Wallace Shawn in which the two of you talk about him with the sort of benefit of hindsight, and he shows you a note his father wrote to you that you never received. You characterize it as a kind of knot-undone, a loosening. It seems to me that that’s an a very nice metaphor for what we’re seeking sometimes.
DM: Right, or something that seems almost, in a kind of gestalt way, wrong — that is, it’s wrongly shaped — being shaped into something more comely. It’s almost an aesthetic moment where the picture seems to come into better focus or it’s composed in a better way. I think that was a very fortunate and lucky thing, that Wallace found the note that Shawn wrote to me near his death, which was reconciling. It was as if someone had plotted it out. It might be the ending of the novel, in fact.
BNR: How much is that literary sensibility something that you find guiding your thought? How much are you thinking of things in terms of a story.
DM: I think it’s very important. I think that somewhere I say, if we’re reflective or possibly introspective, we try to find shapes and throughlines, and they may be not true in the sense of scientifically true, but they kind of have to be true if they are what we see. As I wrote the book, I actually began to realize stuff I hadn’t realized before, stuff that I’d maybe come upon in talking to therapists earlier on, but that seemed more trenchantly true and obvious as I went back over it. I’d say it’s partly being immersed in literature for so long and getting used to the idea of what a story is. I think if you’re at all thoughtful, you look back and you try to find a shape in your life, and this seems, as I say, like something…
I remember getting a letter from a patient of the same person I was seeing in my 20s and 30s, saying that the therapist involved had spoken to her about me in a confidentiality breach. He was a very strange guy and she wrote this letter. I remember thinking, even then, that she had given me the end of of the novel I was working on. I remember reading his note and thinking, “Oh my God, here’s the way I can end…if I’m going to write a novel out of these 4 or 5 stories, then here’s the way I can end it.”
BNR: The gift to the writer overcame any sense of outrage over the violation of confidence.
DM: Absolutely. In a way, it was the same with Shawn. I mean, it did warm my heart to get the letter, but also… That’s the trouble with writers. Don’t go to bed with them unless you want to end up between the covers of something else. Everything that happens to them is “material.” God help me, my brother’s death is material.
I remember feeling this way about the best writer I ever worked with, by far, Alice Munro. I met her a few times, and she was completely delightful. But I always felt that she was a little bit elusive, that she was not only in the conversations we had but also standing outside them. There’s a division in the writer, in a really…well, to pat myself on the back…a really serious writer, that things are material. Everything is material. It’s like a serious version of a standup comic who uses his marital arguments as material.
BNR: There’s always a kind of recording angel who’s sitting there on the shoulder, gathering the archive.
DM: Yes. I think it’s probably a little bit more of a curse than a blessing, and I think that’s why so many writers seem a little bit afflicted. I believe we are. There is some sort of… I don’t know. I just think that there’s a sense of a detachment and observation that interferes with living your life in a full way.
BNR: What’s interesting to me about that is that looking back… I read your 1998 novel, The Treatment — which you referenced a moment ago — after reading My Mistake, which was an interesting way of going about it, in a sense. Obviously, it’s fiction, but it centers on a young man’s coming of age while he’s in an intense course of psychoanalysis with a very opinionated and eccentric analyst. The Treatment touches on some of the same emotions that My Mistake deals with — but at an earlier, highly charged stage. Even though your memoir is such a direct and, in many ways, almost painfully unflinching confrontation with what was obviously food for psychoanalysis at one point it has this air of not detachment, but I would call it acceptance — or repose maybe.
DM: Well, I hope so. I don’t know if I had that as an aim, but that’s what seemed to be happening as I wrote the book, and it happened more and more, and things sort of fell into place. You might like to know that I had lunch with that analyst, who is probably in his mid-80s now, not long ago. There was a round of…I called it research, but in fact, it something more like writing the memoir, a kind of rounding out, with Bob Gottlieb, with Wallace Shawn (because I couldn’t have lunch with Mr. Shawn, who is gone), and with the so-called Dr. Morales, who, I really have to emphasize, is highly, highly fictionalized in The Treatment. I once quantified the number of factual assertions in one of the stories, and like 82% of them were made up. Everyone takes it as some sort of weird transcription of what happened, but it ain’t.
BNR: Spoken like a former New Yorker fact-checker.
DM: Heh-heh. The spirit of it is autobiographical, but the expression of it is highly fictionalized.
Anyway, I had lunch with him. I said, “You know, a lot of people think that what’s in the stories is somehow gospel truth about what happened and what was said between us, and of course you and I both know it’s not.” I said, “But in case it embarrassed you…” He stopped, and he said “Please, let me interrupt. You have immortal-I-zed me.” I said, “Sorry?” He said, “You have immortal-I-zed me.” He said, “Do not apologize,” just the way he used to yell at me in analysis. “Do not apologize.” He said, “I feel as if I had been made into an object of aesthetics.”
BNR: That’s a very classical idea of immortality.
DM: I said, “OK, and you pick up the check, if I have immortalized you.” He didn’t get it.
So yeah, in our work together he was very combative and often very right, but not classical, and I think probably questionable in his methods. But somehow, it was one of those Archie-and-Edith good marriages.
BNR: On that note, I want to talk to you about one of the most interesting other sort of throughlines, which relates to “Dr. Morales,” which is your sense of the multiplicity of fathers you’ve had.
DM: Yes. Let me say also, the person upon whom “Dr. Morales” is somewhat loosely based is neither Cuban nor Catholic. Go ahead.
BNR: It seems you’ve given him a suitable disguise.
DM: Right. A camouflage.
BNR: But I wanted to ask about that notion. You talk about William Maxwell as one of your pseudo-fathers, and your uncle…
DM: Right. Enge.
BNR: As soon as I ran into this notion of being multiply fathered, I immediately began trying to take an inventory myself..
DM: Right. Looking back on the book, that’s one of the things I might be proudest of, even though I sort of stumbled on it. Because I’ve checked it with other men, and, to a person so far people have said more or less “yes” or acknowledged that there was some truth in it in their own lives.
My brother acted, in a way, by default, as one of my fathers, because he was three years ahead of me, and often knew what I wasn’t doing or what I was having trouble with and, in a harsh way, corrected it. Samuel Hynes, who was a teacher of mine at Swarthmore, was another about whom I realized, “I’ve got to talk to this guy,” because he meant so much to me. I just saw him not more than a month or two ago. He’s 89. He lives in Princeton. He just signed a book contract with Farrar Straus at the age of 89 about his teaching at Swarthmore. He is perhaps the coolest guy I have ever known. He was a bomber pilot in the Second World War in the South Pacific, and I think he was a fighter pilot in Korea, and yet he’s a very literary fellow, a great teacher, and has written the best memoirs. Anyway, his memoir of his childhood talks about his father at great length, and the father’s strengths and weaknesses, and it occurred to me… I don’t know how it occurred to me. I guess it was sort of unconscious accumulation of talking with other men my age who acknowledged a certain coach or a teacher or somebody older, a man who was older, who took over a somewhat paternal role that maybe their own fathers couldn’t fill.
When I wrote that a lot of men seem to have more than one father, or they at least acknowledge paternal roles for other men in their lives, it just suddenly seemed true. So I ex post facto, checked with guys that I know, lots of people of different kinds, not all writers or anything like that. These guys would say, “Oh, yeah. Coach Nelson.” Or “I had this professor in college who invited me for tea and taught me about how to behave” or whatever. Then there’s Roger Angell in my book.
BNR: Some of the most important moments in that section of your life and career turn on those interactions with Roger Angell. You see a lot concentrated into those episodes.
DM: Roger read the book way in advance, because that’s the one relationship that I felt was sensitive — and he didn’t change a thing. I mean, he didn’t ask for anything. What he didn’t say was, at the point where there’s a big sort of angry event where he gets really mad about something, and I record that… The only reaction he had was, “I’m trying to remember why that could have happened.” He said, “I don’t doubt that it happened, but I have no idea why I responded that way. I have to think about it.” The man is 94.
BNR: One of the things you come to over and over again in these stories is how delicate we all are, at least in the moment. We’re resilient in the long term, but in the moment people tend to be fragile.
DM: Right. I think maybe especially… That’s the Maxwellian model, that sort of fragility of life. I think maybe writers and literary people in general are particularly prone to sensitivity. My brother used to say, just… I mean, he was too young to know the word “over-sensitive,” but he used it on me. “You’re so fuckin’ over-sensitive.” A lot of writers are.
BNR: Do you think that over-sensitivity is just part of the natural makeup of the writer?
DM: Yes, I do. Yup. There’s a short answer.
I think some people are born more fragile or more sensitive but it also can be environmental. I think if there are serious illnesses involved, or traumas especially in early childhood…I think they can sensitize a kid. For better and for worse… I’m also very sort of evolutionarily biological, which is that I think that, in a cave, you need somebody who is over-sensitive, who can hear and worry about the saber-tooth tiger coming long before anybody else gives a shit.
BNR: If everyone is overconfident, then you’re all…
DM: Then you’re all dead, basically. So there’s this one person saying, “You know what? I think we’re in trouble here…”
I think that most evolutionary biologists, one of whom I’ve actually spoken to, agree that in a clan or in a tribe you need all kinds. I think E. O. Wilson now believes that, in fact, that a kind of tribal composition of all kinds of people is much more likely to lead to reproductive success than just a bunch of warriors or a bunch of nervous nellies.
BNR: You’ve spent a lot of your career not just as a writer, but as an editor, and the center of the story of your adult life really has to do with coming into your own as an editor. So what function does the editor have in this tribal unit?
DM: The theory that I have of editing is that a really good editor, of whom there are maybe 500 in the United States (just roughly guessing for the fun of it– maybe there are 1,000) is to understand what the writer wanted to do, and understand where the writer presents himself or herself in a way that is in conflict with their own intentions, and point those conflicts out, and hope that the writer will go forth into the world looking good… It’s as if a parent were dressing a child for an event. It’s not that the child can’t look good and can’t be good and so on, but they may need some help to look their best. I’ve always thought that what an editor does with writers is to help them to have a text that would be what they would have written if every day was their best day.
BNR: That’s a nice formulation.
DM: In other words, it’s not to make it better, although one hopes that it will make it better. Rather, if there’s a moment in the writing where the writer has fallen short of what is clearly his or her intention or hope, then that’s where the editor comes in to take his hand.
BNR: It’s also a little bit like what the analyst is attempting to do for the patient, which is to ascertain the intention, which is kind of buried or invisible to the kind of conscious operating mind of the patient, and surface that and make it something that’s fully there.
DM: Then the writer can sort of go forward after the session, or after the termination of analysis, or after the book is published…can go forward having learned something, and having realized where he can take care of himself a little bit better, rather than necessarily needing an editor. Although I have to say in this case, as it says in the acknowledgments, there were two people in particular who were very harsh. One was James Gleick, who is a really, really good friend, and the other was a man named Samuel Douglas, whom I’ve never heard of, who is a psychologist who used to be an editor. I said to a friend of mine, “I want someone who doesn’t know me, who doesn’t know about my life, who doesn’t know anything, who knows about writing,” and she recommended this guy. He said, “Ok, really good book. Now that that’s out of the way…” and then proceeded to really just wield his machete. And it wasn’t only cutting either. A lot of throat-clearing and self-consciousness were denuded from this book.
BNR: Did it surprise after so much experience both writing and editing that you would see so much to be changed?
DM: Absolutely. It did surprise me… But it didn’t surprise me that it surprised me. [LAUGHS] I don’t know how to say this. We all need the mirror to look into when we get dressed, or we all need a partner or someone to say, “You know what? You shouldn’t wear that hat.” You’ve just been looking and thinking how jaunty the hat looks, and then someone says, “You know what? That really looks terrible.” I think a writer becomes a child in a particular way, and needs a kind of parental guidance. I don’t know many good writers that I’ve worked with, and I don’t know historically if such people have ever existed (I assume they have), who really knew from beginning to end what they were doing, and didn’t need another…let’s not say editor, but another good reader. I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t know what Melville’s or Dickens’s editors did. In my experience there’s almost nothing that I’ve worked with, except maybe the poetry of Billy Collins — poetry is harder to monkey with — that couldn’t use some help.
BNR: It’s already coming out in a fairly boiled-down, concentrated form.
DM: Yeah, precisely. It’s been distilled already. Especially if you’re going to publish it and you like it, the fact is that the person had somehow managed to corral himself or herself.
BNR: You took some of your poetry to William Maxwell.
DM: And he said, “Stick to prose.” He gave it back in three syllables, dashing my Keatsian dreams. I still write poetry. I just submitted a poem to The New Yorker actually. Not “just.” Six months ago. To Paul Muldoon. Not a word. [LAUGHS]
BNR: Still, hearing from William Maxwell that you should stick to prose is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.
DM: No, not at all. It was tonic.
BNR: Obviously, the details about the life inside The New Yorker, which comes with its own fascination for people who are curious about the history of publishing, has of course attracted a lot of attention, and justly, because it’s very revealing and funny and bracing and entertaining.
But I was really thinking about the fact that most books about writing and the writer’s life and editing tend to go one way or the other. They tend to be very how-to. Even if they’re a chatty book, they go kind of quickly to the writer’s view of how it should be done…
BNR: Or else they move entirely into the realm of personalities.
DM: And anecdote, yes.
BNR: And anecdote. But you pay a lot of attention to how the sausage gets made. When you went into this, did you think, “I really want to get into the nuts and bolts” or was that just how these stories came out? With your years at The New Yorker and also your time at Random House, you really dig into, as very few writers that I’ve read at least have, the question of this is how these decisions about what gets published and how it’s published are made.
DM: I am glad you think I have written with some success both ways, both anecdotal and, shall we say, editorially substantive. The latter I would like to kind of do more of, although I am a little scared of becoming, even at this late stage, just a word person. So a book about editing, I am just not sure. I guess I don’t quite know what the question is…
BNR: I guess the question is, did you think, as you were going into this, that you would be filling this void between books that are about writing as an art or a practice, and memoirs that kind of recount a professional life?
DM: I think probably the reason that I did some direct editorial substance — like a paragraph on Robert Coles, how it went in and how it came out, and some things about checking and some things about style and so on — is that I didn’t want the memoir to sound like a sort of anecdotal, “here’s my life in publishing,” And nothing else. I wanted to balance it a little bit and give the reader an idea of the seriousness and importance of the work on text, though I think the long incident about Renata Adler probably doesn’t belong in there. I also wanted it to contain some of the sort of more obscure and arcane details…even to the point of the financial considerations of acquiring a book, as in the long dialogue with Ann Godoff about a profit-and-loss statement. I did have in mind there that not only was it funny that I didn’t know anything, which is the sort of superficial idea, but that that section about filling out a profit-and-loss statement would be informative, and show readers what’s behind the object that they’re holding in their very hands at the moment.
BNR: It renders a view into the work of producing what seemed to be kind of almost luminously finished things.
DM: Yeah, I wanted to show a little bit of that: Not just the behind-the-scenes gossip, but the behind-the-scenes work.
BNR: One thing you don’t talk too much about in this book that I wanted to ask you about, partially because we work together on editing a humor column for the Review, is your experience as a humorist, which both informs the book in the sense that there are many moments, and many moments that are not in themselves comedy but which are rendered with an understanding of the latent humor that’s in them, and the turn that a comedian sort of naturally looks for in recounting a story. You don’t talk that much about the fact that you’ve actually written quite a bit of humor.
DM: A lot. I’ve taught a humor-writing course at Columbia, and I am now teaching at the Stonybrook MFA program, and I am going down to Key West in a few weeks to teach another humor-writing course at the Key West literary seminar. They are concentrated on humor pieces mainly, like 500 words, 700 words, sometimes 1,000, sometimes 300; the short humor piece that makes up Shouts and Murmurs, and there are some good examples, I think even better examples in “Grin and Tonic,” your and my joint project, and McSweeney’s and so on… It’s an art form.
But the reason to do it isn’t so much to do it for itself, although it’s nice when the student or a friend or somebody you’ve worked with or helped sells a humor piece. It is a minor but important aspect of writing. What’s important about humor is that there’s nothing good that’s not funny. Nothing. I have my students read the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice, which is hilarious. And the first chapter of Great Expectations and also one of the early sections of Moby-Dick. What I always try to do is say, you know, no matter how serious the matter turns out to be, all those people are in important ways comedians. They really are. I mean, Moby-Dick is hilarious, which is something that people don’t really know, even when they read it, and even when they’re laughing, because they think they’re reading the Great American Novel.
But these are in many ways comic writers, and all great… Look at Notes from the Underground. The first five or six sentences are hilarious. “I believe my liver is diseased.” Come on! Also I think that all really great writing, even nonfiction writing, even journalism, it all ends up being a statement of our total lack of knowledge of what we’re doing here, who we are, and why things happen the way they do. I know that’s true of fiction, of good fiction, that there is a sort of existential mystery that always lies behind a good story. Part of dealing with that bafflement about, as I say in the book, “why there is something rather than nothing,” with the nothing being far more logical.
Nobody knows why there is anything. Nobody. Nobody. I don’t care what Billy Graham says. Nobody knows. Part of the way of dealing with the bafflement is to see the irony in having a mind and yet not being able to understand the deepest mysteries of our existence and our behavior. If you can’t see the sort of comedy of being a human being, then you’re doomed to a life of either tedium of your own making, or of your mind’s making, or to a life of despair.