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I was previously the editor-in-chief and associate publisher of Dell and Delacorte. I acquired and edited Al Franken, worked with Elmore Leonard and Harlan Coben, and brought Anna Quindlen and Alice McDermott to Dell. My first job in publishing was at Simon & Schuster, my publisher today. I had answered an ad in The New York Times for a copywriter and I got the job.
After 20 years working in book publishing, you'd think I'd have learned a thing or two about what it means to be a writer.
Well I didn't. It's very different to be on this side of the editorial table. Being an editor -- choosing what books to publish, helping writers do their very best possible work, making sure the book is published well -- is not an easy job. You have to first trust your own instincts and then stand by them, then you have sales people to cajole, marketing people to nudge, and writers to convince.
But nothing could have prepared me for how hard it is to be a writer. Sure, it is wonderful. One of the most wonderful things I've ever done. But if I were ever to become an editor again, like when the polar ice cap melts, I would never talk to authors the way I used to. I remember saying to an author once, "I love your book, but you need to go back. Your first 100 pages need work." I would die if someone said that to me. I cannot believe many of my authors are still my friends!
Writing is, for me, a wacky combination of torturously hard work and magic. Facing that blank page is like climbing Mount Everest, except for the life-threatening part. But when a thought comes, when I'm reminded of something someone said ten years ago, or when a character says something wild and real, it's like magic. I get excited the way I get excited on the roller coaster at the Santa Cruz boardwalk. The hairs on my arms stand straight and my heart leaps to my throat and I want to laugh and throw up at the same time.
I have a dog. My husband and I adopted him from the ASPCA, a beautiful chocolate-brown mutt, with one of those anthropomorphic faces, who we named Charlie and treated like a child. We had twins in 1996: a boy and a girl who are now eight and awesome. And Charlie was relegated to family dog. He is now over 14 years old and has slowed down a lot. He no longer humps everyone who walks in the door.
Dogs! I like some dogs, I despise some dogs, but I adore my dog. Well, he is the best dog in the world, after all. Charlie is the first dog I ever had. Growing up, my family had rodents for pets -- chipmunks, rats, mice, hamsters, etc. My parents on dogs: too dirty, who will walk it, when you're 30 and living on your own, then you can get one. And so I did. But don't you hate those people who treat their dogs as if they were human? They put them in clothes, they take them everywhere. Dogs are not people, even though we think they are. My dog thinks he's a person. He told me so.
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In the summer of 2004, Leslie Schnur took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests -- and some of the secrets to her success as a writer.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. It is funny, and smart, and deep, and so romantic. I loved every word, every page, every character. And the sensibility. And the writing itself. And the obsession with music. Like the best fiction, it was a page-turner. You wanted to know that Rob would be okay. I've enjoyed each Nick Hornby novel since, but High Fidelity made me say, "I wish I could do that." It gave me something to aspire to -- and still does.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
This was hard! How do you whittle a lifetime of reading down to ten? And I know tomorrow I'm going to wake up, smack myself in the forehead, angry at myself for forgetting something. But okay, since you've asked, here they are in no particular order. And the bottom line on what makes them special? They simply worked for me on a gut, emotional, entertainment level. And I remember them and how I felt reading them -- which says a lot.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy -- Brooding, dark, comic, can read this ten times more and never be bored.
The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank -- Funny, astute, totally recognizable characters and truths.
A Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood -- I'm not generally a science fiction reader, but this transported and haunted me.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen -- Funny, romantic, brilliant, and as we all know, the original is best.
To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck -- Full of passion and tragedy, and who else can evoke the land -- its qualities, its history and meaning -- as well as Steinbeck.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton -- Lily! Lily Bart! I wept for 20 minutes straight at the end of the book.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides -- A book about all families and yet so vivid a story about one in particular, told from the point of view of the most interesting character in modern fiction, I think.
Out of Sight by Elmore Leonard -- Nobody writes dialogue like that. Those simple words, "Look at me," take on a whole new meaning.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov -- Exquisite writing -- and the guy's first language isn't even English. The best road book ever.
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, Shibumi by Trevanian, and Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. Not intending to be sacrilegious, I've grouped my three favorite suspense novels of all time as one, though Red Dragon is one of the most seamlessly perfect novels ever written. But Shibumi and Smilla took me to new places and taught me about spelunking and Inuit life. And I couldn't put any one of them down.
And, of course, High Fidelity -- For all the reasons mentioned above.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
There are films on every top ten list, including mine, that we all know are great, like The Godfather I and II, Dr. Strangelove, and Citizen Kane. But there are movies that I can watch over and over again, that I'll never forget. I go for movies that move me. In no particular order, these movies thrilled me and made me laugh, or cry, or both:
My Man Godfrey
His Girl Friday
Heaven Can Wait
Robin and Marian
State and Main
About a Boy
West Side Story
Singing in the Rain
The Man Who Would be King
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Anything with Fred and Ginger, Monty Python, Cary Grant, Carole Lombard, George Clooney, or Jack Black.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like all kinds of music -- from Django Reinhardt and Oscar Peterson to Evanescence and Eminem, Coldplay, Outkast, Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, Beethoven and Aaron Copland. But I never listen to music while I work because it would be very distracting. And if it isn't, it's not worth listening to.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
It would be reading Middlemarch and Brighton Rock and other books I have no time to read or reread on my own. Also I'd read Tom Perrotta's Little Children and Zoë Heller's What Was She Thinking?, because they deal with moral ambiguity -- always good for a rich conversation. They've got great characters doing right things for the wrong reasons and vice versa, and they are such entertaining reads.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love receiving big, fat, and gorgeous art books. They're luscious and expensive and I rarely buy them for myself. I love getting encyclopedias and reference books like The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson, as well as collections, like Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing from The New Yorker. I also love to get someone's personal favorite novel as a gift. If someone has had a terrific reading experience and wishes to pass it on, that is a gift in itself.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I like my desk neat, because nothing else in my world is ordered. I have learned that if my desk is a mess, my head is too. And I hate to admit this but my desk is a total mess right now -- I cannot remember what each pile of stuff is for -- so I guess that says it all. I have pictures of and by my kids on my desk and taped to the wall. I also have a piece of paper torn from the manuscript of Stephen King's On Writing taped to my wall. Scribner Publisher Susan Moldow sent me his manuscript when I left publishing to write, thinking I'd find it helpful. And boy, did I! When I was feeling bratty and sorry for myself because I was working in my bedroom, on an old computer on a tiny table and using the bed as a desk, I read this: "Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room. Life isn't a support system for art. It's the other way around." Today I am very lucky to work in a small office in the back of our apartment and I still keep that torn paper from King's manuscript Scotch-taped to the wall. Just to keep things straight.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It has taken me half a century to get where I am today! And 20 years in book publishing. I feel like the Poster Girl for Second Lives. When my company, Dell Publishing, was merged with Bantam five years ago, I lost my job. I was V.P., editor-in-chief, and associate publisher and had had a successful and wonderful career. But getting fired was the best thing in the world to have happened to me. It was the kick in the butt I needed to do what I had always dreamed of. I decided not to take another job but to take a chance. And with my husband behind me, I got to work. First I wrote a screenplay about a woman in book publishing trying to get fired to get severance. My husband said I should be writing a novel, but I was afraid. It took getting an agent and manager for the screenplay and finally having it optioned before I had the courage to really dig in to a novel. Now, five years after being laid off, my first novel is coming out. Life couldn't be better. I've always felt you have to be brave and willful to experience life to its fullest. It takes courage to do anything meaningful, like live, fall in love, have children, risk your career to try another, give up chocolate.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Robert Cohen (Inspired Sleep and The Here and Now) gets consistently wonderful reviews and is often compared to a young Saul Bellow. He has yet to achieve stardom though his books are wonderfully entertaining, funny and rich. Also, athough I am not a poetry buff, reading Miranda Fields's collection Swallow was mind-blowing. Vivid, vital poetry, full of passion.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Keep writing, and keep your eye on the ball. Meaning, stay focused on the work and if you need to help move along the getting discovered part, hire a publicist, start a web site, hand out leaflets if you have to, sell books from the trunk of your car. But keep writing. And rewriting!
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