The pen and the credit card: a publishing tale

YOU don't win many popularity contests by being smart, young, and brazenly successful. Certainly few people in the New York literary establishment had much use for Gary Fisketjon, his quick success, his unabashed love of salesmanship, his reputation for editing with a credit card.

Esquire described him as ``part New York lit, part Hollywood hustle,'' the very model of an acquiring editor who buys more than he reads. The New York Times called him the ``flashy, successful'' Gary Fisketjon.

At the age of 30, Mr. Fisketjon conceived a line of paperbacks that gave new prominence to such established writers as Thomas McGuane and Raymond Carver, as well as bringing out new works like Jay McInerney's startlingly successful ``Bright Lights, Big City.'' He revised industry thinking on the life cycle of a serious novel by leapfrogging over the normal hard-cover edition of such books.

Now, three years later, he is about to bring out his first line as editorial director of the august Atlantic Monthly Press - an established fellow with a firm of his own and a revered company name underneath him.

In the process of getting to this point, Fisketjon has become perhaps the most discussed and written-about editor in the business, all but eclipsing Gordon Lish of Knopf. The New York Times Magazine called his collaboration with McInerney ``the writer-editor legend of our time.''

All of which runs contrary to the media image of the fast-living editor Wunderkind who is supposed to use the lunch check more than the editor's pencil - the parvenu with cherubic cheeks and golden hair, who bummed around the country with his buddy, McInerney, after they made a literary splash at Williams College; worked on the family mink farm in Oregon; then plunged himself into New York publishing and the city's heady night life, writing a column on publishing for the Village Voice.

Well, meet the hardworking Gary Fisketjon, bent late at night over a manuscript, asking himself questions about every sentence and most of the semicolons, worrying about the narrative flow, trying to free an author's voice from a particularly tangled passage.

``Publishing is hard work,'' he insists. ``I don't know any other way it can get done. I live with a book. It takes me five hours to do 40 pages. I don't understand the people who say you just go to lunch and then say `I love it!' into the phone. You have to get into the voice of the book and look to see where it wavers.

``The book is in the writing; it's in what's being written about; and either it comes together or it doesn't.... You're looking at sentences. You're looking at how sentences fall together. Then, you look back and see whether there are any tics in the style.''

The evidence suggests that, in these matters, Fisketjon can not only talk the talk, but walk the walk as well; that he's not a card-carrying member of the book-of-the-lunch club.

``Gary edits with a credit card? That's a lie,'' says Richard Ford, whose book ``The Sportswriter'' was published by Fisketjon. ``Gary is the most meticulous line-by-line editor I've known; and I've had good editors at Harper & Row and The New Yorker.''

``He was in my publishing class at Harvard-Radcliffe,'' recalls Little Brown executive William Guthrie, ``and he stood out. I taught there for 10 years and, without question, he was the star ... radiantly intelligent, imaginative, and with a keen mind. He certainly is the man of the moment.''

``I don't think there''s any question about it,'' says John Blades, literary columnist for the Chicago Tribune, ``if I had one line of books that I had to read, it would be the Vintage Contemporary line that he started.''

That imprint was born in 1984 when Fisketjon, then an editor with Random House, brought out a set of paperbacks that were uniformly packaged with slick, contemporary covers that hardly looked like books at all. The line consisted mostly of reprints of established but generally neglected works, as well as new novels. Fisketjon persuaded the authors to go into paperback without a hard-cover edition. ``What other business besides publishing tells the consumer, `Don't buy now - wait a year and you'll get the product for less'?''

That was heresy in publishing, where editors and writers considered that, to be taken seriously, a book had to come out between stiff covers. So much for conventional wisdom. ``Bright Lights, Big City'' was taken seriously enough to sell nearly 500,000 copies and make the author famous and rich. The rest of the line fared well enough in sales to make Fisketjon a hot publishing property. And Fisketjon became the drawing card for young talent.

``He does have that mystique that attracts young writers,'' says Paul Gray, staff writer/book reviewer for Time. ``These people are drawn to him.''

Stirring around his light-filled, airy office at the new headquarters of the Atlantic Monthly Press, Fisketjon certainly attracts a crowd. One woman brings in a tray of slides to sort through. She's followed by another woman who whispers in his ear about delicate negotiations over foreign rights for a particular book. Somebody brings in a new cover for the fall line.

``Flurry, flurry,'' he says, looking over his horn-rimmed glasses.

A little later, briskly walking the city streets between his office and nearby apartment, just off the Bowery, he rattles through the things he looks for in books.

What he sees in Richard Ford, for example, is ``something that's involving; something that makes you care about the characters and what happens to them; a vision.'' To edit this kind of work, ``you can't doubt yourself. If you have doubts about a book, you probably shouldn't be editing it.''

Fisketjon's fall list includes a new collection of Richard Ford stories called ``Rock Springs''; a collection of essays by Robert Brustein, theater critic and artistic director; and ``East Along the Equator,'' travel writing by Helen Winternitz.

All indications are that he has been hard at work in every gritty aspect of publishing these books. In that way, he fits the hoary mold of an all-purpose editor-publisher. ``For someone that young,'' says literary agent Amanda Urban, ``he really is almost an old-fashioned editor.''

One, apparently, who prefers to publish authors and not make them over in his own image: ``Suppose I thought that all writing should be [in one particular style or other],'' Fisketjon says, shouldering his way through the city crowd. ``Then, do I go out and find writers and teach them how to write like that? Or teach them how not to be themselves? It's a notion that's kind of alien to me.''

He says he ``doesn't have any idea'' what he responds to in fiction. ``I mean, that's the great thing about it. Because it's sort of a mystery and a great surprise every time you find something.''

Arriving at his apartment, full of light and open spaces somehow carved out of tiny rooms, he falls into an oversize chair with a glass of seltzer in his hands.

Across the room, the manuscript of ``Tupelo Nights,'' a book he plans to publish next year, sits on his desk. He's somewhere around Page 90, his tiny scrawl adorning the margins of almost every page he's turned.

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