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NPR Arts & Life

Editor Terry McDonnell Doctors Stories In 'Accidental Life'

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Terry McDonell has spent a lifetime thinking about writing and writers. He's an editor who came up in the heady days of magazines in the '70s and '80s at Rolling Stone, Esquire, Outside. He enticed literary greats, many of them novelists, to write long-form pieces for his publications. He picked writers who lived as colourfully as they wrote and had an appetite for adventure far beyond their writing desks.

TERRY MCDONELL: Tom McGuane, the great novelist from Montana, called it having a long reach, which in his case meant being nominated for a National Book Award for fiction the same year that he won the team roping at the rodeo in Gardiner, Mont. This was, like, as important somehow, this writing life, as some of the things they put on paper.

MONTAGNE: Terry McDonell is now out with a memoir about his editing life. His work included assigning stories, getting a writer paid - just imagine Hunter Thompson's expense reports - and of course shaping the writing.

MCDONELL: There's two analogies, you know, the - you're treating the story in the way that a doctor might treat the patient. You say so what's wrong with this? And you ask the writer are you - are you saying what you really mean? What do you really want to say? You have to get under the hood is what I mean.

MONTAGNE: But that's easier probably said than done.

MCDONELL: (Laughter) Well, the better the writer the more collegial it is, and it seems to go quite easily. I have never really had a problem with writers resisting what I wanted except occasionally when I would have made a big mistake. Jim Harrison, famous mostly I guess for "Legends Of The Fall" but for many, many books, told me once you've lynched my baby.

MONTAGNE: What does that qualify as?

MCDONELL: (Laughter) I don't know. I was hoping it was, you know, patter that would, you know, made our conversations more interesting. But he was angry because it had in fact - someone had inserted a semi-colon, and like the wonderful Kurt Vonnegut, he was absolutely opposed to semi-colons anywhere.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. That's what I would think. You, in fact, quote the legendary New Yorker editor Harold Ross is defining editing as quarrelling with writers.

MCDONELL: (Laughter).

MONTAGNE: But I just would think it's hard to enter in their fictional world and mess with it very much.

MCDONELL: I think that quarrelling with writers was a little bit flip, but I think that what distinguishes the best writers is voice. If they have a voice that is their voice, it could be as wildly - pardon the cliche - gonzo as what Hunter Thompson would write about politics, all the way to the wonderful George Plimpton writing about, like, playing for the Detroit Lions in "Paper Lion." They were completely different voices, but they were immersive, and they paid very close attention to detail so that you saw exactly what they were writing about. It wasn't - you didn't - you never saw the word amazing or unbelievable. You saw specifics.

MONTAGNE: You have a story in here of golfing with Hunter Thompson and George Plimpton, which seems a really crazy group.

MCDONELL: Well, it was a - it was a crazy, crazy moment. Hunter had sent a photograph of himself sinking a very long putt at the golf club in Aspen. And he had written on it come out here and bring George. Bring money. I will beat you both like mules.

MONTAGNE: To you - he wrote that to you.

MCDONELL: This was to me on - written - scrawled across that photograph, and George had wanted to do the first writer-at-work interview with a journalist ever - that great series in the Paris Review. And I was starting a little magazine and I wanted Hunter to write something for me that was going to be kind of special. So we had this agenda, but as soon as we got there, Hunter said, well, first golf. And Hunter had - on his cart he had Jose Cuervo. He had Jack Daniels. He had Dewar's for George. He had two six packs of beer. He had his 12-gauge shotgun. He had limes. He had grapefruits.

Anyway, right before we started to warm up, he said here take these, and he produced strange little blotters, put one on his tongue and licked it. Then I did the same, and he said - anyway this was acid, lysergic acid, LSD. And George didn't do that. And he was going to do this interview with Hunter. In the end, what the bet was that we would all get three balls at a short par 3 that was over a body of water that was filled with geese. So I couldn't - I know I was no good at all. George was wonderful and put all three of his balls on and won. And Hunter was on and won too, and if he got a birdie, he would tie George.

Hunter went back to the ball, struck it firmly and followed the ball toward the cup, but it was about maybe four inches off and he missed it. He shrieked, threw the club in the air, raced back to his bag, got the shotgun and fired it over the geese, who all lifted off at the same time. And it occurred to me at that moment that perhaps it was good to have a story about playing acid golf with Hunter and George. It would be good for my career somehow.

MONTAGNE: (Laughter) (Unintelligible).

MCDONELL: I leave that to you all.

MONTAGNE: I - there is one of a lovely - actually, you are quoting somebody, but it's a lovely thought and it has to do with needing an editor. You quote Renata Adler in her novel "Speedboat" describing a tendency of some writers.

MCDONELL: Well, it was - she was talking about the meticulousness of raccoons, I think, who would take something like a cube of sugar to the creek and clean it so thoroughly that there was nothing left in the end and that that was a lesson - there was a lesson in that for writers.

MONTAGNE: Well, what was sweet was in the book you write an editor could help that (laughter).

MCDONELL: Well, yeah. I said, yeah, I could help with that.

MONTAGNE: Well, there's just - it's truly just a moment in the book, but one time you sent the novelist Francisco Goldman to a Red Sox game.

MCDONELL: Well, Frank's relationship with his father was built around their love of the Red Sox and sadness that the Red Sox never quite made it. And then his father passed away right before the Red Sox got into the playoffs with the Yankees. It was the year that they were going to win. And I knew this about Frank, and I I asked if he might want to write about that. And he said that he wanted the assignment so bad that he'd write it in exchange for a ticket. And then he wrote most Red Sox fans are the offspring of Red Sox fans and every one of them has a father whose story is longer and more painful than his own. And then I say, you know, no amount of reporting will give you that. So the idea was you find what's in the heart, really, of the writer and ask for it.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

MCDONELL: Oh, it's a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Terry McDonell is author of the memoir "The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes On Writing And Writers." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.