An interview with Judith Gurewich
Judith Gurewich is the publisher of Other Press, a relatively new independent publishing house with an incredibly vibrant list of American novels, works in translation, nonfiction, and memoir. Gurewich, a Lacanian analyst who ran a workshop on Lacan at the Center for Humanities at Harvard for twelve years, recognized a need for the translation of Lacanian texts into English. Her dip into publishing, however, became an adventure that eventually spun away from clinical texts, and she founded a high quality literary press. Over cappuccinos and croissants in a small, mahogany-paneled French restaurant just south of Central Park, we asked Judith Gurewich to share the kinds of stories that most pique her interest, the challenges a publisher who takes risks faces, and much more.
The Coffin Factory: What is your editorial process? I know there is some story out there about your work with Charles Elton and Mr. Toppit. You worked very closely with him on the novel, correct?
Judith Gurewich: I worked with all of them. Bonnie, for example, she moved in. Ah, they move in for a week; they read aloud. When people hear, out loud, what they are saying in their text they freak out. So instead of telling a writer that their work is so boring, this is terrible, et cetera, when they are reading aloud they say, “Oh, my God, this is so boring, this is terrible.” I don’t have to say it. It’s a great relief. But I usually don’t do it fresh. I do work with them a couple rounds. That is, I do a lot on the phone and over email, and once they have rounded to my suggestions, then they come over and they review, after the book has been edited. And that’s the last heavy editing process. And then they have a line editor at the office, who goes over it line by line.
The Coffin Factory: It sounds like what some folks think of as the golden era. Writers sleeping on their editors’ couches.
Judith Gurewich: They come and live. I feed them. We take walks. Swimmers come swimming with me. Pilates lovers come to Pilates with me.
The Coffin Factory: You hear the stories like this of Fitzgerald and Perkins, and now you rarely hear about authors and editors working so intimately together.
Judith Gurewich: But then what’s the point otherwise? I mean, I’m in there because it is an extension of my work.
The Coffin Factory: In the past your work as an analyst was always you and the patient, and now…
Judith Gurewich: It’s not a patient. It’s the analysis of the writer. I thought simply of the narcissistic complacency that writers are so incapable of catching in themselves. You know Hemingway or Fitzgerald’s “murder your darlings”? It’s more complicated than that, because the darlings are usually a beautiful paragraph that they have nourished and nourished and nourished and nourished, and really it doesn’t add anything, it needs to go. For example, I know a man who is a writer, I guess he must be in his seventies, and he’s doing a fictionalized biography. He’s really gotten into their heads. Completely submerged in the war between the two main characters. Absolutely transparent; he’s unbelievable. But, really he’s brilliant at dialogue. So, he has a structure where he moves between his voice, her voice, and the narrator’s voice. And something in this writer is so worried we are going to miss something, so very often the narrator’s voice explains what has happened before. So that’s easy to fix.
But then, there’s another editing element that’s trickier. This is a man who excels at dialogue so you have to be very attentive that he doesn’t just have fun writing dialogues that don’t add anything to the story. He just plays around because he’s very wicked. So, this novel is still about learning about a relationship, a time, a period—there’s all the background. He puts it all together so you have the whole feel of an era, and a certain type of leftist literature in America, and Hollywood was supporting it, but there were moments when this writer was so cocky that he loses what’s so special about it. You have to get rid of those wonderful dialogues where nothing happens to let the story emerge.
The Coffin Factory: And it’s hard for a writer to do that alone. It helps to have an editor say you must.
Judith Gurewich: Yes, and I’m brutal. I find that the better the writer, the more brutal I get. The writer I was just speaking of, I had to tell him, “I was bored, bored, bored. And for four pages I completely woke up, and the rest I was totally asleep.” And then another thing this writer does when he doesn’t want to work—he gets very elliptical. He knows who’s who in his story, and we know nothing, and he’s making an inside joke between him and the character and we’re left out, and I get pissed off. And I say “put your hard work in there, instead of those easy dialogues where you repeat yourself.” You see, you catch the brain. You catch exactly what the brain is doing. It’s a lot of fun.
The Coffin Factory: The degree to which you work with this person I think is really important, not only for what it says about the commitment to your work as an editor, but also as a publisher. And for readers who go looking, and eventually do recognize the logo, they know that someone’s taking the time to really invest in it.
Judith Gurewich: But they will never know. They will never know. My work is totally invisible. I cannot derive any narcissistic gratification of this work, and this is why it’s so good. I get narcissistic gratification from writing the Other Press newsletter, and writing articles. Maybe one day I’ll try to write something more, but I don’t see myself doing that. I have a lot of ideas and a lot of thought, but I find that I don’t want to be the object. I don’t want to go pitch my own books. I don’t want that kind of gratification. I prefer the gratification of the process, and the gratification of the result. So a great review of an Other Press book, great sales—that’s wonderful.
If I know that I changed some things for the better, it’s unbelievably gratifying. It’s like when I make an interpretation to a patient and it changes their lives. Or changes something in their lives, or they may seem different. I’ve done my job. You know, this type of narcissistic gratification at the end of the day is always slightly fraudulent. It’s enough to see authors taken into the limelight, and then out of the limelight, and how they suffer, and how precarious this kind of recognition is. But another thing I like is pitching to the New York Times, or when I tell somebody, “listen, I’m fighting for this one, forget the others, this one is my baby.” And I usually do that with obscure elements.
For example, I have a little gem that’s coming this season. It’s called Drowned, by Theresa Bohman. It’s a Swedish novel. When I read it, I fell in love with it. I read it in one sitting, in French, and I thought, “Oh my God.” And then I went to a sales conference at Random House. Everybody was over the moon with it. It’s a small, tiny little thing, and it is a replay of a Freud case. I don’t think she knew it. There’s this early Freud case called Elizabeth von R. and it’s a case of one of his patients who had a paralysis of the leg. You realize it’s because she’s in love with her brother-in-law, and she wishes her sister’s death, and that is what causes this paralysis, right? Well, Drowned more or less picks up that story. She’s in love with her sister’s husband, the sister ends up drowned, and we don’t know how it happened. Ah, it’s intense. Because it’s done with such sensuality and beauty, because it’s a summer in Sweden, where the sun doesn’t go down, everything is fresh from the garden, fruits are delicious. The smells, you can just smell and touch everything in the book. The single sister is an art historian so allusions to painting comes in as well. And the whole thing, you can tell, is a really intense, sensual dark story written by an intellectual—it has everything you want.
To read the rest of this interview, purchase issue three.