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The Editor’s Touch by Steven Axelrod

November 25, 2013 by  •
Very pleased today to welcome Steven Axelrod to the blog to talk about the first book in his Nantucket detective series, Nantucket Sawbuck. Specifically, Steven has been kind enough to share an exchange that occurred between him and his editor regarding a scene they were at odds over, and how they came to an agreement. He’s also included the scene in question, so you can see for yourself how things turned out.

Steven AxelrodWe normally think of editors as people who trim and cut our work, fix our mistakes and help us “kill our darlings” as William Faulkner memorably put it. What you don’t realize until you’re involved with a gifted editor at a real publishing house, is how they can inspire you to write more and better. It doesn’t always happen in a direct linear way, with the editor saying “You should put more detail here” “Flesh this out.”, though of course that sort of editorial direction does happen.

More often, a vital change comes out of a conversation, that can even start out as an argument. You always feel at the same disadvantage with an editor, when a real published book and the possible start of a meaningful career is at stake. They have the power. They’re agreeing to put your book out into the world under their imprint. It’s their money and influence and reputation on offer. If they want you to change things, you’d be foolish to refuse. Sometimes it seems the only real option you have is the nuclear one: just packing up your scribbled pages and walking away. Of course you could bluff it. But that’s a dangerous game to play. You had better be prepared to follow through if you make a threat like that.

There are other alternatives, and I found one recently.

The Police Chief hero of my Nantucket detective novel happens to be a poet. Perhaps that common invocation of coincidence for faux impact (“I happen to disagree with you) was part of the problem. My editor didn’t like the idea. Why a poet? It seemed so random? Why not a ballet dancer or tree surgeon? Beyond that she felt that poets were stigmatized by the section of the reading public that made up her company’s audience. Poets were “floppy haired, limp wristed” emasculated wimps you couldn’t rely on in a tough situation. Her readers wanted a man who could disassemble a Glock auto-loader not write smarmy verse to his children (probably on scented pink paper). Leaving the creepy stationery aside, why couldn’t he do both? We went back and forth on this for several weeks.

Then I had an idea. But I guess my point is…it was her idea, too. Or at least, that the idea was the natural outgrowth of our debate. I said, “I’ll write a scene that shows how poetry fits into his police work. Read it with an open mind. If you still think the poetry idea is bad, we’ll cut it.” I was gambling on my own ability to write a knock-out scene, but under my bravado was the implicit point of my editor’s intractable resistance: I hadn’t proved, in moment-by-moment narrative terms, that Chief Kennis’ poetry avocation added anything meaningful to the story. It was true, and I believe she didn’t say it directly because she knew it would be better for me to figure it out for myself.

Anyway, I came up with a pretty good idea for a scene. It was long done and I was working on other sections of the revision, the second full rewrite I had embarked on with the editor, this one involving more than 70 new pages of material from the villain’s point of view. These new pages, incidentally, took the book fifty pages over the publisher’s length limit. Now I’m cutting the whole book by fifty pages which is an interesting challenge to discuss in another post. Back with the last re-write, it was taking a while and the editor wrote me saying essentially, “Don’t waste your time on the poetry scene. It’s going to get cut anyway.”

I was furious.

I wrote her this email:

Alas you have a very jaundiced and inaccurate view of poetry and poets.
Byron kicked ass and e.e. cummings was known to mix it up in a bar fight from time to time.
Ezra Pound was a fascist thug.
Dylan Thomas was a carousing drunk.
Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon served valliantly in World War I, and would be profoundly offended by your comments.
Randall Jarrell served heroically in World War II (Check out his “Death of a Ball Turret Gunner”)
Most recently, the Iraq War has produced some notable war poets including Brian Turner whose début collection, “Here, Bullet”, is based on his experience as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team from November 2003 until November 2004 in Iraq. The book won numerous awards including the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, the 2006 Maine Literary Award in Poetry, and the 2006 Northern California Book Award in Poetry. The book also was an Editor’s Choice in The New York Times and received significant attention from the press including reviews and notices on NPR and in The New Yorker, The Global and Mail, and the Library Journal. In The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear wrote that, “As a war poet, [Brian Turner] sidesteps the classic distinction between romance and irony, opting instead for the surreal.”

I wouldn’t mess with that guy. Just saying.

In fact poetry requires a style of thinking very similar to the deductive reasoning applied to criminal investigation … particularly at that crucial moment when no logical way forward manifests itself and a leap of intuition is required. Henry is not a wimp; hardly a pacifist. His hair is cut short and so is tolerance for bullshit and moral relativism. He is not a Navy Seal, either and I’m sure you don’t want a book about one. Those books (and movies) are dull because their protagonists are tedious and one-dimensional.

We made a deal, boss: I write my ass off and give you the best possible scene that PROVES my point about police work and poetry. You take it or leave it. I abide by your decision.

But you have to read it with an open mind. That’s the mind (yours, wide open) that I’m writing it for.
That’s fair. And I know you’re fair — I’ve felt that about you from the start.

Read it and see what you think.

I’m right about this one. That’s why I’m writing this scene, heedlessly, recklessly even — with full knowledge that I’ll probably have to cut it. Because it’s good and what it does for Henry is good and I think you’ll see that, too. If not, not – onward. But let me take my shot.

And give Henry his.

So she agreed and I wrote the scene and I just got the hard copy edits back from her. The scene stays in. And Henry Kennis remains a poet.

Best of all, I was forced by our clash of wills to write a scene that should have been part of the book all along. I was pushed to do my best work by an editor who appreciated it.

That’s a victory for everyone.

Here’s the scene:

Nantucket      The phone rang. It was my chief detective Charlie Boyce on the line: Chief Selectman Dan Taylor’s kid, Mason, had barricaded himself inside his room with one of his father’s guns, and he was threatening to commit suicide.
      At least he hadn’t done it yet.
      The big problem was Dan Taylor himself. That was why they called me. Dan had run the Board of Selectmen since long before I arrived on the island and he acted like he was the Mayor and Nantucket was Chicago and the year was 1893. Well, with the island caught up in the new Gilded Age, at least that part made sense. In addition to authorizing new stop signs and illegal parking zones, Dan spent most of his time ingratiating himself with people like Preston. Lomax.. Dan did caretaking for half of them and he was working on the rest. His idea of caretaking was making sure the water was turned off in the winter and a bottle of Peter Michael Les Pavots was standing on the dining table, beside a vase of his signature blue flag irises, when his clients arrived on Memorial Day.
      Like most professional suck-ups, Dan turned into an insufferable bully with anyone he ranked lower in the social pecking order. That included most of my officers, the other town employees; and his own son. I had always pitied Mason, being raised by that petty tyrant. But it turned out the suicide stand-off had nothing to do with Dan.
      Mason Taylor was killing himself over a girl.
      It wasn’t so strange; I’d researched the phenomenon after a couple of teen suicides the winter I first got to Nantucket. The synapse in the brain that helps us understand our own mortality is still under construction with teenagers. They just don’t get it that impressing the girl you love with the seriousness of your passion by killing yourself ultimately won’t do you much good, since you’ll be dead afterward. There was no point in in trying to explain that to Mason. The most important thing to do now was getting his father away from the scene.
      They lived in Nashaquisset, a subdivision off Surfside Road, walking distance from the high school. You could tell so much about the owners by the quarterboards that named their houses. Here they ranged from the literal (“Summer House”) to the venal (“Billable Hours”) to the cute (“Bedside Manor”). That’s right – lots of lawyers and doctors in Nashaquisset. The old-time Nantucketers showed their character in their quarterboards, too – names like “It’ll Do” and “Helzapoppin”, and “Pflueger’s Roost”. Just in the time I’d been on the island someone had bought the mansion on Brant Point whose little boat house had been called “Pflueger’s Roost” Of course, they re-named it “Boat House.” They were Dan Taylor’s kind of people.
      His own little Cape Cod style three bedroom was called “Home Sweet Home”, which seemed ironic, under the circumstances.
      On the second floor, Dan was trying to break down Mason’s door. I took the stairs two at a time, bounded half the length of the hall and caught Dan’s shoulder just as he started another charge. Randy Ray stood by, haplessly looking on, side by side with Charlie Boyce, who should have known better. He’d been smart enough to call me, but “call the Chief” shouldn’t be the default response to a crisis. What if there were two crises going on at once?
      I took the Head Selectman off balance and spun him around. He staggered a few steps as he turned to face me.
      “Stay out of this, Chief,” he snarled. “This is none of your goddamn business.”
      I watched him, waiting for a movement. “Your boy has a loaded firearm in that room, Dan. That makes it my business.”
      “The hell it does.”
      “Step away. Let us handle this.”
      I put my hand on his shoulder. He shrugged it off
      “I’m going to have to ask you to vacate the premises,” I said, hoping the official-sounding jargon would calm him down. Nice try. He launched himself at me, throwing a big sloppy roundhouse punch at my head. I stepped outside of it and gathered his arms together from behind in a tight bear hug.
      “Stop it,” I said. “Don’t make this worse than it is.”
      He relaxed at little and I let him go. Then he was charging the door again. I tackled him at the waist and we both went down on the hardwood floor, as my two officers stumbled back to stay out of our way.
      I landed on top. Dan’s breath exploded out of him. I yanked his arms behind his back, cuffed him, pushed myself up, stepped away and turned to Charlie. “Get him out of here,” I said. “Take him to the station. Lock him up but don’t book him.”
      I helped Dan to his feet. “I have you right now for felony battery, assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest, Dan. But I understand the extenuating circumstances. I feel bad for you, okay? This sucks. So shut up and behave and you’ll be back on the street, no charges filed by this afternoon. Sound fair?”
      He nodded, sullen but defeated.
      I jerked my thumb over my shoulder and the boys got the message. They hustled Dan downstairs and out of the house. I was alone with Mason Taylor
      I knocked on the door. “Mason?”
      “Go away!” The voice was high-pitched, muffled through the door, clotted with tears.
      “It’s Chief Kennis, Mason. Remember me? You stood up during the Q&A at my drug lecture last year and said ‘When I say no, the drugs think I’m playing hard to get.’ You made me laugh.”
      “I got in trouble.”
      “Well, yeah. Smart mouthing the Chief of Police in front of the whole school. But I remembered it.”
      “I got suspended.”
      I played a hunch. “Did you impress the girl, though?”
      “How do you know about Alana?”
      So: Alana Trikilis, daughter of a local garbageman. Sam Trikilis was a good guy, one of the few authentically happy people I had ever met. He enjoyed his customers and the drive to the dump and even the dump itself. The trash pile was his archaeological dig site.
      I had seen his daughter’s drawings in Veritas, the NHS student paper. The most recent one, which showed the members of the Conservation Commission and the town Selectmen dressed as clowns, clambering out of a tiny circus car, featured an especially cruel and accurate caricature of Mason’s dad. Alana probably got in a fair amount of trouble herself. Maybe she and Mason were kindred spirits.
      “Hey,” I said. “I read Veritas for Alana’s cartoons. She’s brilliant.” Silence from the other side of the door. “Mason?”
      “She doesn’t even know who I am. But now she will.”
      “What? She’ll come to your funeral?”
      “She’ll be crying at my funeral. Then she’ll realize. Then she’ll know.”
      I took a breath. “There has to be a better way.”
      Another silence. I waited, heard the front door open and close; footsteps on the stairs. Haden Krakauer appeared in the hallway. I put a finger to my lips. Haden crept forward, cocked his head in a question. I shrugged. Not much progress yet – the kid was still in there and he still had the gun.
      “I wrote her a poem,” the kid said. “She likes poetry. Yeats and Eliot and Billy Collins,” I smiled. The ex-poet laureate would be flattered to be placed in that company.
      “Was your poem any good?”
      “It sucked. I couldn’t even finish it.”
      “So you don’t know what Alana would have thought about it.”
      “She would have hated it,”
      “Not if it was any good.”
      “Whatever.”
      That might be the worst possible word to hear from a suicidal kid – the essence of giving up, in three descending syllables.
      “I write poetry,” I said. “We could work on yours together.”
      “I don’t think so.”
      “Give it a try. Girls love a good poem, written just for them. It could turn things around.”
      “I don’t know.”
      He was wavering. “Put the gun down. Pick up a pen. Actually, that’s a pretty good philosophy of life.”
      “Is that what you do?”
      “It’s what I’m doing right now. Come on, let’s see what you’ve got.”
      “It’s bad.”
      “That’s why we’re working on it. Writing is re-writing.”       Another silence. “Mason? You still with me in there?”
      “Okay I have it. But – it’s just … I can’t — the idea is I don’t know what to say, or that, I don’t know … I want words to do more, you know? More than they really can. Like if I had the right words … like a spell, like Harry Potter or something. But I mean … so — ”
      “That’s good, that’s a start. Like what?”
      “I don’t know – massage her neck or put cold towels on her eyes? She gets really bad headaches.”
      “There you go – that’s a beginning. Start a list. It can be a list poem. Use all the senses. What words can make her taste? Just wing it, whatever comes to mind.”
      “Raspberries? And chocolate? The first sip of coffee in the morning.”
      “That’s great! The first sip of coffee. That’s definitely the best one. How about smell? What do you want words to make her smell?”
      He was getting into it now .“Old books? Cut grass? Roses? Not the ones you buy in the store, they don’t even have any smell. I mean the ones that grow here in the summer. Real roses.”
      “Fantastic, that’s a cool distinction. And it’s kind of a metaphor, too – she’s the real thing. The Nantucket rose.”
      Another long silence. “This won’t work. Words can’t do anything and this stupid poem won’t do anything either. It’s just a stupid waste of time.”
      I could feel him reaching for the gun.
      “But that’s the whole point,” I blurted. “That’s what the poem’s about and that’s your ending, that’s how you wrap it up.” I was already writing it in my head. “I’ll tell you what. I have an idea for the last quatrain. If you like it you can have it, you can write up to it, and know you have a strong finish. What do you say?”
      “What is it?”
      “Okay… Something like — this is tragic, this is why I rant. I want words to do magic. And they can’t.”
      A pause. Haden stared at me. I knew he wanted to break down the door, just like Dan did.
      Then: “That’s pretty good, Chief.”
      I let out a breath. “Then use it, go for it, write the hell out of it. It sure beats a suicide note. Can you do that?”
      “I think so. I think I can.”
      “Then let us in and give me the gun. You’ve got a lot of work to do.”
      Walking away from the house a few minutes later, Haden said, “Nice work, Cyrano. You’re going to be ghost writing poems for that kid forever.”
      “I don’t think so. I think he’ll do okay on his own. The first sip of coffee? That was a nice line.”
      We paused at my cruiser. Randy and Charlie had cleared off the lookie-lous. “Who’d ever think a cop could use poetry on the job,” Haden said.
      “It’s happened before. Back in L.A we had some gang-banger in a hostage situation in Compton. I knew the kid, I knew he was a rap battler. So I got into a rap battle with him.”
      “Come on.”
      “I’m serious.”
      “Okay Eminem, what did you say to him?”
      “I don’t exactly remember … a lot of black-white trash talk.”
      Haden grinned. “I have to hear this. Come on, you must remember a little of it.”
      “Well …let’s see – the last part went, ‘yeah I’m cool, I went to high school, and I graduated, fool that’s why I rule your black ass now, check it out how, Mr fish belly, Mr. Ofay, Mr. Pig, and you’re the jig, bingo nigger I know the lingo, too and I’m bigger than you, I’m not frontin while you hunting for a word, drop back and punt runt, them drugs is stunting your ass, you flunk this class you been tested and bested now your ass is arrested,’ Something like that .”
      Haden was laughing.
      “Hey, it worked. Like my old Captain used to say: bullshit baffles brains. The kid was working on his response, you know? Figuring out what he was going to say against me. And before he knew what was happening someone had a gun at his temple and they were taking the nine out of his hands. On the way out he said. “I would have whipped your ass you wigger motherfucker.” Wigger – that’s a white boy trying to be black. Hey, whatever works.”
      Haden patted my shoulder. “No wonder you were a legend in the Department.”
      “Yeah, right – a legendary fuck up. But not that day.”
      We got into our separate cars and drove back to the cop shop. I was hoping Mason would get the girl, and thinking about poetry in general. Of course, I hardly ever used it directly in my police work, but the type of thinking poetry requires, that willingness to follow an idea when you don’t get where it’s going, or trust a connection that occurs to you out of nowhere, that odd giddy sense of being not quite in control of your own thoughts, had always been essential for me when I confronted the aftermath of unexplained violence or the mystery of a crime scene.
      Haden would demand examples and I couldn’t think of any off-hand. It didn’t matter, though. The most sensational murder in Nantucket’s history was about to make my case for me – if I could find some way to solve it.

Nantucket Sawbuck is available from Poisoned Pen Press (ISBN: 978-1464200892).

Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. His work has been featured on various websites, including the literary e-zine Numéro Cinq, where he is on the masthead; Salon.com; and The Good Men Project; as well as the magazines Pulp Modern and Big Pulp. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes. To learn more about Steven, visit his website.
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One Response to “The Editor’s Touch by Steven Axelrod”

  1. john problem says:

    Ezra Pound a fascist thug? Well, he was taught boxing by Hemingway, taught Yeats how to fence, got Eliot, Joyce and others published. Made a few silly broadcasts on Italian radio, for which he was declared nuts and put away for 13 years by the US government (who certainly didn’t want to execute him for ‘treason’). Won the Bolingen Prize for poetry while in the nut-house, and was finally released after a lot of activity in his behalf from fellow poets. Thuggery? Nah. Otherwise your list is good and you’re right, poets are no longer like your editor thought. A century earlier maybe…some of them.

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