By Jack Limpert
George died on November 6, 1999, a week before his 60th birthday. Today he would have been a week away from turning 74 and think of the great books and magazine pieces that could have been.
Here’s a link to a long post from a year ago, Thanks to Brad Pitt, a New Appreciation of George V. Higgins, that tried to capture the man and his writings.
At the Washingtonian, we had a lot of back and forth with George in the 1970s and ’80s, some by phone, much of it with his agent, Gail Hochman. Back then we tried to buy his 5,000 word short stories for $1,500 but after some negotiating often paid $2,000. That was about double what we were paying most writers.
One of the joys of the pre-digital age were the letters that sometimes went back and forth between editors and writers or their agents. I remember mostly smooth sailing between George and the magazine but one somewhat tart letter from Gail Hochman says, “I do expect that we’ll be able to resolve the Higgins affair,” going on to encourage me to do all the things an editor should do: Pay more promptly, send George galleys before publication, let them know the publication date, send them finished copies of the magazine.
George occasionally came to Washington from Boston and we had several lunches but the conversations and what we ate, drank, and talked about have vanished. I do remember being in awe of the young lawyer who had written The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I have notes of phone conversations but only one letter. It’s a reminder that letters seem much more personal than the emails that now are exchanged.
Letters provided some sense of the person, as did the manuscripts that a writer would turn in. Back then it seemed that there was an inverse relationship between the neatness of the manuscript and the quality of the prose. When a piece came in on bond paper and it had been done on an electric typewriter, it seemed a sure sign that the writer was an amateur and probably not worth reading past the first few grafs. Real writers didn’t buy expensive paper and they often added last-minute edits to the copy. So getting a messy manuscript was sort of a window into the mind of the writer.
Here’s the Higgins letter I have from February 11, 1989. You’ll see that I had passed the letter on to Dick Victory, the Washingtonian editor who worked on most of George’s stories. Dick was wonderfully cynical about writers and life, so don’t take his comment too seriously.