How Editor Alice Mayhew Worked With Writers

From “An Editor Can Save You From Yourself,” by Joumana Khatib in the New York Times:

From Bob Woodward: Alice’s genius was that she understood you’re writing for a reader, so she had a great sense of pacing—not including things that are unnecessary or that were sidetracks—and a sense for tone and presentation.

In December 1973, Carl and I were at the St. Regis.Alice would come over during the day and we’d write at night. The book was coming out in April and at that time, it was normally a year or 18 months before a book was released, so we were thinking, “My God, it’s coming out in April, that’s going to be so fast.” I remember vividly: She came over with this 90-page section, an account of our reporting efforts that led nowhere, leads that didn’t pan out, and she said, “You need to cut it.” I said “O.K., by how much?” And she said, “Cut it to two pages.” She was right.

She had that sense of how to keep the story moving. She would write in the margins, “not necessary”—it was her trademark. It could be a page, a section, an adverb, an adjective. She was serving the reader, not us, in a way. Carl and I quickly learned that’s exactly what we need, and that’s exactly what editing is about. The hymnal she sang from was: Be straightforward, be direct.

From Frances FitzGerald: I appreciated her a lot because first, before anything else happened, she would talk about your ideas, what you were thinking about, and she would always have some advice—and she didn’t always like your ideas! I respected her judgment. And she was really good about structure — that’s often the hardest part of a book.

She was so many things. She was one of those charming people who make you feel, when you’re with them, as though there was no one else in the world but you.

From Amy Wilentz: Alice had many best-selling authors, and I was not one of them. She basically picked me up, not out of a slush pile but from a trash bin of writers another editor at Simon & Schuster had decided to torment and reject. She liked my manuscript—my first book on Haiti—she loved it, I would have to say; that’s how Alice reacted to writing before she began to pick it apart and shift your chapters around, and lay them on the floor of her apartment and put the book back together piece by piece, and then call you, crowing, about how she’d solved the one big problem. She was not a line editor, to put it mildly.

From Jill Abramson: I was always jealous of the many journalists I knew who were her authors. Her reputation was such that I don’t think I ever heard anyone actually say her last name. It was just, “I work with Alice.” I finally got into the club.

The Times’s obituary says, “She left no survivors.” On the contrary, she left shelves of amazing books by authors whose ideas she inspired and nurtured.

She was a true polymath with boundless curiosity. Her authors wanted to work with her again and again, often over decades, and Alice gave them her unbound loyalty.
From Walter Isaacson at With a Salty Passion that could be abrupt but endearing (most of the time), book editor Alice Mayhew, who died on Feb. 4 at 87, helped create the nonfiction genre of the blockbuster Washington insider tale. For almost 50 years, she shepherded waves of writers whom she prodded to combine journalistic reporting with literary storytelling. She had a theological belief in chronological narrative, and would slash from a manuscript any self-indulgent diversions and scribble in the margins “all things in good time” when an author tried to flash forward or circle back when telling a tale.

Books were her life, and with her raspy laugh and intense stare she helped her writers turn half-baked notions into sharply themed stories. Those who benefited from her skill were legion. . . .But her greatest joy, I believe, came not from her famous writers but from the fledgling ones she helped launch, year after year, into her charmed realm of Alice Authors.

From Samuel Freedman ai Never once did Alice mention the commercial outcome of any book of mine; never once did she try to steer my ambitions onto some purportedly safer subject matter. In fact, the book of mine that we both thought might finally earn me a breakthrough readership was the one that received the most equivocal reviews and the poorest sales.

Yet that book—Who She Was, about my mother’s upbringing in the Bronx during the Depression and World War II—was the one that Alice most viscerally embraced. Now that I have read the obituaries that fill in many gaps about her life, I can understand why. Alice was born in 1932, just eight years after my mother, and like her grew up in the struggling Bronx, pushing against the boundaries imposed by gender roles and traditional religion to burst into the wider world

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