As a Minneapolis-born, New York-residing book editor, Matt Weiland couldn’t be a more perfect interviewee for InDigest. He also has one of the more enviable resumes on the planet. Before becoming senior editor of the HarperCollins’ imprint Ecco, Weiland worked as an editor for Paris Review, Granta, the New Press, and the Baffler.
A few years back, Matt wrote the following words in an introduction to the NYRB gem Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-naming in the United States by George Stewart: “buoyancy and tolerance, curiosity and confidence, love of the land and faith in the future.” At Ecco, he seems to have turned that line into his personal motto, and he’s sure to develop a following among readers for his keen editorial eye.
In his rookie season, Weiland helped publish two books that, on the surface, didn’t seem like they’d fit all that well on my bookshelf, but which proved to be wonderfully rewarding.
If you approach Padget Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, a book composed entirely of questions, searching for a lone, overlooked period, you’ll be disappointed. (Likewise, there truly are no Es in Georges Perec’s A Void.) What you will discover by reading Powell’s 164-page brain-picker is that you don’t always have to have all the answers. Indeed, quite often the answer itself is unnecessary. What’s magical about The Interrogative Mood is the pacing. The questions might come at you in an all out blitz. They might swoon softly in one general direction before gently swooning aft. Sometimes, they’ll bounce around your feet like a litter of puppies. Or blend together into one larger question that will stop (purposely, it seems) just short of blowing your mind. But, most often, I found the process of reading them strangely peaceful, the way you get lost in the twists and turns of a poem and begin to completely disregard the meaning of it all.
Philip Hoare’s The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea proves Benjamin Disraeli’s assertion that “the best way to become acquainted with a subject is to write a book about it.” In this case, the subject is as much whales as it is the author’s lifelong fascination with them. And so every astounding fact and figure regarding whales and the history of whaling is presented with a degree of intimacy not found in most works of nonfiction. As a reader, you’ll tag along as Hoare travels from port town to port town, you’ll don a snorkel and swim alongside a sperm whale, you’ll study Moby-Dick with someone who’s read it more times than he can count. And, in the end (which will come quickly, I promise), you’ll have devoured 400 pages of gorgeous prose, dozens of wonderful illustrations and photographs, and learned more than a thing or two about one of nature’s most compelling beasts. -Jay D. Peterson
How long have you been with Ecco now? What have you had the pleasure of working on recently?
It’s been a great year and a half so far, long enough to see the first books I signed up (Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood, Philip Hoare’s The Whale) be published and, I think, strike a chord with readers. I’m now working on a wide range of writerly nonfiction—broadly in the fields of personal history, science, music, nature, travelogue, and so on. One book I’ve spent the past year working closely on is the Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Jonathan Weiner’s Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality. It’s a whirlwind intellectual quest in search of the truth behind the claims of the brilliant but crazy figures on the fringes of the scientific community who believe there are people alive today who will, you know, live forever. Due out this summer, it’s a fascinating and profound book that reminds me a bit of the sublime pleasures of Julian Barnes’ recent Nothing to Be Frightened Of.
Another I’ve been immersed in is the first book by a young writer who I feel sure we’ll be hearing a lot from in coming years: Philip Connors, a Minnesotan like me (in fact Sean Wilsey and I commissioned him to write the Minnesota piece for our book, State by State). He writes in the vein of Barry Lopez, Edward Abbey, or Thomas Lynch, and the book is an account of his work as one of the last fire lookouts in America (he now lives in New Mexico). A remarkable book about solitude, fire, work, and nature. Due out next spring. Further out are books on music by The New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones and Sleater-Kinney’s (and now NPR’s) Carrie Brownstein.
Has your relationship with the written word changed since making the transition from magazines to book publishing?
Not really. I’ve always worked on both magazines and books (The Baffler, Granta, and the Paris Review; Columbia University Press, The New Press, Granta Books, and the little firm my wife Eugenia Bell and I set up after the 9/11 attacks) – and as always I’m more interested in writers than subject matter. By that I mean I’m most struck by writers who sound like themselves and nobody else; when that’s the case I can get interested in pretty much any subject, especially if it has nothing to do with my own life.
Ever pulled a Max Perkins and chopped 50-60,000 words from a manuscript?
Well I’d never compare myself to Perkins—he looked far better than I do in a waistcoat and hat and tie, and he held his own at a table with Thomas Wolfe, no mean feat. But as far as chopping and cutting go… yeah, I’ve got a sharp knife and don’t mind using it. I’ve excised an author’s wife from a piece, and cut an author’s mother out of a book. I know, I know—I’m sorry! But writing is hard—I know from trying to do it—and often the hardest thing for even the best writers to see is what is pretty good, rather than great. That’s often my task, I feel: to help clear away the pretty good stuff to make the great stand tall and thrive. Plus, I tend to like things that run short and think a bit of silence a lovely thing. As Miles Davis said, “I always listen for what I can best leave out.”
In order to read for pleasure, do you have to turn off a certain portion of your editing brain?
I know what you mean, and sure, it’s sometimes hard to refrain from thinking, “Shouldn’t this paragraph be over there?” But I confess that everything I read, I read for pleasure. Whether it’s a book proposal, a manuscript, or a finished book, a magazine piece or online review, to me pleasure is crucial. If I’m not into it, I just stop and read something else.
Do you pal around with other editors? Is there a secret book editor’s bowling league somewhere out in Queens?
Yes, I do (there are loads of great book editors in this town and elsewhere—prospective writers should feel bullish and bold about that). And yes, there is—but it’s darts and it’s in Brooklyn.
I know you have a two-year-old boy. Any thoughts on how you’ll approach your son’s writing? What’s going to happen when he brings home his first essay or book report?
I hope I’ll have the patience and presence of mind that my own father had when I was growing up in south Minneapolis. We used to sit beside each other at the kitchen table after dark combing through a draft of something I’d written for school, pencils out. He’d read a line or two of mine aloud – usually the ones I liked best – and say, “That’s good—but only good. You really need it?” Then his pencil would slash across the page, out those lines would go, and the piece would always be better for it.
Read Jay D. Peterson’s interview with Open Letter Book Publisher Chad W. Post here.
Go to Ecco.