Interview: Heyday Publisher Steve Wasserman on the Art of Editing

BY Linda Kinstler | Writers on Writing

In 2016, publishing veteran Steve Wasserman returned to his hometown of Berkeley to take the reins at Heyday Books, an independent non-profit publisher known for nature books and California chronicles that was founded by Malcolm Margolin in 1974. His career in “the vineyard of letters,” as he calls it, began at Berkeley High and has taken him through the offices of the City Magazine of San Francisco, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, Random House, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, and others. He has been a writer, editor, and literary agent, a fixture of the publishing world on both coasts, a champion of established and emerging talent. He is also a lot of fun. In October, he sat down with the Art of Writing’s Linda Kinstler to speak about his vision for Heyday and his view of the literary landscape.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Steve Wasserman
Steve Wasserman

LK: Where should we start? How did you arrive at Heyday in 2016?

SW: Let’s start earlier. I mean, if the question more broadly is how did Berkeley shape me, that is a really important question because geography is fate and timing is everything. I’m forever grateful to my parents for having moved from Oregon in August 1963, as I was turning 11 years old. My father was a civil engineer who’d gone to Cooper Union. Both my parents had grown up in the Bronx and had left the East Coast for the West Coast in 1951. I was born the following year, in ’52, and they moved to Berkeley in ’63. That same month saw the March on Washington, and the following year was the Free Speech Movement at the University of California.

Berkeley in the years I came of age had an archipelago of secondhand bookstores. As much time as I spent studying at Cal, I really was majoring in promiscuous reading. My true doctorate was bestowed upon me by the late Moe Moskowitz of Moe’s Books, who could reduce tenured professors almost to tears when they came in to sell back to Moe their various books whose quality he judged with an unforgiving eye.

In my senior year in 1974, I was hired by Robert Scheer, a man I much admired, who had been the former editor of Ramparts magazine and who had run in 1966 for Congress on a two-prong platform to end the war in Vietnam and to end poverty in Oakland. He almost won, garnering 45% of the vote. Scheer hired me as a researcher on a book he was writing, which would be published by McGraw-Hill in the fall of 1974, titled America After Nixon: The Age of the Multinationals.  It described a phenomenon that we now call globalism. When Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, the book was in page proofs and I had to go through every page and change all the tenses from present to past, as in “Nixon was.” I can assure you that no task so tedious was ever so pleasurable.

After I graduated, I was plunged into a deep uncertainty, which, I confess, has lasted my entire life. I have never completely rid myself of the idea that I will be out on the street, desperate for work, and then where will my healthcare come from? I would like to pretend that I’m okay, but the truth is I’m not. I know this isn’t reassuring — though down the decades I have gained experience and some confidence, which has both bolstered and undermined my natural and youthful arrogance and know-it-all-ism. Now 68 years old, I find myself, oddly, somehow having been steadily employed one way or another doing work that I enjoy and which, immodestly, I hope makes the world a bit better.

The luxury of being an editor is that it’s a form of midwifery. I get to help birth ideas by others, smarter, more articulate than I could be on my best day. And it relieves me of the necessity of having an opinion about everything that I think should go into print. Of course, I do have opinions about everything, but most of them are unoriginal. I made my peace long ago that I’m not going to have my name up in lights, and that there’s great honor and worth in doing this kind of work, basically prospecting for the voices of people who are more talented than myself, to be an author’s first listener and critic. And then to try to answer the question that is before all of us who work in the vineyard of letters: How do you cut through the noise of the culture and get attention for deserving work? Whether you work as a literary agent, as I have, or whether you work as a publisher, whether you’re a publicist, no matter where you find yourself in this fragile ecosystem, which is under siege continually — and has been ever since Hammurabi’s Code, I would imagine—that question is at the heart of the work.

In the late seventies, I tired of the small magazines and journals of opinion, because I felt they were only preaching to the converted. They were very siloed, and it bothered me. When an opportunity came to join the Los Angeles Times, the paper having hired Robert Scheer, who then urged that I be hired as well, I jumped at the chance.

In 1978, I had applied to the Columbia School of Journalism and was accepted. At that moment, I was also offered a position as deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday opinion section. I was all of 26. I decided not to go to Columbia.

LK: Was there a moment when you decided that you were going to spend your life in the ‘vineyard of letters,’ as you called it? It sounds like that choice between Columbia Journalism School and the LA Times was one major decision of your life, but were you also, or even before that, considering the choice of being a writer versus being an editor?

SW: I tortured myself about whether to become a writer. In the two years after graduating with a degree in criminology from Cal in 1974, I managed to sell enough pieces to various journals to keep hope alive and the landlord at bay. But the truth is, I don’t like to be alone with my own thoughts. I’m a talker, not really a writer. And I was too lazy — writing was hard work. And I didn’t think I was smart enough. I didn’t have the kind of cheeky aristocracy, that confers confidence, which my friends who had grown up in England seemed to personify, nor did I have the Yale-Harvard-Columbia Golden Triangle sense of my own entitlement. I didn’t have that. So I settled for something else. I’ve no regrets.

I never thought I would have a career. I never had any five-year plans. I still don’t. I thought I would do things for as long as they seemed interesting and challenging, and then when they didn’t, I would somehow trust in the Great Goddess Serendipity — to whom, an irreligious man, I pray to almost every day because she has shined her light upon me, and I feel myself to have been enormously fortunate. Of course, I also like to think that luck is the residue of design. I like to think that I had something to do with creating my own luck, but, you know, you’re talking to someone who has never gotten a job by having to submit a resume.

LK: I mean, I would argue that publishing is not an industry that lends itself to five-year plans. How would you describe how the publishing industry has changed since you entered into it? It seems like you witnessed the rise of these meteoric, legendary careers, and helped usher them into being. Now, obviously, the industry has changed in big ways and in other ways it hasn’t changed at all.

SW: I would say there are at least three separate overlapping crises or predicaments that beset American publishing. The first, which has been ongoing for a good thirty years, is what seems to be the inexorable conglomeration of everything. We now have, depending on how you count it, either four or five major conglomerates that run most of the imprints in American publishing. Many of those conglomerates are actually owned by foreign entities. So on the one hand, it’s the age of conglomeration on steroids. That’s one kind of crisis.

A second one is the advance of technology, which has transformed the means of distribution even while it has lowered the cost of production. It has had the effect of democratizing access to information and knowledge. More information is available than ever before at the touch of a keystroke or the poke of a finger upon an iPhone. You and I are talking thanks to the modern equivalent of an Aladdin’s lamp. [The interview was conducted via FaceTime.] It’s just astonishing. Geography is banished. We have an unearned intimacy across time zones. But this has created its own set of complications and contradictions, not least the ever-increasing velocity of everything, and the addictive quality of just poking and touching these keys or buttons, and getting a kind of hit or high from it, and this has made everyone also feel far more anxious, insecure, and impoverished than in times past.

Number three is the crisis of literacy, of fast food culture, fast-thought culture, which privileges first thoughts as best thoughts. What happened to second thoughts, third thoughts, and reflection? Now, a thought or a half-thought or quarter-thought bursts into our brain, and there it is on the screen, with justified margins, with all the patina of authority that old-fashioned print can confer, but actually often undeserved and unwarranted by the modest effort put into its expression.

I came back to Berkeley four years ago because there was an opportunity to take the helm of a 40-year old startup called Heyday Books. I’d known its owner and founder Malcolm Margolin for about 25 years. I admired his vision, what he had accomplished with hardly any resources, but a lot of moxie and pixie dust, and a little Scotch tape. But there were personal reasons too: Even though I hadn’t lived in Berkeley for 40 years, and had never thought about returning, I still had family there. I thought I had outgrown both the suffocations and conceits of Berkeley. On the other hand, I still had the scent of night jasmine and a wee bit of the old Berkeley tear gas in my nostrils. 

LK: So tell me about Heyday — how would you describe the path it has taken since your arrival, the writers you are publishing and the work you are doing there?

SW: Nothing that Heyday does is any different than what my friends at Knopf do, or what my old pal, Jonathan Karp, does at Simon & Schuster. We all get up in the morning trying to find good books. Where do they come from?

Unfortunately, you can’t go to sleep at night and find them fully formed beneath your pillow when you awaken in the morning. We are constantly on the hunt for good books by whatever measure you evaluate them — good writing, stories that haven’t been heard, or old stories newly told.

So the chance to come back to Berkeley was irresistible, to head up my own shop, and to shore up, and put on a more professional footing a creaky enterprise, which against all odds had somehow survived for decades, built up quite a backlist and rested on four pillars: a devotion to issues of social justice; a devotion to celebrating and exploring California’s natural world and defending the environment; championing Native American cultural renewal that had been an interest of Malcolm’s from the very start, because the whole publishing enterprise was essentially born with a book that he wrote back in the mid-70s called The Ohlone Way, which was an exploration of who were the people who had lived on the shores of the Bay Area in the 10,000 years before European contact and conquest; and the fourth pillar was to plumb the depths of all the paradoxes and contradictions of California, one of the few states in the Union that long ago lodged itself in the frontal lobe of people’s consciousness the world over. It’s at least as much a place in the head as it is an actual physical destination. People everywhere talk about the California Dream. Less talked about is the Nebraska Dream.

As the late Susan Sontag once said of California, “It’s America’s America.” By that she meant that America was the place that Europeans came to rid themselves of the weight of history and to reinvent themselves as Americans. So too could California be seen as that place where Americans fleeing the corruptions and densities of the Northeast’s industrial cities came to a place which put a premium on re-invention. Yet, beneath it all, as Joan Didion, our greatest living prose writer on all things California, has observed, California is a place where the ground is not stable. The sun may shine, but it’s all blue velvet. It’s all a desperately Hobbesian world beneath the manicured lawns and the relentless sunshine. Bertolt Brecht knew this too; see, for example, his superb and lacerating cycle of Hollywood poems.

LK: So when you look out at the landscape of California writing and editing right now, it seems to me that this kind of Hobbesian world is much more evident these days. Last week, California Sunday Magazine collapsed, which is such a great loss, given that the magazine really filled a gaping hole in our culture. When you look out on the field, what do you see? What kind of opportunities do you see for renewal or rebuilding?

SW: One of the striking features of the California literary landscape is how impoverished it is. I don’t mean financially; it’s impoverished in ambition, with few exceptions. You have a baker’s dozen of small presses, each with its own aesthetic or political profile, most notably and courageously City Lights, which is sort of the West Coast version of New Directions.

The truth of the matter is that these small presses, like Heyday, are enjoying something of a renaissance in a growing community — probably made up of the same people who are now renewing their interest in possessing vinyl records, or people who are interested in the slow food movement.

I’m an advocate of slow reading: read it slow, let it sink deeper, leave a lasting legacy. Cleave to the conceit that culture gets influenced in mysterious and unpredictable ways. Strangely, the California landscape is a surprisingly threadbare landscape. Yet, opportunities abound, as Dave Eggers discovered when he started McSweeney’s. My friend, David Ulin, who succeeded me as the book editor for the Los Angeles Times, has just started an online magazine called Air/Light, under the aegis of USC. The best thing in the last decade has been the founding by Tom Lutz and his colleagues of the online Los Angeles Review of Books. They’ve done a very good job, but no one’s yet found a way to make these publications financially successful. It’s a continuing and vexing problem, but that was always the case with opinion journals. For example, the New Republic never made any money. Harper’s has been around for 150 years and never made any money. The Atlantic has Laurene Powell Jobs now, and before her, others of great capacity, but still has yet to turn a profit. For publishing writ large, the future is always bleak, but it is mercifully populated by people who when they get up in the morning always insist the glass is half full.

LK: That’s a good way of putting it. So, then, how would you describe your editing process? How do you go about it? How do you work with writers? How do you approach drafts? Is it always slow reading? Is it also slow editing?

SW: It depends on the book. I look for what the story is. I try to save people from their excesses. It’s often the case that writers are so close to a story, and so loathe to part with aspects of the story, that they think the story begins here, where actually maybe it more properly or more engagingly begins with what you now have as your third chapter.

I’m an editor of nonfiction, not fiction. I look for areas in argument and presentation, which either have been omitted or insufficiently elaborated upon, which somehow the author has not herself attended to.

It’s definitely a dialectic. You don’t want an author who completely rolls over and accepts every suggestion. Editors have to remind themselves, ‘Hey, you know what, it’s not our book. It’s the author’s book.’ And the authors may be right. They may be insisting on something because that is a better way to go. All too often, editors are hostage to orthodoxy and the way things have been done. If you’re in the hands of an original writer, he or she is going to tackle in approach and language ways of thinking about and talking about things that are new and refreshing, and you should go with it. I’m always learning as much or more from writers as I hope, in the best of circumstances, they might learn from me.

LK: What would you say to a Berkeley senior right now who is graduating into a rather unideal economy — the path of course in publishing is never straight—what would you say to them, how to proceed?

SW: Oh God, that is the $64,000 question. There’s no one right path for everyone. It has never been easy. This same question presented itself to me in 1974 and all along down the years: How do you get your foot in the door? It just seemed so impossible. It depends on your aspiration. Unless you have a profound sense of yourself as a writer — and some people do — for example, I just finally finished reading my way through all 2,000 pages of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, all four volumes. I’m in love with her. She knew from a very early age that she wanted to be a writer. She was bound and determined, and she was extraordinarily self-disciplined about it. That kind of faith in oneself is almost enough to give one hope. I think as long as we remain a species defined in part by our opposable thumbs and an endless need to tell each other stories, to make some kind of plausible and coherent sense of otherwise inchoate lives and circumstances, people are always going to want to hear those stories. Sometimes the same stories, over and over again, albeit in a new guise. And there will always be a place for people to help others tell those stories. Basically, the key thing when you’re starting out is to find an experienced person to whom you can apprentice yourself. You may not know exactly what your talents are or where your curiosities will lead.

I know some people who thought they wanted to be writers, but what they really wanted was to be around writers. Some found that working as an agent was enough. There are great satisfactions to be found in even what seems ostensibly to be anonymous work — as the work of being an editor is, it’s not your name, after all, that’s going to be printed. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll get an acknowledgement by the writer, but it will almost never be as generous as you yearn for it to be. And then you will also have to suffer the ignominy of writers whose sense of themselves is very grand and omit you entirely in their acknowledgements.

LK: So rude! Unforgivable.

SW: I always think it’s bad form. What would it have cost them? After all, we live not for the paltry salaries we are paid, but for the pat on the back by people we respect and admire who say, well done, thank you. I live my whole life for that.