How Your Book About Books Gets Made: Boris Kachka Tells All About "Hothouse"

by Evan Hughes

In Benjamin Anastas’s 2012 memoir, Too Good to Be True, he writes of how he viewed Farrar, Straus and Giroux when he was an unpublished writer “prone to bouts of romantic longing”: “It was not just a publisher in my eyes. It was more like the Promised Land.” A poet who had caught a glimpse of the office had once told him on a fire escape in Queens, “National Book Awards? They paper the fucking place. It’s like a shrine in there. You whisper.”

A certain mystique, whether you buy it or not, surrounds FSG, publisher of 25 Nobel laureates since its first slate of titles appeared in 1946. Boris Kachka’s Hothouse is a history of the publishing house that gives a long look behind the curtain. The book also functions as a biography of Roger Straus (1917–2004), the charismatic, egotistical, and crude product of a union of two powerful Jewish families who founded FSG and led it for nearly six decades. He finally ceded to the industry trend toward consolidation in 1994, selling a majority stake to the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, but he retained a degree of independence for himself and his successors. In Hothouse, Kachka provides a tour of postwar intellectual life though the story of one of its eminent and eccentric institutions.

I told Kachka I was looking for some VH1 “Behind the Music” material, some insight into “the making of” the book. (He replied, “You mean how I wrote it in one coke-fueled jag while riding shotgun with Vince Neil cross-country?”) We sat down to talk on a recent Sunday.

The Awl: Why don’t you walk me through the book deal and how it was it that you ended up changing publishers midway through the project.

Boris: A small house picked up the book for $30,000. It was not an easy sell, and in fact [the eventual editor] Jofie Ferrari-Adler was one of the editors who declined to take it on the original proposal. He was at Grove/Atlantic then. Things didn’t work out with Thomas Dunne Books, my original publisher. It was a little awkward to begin with, because Dunne and FSG are both owned by Macmillan, so maybe FSG would get early looks or whatever. The pipeline just felt a little bit…

The Awl: Too short.

Boris: Yes, exactly. And that wasn’t the only issue but let’s leave it at that. Eventually, my agent, Jane Dystel, and I decided to take a chance. We parted ways with Dunne, returned the half-advance I’d gotten, and went out to others. It was easier to do that with a completed book, but it was a risky thing of course. Jofie eventually sent me a note: “This book is marvelous, baby.” He had lots of suggestions and there was some rewriting involved. He matched that first advance. I’m so lucky that I wound up with Jofie [at Simon & Schuster].

The Awl: Why FSG? For instance, why not Knopf, which is often talked about in the book as a kind of rival?

Boris: Well it wouldn’t be the story of an independent company. It would be the story of the most literary imprint in the publishing industry. [Knopf was acquired by Random House in 1960.] That phrase that comes up in the book, “semi-outsiders”; it just resonates in so many ways. FSG published a lot of books that were outside the mainstream system. They didn’t play in auctions, which now sounds ridiculous. [For a sought-after book, an agent will often set up an auction in which publishers bid against one another.] They really didn’t! As almost a blanket policy until, like, 1985.

The Awl: Yeah, how did they get away with that? Just because writers wanted to be there?

Boris: Yeah, I think a lot of them did. And I think a lot of the people they were publishing by the early ’80s were not big-time writers anyway. Their demands were more [laughs] emotional and spiritual than financial. I mean of course that changed, but I think it was the only way they could survive for a while. They also survived by licensing paperback rights. For Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent they paid $200,000 in the hardcover deal and then made a paperback deal for $670,000.

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The Awl: That was pretty sweet.

Boris: Right, I know. But as to the question of why FSG, beyond that there were so many things that appealed to me. To be able to write about New York, and, you know, Jews taking over publishing [laughs], and then the Catholic moment. And this family dynamic between father and son. [Straus’s son, Roger III, did two stints working at FSG, on the understanding that he would take over the company, before leaving over “philosophical differences.”] As I started exploring it as a topic — it was suggested by an agent to me, so it’s not as if I thought, “Oh, let me find the ideal publishing house to write about.” It was, “Is this a good story to follow up on?” And all those elements seemed to come together for me.

The Awl: Was there a golden age for FSG? You rattle off an amazing list for 1968, where you have Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a play by Brian Friel, Carlos Fuentes, Robert Lowell, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a collection by Isaac Babel, etc. So is that it, the late 60s?

Boris: Yeah I think it would be around then. That and maybe when Robert Giroux came in and brought all those writers from the late 50s. In both cases I think it comes down to an editor with a vision, who went looking for writers in certain places, and through networks of friends and communities. But in terms of cultural impact, yeah, it has to be the mid- to late-60s. One of the places where I could write a little about not just analyzing a business or writing about people but about a sensibility was in that whole section about Barthelme and Sontag and Wolfe and Didion. Those were very, very different things that they wrote. But all of them were still speaking to a mass audience, but about cataclysmic changes, just as culture was about to splinter.

The Awl: Who were your most valuable sources, in terms of interviews?

Boris: Straus’s son, Roger III, as you can probably tell, was a very useful source. I would hope that I had enough corroboration or disagreement from other people. There’s a risk always to being too sympathetic to one point of view. But it’s astonishing to me, and I think it speaks to his mental health, that he’s able to see many sides of his father’s character so objectively. He helped a lot about his father’s personality. He also helped me take a look at the [Columbia University] oral history [with his father], without which I would have been nowhere for the early years. They were I think 15 distinct interviews.

The Awl: And they’re not public.

Boris: No, you have to get permission from Roger’s son to look at them, to photocopy them, to quote from them. Peggy was also incredibly helpful, Peggy Miller. [Miller was Straus’ “secretary and intimate” for more than four decades, as Kachka puts it.] A delicate situation, but I like to think that I handled it as well as I could without compromising the story.

The Awl: Was there initial resistance from her to talking to you at all?

Boris: I think the resistance came later, when I started getting into stuff she didn’t want to get into. But she’s had a lot of practice deflecting questions.

The Awl: Who else was a valuable source?

Boris: Well, Galassi. [Jonathan Galassi, hired by Straus in 1986, is the current president and publisher of FSG.]

The Awl: What about him in terms of resistance?

Boris: Well he’s going to have his say… Do you know about this? He wrote a review of my book for New York magazine.

The Awl: What? Are you kidding?

Boris: Nope! [mutual laughs]

The Awl: Let’s back up a second. When you first floated the idea, what was his reaction?

Boris: He had me come into his office and I felt like I was in a job interview. “What makes you want a write a book about FSG?” “Have you been a fan for a long time?” But it turned out OK. He said, basically, “Gather all your stories and come back and run them by me.” Which is a nice thing to say: Oh, I’ll fact-check you. And you’ll let me know everything you know.

The Awl: So rather than I’m going to tell you stories, he wanted to come later.

Boris: Although we did 4, 5, 6 interviews. A couple of phoners too. And he actually told me a lot of off-the-record stuff that was useful in the book. One of which he quotes in the review! But anyway.

The Awl: Oh, you read the review in advance.

Boris: Yeah. Sure. We have the same editor at New York, David Wallace-Wells. [pause] It’s kinda fucked-up, right? Oh, and Galassi read [my book in manuscript] and we had a slightly more involved two-hour meeting about, you know, how balanced it was. And I ignored 90 percent of his comments and on the other 10 percent I said, “Well you’re welcome to respond however you’d like.” For me it was just another turn for someone, you know? I said, “Well if you think that this person is wrong, why?” Then maybe I used a bit of that.

The Awl: What did he push back on balance-wise?

Boris: Well he sort of gets at that in the review. The main question I’m asking at the end is: Can FSG transition into a house that can support itself in accordance with the expectations of a Knopf or a Doubleday? Can they make a thriller work? Can they remain a nurturing place for someone like Sarah Crichton while she sort of fiddles around and tries to build something more commercial every once in a while? He thought I didn’t give their marketing department enough — or I didn’t judge it on its own terms or something. He thought I was sort of slighting the present day a little bit. And you know, I think that’s for people to judge. But I certainly mention a lot of the big writers of the present day, and say that it’s a good home for them. So, I would disagree.

The Awl: What documents were key for you? Are the FSG papers all in one place?

Boris: Yes, at the New York Public Library. There are 850 boxes of stuff. I think this is why people take 10 years to write books. They will think to themselves, Well I can’t possibly do a responsible job without reading every single document. Which, uh, I mean first of all, I don’t have an academic tenured position — I can’t do that. But in terms of this book it’s going to come down to 12, 15 writers whose stories I want to tell intensely enough that I’m interested in their subsidiary rights information, for example. But even then, you go off on a side note, and there’s no box that’s like: Roger Straus’s Oblique Mentions of Affairs. There’s not even a box that says Finances year to year. You just have to fish around. It’s sort of sad, as you get into later years it’s like printouts of emails. And faxes. And the faxes are all gone, the ink. [laughs] Like, the fax era is not going to be a well-documented era.

The Awl: Who said no about talking to you?

Boris: Well, Philip Roth. Tom Wolfe talked to me when I was working on the initial story for New York in 2008 about the end of publishing — can we just put huge air quotes around that, “the end of publishing”? It was never meant to be literal — but he wouldn’t talk to me directly about his dealings with Roger because I think they were more complicated than what he wanted them to be. I got [Susan Sontag’s son] David Rieff to talk to me later on, which helped a lot, but I sort of bided my time on that one. [As Robert Gottlieb puts it, for a time Sontag was Straus’s “most important writer/friend/adviser/maybe lover.”]

The Awl: Bided your time?

Boris: I talked to Rieff first, but he wouldn’t really say anything, and he kept saying, “Oh, you’re going to hear a lot of salacious stuff, and I don’t want to indulge that.” But I think what finally animated him was realizing that I was telling a story about his mother and Roger that didn’t fully reflect her point of view, and he actually helped me understand the tensions in their relationship a lot better.

The Awl: Here’s a big-picture question. I think the book suggests a lot about FSG’s cultural clout. If you imagine a 20th century history of publishing and intellectual life in which there was no FSG, what would we be missing?

Boris: That’s a hard counterfactual.

The Awl: I guess I mean, what’s their biggest contribution?

Boris: I think that on a lesser level it’s like what the New Yorker did, although they didn’t pay as much, but it was as sort of a hybrid of a patron and a commercial proposition. Which is also what the New Yorker is. What Straus did, even though he wasn’t an intellectual, was that he cemented people together. And I think that there were a lot of waves of literary production and mutual publicity, you could call it, that wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been the glue to put it together. I mean people talk about Partisan Review. Do they necessarily talk about the articles in Partisan Review or do they talk about the fact that it brought together a bunch of people who would argue about things and go off and do their own things? And I think that’s kind of what FSG did.

The Awl: There is a sense in the book of FSG as a family of sorts. Writers feeling like they were in this club that not only had cachet but also a sense of belonging.

Boris: Yeah, and I don’t know how much of that was for customers. In a certain sense this book is more about what was good for writers. And writers have certain needs in order to produce their work, and consumers benefit if the work is good.

The Awl: I was struck by the house’s treatment of Sontag, though I know she was a special case — taking care of her apartment when she was away, paying her taxes, sometimes her credit card bill. Just imagine that now.

Boris: I know. I mean it’s not like Roger was throwing hundred-dollar bills at her, it was out of her own [royalty] account. But it was more the effort that went into it that’s pretty astonishing.

The Awl: Yeah, it’s that sense of taking care of someone: You’re ours. I think you’re much more on your own now as a writer. That’s my perception anyway.

Boris: I think it’s true. You ask: what did it matter? Well, can you think of any publisher that could promote itself to writers that way, as a club they wanted to join? Not too many. Yeah, these books would probably have been published somewhere else. But I don’t know! I mean, how would somebody else have handled Tom Wolfe? After his seventh missed deadline? I think the way they handled those writers, McPhee and Sontag and Wolfe, when they were not producing — the leash they gave them — I really don’t think it’s something that a lot of publishers would have done.

Evan Hughes is the author of Literary Brooklyn.