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The Book Doctor Is In

Scribner’s Colin Harrison is more that just an editor for his stable of writers — he’s a collaborator, a wordsmith, an architect and a hand-holder who pours sweat equity into every book he buys.


by Kathy Floyd

Colin Harrison grabs the brown butcher paper covering the table at his usual dining spot in midtown Manhattan’s Café Un Deux Trois, and roughs out rows of boxes. He’s not doodling or passing time while waiting for his food at the French bistro. He’s drawing a chronological chart of the principal characters and events for his lunch partner, Jan Jarboe Russell, who is hung up on structural issues in writing her book about German, Japanese and Italian families interned in South Texas during World War II.

Harrison’s diagram helped Russell solve her structural puzzle and complete her book, The Train to Crystal City, which attracted critical acclaim after its release earlier this year. She has since packed up her research and notes, but not the brown paper diagram. It still hangs on the storyboard in her office, a cherished keepsake. Seeing her editor scrawl the book’s structure on the restaurant’s table covering demonstrated to Russell that they shared a vision for the story. Removing the butcher paper covering also revealed that the penne gorgonzola and goat cheese crepe were the last things on his mind. “He’s in it with his sleeves rolled up, ready to work,” Russell says.

Just around the corner from the cafe, on the 12th floor of the Simon & Schuster building on Sixth Avenue, Harrison answers his office phone with a three-syllable “Hel-lo-o”— as if calling out to see if anyone is home. On the other end of the line is a first-time writer who has done something rare in Harrison’s world: turned in a manuscript four months early. The anxious writer seeks some assurance that he has done well, but Harrison, vice president and editor-in-chief at Scribner, explains that it will be a few weeks before he can give the manuscript his full attention. He looks forward to settling down with it and will let him know what he thinks as soon as he can.

Earlier in the day, Harrison had the opposite problem. He urged an agent to get his writer to turn in something, anything. It could be revised later. “He doesn’t understand the process,” Harrison says of the wayward scribe.

Harrison is referring, of course, to the process of making a book — something he and other Scribner editors know well. After all, Scribner is home to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and other literary giants.

Bringing a book into being involves more than just guiding a writer from first page to last. It’s a symphony of story, reporting, structure, art, design and politics — and Harrison is a master conductor. “We’re making something that’s never been made before and won’t be made again,” he says, “so we have to do it as best we can.”

Harrison and author S.C. Gwynne discussed their collaboration on Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon during a session at the 2010 Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. Gwynne drops the “L” word — legendary — when talking about Harrison’s mastery of narrative structure. “He is a big deal. Just look at the list of writers he’s worked with.”

During his 12 years at Harper’s Magazine, Harrison edited David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jane Smiley, Sebastian Junger, Barbara Ehrenreich, David Quammen, Bob Shacochis and Joyce Carol Oates. Today, at Scribner, his stable of authors and titles includes Kevin Fedarko’s The Emerald Mile, Jeff Hobbs’ The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Carol Sklenicka’s Raymond Carver and Helen Thorpe’s Soldier Girls and Just Like Us.

Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson and Hobbs’ The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace made the shortlist for the PEN Literary Award for biography, and Craig Nelson’s The Age of Radiance was shortlisted for the PEN Literary Award for science writing — a rare accomplishment for an editor to have three books in one year up for PEN’s prestigious awards.

His own success as a writer of crime fiction — he has seven novels to his credit — gives him a nose for good narrative, says agent Jim Donovan, “a strong sixth sense for a great story, and how it should be told.”

Harrison shrugs off comparisons to the editor who made early Scribner writers famous — Maxwell Perkins — but they are hard to escape. Perkins was known for the friendships he formed with his writers; Harrison too feels a genuine affection for the writers with whom he works. And while Harrison has great respect for Perkins, and for his role in Scribner’s history (the publisher is celebrating the 90th anniversary of The Great Gatsby this year), he doesn’t feel the ghost of Perkins looking over his shoulder. “There are a lot of great editors in our building. There are a lot of great newspaper editors and magazine editors in the city. I’m more concerned with being like those editors.”

When Harrison’s writers talk about him, they speak in metaphor, one comparing him to a gentle handler of an inexperienced racehorse. Shacochis calls him “brilliant.” Russell calls Harrison an “artful man.”

Because Russell had so many characters inhabiting her book on the World War II internment camp, she struggled with transitioning between government officials and the different families sent to the camp. Harrison suggested she think of the structure as different musical keys, with each character striking a different tone.

After he bought Russell’s book, Harrison was surprised to learn that his own grandfather played a part in its story. Earl Harrison Sr. was the United States Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization under President Franklin Roosevelt from 1942 to ’44. Harrison traces his love of language back to this earlier generation. His maternal grandfather, George Young, who was raised in Texas, was confined to bed for months in his early 20s because of a health condition. To pass the time, he memorized the dictionary and would become a gifted speaker and writer who traveled frequently to Europe. For Christmas 1972, Young sent Harrison a dictionary with a letter, now framed, explaining that he chose that particular dictionary for his grandson because of its clarity and readability — important attributes for a young man’s dictionary to possess. He died two weeks later.

After his grandmother’s death, an aunt called Harrison to ask if he wanted to look through the books that were in his grandparents’ house. Among these books, many of which were obtained in Europe, was an early edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses published in the 1920s by Paris’s famed Shakespeare and Company bookshop. Harrison laughs at the thought of a good ol’ boy from Kemp, Texas, buying Joyce in Paris in the 1920s.

Harrison recalls growing up in a “bookish” house. His mother, Jean, loved plays and writing, and would quiz Colin about Latin words. For a time, she worked as an assistant at The New Yorker. His father, Earl Harrison Jr., became the headmaster at Sidwell Friends School, a private Quaker school in Washington, D.C., which counts among its students the children of presidents. Sidwell also is home to the Earl G. Harrison Jr. Quaker Rare Book Collection, more than 900 items documenting Quaker history and philosophy dating back to 1655.

It’s no surprise that Harrison’s office is filled with the books of his writers. What is surprising, however, is that his bookshelves are not made of well-polished walnut or maple. They’re planks of lumber supported by metal brackets attached to a newly painted wall. Boxes are stacked on the floor, collected clutter that has not been returned to its proper place since the office face-lift. Some stacks are bound with crisscrossed rubber bands, others with binder clips. The manuscripts — both edited and unedited — and printouts of photos cover every inch of his desk.

Harrison peers across the stacks of manuscripts through his rimless glasses with a gaze that stops short of intimidation. He keeps his favorite dictionary on a box close to his desk, with more dictionaries stacked on the wooden shelves. He also loves thesauruses, “a great smorgasbord of language,” he says. His mastery of words is borne out by the authors with whom he works. Says Jeff Hobbs, “If a word was on page 78 and repeated on page 200, he’ll know it.”

Harrison earned his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1986, studying under the tutelage of Bob Shacochis, who says that Harrison’s classic good looks earned him the nickname “Jack Armstrong,” a reference to the radio series popularized in the 1930s, Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. In Iowa, Harrison met Kathryn, a fellow student who would become his wife and a successful author.

Harrison and Shacochis continued their friendship after he began working for Harper’s Magazine in New York, sometimes discussing narrative writing until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. “His grasp of structure was great,” says Shacochis. “He’s brilliant at all levels of publishing, the writing, editing and the politics.”

While he was at Harper’s, Harrison gave a young, gifted writer an assignment to cover the Illinois State Fair. A second assignment followed: Harrison told the writer to cover a luxury cruise, one from which Harrison had just returned. The writer was David Foster Wallace, and those assignments resulted in stories that were included in Wallace’s 1997 essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, now a classic in the narrative nonfiction genre. Harrison says Wallace would turn in a 40,000-word piece instead of the 6,000 words he had been assigned. “They were fabulous words, but he understood at the end of the day that some had to go.”

In acquiring book projects at Scribner, Harrison still looks for the perfect match between story and writer, one that mixes a great story with the one writer who should be telling it. He found those writers in Kevin Fedarko, Jeff Hobbs, S.C. Gwynne and Helen Thorpe. And just as importantly, they found him.

When first-time author Fedarko began shopping his book about an epic race down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, it only took a five-minute phone conversation for Harrison to set himself apart from other editors.

Most editors wanted to talk about the marketing or the publicity of what would become The Emerald Mile. Harrison honed in on the men at the oars. He asked pointed questions about the characters, and wondered if the main character had a complicated relationship with his father. “He had an engagement with the story that others didn’t,” Fedarko recalls.

As Fedarko dug deeper into the story, he learned about the efforts of a group of engineers trying to save a dam from raging floodwaters. This second narrative began to overwhelm the first, but Harrison kept his writer in check, knowing when to encourage Fedarko to explore and when to insist he move on.

When Fedarko missed deadlines, Harrison was gentle but firm. “I’ve been around the bush,” Harrison says. “Problems come up, I know that.”

Hobbs’ problem with The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace was research — and the fact that he was a novelist, unschooled in the ways of nonfiction. Harrison understood Hobbs’ emotional attachment to the story of his college roommate at Yale who was subsequently murdered in a drug-related incident.

But accuracy in the reporting process was imperative, and Harrison talked to Hobbs about it over lunch at Cafe Un Deux Troix. “I could tell from his questions that his mind was on another level,” Hobbs said. “He put faith in me.” Harrison encouraged Hobbs to learn more about Peace’s father, which was complicated by the fact that Skeet Douglas had been incarcerated since Peace was 7. As with Emerald Mile, Harrison felt that the father-son relationship was key to the story and insisted Hobbs visit the prison where Douglas had been housed before his death. “He steered me to get that down,” Hobbs says. “That was 100 percent Colin.”

Harrison’s talents go beyond the ability to structure narrative; he must also have a discerning eye for book design and packaging. When his assistant, Katrina Diaz, walks into his office, she brings him the book jacket for a new release, Jason Matthews’ Palace of Treason. But the background on the jacket is more gold than the orange of the advance copies, and they must make a call on whether it will suffice. They decide the gold will work — it’s just as striking as the orange — and Harrison tells Diaz to express mail the new cover to Matthews. Harrison quickly turns his attention to the photos for another book. This one won’t have blurbs on the cover, so the art must grab the eye — transforming the book into an “objet d’art.”

That’s what Harrison called Gwynne’s Rebel Yell, a biography of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, the second successful collaboration between the writer and editor. Their first began in 2007, after Gwynne was faced with a difficult choice between Scribner and a second publisher when selling the manuscript of what would become Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Gwynne and Harrison both came out of magazine careers, so they spoke a common language. That shared background was the reason Gwynne chose Harrison.

Harrison made two significant changes to what Gwynne had written. Gwynne had spent months researching the history of the Parker family (Quanah Parker’s white ancestors), which he included in his early draft. “Colin looked at that and said he was bored. I had gone too deep,” Gwynne recalls. So he flushed 40 pages out of the book. “It was the right thing to do.”

Toward the end of the process, Gwynne says he had “get-there-itis.” “I was tired and ready for it to end.” But Harrison told him he had shortchanged the book’s hero, Quanah Parker, so Gwynne spent a couple of additional months researching Parker. That extra reporting helped the book’s structure, giving greater significance to Parker’s story as it alternates with the larger story of the Comanche Nation.

Harrison also helped Gwynne find his voice for the book. “I had used a more breezy magazine language,” Gwynne says. “Colin wanted me to speak in the voice of God, not the small magazine voice. Something more in the way of 18th-19th century language.”

Gwynne’s next book will be a departure from the historical narratives of Summer Moon and Rebel Yell — it’s about football — but he’s sticking with Harrison as his editor. “Editors can do a lot of harm and they can do a lot of good,” Gwynne says. “Colin can be passive when he needs to be and active when he needs to be. It’s a fine line.”

Helen Thorpe needed the active Colin Harrison after she finished the first draft of her first novel, Just Like Us, the story of four Mexican-American girls whose parents had entered the country illegally. She knew something was off structurally. “It was all over the map,” she says. “But Colin read it and put his finger right on the problem.” The issue was chronology, and he recommended a simple fix with some rearrangement and verb-tense changes.

After Just Like Us, Thorpe says Harrison kept in contact, holding her hand as she decided on her next project. She had interviewed three women who had served in the same National Guard unit and were deployed to Afghanistan, and Harrison said he had never read a good book about women in the military. The result was Soldier Girls, which Thorpe admits she still might be reporting today if Harrison hadn’t insisted she call him monthly to discuss the pages she had written.

Thorpe’s writing process grew even more complicated with a high-profile separation from her husband, the governor of Colorado. “I needed someone who had faith in the project, and Colin did. He cared that I was toiling away on this.” Their many sessions at Café Un Deux Trois resulted in many sheets of scribbled table coverings. Thorpe has kept them all, she says. “I live by those.”

Even though Harrison’s computer dings with incoming e-mails every few minutes, he mostly communicates by phone, using an old-school Rolodex to make his calls. His e-mail correspondence is short — “loved it,” “great,” “we’ll talk.” Diaz maintains a computer print out that tracks his 25 or so ongoing projects by name, due date and status (overdue, blurbs needed, afterword just in).

Because of interruptions at work, Harrison prefers to read manuscripts at home in Brooklyn, a 30-minute subway ride away from the office. In his comfortable chair with a good light overhead, he clears out a mental space so he can pay attention to each manuscript. If it’s a book in process, he will try to identify factors that need to be discussed immediately, and those that can wait until later — manuscript triage, he calls it. “I try to pour the whole thing into my head and understand it in all the ways it can be understood — structure, holes, arc, drilling down into language, interpretation, the writer’s stylistic tics. I mark up as much as I can on the first time through.”

Harrison, the self-described “crazed structure nut,” diagnoses any dilemmas. Is it a process problem? Is the writer getting enough access? Getting enough time to report? Is the structure working? Is the story compelling? Is the author’s voice confident and clear? “Sometimes stories end up in a cul-de-sac,” he says.

Editing happens on many levels — from the highest architectural level to what’s happening in a short sentence, and it’s a different process for each writer and each book. Some need line editing. Some need structural conversations. Some need a discussion of sources and reporting.

Harrison says more experienced writers usually can pinpoint their own problems. “They figure out the instrument they need to play,” he says. Talking through issues can help the writer identify the challenges each face. “Then they can say, ‘Ah yes, I understand the problem now, I can attack it.’”

And with many writers unfamiliar with the politics of publishing, they need a champion, an editor who can push their project forward. “Even if a writer turned in a letter-perfect manuscript,” Harrison says, “the writer still needs an advocate in the house and beyond, someone who can talk passionately to the publishing machinery.”

Sometimes writers just need more time to contemplate their work, causing Harrison to suggest they relax, step away from their work, go smoke a cigar on the back porch.

Harrison understands the need for down time: he maintains a house on Long Island and escapes the world of books with physical activity. He can be seen manning a wood chipper to clear away brush, or building a wall around his garden, working past the point of exhaustion in his battle to keep deer out of his garden. “It’s a good antidote to working in an office all day long, working with words, working with abstractions, working in a small space.”

Writers who talk about how good Harrison is at cobbling together their stories attribute it to the fact that he himself is a writer, which gives him the acute ability to empathize with their struggles. His seven novels are gritty crime fiction, usually set in New York City. His 1996 book, Manhattan Nocturne, is being made into a movie starring Adrien Brody and Campbell Scott.

Just listen to the first line of Manhattan Nocturne. “I sell mayhem, scandal, murder, and doom,” and just like that you’re sucked in like a forgotten cookie crumb under the dining room table flying up the nozzle of a Hoover.

As to why a fiction writer would edit primarily nonfiction, Harrison explains: Nonfiction projects are works in progress, and he enjoys the sense of discovery that comes with delving deep into something he can help shape. And it’s not as if he doesn’t write nonfiction, though it’s generally shorter magazine stories — humor, op-eds and memoir pieces. His editing position just doesn’t afford him the time to do the reporting a nonfiction book requires.

Harrison’s writing process also helps him identify with readers. “Every time I write a book, I have to teach myself how to do it,” he says. “And you have to teach the reader how to read it. That’s an interesting transaction that takes place early on in a book.”

Some readers love a rich style, others don’t. Some love a spare, elegant style, but that may be too dry for others. “That’s why some people pick up a book and completely fall into it,” he says. “That’s the thing about a book. It needs to be intriguing and informative. It’s a performance. The book is the end when the process is over.”

In this grand process of publishing a book, Harrison says he can do the most good in making the book the best version of itself. His focus is on what’s between the first page and the last. “As time goes on, an editor only has limited control, so we try to make sure the goodness is baked into a book.”

Each book release is different, with its own media blitz and promotional activities. But Harrison engages in his own private ritual. He takes the first hardcover and writes a personal note to the author. And it’s likely that the author has returned the honor, using the book’s acknowledgement pages to thank Harrison for his guidance and faith.

“My editor, Colin Harrison, is just about perfect at doing what he does,” writes Hobbs in The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. “Whether you were answering my questions, steering both my research and my writing with a gentle but unrelenting hand, editing text with attention paid to every single word or simply leaving me alone to work — I don’t believe the editorial experience could have been more satisfying.”

Harrison hasn’t finished reading the manuscript of that eager author — the one who turned it in four months early —but he is confident he won’t be disappointed. “I can smell it. It’s good,” he says. And Harrison will soon be ready to work with him, and once again begin the process of making a book. Table for two at Café Un Deux Trois, please.

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Scribner’s Colin Harrison is more that just an editor for his stable of writers — he’s a collaborator, a wordsmith, an architect and a hand-holder who pours sweat equity into every book he buys.
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