Can you describe what your experience of St Stephen’s was like or share some of your best memories from that time?
In retrospect, I owe my parents a deep debt of gratitude for insisting that I not stay behind. It was the best year of my life, hands down, an absolutely magical experience. Of course, wonderful things have happened to me since: I met my life partner, married, had three amazing children, and enjoyed major milestones along the way, but looking back on it, my time at St. Stephen’s could not be beat. The school itself was a magnificent structure, now the Bulgarian Embassy, on Via Pietro Paolo Rubens. It was small, the international student body was very welcoming to newcomers, and the teachers were terrific. It was a year of firsts for me: I was elected President of the Student Council, I sang in the choir, I had a girlfriend, I took classes at cafés, and I went on art history field trips to places like Florence. Did I say that year was magical? Yep, no doubt about it.
After your time at St. Stephen's, what came next for you?
I came back to the States and attended the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where I majored in English literature. It was the end of the sixties, and experimentation and testing boundaries were the order of the day. When I graduated in 1972, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. It was a time when there weren't enormous pressures to conform, to rush into a job, and to get on with your profession right away. For a couple of years, I just knocked around. I started a little landscape gardening company with a friend, I worked at a bookstore, I traveled the country in a converted school bus. When I finally decided to try my hand at journalism, those jobs were few and far between, so I ended up landing a job at a book publisher writing catalog copy. That was two or three years after I graduated college.
For more than forty years you have worked as an editor, and it’s important to note here that you are a “structural editor.” Could you describe, briefly, what a structural editor does and how that is different from a copy editor?
There are all kinds of editors: a magazine editor is different from a book editor is different from a newspaper editor. When it comes to being a book editor, you’ve got to begin as an apprentice, learning the trade from an established editor. The job itself requires a wide range of skills, including salesmanship, passion for what you’re doing, and a good feel for what’s happening on the page. Once you earn a little freedom as a young editor, you go out and meet literary agents and encourage them to send you their best submissions. Then you work the machinery within the publishing house to get people excited about a new project that has come into you, get folks to read the proposal, get the marketing and financial people to support it, and hopefully, you end up acquiring the publishing rights at auction. Finally, often years later, when the manuscript comes in, your job becomes to edit it. A structural editor will work with the author as a kind of co-pilot. Once the author sends in a draft, you read it and get back to the author with suggestions for improving it. While you’re reading the manuscript, you’re asking yourself, "What are the important ideas here? Are they sufficiently underscored and sufficiently clear? Is this properly calibrated for the general audience we’re looking for? How’s the tone, the music of the language?” Essentially, you’re entering into a dialogue with the author, a sometimes lengthy iterative process that hopefully leads to the best possible manuscript. When you and the author are finally happy, you put the book into production, where the next step is copyediting, a process in which the manuscript is scoured line by line by a copyeditor for proper syntax, grammar, and sometimes word choice. That’s an art unto itself, quite different from structural, or conceptual, editing, which involves sculpting the manuscript out of raw clay.
I can imagine it could be quite difficult depending on who you're working with and how much experience they have as a writer, which brings me to my next question: so, you worked with Stephen Hawking when he was writing A Brief History of Time. And I have to ask, what was it like to work on such an incredibly dense, complicated book on the fabric of the universe? Was he difficult to work with?
Well, one of the things that predisposes me to be good at what I do is my willingness to chew on something until I understand it. I'm not embarrassed to be the kid in class who raises their hand and asks the stupid question. I can muster enough self-confidence to say, "I don't understand that. Could you make that clearer for me? Could you provide me with an example?" This turned out to be a big part of my role with Stephen Hawking, just saying over and over again, "I don't get it." He would try to explain it, and I would say, "I’m sorry, but I still don't get it. Could you compare it to a household item or an everyday experience?” Of course, all this took place in writing since he was teaching in Cambridge, England, and I was living in New York, and I did do a lot of line editing, as I always do. But there was a lot of ping-pong along the lines I just described. In the Acknowledgements of A Brief History of Time, Stephen expresses both gratitude for my tenacity and how frustrating it was at times. For his part, Stephen was willing to do a lot of hard work because he was so motivated by the dream of making astrophysics accessible and interesting to the layperson. Although some readers may argue that the book is still impenetrable despite our best efforts, in the end, I do think it succeeds in conveying the miraculous nature of the universe.
Yes, it's such a fascinating book. The world is a better place because he wrote it.
Stephen framed it in a beautiful way, as a quest. There are these two great theories of how things work, one on the level of ghostly subatomic particles and the other on the level of galaxies, solar systems, and planets. These two theories work remarkably well to explain what’s going on, but only in their separate domains. They don’t fit together. The Holy Grail for physicists and astrophysicists is to find a way to meld the two into a Grand Unified Theory, a theory of everything. Stephen casts the book in the light of that heroic quest. I was really taken with that frame for the book’s ideas.
In 2019 you published a book called, Emeralds of Oz: Life Lessons from Over the Rainbow. Deepak Chopra called your nine Emeralds, “a powerful, near-magical tool for navigating any difficult situation.” These Emeralds are based on key stages you identified in the movie, The Wizard of Oz, which premiered 75 years ago, in 1947. Could you share an overview of the Emeralds? I noticed that in past interviews, you have shared that the Emeralds were also shaped by the wisdom you acquired through working with modern authors, such as Hawking, could you touch on that as well?
I was visiting a friend at a publishing house when I looked upon the shelf, and there was a newly-printed copy of the 50th anniversary illustrated edition of The Wizard of Oz. I said, "You know, I’ve rubbed elbows with a lot of brilliant and wise people, but every time I think they’ve taught me something new, it later occurs to me that it was actually in The Wizard of Oz. That movie contains a tremendous amount of wisdom.” To my surprise, he said, " I think that would make a terrific book. Why don’t you write up a proposal?" So I did, and he liked it enough to buy it. While I was hunting through the movie for insights, nine of the more than a hundred bits I found seemed particularly juicy, the kind of insight that connects to all kinds of wisdom. So I broke these out and called them "Emeralds of Oz." I discovered that if you start to go from one to the next in chronological order, the process mirrors Dorothy's journey and contributes to a unique experience for the reader.
I have to admit, I did the Emeralds worksheet myself with a problem that I considered to be particularly challenging, and I must admit, I felt both calmed and empowered afterward. It felt as if I had finished a meditation except I had been answering questions the whole time. It made me wonder, did you imagine these nine Emeralds as a kind of meditative practice?
Wow! I’m impressed by how thoroughly you’ve prepared for this interview, and I’m delighted that you’ve read the book. I hadn’t considered the process of using the nine Emeralds of Wisdom as a form of meditation, but I love the idea. Reviewing the Emeralds in order definitely takes us on an inner journey that has a positive effect on our experience of everyday life, so, yes, it’s a perfect fit with meditation.
So you wrote the book in 2019. Given that was something that you had thought about for many years before, would you consider publishing your book to be your greatest achievement up until now? Or is there something else that you would consider to be your greatest achievement if you had to choose one?
It's probably the thing I'm proudest of personally, but if someone were to write my bio after I was gone, I'm sure editing A Brief History of Time would be at the top of the list. That book has sold in excess of 10 million copies. In the wake of its publication, Stephen Hawking became more than just a star in his own field. He became a cultural phenomenon who popped up in places like The Simpsons, and the book had a lot to do with that. Obviously, Stephen is responsible for that success, but I do feel like I had a hand in it, which gives me enormous satisfaction.
Did you expect that kind of an outcome when you were working on the book? Like, we're going to finish writing this book, and it's going to change the world?
The idea of pursuing Stephen came to me after he made the cover of a major magazine, so there was no question that Stephen's life story resonated with people. I was working for Bantam Books at the time. Already the preeminent mass-market paperback publisher, they were interested in developing their own line of hardcover books. In order for Bantam to be interested, the book needed to be commercial. So the hope was there from the beginning, but not the expectation. We anticipated that it would sell respectably in hardcover, hopefully, get good reviews, and establish itself as a long-selling trade paperback, but we never expected it to hit the bestseller list. It did. The first printing of 40,000 copies sold out immediately. And in England, A Brief History of Time was the #1 bestseller for years!
Wow. You couldn't have predicted that. Stephen Hawking touched off this whole genre of popular science writing that didn't exist before him. I mean, Brian Green wouldn't exist without A Brief History of Time.
There had been a few best-selling science books before that time, including the marvelous Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, and Chaos, by James Gleick. But Stephen did take the genre to a whole new level. Perhaps my biggest contribution came at the very last minute when he decided to change the title of the book. Stephen thought A Brief History of Time sounded too casual, so he wanted to replace it with A Short History of Time. At that point, I knew him well enough to know where the buttons were. Did I mention that editors are also part psychologists? Knowing Stephen’s love of humor, I sent him a quick fax saying that "a brief history of time" makes me smile. “A short history of time” doesn’t. And that was all it took. When you think about how pervasive the term “a brief history of X” has become, it’s amazing to think that it all tracks back to Stephen.
Has life been a straight path for you, or do you feel you have been tested along the way to achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself? Can you talk about what some of those challenges have been and how you’ve surmounted them?
I think one of the best things you can do for yourself is to put the idea of a "straight path" out of your mind. It's an unreasonable expectation. Life comes complete with lots of twists and turns and setbacks, and in hindsight, the setbacks turn out to be the most important things. How you respond to them turns out to be life-defining. When I think back to almost anything that turned out to be significant in my own life, it was born from some kind of setback. After deciding to look for a job in New York, for example, I found a listing in the New York Times that a book publisher was looking for someone to write their catalog copy. (Each season, publishers come up with a new catalog where they describe each book in their forthcoming list.) I was interviewed by the promotion manager, a lovely guy named John Tebbel, and followed up by sending him a couple of sample pieces of copy. After several weeks went by and I hadn't heard anything, I realized I wasn’t going to get the gig. So I went back to the lobby of the publishing house, picked up their most recent catalog, brought it home, rewrote four or five pieces of copy, and dropped them off the next day in an envelope for John Tebbel. Three or four days later he called and said, “Frankly, I was just about to offer the job to someone else when I saw how much you improved on the copy in our catalog. Oh, and by the way, the person who wrote that copy was me.” Luckily, Tebbel had a healthy self-image! Moments of adversity like that and how you respond to them really do shape your life. We're raised to think that adversity is a bad thing because life is supposed to go smoothly, but I think that's a profoundly mistaken notion.
Do you have any advice that you would like to share with the St. Stephen’s Class of 2023?
To borrow from one of the bits of wisdom in Emeralds of Oz, there are no mistakes, only lessons. If you can approach life that way, it becomes a lot less stressful and a lot more fun.