Friday, June 23, 2006

Send this the cheapest way possible; or, How I corrected the grammar of the author of Shogun

The year was 1987. I was an editorial assistant at publisher William Morrow, where I'd been employed since the fall after I got out of college in '84. (Let me go off on a tangent for a moment: In the fall of '84, the starting salary for an assistant at Morrow was $12,500. Yes—in Manhattan. Even in 1984, that was a pittance. At least I wasn't at St. Martin's. The starting salary there was $9,500. One does not go into publishing to make a lot of money.)

By '87, I was working for the publisher of the company. She was ... oh, how do I describe her? A co-worker and I used to call her T. Rasa--for tabula rasa, as she was a bit of a blank slate.

Morrow was very excited to sign James Clavell for his next novel. Clavell is best known for Shogun, a huge best seller, but it had been a while since he'd published anything new. The company paid a ton to get it—although I remember hearing some reservations. For starters, the book was set in Iran, and there was some concern that, out of his usual Far East locales, his regular readers wouldn't bite.

The book was called Whirlwind. No, wait—I take that back. It was called, at his insistence, James Clavell's Whirlwind. Or as we in the office used to refer to it, James Clavell's James Clavell's Whirlwind, by James Clavell.

The manuscript was beyond huge, and deadlines were tight—Morrow wanted to turn the book around quickly and get it out as soon as possible. Making that a bit tricky was the fact that Clavell lived in the south of France, at Cap Ferrat. Getting anything to him was a bit of a production number. He didn't want anyone to know his address, so we had to use a specially arranged courier that would deliver edited pages to a hotel near his house. I'm assuming he sent out a minion to pick it up from the hotel—who knows? The arrangement was unusual, but the powers that be did whatever he wanted.

One day, I had edited pages to get to Clavell in France. I arranged the courier, as usual. The same day, I also had another package to send out to someone else, but it wasn't important. I put a note on it for the mail room: "Send this the cheapest way possible."

You can write the rest of the story yourselves, can't you?

While the package for Clavell did indeed go via his regular special courier, the note, "Send this the cheapest way possible," was somehow placed inside the package. Right on top of the edited pages. Where he couldn't possibly miss it.

He opened the package, saw my note, and freaked out. He called the president of the company at his home; my boss, the publisher, at her home; and quite possibly every person he could think of at Hearst, Morrow's parent company at the time.

When I walked in the next day there was—shall we say—a Whirlwind of activity. The first person to corner me was, I believe, T. Rasa. After I picked myself up from the floor, I stammered out an explanation for what had happened, and pointed out that even if there was a note in the package, he must have noticed that a) he got the pages overnight and b) via his regular courier. From me, of course, the wrath of the Morrow bosses passed on to the mail room.

Tempers calmed down, and I thought I was in the clear.

Then I received a letter from Clavell. It began:
Dear Jim: Speed should always be the first criteria when sending me a package ...

The first criteria? The first criteria??? The singular is criterion, you best-selling dope!

Oh, sure, you may be a world-famous writer—but you don't know a simple thing like that?

I sat down to write him a reply.
Dear Mr. Clavell: Rest assured, speed is always the first criterion when I send edited pages to you ...

You have a multimillion-dollar advance, bucko, I thought. And I am struggling to pay rent. But in my heart, I will always have the knowledge that I just corrected your grammar.

Oh, and the book came out in the spring of '88, and it was a bit of a bomb. Who the hell wants to read a book by James Clavell that's set in Iran?


ChefNick said...

Heh . . . up against The James! That is truly a story to tell your grandkids.

"The wind was leeward in a dead calm. Flies swarmed and the heat and the endless sea seared into my brain and the men below cursed the day I'd led them on this pisscutting voyage and then I received the package I had to send to The James and my world fell apart in a swirl of unendingly dramatic prose with no pauses as my trademark."

Hey, I might tell it to my grandkids.

Doug Hoffman said...

Oh, Jim, I laughed all the way through this. You did not disappoint.

Shogun: 300 page novel with an additional 600 pages of filler. Tell me I'm wrong ;) And now I'm having deja vu. Have we had this conversation before?

Gina said...

A writer is often only as good as his or her editor! Good for you.