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Curating the Words of Giants

An interview with Peggy L. Fox, Tennessee Williams’ last editor, about the craft of editing, working with the playwright and managing his literary legacy.

by Cerith Mathias

Peggy L. Fox was Tennessee Williams’ last editor at New Directions—Williams’ lifelong publisher, and was overseeing his play “Summer and Smoke” at the printer when he died in 1983.

Fox’s career with New Directions began as a summer job in the 1970s and culminated in her becoming company president in 2004, a position she held until her retirement seven years ago.

New Directions, which Fox describes as “not a typical publisher,” was established by James “Jay” Laughlin in 1936, with the purpose of publishing new and untested writers, as well as reissuing recent writers who, Laughlin believed, had undeservedly gone out of print. Williams and Laughlin bonded “immediately” Fox says over the poetry of Hart Crane.

Fox was at the recent Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, an annual event celebrating Williams and his work, to discuss The Luck of Friendship: The Letters of Tennessee Williams and James Laughlin. The book is a recently released volume of correspondence between the publisher and the playwright, which Fox co-edited with Thomas Keith. Mathias spoke with her after the event.

 

Cerith Mathias: What makes a good editor?

Peggy L. Fox: A good editor is someone who is very sensitive to language and knows instinctively what is good and what is awkward. Different people have different strengths; you need one kind of mindset for nonfiction and a different one for fiction and for poetry. You need a lot of attention to detail, to be able to follow through, and there has to be minimal ego involved—this is not your book, it is the author’s book. Your job is to be the midwife of the project, to get it out in the world and totally step back. I honestly don’t believe editing can be taught. You can learn how to prepare a manuscript, the symbols and the different stages of proofs, but you can’t teach a relationship to language. A really good editor is born; it comes from instinct.

CM: How much of a role does an editor have in shaping a piece of work? I’m thinking of instances such as Harper Lee and her editor Tay Hohoff, who took Go Set a Watchman and completely restructured it into To Kill a Mockingbird. Is it generally a collaborative process?

PF: That’s been a debate recently in publishing. Is that a valid role for say, Maxwell Perkins, to take Thomas Wolfe and completely create something new out of this vast amount that Wolfe had written? I don’t know. It is sometimes a collaborative process. There was an author I used to have outrageous fights with. I’d say ‘you’ve got to re-structure it, it’s not working this way,’ and we would talk about it and I would express my concerns, and he always went away and solved the problems that I felt were holding the work back, but he did it totally in his own way. He never did what I suggested, but he solved the issues I’d seen.

CM: Is it difficult being ‘invisible’ as an editor, especially if you’ve had a lot of input into a book?

PF: Not for me—I’m your basic bookish introvert, so for me it’s never been a problem because that’s the way I would prefer it, that the attention be on the author. I take my satisfaction in the fact that I helped the project along. But there are people who really try to put themselves more in the foreground. They have their way and I have mine.

CM: How was editing Tennessee Williams?

PF: I did very little editing of Tennessee. I put the stage directions into real sentences, as we had decided that’s what I was going to do. He checked them. I would ask him questions, such as with the play “Summer and Smoke” about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, he used the words ‘anorexia nervosa,’ and I said ‘I don’t think that term was around in the 1920s,’ and he said, ‘This is a ghost play, I’ll say whatever I want, thank you very much.’ But other times, for some minor little changes, he would say, ‘Yes, thanks.’ So, I didn’t edit Tennessee, but I went through and made sure everything was correct and written in proper English, or made sure if it wasn’t proper English, then that was the way he wanted it. If he was using dialect or making a point, sometimes that is exactly how he wanted it, but I’d want to make sure. He was always the professional. It has been said, that if you wanted to have that kind of relationship with Tennessee, you got to him in the daytime. But I don’t have any sensational stories about him. I certainly never socialized with him.

Peggy L. Fox (right) in conversation with intellectual property attorney Marie Breaux during the 2018 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. 

CM: Did he have any quirks of style?

PF: He had a Southern inflection. He would use Southern expressions that I would sometimes check. In the book of letters between him and James Laughlin, there was a Midwestern expression he used that the copy editor wanted to cut, but it made sense to me, because I’m from Ohio. Tennessee’s grandparents were also from Ohio. In fact, my father’s family is from the town of Waynesville, Ohio, so my ancestors and Tennessee Williams’ beloved grandparents are buried in the same cemetery, which is kind of auspicious.

CM: It seems that Tennessee Williams found a natural home with New Directions, and a kindred spirit with its founder James Laughlin and his vision for the publishing house.

PF: Right. I think the thing that’s important to recognize is that Tennessee responded very much to the fact that Jay (James Laughlin) was interested in the poetry, but also in the story and encouraging him across all genres and letting him do what he wanted to do. He knew that he wasn’t going to get that kind of freedom or attention at any other publisher, that any other publisher was going to go with the thing that made money. New Directions published every single one of his late plays and probably on many of them never made a penny. There’s an exchange in their letters, where Jay is talking about the first time he made a deal with a mass market paperback house to publish “Streetcar” and “Menagerie,” and he’s writing to Tennessee saying, ‘I’m so glad you’ve agreed to the deal for the 25 cent paperbacks. With my share, I can afford to publish three young poets that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to publish.’ Tennessee loved that, the idea that his writing was supporting new young poets. He always remembered that early on, Jay was instrumental in getting him $1,000 from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and that was something that allowed him a little more freedom. It enabled him to not be so worried about money in that couple of years before “Menagerie,” and he wanted to do that for others.

CM: You’ve said that you oversaw the works of many ‘deceased giants’ at New Directions. Do you feel a great deal of responsibility managing the literary legacy of the man often dubbed ‘America’s greatest playwright?’

PF: It does require a certain amount of care and attention just to make sure that things are done properly. There’s a period of 10 years (after a writer passes away), and if nobody’s paying attention in that 10-year period, somebody can really fall off the map. And they may or may not come back. James Laughlin saw this as a crucial role New Directions had early on. He had a series called ‘New Classics,’ in which he published things that had fallen off the radar—like, believe it or not, The Great Gatsby and Light in August. So, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, Jay Laughlin is really responsible for getting them back. E.M. Forster was another, along with Gertrude Stein. So, New Directions was a mixture of new writing and old.

CM: Speaking of legacy, do you have a favorite Tennessee Williams play?

PF: I’m not making a case for it being the very best play, but “Vieux Carre” really has a special place in my heart. Not only because it was the first major thing I worked on with Tennessee at New Directions, but simply because it talks about the education of a young writer, and it’s so heartfelt and wonderful. The way he’s looking at all these different characters in a rooming house—the older gay painter, and a young couple having difficulties, and these two little old biddies who are starving to death—you wonder if he did really meet those people when he lived in the French Quarter in the 1930s. It’s a really wonderful play, and I’m glad it’s finally taking its place, as I say not in the first ranks, but the high second ranks of his work.

 

Cerith Mathias is a political television producer for the BBC in South Wales, but her true passion is traveling and literature. She’s written articles on Zelda Fitzgerald for literary magazines and published work in New Zealand, Italy and the UK. She’s currently working on a travel guide based on her travels in the South. Read her blog here and more of her work in Deep South here

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