June 7th, 2011 | by Theodore | Published in Uncategorized
I’d like to offer a response to Matt’s post from earlier today about stories of family tragedy. There are any number of thoughts I had while reading it, and I really look forward to the arrival in the mail of my New Yorker this week. I will, however, limit myself to one sentence: “I try to imagine Hemon dealing with his editor on the story—negotiating the contract, dealing with copy editors, fact-checkers, proofreaders, cashing the check.”
My first job in the New York publishing world was as a fact-checker for monthly publications, and in that role, I came across a story that might satisfy Matt’s curiosity.
A few years back, the writer Frederick Busch published a story in Harper’s Magazine about a man who had terrorized his family, and yes, actually kidnapped his dogs. “Standoff in Columbus: Guns, dogs and the language of totality” (I include the full title because I came up with the subhed—modesty!) is an arresting piece of writing, and although it has little to do with the post, I’m going to include the first paragraph, only because I think it’s wonderfully rendered:
Language breaks out. Language, a shouted word, or a silent, metaphoric act, will insist itself into notice like the thyme that pushes up through the layered shale of the earth. In early spring, as the ice beneath the frost line on the hill across from our house begins to melt, the hillside seems for days to sweat. Then, finally, it pours. Water rushes down and the gray-blue stone runs with darkness. That’s how language arrives.
I tend to think Busch ought to have written should break out, but maybe for him it always did. Anyway, as is not atypical at Harper’s, it took a long time before Busch’s piece, a memoir, was scheduled to be published. During the period in which the magazine held the story, Busch grew ill and passed away. Then, astoundingly, not long after the magazine decided to run the article, his wife died.
Forget the layers of sadness inherent in this little anecdote, for the moment, and consider it from the perspective of Matt’s comment. I had to fact-check this story, a personal one with few witnesses other than an unnamed psychotic, and the small-town police officers involved in the incident, including one that Busch said had a mental breakdown not long after the events he described. Busch was gone. His wife was gone. The only information I had for verification purposes was a phone number—for Busch’s son, Benjamin.
I won’t go into the process of fact-checking that story, other than to say that I did the best I could. I will mention that the process of contacting and interacting with Benjamin was extremely difficult but, given his personality—decorated U.S. Marine who served in Iraq, talented writer with a book slated for publication next year, and actor who had A FUCKING RECURRING ROLE ON THE WIRE—far better, and more rewarding that one might expect.
So here’s my answer to Matt: a writer who can make you cry can handle the fact-check, the copy-edit, and the invoice, usually with skill and sophistication, often with understanding, and perhaps, if everyone is lucky, with gratitude. What’s more, that writer might have no alternative but to write. Language breaks out, remember?