Wednesday, August 3, 2011


  E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "You dedicated your novel Dreamer to the memory of Lee Goerner. Who is Lee Goerner?"
 In order to talk about my friend and former editor Lee Goerner, I'll need to provide a little bit of "back story" that traces my works of fiction through the publishing world in the 1980s. On a couple of occasions editors have inherited my novels from other editors because I signed contracts for them before they were written.

 When Oxherding Tale came out in 1982, its publisher at Indiana University Press, John Gallman, submitted it for the National Book Awards. The wife of Tom Stewart, the publisher at Atheneum, was one of the judges for that prize. In order to help her go through all those boxes containing hundreds of novels and short story collections, he read some of them for her, or so he told me. Tom liked Oxherding Tale and wrote me a letter of appreciation. I wrote him right back, saying, "Thank you. Oh, and by the way, I've just put together my first collection of short stories. Would you be interested in seeing this?" He was, and accepted for publication the book that became The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

 By the time that story collection was published, I'd written the first two chapters of Middle Passage. I sent them along to Tom Stewart to get his reaction, and he promptly sent me a contract for the novel. Then Tom left Atheneum. His position was filled by Lee Goerner, who had spent 15 years as an editor at Knopf. Middle Passage was one of the novels he inherited from his predecessor, and the first time he experienced it---and the first time we met---was when I read fiction with novelist Richard Wiley at an event for PEN/Faulkner. (The Sorcerer's Apprentice had been a nominee for the PEN/Faulkner earlier; the award was given to Wiley for his novel Soldiers in Hiding, and since we were friends---he grew up in the Tacoma, WA area and our families had gotten together for dinner earlier in the '80s---we agreed to read on the same ticket.) Lee Goerner told me that after hearing me read the first chapter of Middle Passage that night, he felt relieved that he'd have something good to publish as the new head at Atheneum.

Then Middle Passage won the National Book Award. I have a photo on my study wall of Lee, myself, and Ralph Ellison at that ceremony, all three of us in our tuxedos; when my novel was announced as the winner that night, Lee tossed his napkin from our table straight into the air. (He gleefully referred to the book as being a "Stealth missile" that took the publishing world by surprise.) Immediately, the novel became a bestseller, and Lee Goerner gave me a "good six-figure" contract for my next novel, Dreamer. Most likely, Lee thought I'd write the book in two years. I'm sure he never imagined I'd spent a whole year just researching King's life and the Civil Rights Movement before I wrote the first sentence, then another six doing more research and composing it. Shortly after the publication of Middle Passage, Atheneum was acquired by Scribner, and as so often happens in the publishing world, Lee was informed that he was out of a job. He spent a year and a half looking for a position commensurate with his experience and skills, then died when he was way too young. I traveled to New York City to add my voice during an event to honor this fine man and outstanding editor.

 In the publishing world, Lee Goerner was Old School. Not exactly Maxwell Perkins, but certainly of the caliber of the best editors of our time. He was extremely well-read. His taste in literary fiction was impeccable. And he cared about his writers and counted them as friends. (Among those writer friends he admired was Isabelle Allende, whose path I crossed when we did back-to-back interviews for the same radio program.) Indeed, he cared about and nurtured literary culture in general during his time as an editor and publisher. I have perhaps 10 pages of notes he sent me on the manuscript for Middle Passage ("Just how many people are there on this ship?" he asked). 

 I had to send Lee my proof-read galley for the novel by government courier from Amerika Haus in West Berlin because I was doing a 4-country lecture tour for the State Department in December of 1989 (Germany, Czechoslovakia, Portugal and France) and he said he couldn't wait until I got back to America to receive it. So I went over it quickly in my cramped dormitory room in Bonn while I was editing a lecture I had to give the next day on "Cultural Pluralism in American Literature" at Bonn University. Among the many paintings on the walls of the first floor in my home there is a gift I treasure from Lee---the original art for the cover of Middle Passage (It rests side-by-side with the painting of ML King for the hardcover edition of Dreamer).

 He was a friend and professional colleague whose insight, intelligence, literary values, and critical acuity I greatly valued during our all too brief years of working together. I deeply regret that Lee Goerner did not live to see the publication of Dreamer. It is dedicated to his memory, because without him it would not exist.

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