Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"one of the most important things about publishing is lunch"

Yesterday morning, I left my tape recorder in the office of Peggy Fox, president and self-professed “den mother” of New Directions Publishing. In keeping with its name, New Directions is an avant-garde publishing house most well-known for its work with great British and American authors – notably, the late Tennessee Williams, among others. Fox has done a lot of work with Williams, publishing some of his later plays and, after he died, collections of selected stories. She has done a lot to revive the work of other “deceased giants,” an aspect of the job that she greatly enjoys partly due to her academic background.

But back to the tape recorder. This being my first blog-bound interview, I wanted to make sure things went well (which included not losing handheld recording devices). I like to think that my social skills among academia are quite developed, which Fox believes is one of the most vital qualities one must have in her field.

“One disconcerting change that I have noticed in publishing is that young people don’t have the same knowledge base that we used to have. People should have a bedrock of knowledge about history, world religions, mathematics, biology…this breadth of facts is necessary for interacting. One of the most important things about publishing is lunch.”

A broad scope of skill and knowledge has certainly been professionally helpful to Fox; she started out at New Directions as an overqualified summer temp in the 1970s and worked her way up the ranks due to the fact that she “knew how all the pieces fit together.” She was well versed in editing, copyrighting, contracts, and more, and all of these seemingly basic skills fused together to create an impressive resumé. That and the fact that when Fox began working, a New Direction’s receptionist had an affair with Fox’s friend’s husband and ran away to Connecticut, leaving behind both a cautionary tale and a job opening.

But publishing has changed quite a bit since then, and Fox believes that the Internet has facilitated many remarkable strides. For one, technology has simplified the mechanics of the job, the logistical “in betweens” that bridge the oceanic gap between a playwright in London and a publishing house in New York City.

“Computers have revolutionized the way we do business,” Fox states. “We used to have to have our typists create carbon copies, Xeroxes were on heat sensitive paper…it was very time consuming. Now we are much more productive.”

As I sit at Fox’s desk, huge and littered with stacks of paper, I wonder aloud if she thinks there is a certain spark of personality that is lost in translation when people write e-mails over handwritten notes or read blogs over newspapers. She denies this, remaining firm in her belief that treating e-mails as if they are letters will help preserve the integrity of the written word for centuries to come.

“I write e-mails as I would write formal letters; I always check them over and take the time to print hard-copies for files. New Directions has an archive up at Harvard for all of our documents.”

Fox is incredibly open-minded about all the changes in publishing that hover on a technological horizon, admitting that this is in part true because she’s retiring in a few years and will not personally very affected by the changes. This, however, does not exempt her from having an opinion on the matter.

We discussed Amazon’s new pet project, Kindle, a wireless reading device that allows subscribers to download entire manuscripts onto their computers or handheld electronics much like we now download music and movies. Fox admits that programs such as this mark the start of an imminent revolution in publishing, a change that may actually be positive.

“I’m not about to say that this is the worst thing ever to happen to literature – it’s just different. Years ago The Odyssey was oral, and I’m sure when someone wrote it down there were people who opposed it, saying ‘Oh, now we will never remember any of the stories!’”

After the whole left-behind-tape-recorder episode, I fully support any form of publication that is, in fact, textual, whether it be hardcover or wireless.


dgold911 said...

Its great to see someone who has been in one business for a long time who is able to "roll with the punches" and adapt to changes in technology. I also agree that it is important to be well rounded (and well read) no matter what your profession. It not only increases your chances of success,it also makes you a much more interesting person!

Al Filreis said...

So glad you got a sense of New Directions - historically one of the most important small/specialized publishers in the U.S. And Peggy Fox is so generous with her time. Of course she's a Penn alum, and we've been trying to get her to come to the Writers House. Soon, I hope!