A Conversation with Mason Smith
May 3, 2017
Everybody Knows and Nobody Cares. Knopf, 1971.
Toward Polaris: A Novel of the Adirondack Foothills [rpt. of Florida]. Syracuse University Press / May-Reverse, 2008.
Far Alaska. GrayBooks, 2012.
R. A student who was at your reading today was lamenting the fact that he feels his generation is disadvantaged because they don't know anything of literary history. They have not read that much. They feel as though all they get are little bits and pieces. They just don't have a sense of the whole that you have, where you could sit there and say that Polaris is so much like ... say Tristram Shandy to some extent because it's got that epic, but almost farcical, underlying to it, because it participates in that conversation. They feel like they've been left out of the conversation.
M. Well it's interesting to try to imagine what it is like to be them. I certainly was no less insecure about my literary education when I was at the same point they are, but it didn't seem so much that I had to cover, you know. If I knew Hemingway, and Dos Passos, and Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, and Conrad, and James Joyce, and James, I've got enough to go on, you know? And Nabokov. I've got enough to go on. (Laughs) I've got all I can handle. I don't need any more. But I never felt good about my literary education at all.
R. What's the attraction with building boats?
M. Well, to go back to the reason why somebody did this in 1970, it was kind of hard to find an innocent thing to do, an innocent undetestible thing to do with your life. I felt that anyway, and I think my brother did. And the whole wooden boat revival started at the same time. People said the hell with sitting in an insurance office or any kind of a situation like that; what we saw in boats was, I think was, we're all wood nuts. Maybe that's how we got started with wood, I don't know, but I like wood. But the things had integrity. I had to laugh. At the time I started doing this, my intellectual friends in the faculty at this college [Potsdam], we're talking about authenticity, and they looked at me and said, well, there it is. Why, I don't know. I was a native, and they were all in-comers to this region, and for that reason I looked authentic, but I knew things and I did things that they thought were true to the territory, to the place, and I naturally grew up in this place. I wasn't building boats then, I was playing a banjo, which was not exactly a native thing to do, but I was building furniture, writing, writing about the country, writing about the people, during the seaway years, that was what I was doing when I came here. What do I see in boats.... I just love boats. They've been good to me, too.
R. What was the first boat?
M. I grew up with boats. I grew up in Gouverneur, in the editor's house, and there was nothing about Gouverneur that I cared about. I care more about it now than I did then. But not much. The town. There was never anything for me there, and there would be less now. It's an outpost of Camp Drum, or whatever they call it. Fort Drum. What was in then ... it is Drum, isn't it? Anyway, it was way off in the distance back then. And now I think it's Gouverneur's raison d'etre. The farms are gone around it. It used to be a farm and mining town. But I didn't care anything about Gouverneur. I gravitated utterly to my grandparents background which is over this way, Hopkinton, Lake Ozonia, the family farm in North Lawrence, north of Fort Jackson. And those old people, they were the farm family, my mother's family. Her father and his siblings constituted this group of old people that were my family then, that I cared more about, and their camp, I think I just felt better there. In conventional surroundings, I like to be against wood. You know, just looking at myself in the mirror, at the lake, in a room made of wood. Oh a freckled puss. I was messy looking, couldn't stand to be tidy, couldn't stand to be well-dressed, couldn't stand sheetrock and glass, I just didn't like that, so, and we had boats, and it fell to me to take care of them. When the camp was built in about 1914, a wealthy woman who was my grandmother's mother, from Hartford, no Springfield where I was born, she was of a wealthy family there, the wealth went away, but she was still wealthy, big beautiful houses in Springfield....
R. I love the story. To follow up on boats and wood and cedar; you are starting your boats, putting canvas back on, taking the fiberglass off. Were you involved in logging? Were you watching the logging? So much of that is in Polaris; is that part of your experience?
M. It's not so much, though to make an original of Clarence, Ambrose Stark, was a sizeable presence in my life around Lake Ozonia, because the Stark family grew up on the road from St. Regis Falls to the lake, as I said. They were raised on nuts and berries, they worked around the camps, they did docks. I remember one of the first interviews I saw was going on with one of the Stark boys as my grandfather was stepping up from the driveway a little bit from the garage of the camp just thirty feet up from the road, where John Stark had stopped with his truck and walked down into the driveway to have a conversation with my grandfather. It was about mountain lamb. He was supplying him some mountain lamb in the middle of the summer. So that was one of the sort of things that they would have.... And Clarence, Ambrose, used to come around when I lived at the lake a couple of winters alone and Clarence would come around and we would always talk about his boyhood, working for Robert Cutting Sr., who set him on a car. Cutting invented, developed some cars that were made in Wooster and they carried bark, hemlock bark, and brought a railway right into Lake Ozonia and Santa Clara and carried bark out. Ambrose, as a little boy, set up on top of one of these cars one time and was told to operate the brake, and the car started going down the hill. He loved to tell that story because no man ever went so fast on a train without no locomotive. I try to tell that story somewhere. So I heard that sort of stuff. But here's where I thought of when you asked me about my own experience, all of it weaves in because when I was out of the navy, or maybe it was before I went in the navy, I guess it was before, I was living alone at Lake Ozonia, in the Smith House we called it. It was the ice house of the old camp. My grand uncle build a fireplace for it, and my dad turned it into a cottage, and they called it the Smith House. It was the Everitt Camp and the Smith House. And that was easy to heat in the winter, so I warmed that little place up, and I lived there, and I had, this was after my Cornell days, I had a little Anglia car, an English Ford left over from our trip to Europe in '55, and dad had given it to me and I had it at Cornell, and I was driving that car in to Parishville almost every day to a farm on the way to Parishville from Hopkinton, Stacy's farm. A son-in-law of Walter Stacy was a guy named Robert Sochia, much admired by me, and I liked his name. He's not the character at all. We met at Wolford's farmhouse kitchen, and then got on a horse and rode on one of the roads to the south through the woods to a sugarbush back in there, where there was a barn, a cook, a camp with a kitchen, a dormatory, a barn for two teams. It was a logging camp in all respects. We had a cook who stayed in there the whole season. It was the sugaring season, sugaring in the spring. This cook was living in there, and a teamster stayed in there. And Stacy and his sons and son-in-law and I and another kid maybe went in every morning or stayed overnight, and worked in the sugarbush, gathered sap with a team of horses. Six thousand buckets. At that time, a pretty good size sugarbush. And it was a stinkin' poor year for sap. So we ended up harvesting hemlock logs out of the sugarbush. And I skidded logs with a team, with a single horse. I got to do that, yeah. And I loved it to bits. It was beautiful work. The logs would, we had deep snow that year, the logs would turn the trough in the snow that they made on over to the loading ground, sometimes quite some distance from where they were felled. They turned it a beautiful red color. I remember that, loving that. Then trying once in a while step a foot on the log, but basically running along behind it or beside it, trying to stay out of trouble. Working with the horses was particularly great, because they were, well, the best kind of power, I think, for a sugarbush in the old days. I sugared a lot with the Hazens, with their tractors, but the horses were so much better because you just, you'd haul your two big pails of sap up to the weigh, closest to the road where they had to come by, depending on the other guys, scattered out, moved ahead at different times. Horses bring the sap tank right up beside you. Whoa! They stopped. You'd pour it. Nobody had to climb on a tractor to get it going. You never had to smell it or listen to it. Didn't get stuck. Tractors would bury themselves in this muck. Big wheels, but nevertheless, they'd go deep. Geez they made a mess. So, I think I sort of gravitated toward that anyway. I used to be accused of artifically aging my viewpoint. I remember that accusation from one of my friends at Cornell. I guess it's true. I was trying to write about the past, and created a limping club-footed farmboy that I was trying to write about back then. Nineteenth-century. Fishing for sturgeon in the waters in the North Country and things like that. I didn't know anything. I didn't even know enough to search for information, to look stuff up. It's so different now. If you want to know something, you know, Far Alaska, that's (whistling/whoosh), I flew that route. You've read the book, remember the story about the guy with the dead switch, did I ever tell you about that? Well, I'm flying over the route to Alaska and I get to Canora, read about Canora, pop up newspaper articles from Canora about the same time that my people were there, and a guy tried to rob a bank, with a dead switch in his mouth. I didn't make that up. But a bank robbery was just what I needed (laugh) and I wanted these things that Clarence had fixed in his mind about the West to come true, so stealing horses and pistols and getting into a back robbery, I think it all worked out pretty well. Just luck.
R. Did you drive that?
M. No, I flew it. I flew it by Google. I Googled the whole thing.
R. So, you did not....
M. I never set foot on any of that route. Well, I've been west several times in the U.S., but I never, except for the first few places that Clarence stays. Sudbury. Does he see a bear there? Because I went through that. I had one experience. And McPhee of course is my great inspiration for the last passage. You know, my proposal for the project that got me, well I don't know if it got me anything, but when I applied for a National Endowment grant, what I would do would be run the Yukon from the Canadian border to the Bering Sea. And then when the time came, it was after I'd finished this next book, which of course I never did finish until thirty years later, so I never said what I was going to do, but that's what I'd dreamt of doing, and McPhee makes it seem quite possible. You can float the damn thing.
R. Take one of the cedar boats you've made....
M. I don't know what I thought I'd take, but it'd be a great trip, except you're going in the wrong direction when you're going down a river. You're going toward civilization.
R. Road trips. I have a couple of set questions that I wanted to ask you. Everybody Knows and Nobody Cares is essentially a road trip, and obviously Far Alaska, and, to some extent Polaris even if they just run around in circles....
M. Well, the first one was a gift. I actually made that trip. Every one of those rides comes from an actual ride that I transmuted. When I got done with the trip, I looked back at it and said 'this thing has literary forms somehow or other,' out and back, and somehow different I convinced myself that it had form and it had some form of meaning, meaning being something to do with the literary education and construction and confrontation with the real West and the experience, not just stories ... well, whatever. Well, I told myself that looks like me. I went right back to the ranch that Ogden finds in the book, and set up my writing situation in the log dining room of the camp, a nice big room, had a poster of Hemingway, the one with the sweater right up around his neck, and white hair, nice picture, Walt Whitman over here, and Hemingway there, and my Hermes portable, my tiny little airplane portable, Hermes, about this big, that was my typewriter, a bunch of yellow paper, and I put together cards, a card for each of those rides, and remembered them as well as I could and then nudged them as well as I could, to make something connected. And it was so easy after that, and unbelievable how that book sold, overnight. When Bob DiTillio decided he was cooking up a bizarre idea about an auction, this agent who had never sold a book before. I was his first client. He was in the business, subsiderary rights or something before that, but he was Tom McGuane's buddy, and he thought he'd try an auction, and I thought 'how bizarre'. I just wanted the best publisher. I wanted a prestige named publisher, somebody I had come to think about as one of the great American publishers. And he wasn't really talking to them, he was talking to second rate houses, commercial outfits, and trying to do an auction to have them bid on my book. And I think I showed him some skepticism about it, but then he went at the last minute, you know I don't ... who do I want above all to have publish this book? I want Knopf. So he took it over there called me up the next day in California, and said if I would take off the last chapter he would buy the book. And I thought ... that's probably a good idea. I wrote the little letter that's at the end of the book, I didn't so much write as steal it, or make it up in connection with my nephew, a little boy, a very brilliant little boy, who's in the story when Ogden goes through Salt Lake City. He's a kid who could remember phone numbers, spell his own long name, he's a very tiny baby boy, but he remembers all that. Oh, I know, it's Ogden writes a letter to him, to the kid.
R. "Dear Forest, I have a favor to ask of you...."
M. I think I actually wrote somesuch letter, when Bob said "take off the last chapter which is going on back to Palo Alto, wife and family, instead of ending it at Point Reyes and the those scenes in San Francisco and back to Palo Alto." He was right. I didn't have any trouble with that. Usually I don't take editing very well, but I took it real well in that case.
R. Alright. Publishers.
R. You contacted me with a bit of vitriole about Syracuse.
M. God yes.
R. Polaris came out in 2008. It won the Adirondack Center for Writing's People's Choice Award that year.
M. It didn't win the Fiction Award, which pissed me off, so much. Betsy, at that meeting, I don't know if you were there, but Betsy Folwell read, before she opened the envelope, she read this thing about what they were looking for, a book that was full of the voices of Adirondack people and a great sense of the place. And I'm thinking 'geeze, I guess there's no question about it'. Then she gives ... the Russell Banks' book about a Weather Underground person, who goes and fucks around in Africa. It had nothing to do with the region, so I'm pretty sure she assumed I would have had that prize. I don't know how this happened. I was hurt. And I took the People's Choice Award as just a sop.
R. What did Syracuse have to do....
M. I don't remember the particulars, I forget very well how it came to pass that they wanted to bring the book out, but I'd already published it myself [as Florida]. I don't know whether I made any initiative, I might have, I suppose, I don't really remember. Anyway, we were in touch, Hallie and I, were in touch with an editor there. Hallie wanted to do one of her books with Syracuse at that point. Anyway, it came to pass that they wanted to publish it, and I thought that was a damned good idea. And the only reason I'm annoyed with them is they did nothing....
R. They don't.
M. That's where the May....
M. May Reverse. You get that reference by the way? (Laughs)
R. They don't. But you know, Mary was good to me all the way down the line, so I said ok.
M. Well, geeze. I didn't have any better luck with Ed Gray. I thought surely that was going to be better situation.
R. So they're not, you're not happy?
M. Well, the story behind that, maybe I ought to loop around.... I had been writing for Gray's Sporting Journal quite a bit, and that was good. Ed really appreciated my work. I'd never met him. His editor, Ted Williams, I respected him immensely. His own writing was really strong, especially environmentally fiery stuff and very very good, and he was a true outdoorsman. I enjoyed writing for them and they published my stuff nicely, with illustrations. And I published a story even, a fiction story, a story about a hunting accident, and I got great kudos for that writing. There were readers who cared, and it was nice. Paid well. Ed was a presence, but I never met him. And I guess he actually edited every word of the book, he told me later. I went to some ACW event, where somebody convinced me that I needed to get on to Publishers Market, online, everybody needed to do that. I went and did that, and I filled out a form, and I did that, and it asked if I had anything ready to sell, and I said, yeah, I've got a novel to sell, because I was right at that point with Far Alaska, and it didn't have the last two chapters it has now, it ended at the border. Ed called me the next day and said I see you on Publisher's Marketplace. He said if you've got anything to publish, I want to publish it. I'm a known publisher. I've sold Gray's Sporting Journal and I'm GrayBooks and I want to publish this book for you. And I thought, wow, great. And I did see that he didn't have a terrific publishing record, I looked online to see. It turns out his father was next to Hoover in the FBI, he knew all about Deep Throat, he got caught in a book that he and Ed wrote, his father had died by this time, co-written I guess, a book called In Nixon's Web, which was supposed to be a big deal.
Ed's father was an ex-Navy man, an intelligence guy, who got into Nixon's web and got caught, so Ed and he were really trying to redeem him with this, but there was money in the family, so Ed had a little bit of asset, something to go with, but anyway, he wanted to publish Far Alaska, and I thought he did a nice job on it, and we worked well. I liked the cover he came up with. We had to make sure that that road wasn't so penile as it was at first. It looked very very penile. It still has a reminent of that. You can see how it might have gone that way. But I liked the book, and I'm happy about the book in all kinds of ways, except he told me "the reason I'm publishing this and you're not publishing it is that I can get reviews and you can't get reviews," and he said "I'm the publisher and I've got the ISBNs I can put on books." But he said "you better let me do it and I'll get reviews." He didn't get a single review for that book. I don't know what it takes for a guy to get reviews, but if a guy who's published Gray's Journal and has his record in the field can't knock on a door or two and get somebody to review a book ... well I've been perhaps foolish about this, but I've thought, maybe based upon my first experience, that it's all about that, all about getting a review in the best places right away.
R. Right away....
M. Right away. I was walking across the quad at Stanford one day when Jim Houston, a well-respected West-Coast writer, said "Hey did you see the New York Times Book Review?" And this was before the book was published. Second or third page. I mean holy shit, and everyone took their cue from that one. And it was like they didn't read the book, they read the review and wrote something more or less and about joy. (Laughs) It's almost embarrasing what I said about joy. Nowadays it's remarkably fine for a writer to write about joy, unmitigated joy, without sounding simple minded or insular. (Laughs) So I had a close call, there. So I have always had the feeling that, geeze, a review, and of course Robert Gottleib, what more could you want. Gottleib would just fling it out here and there and it would get reviewed. From his position. And it got reviewed everywhere. The New York Times, The New Yorker, in Boston, in San Francisco. Only one sort of bad review. It said my "new-left angst was ridiculous," or something like that. Just because of the beginning of the book and the protest movement. And also the assumption was that it was cynically written to become a film. People who know film pretty well don't think there is a movie in it.
R. I can see the landscapes.
M. Yes, well. I did work on a film. Warner Brothers optioned it. Larry ... do you know that part of the story? I'll tell it to the kids this afternoon if anybody is interested, because I do have a story to tell about it. DiTillio calls me one day, he's doing the secondary rights on my book. Gottleib says "let me handle the foreign sales" and we said "'go to it" and we got it published by André Deutsch, so it was all over.... But DiTillio was working on the film possibilities and calls me one day to say, "Larry Turman the producer of The Graduate, The Flim-Flam Man, brought in under budget, very very popular in Hollywood, wants to option your book." And I said, "yeah yeah," and they wrote up a contract which called for me to get $300,000 upon commencement of principal photography. Well, what that means is as soon as they are filming any of the principal stars, as soon as they take a photo, you get $300,000 dollars. And then you get a percentage of the producer's dah dah dah and so on and so on on net gain, and so it could just be a lovely amount of money for my family. So I was very happy about that. So they go to get screenplays written of it. First they went to ... oh, I can't remember these names, a big name in screenwriting, turned it down, said, don't think it's a movie; two or three other guys turned it down. I met one. I already knew one. It came to Peter Beagle. He was a good friend. We used to party together in San Francisco. Peter lived there. Jim Houston lived there. Peter was a recent fellow in the Stegner program. This book was in a box with Ken Kesey's and Robert Stone's out front, so Peter said they asked him to do it, Warner Brothers, and I said I don't see a movie in it. And then finally, DiTillio says "They got someone to write a screenplay. His name is David Storey. He's just out of film school in Los Angeles. He's just written a screenplay for a movie with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland," I forget now what it's called [Klute, 1971], "David Storey's going to write the screenplay." So we wait a little while. David Storey writes a screenplay, and Warner Brothers says "no" to the screenplay, and Bob callpage iss again and says you want to try it? I thought I was probably the last person to write a screenplay if I want that to happen. And he said they're willing to try you, and Turman is willing to work with you. You'd be going down on weekends, I was teaching at Santa Cruz, you'd be going down on weekends, flying down to Los Angeles, and working with Turman in a motel in Westwood Village until you get a draft ready and submit it and we'll see what happens. So I said if it's the best thing that can be done to make this thing happen, sure, and he said, you're going to get paid very well to do this, too, and there's a contract that says another $150,000 dollars on commencement of principal photography, you know, the whole routine. But $20,000, I think, for a first draft. So I started flying down there. It was kind of funny. I'd check into this seedy little motel suite in Westwood Village and along comes this guy, neurotic sort of character driving a beat-up old Dodge coup, who wants to go out to lunch on my expense account. This was Larry Turman. So I never see a starlet or a swimming pool or anything of the perks I thought I might. But we worked back and forth. But what I found out right away was, I had just read the book, of course, reread the book. I'm good at forgetting my own writing. So it was a total new thing. You really had to be faithful to the book, you really had to get the subtleties and the tone, the feelings of the book, I mean, what else would you do? If you want to make a movie of that book, what else would you do? What I found out from Larry Turman was, he was a guy who has having a sort of seven year itch. And he wanted the central character to be old enough to be played by the guy who played in The French Connection....
R. Gene Hackman.
M. Was that the guy's name? Yeah. He was planning to have Gene Hackman play Ogden. And he couldn't be a college student, so what shall we have him do? He had to be a boat builder, by the way (laughs), in San Francisco (laughs), Sausalito. And I tried to work with Turman. It was funny. Before I went down there the first time, Turman had a contract with Warner Brothers as a result of his great success as a producer. He really wanted to be Fellini. He had a contract because he had so much power in Hollywood, to do what he wanted to do, to produce and direct three movies. He had just come out with one, which was the second novel by Horace McCoy with Natalie Wood. It was a stockbroker film [The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker, 1971]. The kid was a young broker ... Richard Benjamin was the actor, and I think it was Natalie Wood [Joanna Shimkus]. I saw the movie just before going down there for the first time and it was bad. And I told Larry Turman when I met him and we got to the point where I could say something, you know, I think you needed somebody at your elbow, like me. I don't know film, but I could have told you some things, maybe somebody else could, but you needed somebody else. And he agreed sort of but. Anyways, he had these fixed ideas about my book about having to kick out a little bit in middle age. And we started with the script that David Storey [David Ward] ... Steelyard Blues was the movie that he did with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland... he also wrote the Oscar winning screenplay for ... The Sting. He was a crafty crafty scriptwriter, but he had no intention of making a make-able movie out of my book. He just took the money and ran, because he wrote ridiculous scenes. He has the girl throw a match in the gas tank of a car and it blows up the car. He has them fucking on a pool table in Las Vegas. He has them going where they don't go. It's all kind of horse-shit stuff thrown in there to get excitement on the screen. I told Turman, the first day we met, we could make a great movie out of this book. That's what I thought at the time. And he said, he was worried, that was not what he wanted to hear from me. (Laughs) He said no, we've gotta make this movie. I worked with him, I did, because I wanted to get something out of it, and it was exciting, but we thrashed away and we did a draft, I'd go home and I'd do a bunch of writing, and we'd get a draft and look at it and not so good. And so we'd work on it some more. So I did about a month of part-time work, and then we submitted it, as a first draft, and at that point Warner Brothers said they didn't want to spend any more money on it.
Some of these guys have given me a lot of fun. A lot of excitement. Gordon Lish, Larry Turman, those two guys ... Gordon Lish. He was trying to do a Ray Carver number on me.
R. How's so?
M. Well, when I first got an agent, Bob DiTillio, he said I want to represent your novel. Tom had told him all about it. He said I'd like to represent it. And I said, well, it's not done yet. And I called Tom and said should I let this guy have it? And he said, well, he was my best critic all through college. He'd read a thing. He's not very articulate, he's not very literary, he's literate, maybe, but anyway, he can tell if it works or it doesn't work. So I've always used him as a sounding board. It can't do any harm. Don't sign any contract. Just let him see what he can do with it if you want. So I wrote him and said I've got a pile of stories that I'd written in the Master's program. I was just writing stories then. I sent them to him and he took them to Gordon Lish at Esquire. And Gordon Lish telegrammed me. This is something that I'd never had happen. I told the students at lunch that I'm somewhat embarrassed by this story because it sounds like a pile of shit. "I salute your unutterably original genius. I want to buy all these stories. I'll be in touch. Congratulations. This will be great for you and your family -- Gordon Lish." I had heard about Gordon Lish from all the guys out there in California. He was much talked about. The second year I was out there, Ray [Carver] came to town. He wasn't in the Stegner program, but he was living in town, and we hung out, played softball together, read together in bars sometimes. I remember reading with him in Santa Cruz. I didn't read too much of Carver's work, but he was becomming very famous. Joey Williams was another discoveree of Gordon Lish. So anyways, he's got five or six stories of mine. "I want to buy them all, and let's work on this one first." So we work on one I'd called "The Loss of Isabelle," and he changed the title to "Loss of Isabelle, Isabelle" right away. I didn't know why, but ...
R. But he was Gordon Lish....
M. So we worked on it, and I didn't understand his changes at all. I didn't understand what he was about, but we came to a point where he said, now I'm going to collect supporting opinion. I thought I was dealing with the fiction editor of Esquire Magazine, but Arnold Gingrich and Harold Hayes, Gingrich was the owner and Hayes was the editor, they both said no, we don't see the unutterably original genius in this guy, so it all just went flat. He didn't buy a single story.... I went to his office once, when I was in New York on a Sports Illustrated trip, and he kind of stood up from behind his desk and said "are we ok?" I remember he was shy and wondered if I was going to punch him, but I've always got a kick out of him. Later on I had another big whoopdeedoo with him, after he went off the deep end somehow and became really off to the side editor at Knopf. He could publish a few things that nobody else paid attention to, maybe $5000 for a book, publish it, and nobody bothered him. I sent him the big book. Again, he went nuts over it. He said "oh this is going to be so wonderful, my kids have got to be able to read this book in the future, and their kids. This is going to be great for you and your family." That same line. And I thought, geeze that's pretty good. He said "I could publish it for you, I could publish it, give you $5000 and publish it, but I don't want to do that, you and Harold Brodkey." He lumped me together with Brodkey. He was working on a book with Brodkey; it was big and difficult and hard to sell. He was working on that and trying to get it published by Knopf. It was too difficult to sell books, and he thought he was going to do it. He had it for a long time, and I kept asking about it and wondering and he said well, "Maynor is a funny guy, he doesn't really read books, he walks around the hall with his finger in a book for a certain length of time, and that's how he decides whether to publish it or not." (Laughs) Anyway, I brought that to a halt at some point. I'd checked up on Lish in different ways. I'd talked to people about him. People said he's not in good grace in New York at all. By that time it was kind of famous that he had carved up Ray Carver's stories, chopped them up, changed them a lot, and that they weren't really Ray Carver stories anymore. People were very unsure about Lish for that. Unethical editing or whatever it was. And Carver was turning against him too at some point, and he decided to publish the stories in their original form. He's a brilliant guy. He's a brilliant editor himself, too. I got to worrying about it. I wrote him a letter, and I said "Gordon, if by any chance you are hurting the chances of this book, I want you to give it up." Something like that. He didn't take that very well. I don't know how I could have done it better, but I didn't handle it well I guess. I've got a bad record with editors anyway. But he blew his stack. He said, "you and Harold Brodkey are both the same, you're going to go to other publishers and publish lesser books, it'll be normalized," (laughs) that's what he says, "You want somebody to normalize your text? Go ahead." Well, I wasn't worried about normalizing my text, whatever the hell that meant. I took it back, gladly. About that time I got Candida Donadio, the great den mother of black humor. She was Gray's editor for a while, Joseph Heller's, Bruce J. Friedman's, Philip Roth's maybe, no, I'm not so sure about that, Robert Stone's. And she loved my book, and I thought wonderful, and she could walk in to any head office in New York with a book and get it paid attention to. She couldn't sell it. So, I had the best chances I could hope for, but I would always get stopped at the financial level. They would all find editors who wanted to edit it, to work with me on it, to publish it in that sense, but when it came to the ... what's the company that owns Knopf now? the big German firm ... I don't know where the trouble came from [inaudible] two lady editors there who wanted to publish it, and when I said, you know what I think, I think this is a National Book Award winner, and they said thank you, that's just what we think. I was so full of myself, but that's the way I felt, then. Two months later those two ladies were working in London for a different publisher, and Jonathan Galassi wrote me that they would really like to publish it, but they couldn't see the market for it, didn't see where they were going to make any money. Finally I took it over myself and published it myself, and that's the story.
[That's the story, but... as with GrayBooks, Syracuse didn't work to have Polaris reviewed. So, Mason did reverse. Eventually, "I had a guy working for me who had a pick-up truck and I said go to Syracuse and get 'em. I've got a garage full with the goddam things, so if I could ever sell them I could recoup a little of my investment." Interested readers should contact him directly. It is well-worth the read!]