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Paul Slovak on the Paradoxical Task of Editing William T. Vollmann

When we asked one book editor who it was that edited William T. Vollmann's new nonfiction cinder block, Imperial, he replied, "Does anyone edit Vollmann?" In fact, two people do, because it takes more than one publishing house to steward Vollmann's enormous output. We spoke with Vollmann's fiction editor, Viking's Paul Slovak, who took on Imperial as his first Vollmann nonfiction (that's usually handled by Dan Halpern at Ecco Press). Once the recipient of a Vollmann letter titled "Crabbed Cautions of a Bleeding-Hearted Non-Deleter — and Potential Nobel-Prize Winner," Slovak spoke to Vulture, and assured us that, contrary to Sam Anderson's review in this week's magazine, Imperial was in fact not "line-edited during a 36-hour peyote séance by the ghosts of John Steinbeck, Jack London, and Sinclair Lewis."

Vollmann has said, "Writers who require editors to make their books ‘good’ should be depublished.” Doesn't that make you feel a little extraneous?
Well, there's not necessarily a lot of line-editing that needs to be done. These long books are so densely interconnected in terms of the themes and motifs that you do have to be careful not to disturb the wonderful architecture, because if you take too many things out, you risk having the whole thing collapse.

So you didn't make any cuts?
Bill's historically been resistant to a lot of editing. I have to say with this book we probably did more work, especially trimming.

You mean it came in even longer?
Maybe 10 percent — probably more like 5 percent. But that's a lot for Bill. I was able to show him what to do rather than tell him, and he was able to do it on his own. What I was able to help him realize was that there was a lot of very dry information and presentation of facts like agricultural-product results, and he could go through and trim some of that out.

That still doesn't seem like a whole lot. Have you gotten into arguments over cuts?
He's an exceedingly polite person. I don't push too hard with Bill and I think he respects that. When I was editing [his novel] The Royal Family I thought there were perhaps fifteen too many scenes in bars with prostitutes, but that was really the point of the book. So he cut two or three of them out.

Since you're also the publisher of the Penguin imprint, do you think he'd sell better if he was a little less prolific?
I'm certainly aware of those issues, but this was going to be a long book. I always put the writers first. I've had discussions with his agents about that — one does wonder whether an author's readers can support a book every year. But he does have a very devoted readership.

And devoted editors. Do you ever feel like a martyr to the cause of Bill Vollmann?
Bill is such a unique and interesting writer that it’s always fascinating to have a look at something he’s done. He’s matured as a writer. I’ve really come to appreciate his enormous range, his intellect, his deep hunger for fully researching a story and telling it from many different sides. It’s always been a really positive experience.

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Photo: Patrick McMullan