When bestselling spy novelist Joseph Kanon was a book editor, his assistant Michael secretly pretended to be the boss. Until the Brooke Shields incident. Listen as Joe learns what really happened in 1979.
EPISODE 6 NOTES: Spy Novelist Joseph Kanon Reviews the Proof of 1979 Literary Espionage
Sally Libby was willing to associate with Joe Kanon's devious assistant Michael Small around 1980, when they took a trip around NYC on the Circle Line. The miscreant's eventual punishment: All his hair fell off. She kept hers.
When I nabbed my very first full-time job in 1979 -- as an assistant with a New York City book publisher -- I thought it was totally fine to inflict my type of humor on aspiring authors when I responded to their book proposals. It never crossed my mind that… Wow, you could get in big trouble for this. Or at least you could hurt someone’s feelings. Or get fired.
Lucky for me, my patient and generous boss Joseph Kanon – who is now one of the all-time greatest writers of espionage novels – was too busy to discover the full extent of my sins. Until now. Joining us on the podcast, he finally gets the chance to review the evidence: the preposterous book proposals we received, along with my totally inappropriate responses and book reports, which I saved for 42 years.
When Sally and Joe read these documents aloud after all these years, it made me laugh till breathing was difficult. I still can’t believe that I wrote all those inappropriate letters. I even signed them with a title to indicate that I was the boss, not the assistant who was just out of college. What was I thinking?
This retelling of my past literary crimes might never have happened without our friend Dr. Tia Powell, whose many accomplishments include the title of “ethicist.” She helped us understand the ethics of laughing at the pretensions of others and ourselves. When it came to that laughter, we also got a lot of excellent help from the person I believe to be America’s greatest living artist -- and laugher, Cindy Ruskin. Plus, we got advice from Joe’s wife, literary agent Robin Straus, who helped in a big way to answer this question: Could I actually throw out these literary documents that I saved?
By the way, if you haven’t read Joe’s beautifully written and suspenseful novels, the biggies were Los Alamos, the Edgar Award winner about the creation of the atom bomb, and The Good German, which was made into a movie with George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. Though I was never a major reader of espionage novels before this, I’ve read all 10 of them -- and loved them. Feel free to ignore me, but I’d recommend that you start with three of my favorites: Istambul Passage, Defectors, and Stardust. In these books, every detail at the beginning pays off at the end. So if you take your time and slowly absorb it, you’ll be highly rewarded in the final chapters. For a comprehensive overview of Joe's books, check out book reviewer Mal Warwick's list.
This episode of I Couldn't Throw It Out is dedicated to Sarah Gearhart, who took over my role as Joe’s assistant and helped to deliver the perfect coda to my horrid behavior – which we reveal in the episode. Sarah, who died from cancer in 2015, was a wonderful person who loved books and publishing, and always laughed with us at the same crazy surprises that the publishing world delivered to us.
I’m sharing below a few of the documents from the episode, just so you don’t think I made it all up.
A book proposal that came as a printed pamphlet...
Here's a different twist on the religious novel...
Much-loved pets were always a favorite book topic. Notice the attention given to describing the precise format...
I cheated a little. My favorite pitch letter of all time came to me at PEOPLE Magazine, not at the book publishing house. But I couldn't resist. I included it anyway.
My ridiculous technique for confirming that Joe Kanon would read my reader's reports -- I insulted him!
My custom-made rejection for a would-be poet...
Just in case you think I only caused damage, take a look at this note -- in response to one of the rejection letters I sent.
I promised Joe, Sally, Robin and Cindy that I'd shred these and many other letters I received or sent during my years as a publishing assistant. But only after I digitize them and store them in some kind of digital vault. Which could take me a while. Until then, there's hard evidence of my literary crimes. Good reason for the world to celebrate that I only stayed in book publishing for a year and a half.
I Couldn’t Throw It Out, Episode 6
Joseph Kanon and the Arrogant Assistant
THEME SONG EXCERPT
I couldn't throw it out
I have to scream and shout
Before I turn to dust
I've got to throw it out
Before I turn to dust
I've got to throw it out
END OF THEME SONG EXCERPT
MICHAEL SMALL: Hello Sally Libby!
SALLY LIBBY: Hello Michael Small!
MICHAEL: Are you ready for another action-packed episode of our podcast I Couldn't Throw It Out?
SALLY: I think so.
MICHAEL: By any chance, did someone named Sally Libby get a very interesting large white envelope in the mail last week?
SALLY: She certainly did.
MICHAEL: Would you please describe what I sent you?
SALLY: It's a stack of papers. From your brief career in book publishing.
MICHAEL: Yup. My very first full-time job. Fresh out of college in 1979.
SALLY: I have to ask: Do you swear this stuff is real? You didn't make it up?
MICHAEL: It is 100% legit. Those are genuine artifacts from a legendary publishing house that no longer exists. It was called Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, and t hey put out some BIG books. Including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
MICHAEL: Yup. That was long before my time. So we had to mention it often. Because we didn't get a lot of books at that level. You might have noticed this from the book proposals that I saved all these years and sent to you. Did you enjoy my selections?
SALLY: Oh yes. Because they're so twisted. But you have to admit it. Some of the letters you wrote back to those poor authors are even crazier. So arrogant! And disrespectful! How did you get away with it?
MICHAEL: Well, I was working for a special kind of editor. A few months before I arrived, he had won what I think is called The Klein Award, which is given to an editor who upholds the highest standards of literary merit. So it was pretty clear that any shenanigans could never hold him back. In fact, after I left, he went on to become the editor-in-chief, CEO and president of Houghton Mifflin AND E.P. Dutton. I believe you've heard of those publishers.
SALLY: Certainly have!
MICHAEL: And then he went on to write ten spy novels – set in World War II and the post-war period. They've won too many awards to count AND they've have been on all the bestseller lists. One of them, called the Good German, was made into a movie starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett.
SALLY: Wow! If he's so smart, why didn't he fire you?
MICHAEL: Well, funny you should ask. Because we happen to have a guest on the other line who can answer that question. He's the man who accomplished all of the above in a single lifetime. Ladies and Gentleman, introducing my very first boss and my lifetime friend, Mr. Joseph Kanon.
JOSEPH KANON: Hello, Michael. How are you doing today?
MICHAEL: We’re already having a good time, right Sally?
JOSEPH KANON: Hi Sally.
SALLY: Congratulations on surviving 1979 to 1980 with a pathologically job covetous employee in the office. Was that delusions of grandeur, or just the cockiness of youth?
JOSEPH KANON: You know, he was so bright and so eager and enthusiastic and there is a kind of old saw about hiring people. You should hire somebody who wants your job. The only problem is, I didn’t know he wanted it right away.
MICHAEL: So we have invited you here for a reason. We need your help with reviewing some of these items that I saved. And then we have to decide if they can be thrown out. Are you up for the challenge?
JOSEPH KANON: Absolutely!
MICHAEL: Before we get to that, I have to say that one of the BEST things about Joe Kanon is that he had the sense to marry a certain literary agent named Robin Straus. And I think she's listening in. If you are, Hello Robin!
ROBIN STRAUS: Hi Michael. Hi Sally.
MICHAEL: And we also have one other person who’s listening in here – Cindy Ruskin.
CINDY RUSKIN: Hi Joe! Hi Robin!
MICHAEL: Okay, now we have to get back to business. Joe –
JOSEPH KANON: Yes.
MICHAEL: You also received a package like Sally's. And I've got my own package here. Is it accurate to say that your package brought back some very beautiful memories?
JOSEPH KANON: Well, it’s certainly a trip down Memory Lane. These are query letters and some of your reports. And that whole period when you were reading manuscripts and being really funny about them certainly came back.
MICHAEL: One important question that Sally asked earlier is… Did you consider firing me? And if not, why not?
JOSEPH KANON: I never considered firing you. You were a superb assistant. I just didn’t know that you were subversive.
MICHAEL: Well, your patience was superhuman. And I would like to add for any managers who might listen to this that Joe was aware that I was the highest paid editorial assistant at a staggering $8600 a year. And I couldn't really afford to eat. So Joe took me out to lunch – I don’t know – at least once a month, once a week, something like that. And Joe -- do you remember what I would always order?
JOSEPH KANON: No, what did you order actually?
MICHAEL: Oh my God. I thought you’d never forget because you were so horrified.
JOSEPH KANON: Oh, tongue! You had tongue.
MICHAEL: Yes! I’d have a tongue sandwich and a cream soda. That’s all I dreamed of. And Joe would take me out and he’d watch me, like, “What the hell is this guy eating?”
So before we decide the fate of these papers I saved for 42 years, I need to give some background in case some people didn’t know about publishing back then. Waaaay way back in ancient pre-Internet times, there was this super-thick book called Literary Marketplace. Joe – can you explain for people who don’t remember what Literary Marketplace was.
JOSEPH KANON: Literary Marketplace was essentially like a phone directory for publishing. It would include practically anybody in the busness. If you were somebody who wanted to write a book and needed a contact in the business, there it was. All you had to do was use it.
MICHAEL: And it was updated every year. Many publishers added a note to say that they'd take proposals only from agents. But some publishers – like Coward, McCann & Geoghegan – they indicated that they took unsolicited manuscripts. So – you know what happened -- mountains of manuscripts and letters arrived every day. And I do mean mountains. They were stacked to the ceiling around the office. Because the assistants were paid so little – I don’t know if you remember this, Joe -- they would just toss those manuscripts, collect the postage and go to the post office to trade in the stamps for cash. Now Sally, knowing me as you do, do you think I would do that?
SALLY: I wouldn’t put it past you.
MICHAEL: I would NOT do that!
CINDY: Of course, he wouldn’t do that.
MICHAEL: I had a very strict moral code. And so did my excellent pal Joe Labatt, who sat next to me. This could not continue. So we set up a system. I wrote a bunch of different form letters, ranging from that was very kind to some that were extremely cold and corporate. The cold one would go to the really really crazy people. Then I assigned stacks of manuscripts to each of the assistants. And we all had to review them. And Joe LaBatt and I would ensure that every budding author got a response. While we were at it, I saved my favorites. Unfortunately, I saved too many for us to review them all today. But I tried to send a representative sampling to the two of you. And then I ran into a problem. I had a crisis of confidence about this entire project. Because… even though we won't mention any of the author names – and no one is likely to remember these book pitches from 42 years ago – I still worried that it might not be fair to get entertainment out of these proposals. When you think about it, these books – these were people’s dream – and I really want to tell those stories behind them because then we can throw them out, maybe. But the question is, is that ethical?
That’s when I remembered a very important detail. Cindy and I have a pal who has many job titles, and one of them is... ethicist. She's also a psychiatrist and she's a professor of Bioethics at Einstein. Her name is Tia Powell and I figured there was no better person to tell us if we can proceed with this project. So I called her. And here's what she told me.
PHONE INTERVIEW BEGINS
TIA POWELL: So I love this question. Because I love ethical dilemmas. This is a particularly great one. You’re worried that you’re making fun of someone. And maybe making fun of someone who is confused or ill. And you’re right to worry about that. We should not make fun of people who are unfortunate or disabled. We don’t want to do that.
MICHAEL: But is it okay to laugh?
TIA POWELL: Sometimes different ways of thinking are funny – they strike us as really funny. So I’m okay with that. It doesn’t mean that this is a bad person. Or that we can lock them up and throw away the key. So that’s where I would start, Michael.
MICHAEL: Well not all of the people seem certifiably crazy. Some of them just seem a little naïve. Like people who really want to write a book about a cat or a dog.
TIA POWELL: First of all, I have no idea that that meets any criteria for being ill. It’s just silly. That can be funny. And I also think they’re not necessarily ill – they’re vain, or they think they’re more important than they are, or they have irritating habits, or they’re presumptuous. But it’s okay to laugh at human foibles. We look at the human condition and that is what we have to laugh about. So I say go for it. It can’t be cruel and it can’t be jeering. But it’s okay to laugh, just as it’s okay to laugh at ourselves. Actually, it’s important. I think the general idea is, we don’t know who this is and we are looking at these old things and trying to figure out why this thing among all these others, what spoke to you. And if it was funny, and if it seems particularly silly or particularly charming or whatever, I don’t think it’s so terrible to laugh. I think we should laugh more.
PHONE INTERVIEW ENDS
MICHAEL: Yay! So guess what? That means we're all cleared to review what I saved. Joe Kanon – would you be willing to start us off by sharing with us the top item in your packet? I know you're a pacifist. But it's the one that involves guns.
JOSEPH KANON: Yes, certainly. This goes to the attention of our then editor in chief Patricia Soliman. But nevertheless is addressed “Dear Sir or Madam”. (laughter)
Would your organization be interested in a non-fiction book on gun running? I have years of experience in that field in North America and Southern Africa. My situation now is such that – for the first time – I have a lot of time on my hands. To put this time to good use, I think it would be wise for me to write about my experience.
I am interested to know if you think that a book on that topic would be interesting to a mass readership. I’ve had dealing with the radical left and the reactionary right. Politics does not fit into my business. I have transported these weapons across borders in the most difficult of circumstances and have been forced to have guards killed.
I have operated several front business from South Africa. I feel that I am qualified to write this book.
CINDY: I think this book would be interesting.
MICHAEL: It would be interesting. But I guess, is it a real book or a figment of somebody’s imagination? We’ll never know.
JOSEPH KANON: Oh, it sounds real to me. (laughter)
MICHAEL: Let’s just hope that 42-years have smoothed over the rough edges of that career. Thank you for that, Joe. It was a great start. I should mention that we did receive a lot of letters from people who were incarcerated and that was an example of that. (laughter). Another favorite topic was sex. I would say one of my favorites along those lines was a sort of published pamphlet that had a lot of photos in it. And the title of this pamphlet – which cost $3.00 – was The Almighty Sperm. And it said also on it, “Sperm behavior for men who are normal, alcoholic, aggressive, sterile, homosexual, passive and frightened.” Now the sperm from a frightened person turns out to be the key sperm in this book. The story basically is that the author of this book felt that for some reason his sperm were not living. And he felt that it was a mental thing. He wasn’t thinking good thoughts and it killed his sperm. So he had read about people who looked at sperm under microscopes. So he tells the story of how he went out and bought a microscope and he kept the microscope next to his bed. I now read you just my favorite part, which is the process of getting the sperm to the microscope. So he wrote:
First, let me explain the girl’s view of all this. In wondered; what is romantic about running from the bed to the microscope and say, “amazing!!” She showed no objections, was gentle in her few comments and if she secretly felt it was a little strange, she never let me know. In fact, she sometimes asked if we were going to do some more tests today. I liked her from the beginning and loved her later on. Too bad she is gone. I miss her. (laughter)
That was The Almighty Sperm. I’m sure you are all wishing that that book had been published. Joe – why did we let this book go?
JOSEPH KANON: You must have given one of your negative reports. (laughter)
MICHAEL: So… yeah, that was the sex portion of our show. But we also had a common thing which is that people felt they had to overstate the importance of the book they wanted to publish. And I believe Joe has an example of that that really was the most overstated of all the overstated.
JOSEPH KANON: I do. You sent it to me. You know, often people are told that they should say who the market for the book is. You know, what audience are you trying to reach? And this is an extraordinary reach. This also goes to the aforementioned Patricia Soliman. And this time, it’s: To My Editor.
I have just completed a manuscript that you will probably classify as mainstream. It’s a humorous satire about the world of big business, utilizing a fictitious phone company as its milieu. Rest assured there’s not the remotest possibility of becoming immersed in a libel suite with either the companies of the Bell System, or the hundreds of independent phone companies operating throughout the United States.
After reading my terrific manuscript you will agree it is a novel that will prove fascinating reading for a broad cross section of people, ranging from the board chairman of just about every major corporation in the world to the white-and-blue- collar employees of every type of business organization, plus those who work in government and the professions, their families, relatives, friends, enemies, and neighbors. You will find that to be our prime market. And with a million and a half persons working in the telephone industry throughout the country, we should sell ten to fifteen tons of the first couple of printings to those folks alone.
Other than this conservative estimate of the market, I leave it to your wildest, most optimistic expectations as to what this news will mean to your publishing company and to you personally. As a starter, you’ll be a giant in the field. And, if you are already a giant, you’ll be a colossus among giants. More than that I cannot promise. I don’t think it is appropriate to say any more about our terrific novel, other than to add in all humility, that you and I, beyond the shadow of a doubt, have ourselves a tremendously big BIGGIE!
“How do you know?” you ask.
Believe me, I know. And when you read it, two of us will know. You’ll know because you’re a professional and a pro doesn’t have to guess or engage in wishful thinking about such things. When that extra special manuscript crosses your desk, you know it’s extra special. Well, my friend, this is just such a manuscript. And do you want to know something else? I have already laid plans for several more commercially successful novels. This dandy is the first. The next will be a terrific mystery that will knock you right off your ass, to put it mildly.
Remember, you’re not going to buy me. You’re going to purchase the publishing rights to my manuscript. Oh, and one more thing: This is not a multiple submission. It is merely a query offered on a first come first serve basis. I don’t intend to play games any more than you do. That’s why I’m limiting this letter to reputable publishing houses.
I look forward to working with you.
There you go. So this prime market is apparently the entire universe.
MICHAEL: Well, that one kind of left me speechless. But Sally, I think that you have another genre to share with us and this was a VERY popular genre.
SALLY: Oh yeah.
MICHAEL: Which is pets.
SALLY: My favorite.
MICHAEL: Yes, your favorite. That’s why you got this one. People wanted… they felt it was so important to send us a book about a particular cat or dog. In this case, I believe you’ll tell us which of those it is.
Dear Miss Soliman, I have written a long poem which is the 16-year life story of a very smart little dog. It is written in four-line stanzas, five to seven per page. There are 25 pages consisting of 540 lines. Each page covers a different topic or incident, all of which are true. Most of the incidents are humorous, and all show his exceptional character and intelligence.
I’ve conducted my own “Enjoyment Poll” and the responses were more than encouraging, Such as: “Amazing!” “Excellent!” “The most beautiful poem I’ve ever read.” Everyone enjoyed it, and most were not dog owners.
Considering the number of dog owners in the United States and Britain, I believe the sales potential to be many millions of copies.
Although it was not intended to do so, it now seems to be a useful tool for those who shy away from reading. The school program RIF (I guess that’s Reading is Fundamental) could use this poem as an incentive, as the young people really can understand and enjoy it.
Please advise me if I should submit this item for your consideration.
MICHAEL: We missed the boat on that one. There were so many pets that got written about, and I think this brings us to a point that we have not yet addressed, which is…. Does anyone have any feelings yet about whether… Am I supposed to shred THAT?
CINDY: Yes. Absolutely.
SALLY: Oh no!
JOSPEH KANON: Sure.
MICHAEL: And it’ll be gone. There will be no evidence that that was submitted. I happen to have the originals here. I have it in my power to start shredding but we’ll keep going. We may discuss it and then there will be a big shredding party at the end. I think we have one now from Joe which involves something to do with Georgia.
JOSEPH KANON: Yes, this is during the Carter administration and I think as an intro that what’s fascinating about this letter is how a phrase could be just dropped in a sentence and all the sudden you go, “Wait. WHAT?” Let’s start with this…
Dear Sir, I am a professional writer who has just completed a contemporary novel. While I have published poetry, some articles and brochures in a limited southern market, I have not published a novel before. The story begins in Columbus Georgia, just 40 miles west of President Jimmy Carter’s hometown. Simplified, the leading characters are a New York playwright and the wife of a wealthy Georgia industrialist who is involved in political intrigue related to the Carter presidency. There are some graphic sex scenes, a homosexual involvement, and a murder that causes the heroine to flee to safety in France where she discovers the chateau she shared with her lover during their previous lifetime.
That’s the phrase!
Of course, the chateau is haunted and the book scream to a fire-y close. If you’re interested in seeing my manuscript, please advise. (laughter)
MICHAEL: And you think that I can shred the fire-y close, so that it’s never remembered again?
JOSEPH KANON: Well, you might hang on to that one.
MICHAEL: Well, I have a couple here that I found quite interesting. This one is…
Dear Sir, Attention Fiction Editor. I have prepared a 40,000-word novel. It has to do with preachers who have been called down from their pulpits by members of their congregations. I have actually met such men. Someone in the congregation calls out, “You come down out of that pulpit. Y’ain’t preachin’ the gospel, etc.” Brother Justin Knight was called down for the fourth time in his life, and, having nowhere else to go, he started his own church based on the severe disciplines set forth in the Bible. He married a girl, Linda, of his congregation even though he himself considered sexual intercourse beneath his dignity. He inflicted corporal punishment on her a couple of times and this led to his death. The second and last time was when he thought she had been fornicating with another preacher in a vineyard. Linda actually had been misbehaving and her hymen had been demolished in the process. Then along came Knight’s successor, Cedric, who fell in love with Linda, but she had to be sure that her hymen was intact since the Bible demands death for the woman coming to her marriage bed a non-virgin. She went to Japan and had the operation MAKU SEISIE, by which her hymen was restored, and she lived happily ever after. The preacher who violated her in the vineyard was seen “doing it” and he was CALLED DOWN and had to go to his church’s headquarters in Chicago for reassignment. There he met and fell in love with Opal, the Assistant Superintendent of Pastoral Appointments, who gave him a massive education as to the frailty of all preachers. They married and lived happily ever after even though her massive feminine endowments and expertise kept him in a state of depletion and exhaustion.
I am sure that millions of people in the “Bible Belt” and elsewhere will find this work interesting and enthralling. While the book deals with religion, it is not a religious book as such and I have been careful to avoid any kind of preaching.
So that was that one.
JOSEPH KANON: Wow.
MICHAEL: Again, we missed the boat. I certainly had no expected to receive that particular topic as a book suggestion, which is why I saved it. I guess it was for the fiction editor. So it’s just a novel. I don’t want anyone out there thinking that that actually happened. So… we have one letter – this is a total cheat, but I couldn’t resist this. This letter did NOT go to Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. It is the one letter of the same type that I saved from my days at PEOPLE Magazine. I feel this tops all of them. It’s a long letter. So buckle your seatbelts. This went to PEOPLE Magazine, not to the publisher. But it is along the same lines. And Sally, could you share it?
People Magazine, Attention: Ralph P. Davidson, Chairman of the Board
Dear Mr. Davidson: This letter is being addressed to your attention instead of the Editor in Chief as I believe that you are the real wheel at People and I like to go to the source.
I am a doctor’s wife in real life.
Recently, I have been entertaining the idea of allowing a magazine such as yours to write an article about myself and my tasteful lifestyle. A cover story of course.
Perhaps you are wondering why a story about my life would be of great interest to your readers?
First of all, I am an American Woman who is, of course, married to a doctor. Living in a popular but secluded resort area of Florida, I have been spending much time on the renovation and refurbishment of our mansion. Our servants are not American but have been trained to provide excellent service anyways. All except Rosita.
My husband, the doctor, is much too busy raking in those American Dollars to discuss our cover story yet. But I will involve him later as we progress into the final stages of our articles.
I suggest that we cover the groundwork for this story immediately as I expect to be involved full time with NASA early this winter. Unfortunately, I am under strict orders not to discuss this matter but if the words SPACEFLIGHT or SHUTTLE mean anything to you maybe you’ll understand.
I shall make available time in my agenda for your film/camera crews to arrive the last week in August. I will, of course, have the proper settings and fashionable clothing available for a most enjoyable photo session. I am not, of course, a loose woman, but might consider some tasteful photos of myself in bathing attire (two piece) and some alluring lingerie, if you were to twist my arm a tad.
I do not want any photos of the “help” taken without my express permission. I am having a slight problem with our Bolivian Chambermaid (Rosita) and it looks at this time like she might be recalled to her homeland for some crime committed there. None of your crew should speak with her as she cannot be trusted to tell the truth, especially about me. Also, she has a habit of wearing tight short shorts with a tight halter top (no under-garments) and your readers would not appreciate this type of smut in a family magazine. My husband sees nothing wrong with Miss Red Lips and Loose Hips so for the moment I’m stuck. Probably the only thing that keeps him from jumping in the sack with her is that he is afraid she might have AIDS or VD or something worse.
Shoes cannot be worn in my home nor any soiled garments of any kind. At our entrance, there is a sanitized washroom where your people can clean up before entering the foyer. Smocks will be provided along with sterilized booties and a sneeze guard apparatus which fits comfortable over the face. No smoking of course except in my private bathroom. I might just puff a few with the boys myself to appear sociable.
The article itself should be approved by me and I intend to help with the writing. Questions will be provided by myself that your interviewer may ask. I know this is not your usual policy but assure you that the interests of the American people will be best served by this method.
I am currently involved with such companies as Proctor & Gamble and Coca Cola. I consider myself on the inside of Bolivian Politics and might have something to say on that subject. Also, I might have my friend, Bill Cosby, drop by during the photo session. As you can see, I am not an ordinary woman.
Well, enough said for now. Let’s get moving! Sincerely…
JOSEPH KANON: Michael, that is a keeper.
SALLY: You could never shred that.
MICHAEL: Yeah. We’re not throwing that out. So there is a box that goes with me when I get cremated and that’ll be in it. (laughter)
JOSEPH KANON: Do you think the doctor spends a lot of time at the hospital?
SALLY: I wonder what her involvement with Coca Cola and Proctor & Gamble was. She probably had stock.
JOSEPH KANON: Yes.
MICHAEL: By the way, one thing that did not ever occur to me was pointed out by our friend Tia Powell when I read her that letter, and here’s what she had to say…
AUDIO INTERVIEW STARTS
TIA POWELL: I’m not sure that person isn’t actually a genius – and has proposed, years ahead of time, what later became a phenomenally successful reality TV franchise. Who’s laughing last here? I hope she got idea credit on the show.
AUDIO INTERVIEW ENDS
MICHAEL: So… the woman thought up Real Housewives before it happened. Anyway, that concludes the samples of letters that were sent. And now we move on to a different type of involvement I had as an editorial assistant which was writing those reader reports for manuscripts that came from agents. Joe – I gave you a stack of those and I feel you could go ahead and do all five of them now and share what you have and give us any commentary on what I wrote that you would like to make.
JOSEPH KANON: Okay. Sure. The format for these, if you can imagine, is The Story – which asks for a brief precis of what the manuscript is. And then the comment. Here’s one….
A lady levitator goes on a bus tour with a bunch of gay men who turn out to be CIA deprogrammers. Police chief Joseph Kiernan – does that name sound frighteningly familiar? – can’t solve the murders that follow and dies of bubonic plague while scuba diving off Key Largo. An English professor out of work by the name of Michael publishes the story to horrible reviews.
Michael – could that really have been a legitimate submission?
MICHAEL: It was! It was!
SALLY: We could ask that question of so many of them.
MICHAEL: And it had Joseph Kiernan and Michael both starring in it.
JOSEPH KANON: Anyway, Michael’s comment on that – his reader’s report – is: Millions of characters seem to be doing a million things at once, mostly levitating and making themselves invisible. Get me out of here before I catch it! Then we have…
The Story: This story of a wonderful pet cannot be paraphrased. (So… the quote…)
“I suspect the big sable and white collie knew more about living and what was going on around him than anyone we have ever known. When, on occasions , he found something he could not really comprehend, he seldom let it go by until he did understand it.”
Michael’s comment: Sometimes I think we feel the very same way about Joe Kanon. But nobody has volunteered to write a book about him. Pass. (laughter)
The story: It is 1859. A young woman stands at her father’s funeral. The author tells us she is “bewreathed.” This must mean that she is wearing a wreath (very fashionable at funerals in those days?). She looks across at Bret O’Roarke. Then she takes out a knife and stabs him. “My God, she tried to kill me! He thought bemusedly…” In those days, people were bemused about dying.
In the next chapter, we meet Kitty. She was “besotted with Bret as she had been at seven.” This means they got drunk together as children.
Two hundred pages later, Kitty’s fingers “shyly touch his (Bret’s) member.” Of what is Bret a member? Perhaps the Rhett Butler Fan Club. He screws Kitty and stomps off without giving a damn.
Comment: Undoubtedly the worst manuscript in six months, levitators and unsoliciteds included. I was bemused but not be-impressed. Perhaps if I had been besotted… Oh, pass. (laughter)
The story: John’s dad is a drunk. John’s mom is sick. John’s girlfriend is pregnant. John won a full scholarship to Yale and can’t use it. John’s roommate is a homosexual. Oh John. Poor John. Oh, pass.
(ironically) Now that’s just a sample of Michael’s superb reports.
CINDY: The other people who did these reviews, were they as snarky as Michael?
JOSEPH KANON: Never. That’s what made him good. Michael was wonderful. He was very funny. And, you know, if you can’t laugh at some of this, it weighs you down.
ROBIN STRAUS: But he also had supreme confidence, to write these reports?
JOSEPH KANON: Yes, Robin points out that all of us began this way, I mean, in publishing. We all started by reading the slush pile etc. etc. And we wouldn’t have doing stuff that Michael pulled.
MICHAEL: One little note that is worth mentioning is that the bewreathed and besotted book… that author was published by Jove.
JOSEPH KANON: Really?
MICHAEL: Yes, Jove went for it.
CINDY: By Jove.
MICHAEL: “By Jove,” Cindy said. Oof.
JOSEPH KANON: How did it do?
MICHAEL: I have no idea. But, along those lines… This is a book that was called Grady Barr. And it says…
Grady Barr begins as a pimp in Galveston Texas in 1926 and ends up as a hot shot oil man who gives advice about the Middle East to President Kennedy.
My comment was…
Crude oil. Crude men. Crude women. Crude writing. Pass. (laughter)
That book was published by Arbor House in 1981 and is on Goodread’s now with four stars out of five.
MICHAEL: Yes ma’am.
CINDY: Michael, you blew it.
MICHAEL: Yes ma’am.
JOSEPH KANON: Well, we all make mistakes.
MICHAEL: Oh me? C’mon! (laughter). Then we have this one which is called Flagman, What of the Road? – which I did not like. But it also came with a short story called Kebause. It’s a Homeric Crusoe update about a man marooned on an island inhabited by wild lesbians who reproduce with… pine cones.
My comment was: Need I say more?
That was written by V.S. Yanovsky. I looked him up. He was a Soviet emigre and doctor. His papers are stored at Columbia University archives, including correspondence with Dorothy Day, EL Doctorow, TS Eliot, Marianne Moore, and a lot of Russian people. I only have 24 boxes. There’s 38 boxes of his stuff in the Columbia library. Auden wrote a prologue to one of his novels. Christopher Lehman-Haupt in the New York Times – who has never said anything nice about me – said that “the plots may sound impossibly far-fetched and cumbersome but Dr. Yanovsky makes it float like a fairy tale. He squeezes his deepest spiritual insight into sentences as innocent as the prose of Peter Rabbit.”
JOSEPH KANON: You don’t read squibs like that every day.
MICHAEL: That was the person I kept because I made fun of him because I didn’t think he was worthy.
There is a another book by William Hoffman called Dance With Me. My comments were so long that they went basically off the bottom of the page. “I love this book. It is very funny. I laughed out loud throughout the whole thing.” I don’t think it was every published. But there is a William Hoffman who won the 1992 John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. And I’m gonna assume it was the same person. Joe – I tried to get you to go with it, and you just weren’t into it.
JOSEPH KANON: Well, that’s publishing for you.
MICHAEL: Yup. Then there was another one I loved. I just want you to know I did love some of them. This was by Josh Freed, a reporter for the Montreal Star. He searches for a friend who went to San Francisco for a brief visit and never returned. He finds his friend deeply involved with the Unification Church. Blah, blah, blah. I said, “This story is well-written, exciting and terrifying. It reads like a novel.” We passed on it. It was published by Dorset in 1980 and it sold 70,000 copies.
JOSEPH KANON: What?
SALLY: There’s no accounting for taste.
MICHAEL: Then this one last letter. This is just an example of the letters that I wrote to people that were like…. Whaaaaat? There was an author who wrote to find out how his book was doing. He had published long before Joe was there or I was there. And by mistake I sent him the wrong letter. I sent his letter to somebody else and I sent him like a “Sorry we’re not interested in your book” letter. He wrote a letter to complain, saying he “heard the deadly dull voice of the computer.” I wrote back to apologize and say, you know, this is what happened. So he wrote back to me again. He wrote…
Dear, very dear, Mr. Small -- What oh what should I do? I still hear the deadly voice of the computer. Did you know my son-in-law’s name is Michael? I happen to like Michaels when they are real. Tell you what. Maybe I’m wrong. What was the good news about my book and what was the name of my book? If you guess, I shall bow down and worship before you forevermore. Exceedingly sincerely…. This guy.
So I wrote…
Dear Mr. P. - Developing Your Personality is still brining in paperback royalties. Bow down. (laughter)
CINDY: Oy! The chutzpah!
MICHAEL: And he wrote…
Dear Real, I bow and gladly, and – as I promised – forevermore. You win. I lose. You are not a computer. Very cordially….
But Joe, that reminds me… Don’t you have a letter that I wrote to somebody that you found?
JOSEPH KANON: Yes. This is my favorite in the packet. I mean, it begins to show how really outrageous your behavior was. That letter you just read was just priceless. You know, we’re supposed to be NICE to our authors, particularly the published ones. But anyway… All right, here’s a back-and-forth correspondence that Michael had with someone. And the first letter is for background. This is December 17, 1979.
Dear Patricia Solimon
I have this 60,000-word manuscript that is currently residing in a suitcase. It goes without saying that I desire to see it on a bookshelf. My friends all think it’s great. (Well, that’s as good a criterion for choosing friends as any.)
I suppose at this point I should fess up. My manuscript will not complete your life, nor will it free anybody. What it will do is make people laugh. At this particular point in history, that’s a worthwhile goal, isn’t it? Sincerely…
He is then answered by Michael.
3 January 1979 (so it’s a mistaken date)
Patricia Solimon passed your letter on to me because she knows I can’t resist a good laugh. Which is what you promised with your manuscript. So please send a copy of your book. I’d be glad to look at it. I will say one thing in advance, however – you are more likely to get the right person to read your book if you say a little more about it in your cover letter. I’m sure you’d rather have people pleading for your prose than stabbing in the dark. Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Dear Mr. Small (dated January 8, 1980)
Our relationship to this point, though brief, has been amiable. The future of our relationship would seem to hinge (at least on my part) on my ability to give you a “good laugh.” Somewhere in the course of the 216 pages I’m sending, I think I can deliver.
As much as I liked your letter, one aspect of it as a little disturbing. In the upper left- hand corner it was dated Jan 3, 1979. Of course, three days into a new year, this is a mistake anyone can make. (It’s an error I’ve been known to make as late as July.). The problem I’m having with it is, how do I know it was an error? I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable sending my manuscript to someone who really thought it was 1979. Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you sometime in 1980. Sincerely…. (laughter)
The next letter to him is dated 6 June 1944…. (laughter)
Dear Mr. So-and-so,
As much as I liked your book, one aspect of it was a little disturbing. You say that I made the mistake of dating my letter to you January 3 1979 in the upper left-hand corner –when actually, I dated that letter in the upper right-hand corner. The problem I’m having with it is, how do I know you can recognize left from right? In fact, I’m not sure I feel comfortable reading a manuscript from someone who can’t tell the difference. But I did take a look at your manuscript in any case, and I’m sorry to say that it’s not right for our list at this time. I wish you luck with it, however, in the 80s.
Really, Michael. You were very bad and naughty.
SALLY: Oh, that’s great.
MICHAEL: It’s Sally’s fault. She gave me that tone. So speaking of Sally, we go back over to Sally. She has a few of her own to share.
The Story: Wistful pregnant California woman comes to snowy Philadelphia to console her brilliant, but troubled brother. A dutiful sibling to the end, she can think of only one way to satisfy his frustrated sexual desire… Perhaps there is such a thing as the wrath of God. The guy ends up in the hospital after a horrible radiation accident. At least he doesn’t die a virgin. (laughter)
The Comment: Unpleasant melodrama. Pass.
MICHAEL: Sally, you have one more. I think I just need to give the background that this woman sent us humorous poems.
SALLY: Okay. So this is what Michael wrote to the submitter. He said…
Though I see you write poetry perfectly well
I tell you – dear lady – it just doesn’t sell
In order to publish some of your jokes
CM&G would have to go broke
So if you want to be happily published in the end
Xerox them and give them out to your friends. (laughter)
MICHAEL: And how did she respond?
I am keeping your unique rejection letter in my files – that is why I am returning a xerox copy of it. I’m positive that you are very busy editors, so to take the time to compose a poem for me – well, imitation is the best proof of admiration – so I know my poems got to you.
Now, more than ever, I will try to have my work published, somewhere, sometime. As for CM&G going broke in publishing my jokes, that is impossible. If my poems were presented to the public with flair and imagination, they would make the bestseller list. There is no other book on the market written like it. Regarding your poem it is strange that you didn’t title and punctuate it. These are not OUT things in writing.
MICHAEL: Meaning that people should still punctuate and title their poems, which I failed to do.
Enclosed is an SSAE. Please return the two pages of poems that I submitted to you. I want them back. (laughter)
MICHAEL: So we have reached the point where we have only one last thing that we need to do before we can wrap and figure out how much of this do I save or do I toss it? It’s a little story about one of the special cases that came across the desk of Joe Kanon’s editorial assistant. And anyone who might have been there and witness it is free to kibitz as I tell this story.
The situation is that when I really really liked a book, I’d write a personal letter to the author with encouragement and maybe a few little suggestions on where they can go in the future. Joe – were you aware that I was doing this? Or maybe not?
JOSEPH KANON: Of course not. (laughter). Everything you did on your own, Michael.
MICHAEL: I didn’t think it was nice to tell a hopeful author that they were getting advice from an Editorial Assistant who was three months out of college. So I changed one little word in my title. So, when I wrote to them, instead of Editorial ASSISTANT, it seemed better to say Editorial DIRECTOR. So it also seemed disrespectful for it to be an Editorial Direction who typed his own letters. When I typed letters for you, Joe – as I did many many times – can you repeat what the protocol was when someone was dictating a letter and someone else was typing it. How was that indicated on the letter?
JOSEPH KANON: It would invariably be in the lower left-hand corner in caps, the dictator of the letter. In this particular case, it would be JK and then there would be a slash and the typist of the letter – so that he could later be identified – would be in small letters. For instance, MS. Anyone who reversed the order of that essentially would be saying Michael Small had been dictating the letter to his typist Joe Kanon. Which is what you were doing, right?
MICHAEL: Well, even though I chose jk as the small initials, that’s not necessarily Joe Kanon. Maybe there was another person at Coward, McCann and Geoghegan with those initials. Do you remember anyone with those initials, Joe?
JOSEPH KANON: Now, c’mon Michael. You knew you were having fun with me. MICHAEL: So I did this for about a year-and-a-half. That was the longest I had ever kept – it was my first job. Then I got called in for an interview with PEOPLE Magazine. They needed fact checkers, and that was a big step up. At that job, I think I could make $11 or $12 thousand a year. That was big money! So I grabbed it and, then on the side, I started begging for reporting jobs. And you know what happened – 15 years of that. But there was one assignment that became particularly relevant to my publishing past. It might not seem relevant at first, but bear with me.
Here's what it was: Brooke Shields was going to a party and I could go to the party and I could meet her. So I went and I asked her to dance and I danced with her and wrote about that experience in PEOPLE magazine. The day after the article appeared, I received a call. And the voice said, "Michael! This is Teri Shields." (That was Brooke's mother!)
Joe – are you impressed that I got a call from Terri Shields?
JOSEPH KANON: Absolutely.
MICHAEL: Uh huh. And she said: "We love the article so much, we hope you'll come and have lunch with us at our home next week." And I had to explain that as a seasoned reporter, I couldn’t fraternize with celebrities. I couldn’t go to her house. But Teri not give up. She wouldn't hear it. She said: "Oh please. Just this once. Brooke will be so disappointed if you refuse." I thought about it, and I thought… Could I really shun a needy Brooke Shields? So I said, "Mmmmm…. Okay."
And Joe – can you image how happy Teri Shields was when I accepted?
JOSEPH KANON: Ecstatic.
MICHAEL: Yeah. Well, the woman – she was wild with joy. She was… I would say that it almost sounded like laughter. She was laughing with glee. She insisted that I'd receive a formal invitation by messenger that very day. Joe – wasn't that nice of her?
JOSEPH KANON: And so ethical of you!
MICHAEL: Yes. I was so ethical. So, you know what my I mean, you know what my job was Joe. I was dealing with so much – all those unsolicited manuscripts, writing those letters. And now, I was going to a private luncheon… with Brooke Shields and her mother.
Sure enough, a messenger arrived a few hours later with an envelope addressed to me. I opened it and I pulled out... the surprising, yet somehow familiar contents. Because, well, it wasn’t an invitation. It was definitely not that. It was something else. It was a couple pieces of paper, and the first one was addressed to me at Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, a place where I had not worked for something like three years. And it read…
Dear Mr. Small, A few years ago, you sent me advice about my manuscript. Since then, I have been working non-stop and I've finally completed all 37 of your suggestions. I hope you will want to publish my book now. Along with a revised manuscript, I am enclosing a copy of your initial letter.
And there it was: My advice to that author. All 37 suggestions. But this time, there were a few changes. Joe—is there any chance, do you remember how that letter was adjusted?
JOSEPH KANON: I believe there was a red circle drawn around the slightly revised title Editorial Director. And another red circle around the initials of your typist.
MICHAEL: Right. Right. And below that was a note, and it was in handwriting, and I believe it was the handwriting of someone who is on this call right now. in the unmistakable handwriting of someone who is on this call right now. And Joe – I don’t know – could you possibly… do you have the words in front of you of what he wrote?
JOSEPH KANON: I do. Because I’m not throwing this out. It reads…
Dear Mr. Editorial Director, (laughter)
My new assistant – who seems to enjoy making prank calls while pretending to be Brooke Shields’ mother Terri – told me about your plans to lunch with Brooke. How wonderful for you. Some people are much more important than the world realizes.
Your Typist (laughter)
You have to admit, you had it coming.
MICHAEL: And I got it too.
SALLY: That’s great.
MICHAEL: That just tied things up with a bow. But before we sign off, I want to prove that I did not just do damage. And so, Joe, do you have that last letter to read?
JOSEPH KANON: I do. This is a hand-written letter too, by the way. It goes..
Thank you for your letter of rejection. Whoever drafted it has the soul of an aspiring writer. I can say with no exaggeration it is the nicest, most encouraging rejection I’ve received – and that is no small thing. I’m seriously considering trying for the Guinness World Book of Records for most rejection slips collected in the least amount of time. The standard it-does-not-meet-our-present-needs letter does not discourage me, and yours brightened my day. The next best thing to an acceptance! Anyway, give a raise to whoever dreamed it up.
(There is, by the way, a marginalia comment with a big exclamation mark.)
Onward and upward!
You see? Now isn’t that a nice letter?
MICHAEL: Yes. See? So we don’t know what I wrote to her but I did a little bit of good. I did bring some light into the lives of some lonely authors. And, as usual, I don’t know if I can do the greatest job of throwing things out. I just feel like these things that we went through today – if I throw them out, there will be no evidence.
JOSEPH KANON: Well Michael, the one thing you really can’t throw out is the doctor’s wife in Florida.
SALLY: That should be framed.
MICHAEL: It should be published.
ROBIN STRAUS: Digitized. And then they’ll be preserved forever.
JOSEPH KANON: Oh, there’s an idea.
MICHAEL: Okay, well I’m willing to digitize them and then I will put them on the website. And then I will shred them. How ‘bout that?
JOSEPH KANON: And then they will be somewhere on the Ethernet, available always.
CINDY: And not in our home.
MICHAEL: Another party heard from. Okay, you’re not gonna hear the sound of the shredder here. The sound of the shredder will happen after I digitize them. So we’re just gonna go on, we’re gonna wrap it up. We’re gonna say many many thanks to Joe Kanon and Robin Straus for being such a good sports and wonderful friends for 42 years. And feeding us and taking care of us.
SALLY: Thank you, thank you, thank you!
MICHAEL: You can find out more about Joe at JosephKanon.com, that's JosephKanon.com. There's a short video tour of Berlin where you can learn the background of his book Leaving Berlin. And there are links to buy all of his books, not just from the big guys but also from Indiebooks. If you want to support Indiebooks. And I have to say, if I were going to a desert island and I could take one Joe Kanon book, I would take Istambul Passage. I was reading that book on the subway and my heart was pounding – I was so upset – and I missed my subway stop and I had to go to work late and tell them I was late because of Joe Kanon. (laughter). And they didn’t fire me either for some reason. So please check it out. Give the man the respect he didn't get from his 1979 editorial assistant.
Speaking of assistants, we want to dedicate this episode to the memory of Sarah Gearhart, who took my place at the desk outside Joe's office. She was a beautiful presence on this earth, who dedicated so much of her life to celebrating books and reading, and she gave us the biggest laugh of all with her Terri Shields impression. We also owe great thanks to all the people who help us with our podcast, including our supersonic audio advisor Willie Mandeville, and, of course, thanks to our brilliant friends Dan Schulte, Jen Ayers and Don Rauf, the creators of our theme song which you can hear in its entirety at the end of this podcast.
If you're interested in seeing the artifacts from this episode -- including those digitized letters -- you'll find it on our website, throwitoutpodcast.com You can also get updates by following us on Twitter and Instagram at throwitoutpod. And if you like what you hear, please don't hold back -- it would really help us if you write a review on Apple Podcasts.
Sally: Mike, maybe Joe Kanon couldn't stop you. But I can. That's it! End of episode. CUT!
THEME SONG: I Couldn't Throw It Out
Performed by Don Rauf, Boots Kamp, and Jen Ayers
Music by Boots Kamp and Don Rauf
Lyrics by Don Rauf and Michael Small
Out here in Nancy's – her big garage
This isn't a mi- This isn't a mirage
Decades of stories, memories stacked
There is a redolence of some irrelevant facts.
But I couldn't throw it out
I have to scream and shout
It all seems so unjust
But still I know I must
Before I turn to dust
I've got to throw it out
Before I turn to dust
I've got to throw it out
Well, I couldn't throw it out
I couldn't throw it out
I'll sort through my possessions
In these painful sessions
I guess this is what it's about
The poems, cards and papers
The moldy musty vapors
I just gotta sort it out.
Well I couldn't throw it out
I couldn't throw it out
I couldn't throw it out
I couldn't throw it out
END OF EPISODE 6
Dr. Tia Powell directs the Center for Bioethics and Masters' in Bioethics at Montefiore Health Systems and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She holds the Shoshanah Trachtenberg Frackman chair in biomedical ethics and is Professor of Epidemiology and Psychiatry. Her bioethics scholarship focuses on dementia, public health policy, end of life care, and bioethics education. She served four years as Executive Director of the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, the state bioethics commission. She has worked with the National Academies of Medicine on many projects, and served as an advisor to the CDC, and to Health and Human Services and its National Alzheimer's Project Act. She is frequently invited to speak at professional meetings (APA, ASBH, AAIC) at medical schools (Albert Einstein, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, NYU, Yale), and colleges (Vassar, Princeton). She is a board-certified psychiatrist and Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine, the American Psychiatric Association and The Hastings Center.
Joseph Kanon is the internationally bestselling author of ten novels, which have been published in twenty-four languages: Los Alamos, which won the Edgar Award for best first novel; The Good German, which was made into a film starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett; The Prodigal Spy, Alibi, which earned Kanon the Hammett Award of the International Association of Crime Writers; Leaving Berlin and Defectors. He is also a recipient of The Anne Frank Human Writers Award for his writings on the aftermath of the Holocaust. Before becoming a full-time writer, he was a book publishing executive. He lives in New York City with his wife, literary agent Robin Straus. They have two sons.