‘The right set of eyes’

An author & his editor on the heavy lifting of storytelling

Story by  Richie Davis
Friday, January 18, 2013
(Published in print: Saturday, January 19, 2013)

“An editor can serve the writer
by being alert to his natural boundaries, his inner territory, his true interests.”

— Richard Todd

From the African refugee Deogratias who returns to help his homeland, to Holyoke schoolteacher Christine Zajac, to the computer engineers behind Data General’s “new machine,” author Tracy Kidder has told some compelling stories in his nonfiction best-sellers.

But among the most enduring is the story of the 40-year professional friendship between the Williamsburg-based, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and his editor, Richard Todd of Ashfield.

Kidder and Todd describe their relationship — the tricky interplay of writer and editor who have worked together closely on seven nonfiction books for more than 30 years — in their co-authored “Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction” (Random House).

The just-released book is, as its title suggests, filled with advice from their decades of writing and editing, although it also describes their energetic and patient creative approaches, most of which also come across in a recent visit together in the kitchen of Todd’s 200-year-old John Ford Road home.

The two men, five years apart in age, share not only a love of the idea well captured on the page, but also some good laughs when it comes to drawing attention to the relationship between “Being Edited and Editing,” as one of the 195-page book’s chapters is called.

In their complementary essays on that theme, Kidder writes, “Young writers are unlikely to possess the modicum of selflessness that a good editor must have, that makes it possible for one person to act in the best interests of another’s work.”

That sort of sacrifice is especially unusual in today’s pressured publishing environment, says Todd. “A lot of editors don’t have the patience for it. By the constraints of the business, you aren’t really rewarded in a publishing house for working five or six days in a row with somebody ... and missing a bunch of meetings. So, the way the world is set up, it makes it a little hard to do.”


In the book, Kidder describes meetings between the two, sometimes in restaurants, sometimes in private rooms, with Todd pacing as they pored over the latest typewritten draft of the manuscript — at least for the first few books, before word processing entered the picture. Toward the final drafts, Kidder says, he typically loses patience with the cuts Todd is telling him to make, and has shed some of his obsessive wonder, asking, “Is this all there is?”

“I’ll say that often, and (Todd) will say, ‘Good.’ Then you feel you’re getting near the end, but it’s not perfectible, so there is no real end,” Kidder observes. “If you didn’t have someone you trust as another set of eyes, it would be really hard to stop. You’d just go back and rewrite the whole thing all over again — and write an entirely different book.”

If there’s any rivalry between Todd, known primarily among literary circles as the former executive editor at The Atlantic Monthly and Kidder, who won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for his first nonfiction best-seller, “The Soul of a New Machine,” in 1981 and who has picked up a litany of awards for several of the others, it’s not easy to detect.

“I don’t think he thinks of me as egoless,”says Todd, an Amherst College and Stanford University alum who also worked on the books of Ward Just and Ann Patchett that were published under his own imprint at Houghton Mifflin. “I think I display plenty of ego in my suggestions to him, sometimes insistence. Not every editor is right for every writer, not even a good editor. Sometimes an editor doesn’t connect with a writer, so there’s a little bit of luck to it.”


Kidder encountered Todd while earning his master’s in fine arts from the Iowa Writers Conference after Harvard College and a stint in Vietnam. The then-27-year-old aspiring writer, who seemed “young beyond his years,” would have been happy to have anything published by the magazine. The Atlantic at that time was 117 years old and still based in its venerable but shabby offices across from Boston’s Public Garden.

“Let’s face it, this fellow can’t write,” managing editor Bob Manning (who died last September) had scrawled across Kidder’s first manuscript, which eventually became the subject of his first book, “The Road to Yuba City: A Journey into the Juan Corona Murders” (1974). The melodramatic opening of an early draft of Kidder’s article, which Kidder doesn’t bother to highlight with the others on his Web site, provides the first example in “Good Prose” of lessons learned.

In this case, as with many others, it was a lesson from Todd, in the first working phone conversation between the two men.

“Good writing creates a dialogue between writer and reader, with the imagined reader at moments questioning, criticizing and sometimes, you hope, assenting,” the book advises. “Beginnings are an exercise in limits. You can’t make the reader love you …. but you can lose the reader right away.”

A good piece of the success in the Kidder-Todd relationship comes from the editor’s involvement very early on in the process.

“Tracy brings me in early in the game, before the book’s really decided on or contracted for,” said Todd, calling it one of the “happiest peculiarities” about Kidder. “We talk about it, so I’m involved in it all the way along. That makes a huge difference.”

Not only does that early involvement assure that Todd becomes invested in the project; It also gives the editor a chance to influence the work early on.

“To be involved as an editor, early in the game, is a great strength. If you can bear it as a writer, it’s a very good thing to do,” says Todd. Another strength of Kidder is that he’s willing to rewrite his book again and again — more than 10 times for each book, by the author’s own accounting.

“For a lot of writers, you get to certain point and you’re too committed to the structure and what you’ve done, and it’s just impossible to go back,” adds Todd.

The personal recollections at the start of each chapter of “Good Prose” provide some illuminating examples. To illustrate the key role of “point of view,” for example, Todd describes Kidder’s early attempts to tell the story of the larger-than-life main character of “Mountains Beyond Mountains” (2003), Dr. Paul Farmer.

Farmer, whose selflessness as the founder of Partners in Health seemed saintly, was so hard to accept as credible, Todd explained, that he seemed too otherworldly to be palatable to readers.

The solution? Kidder, who had written his other books in a journalistic third person — occasionally capturing their inner thoughts and motivations — inserted himself as “a stand-in for the skeptical reader,” telling Farmer’s story as a first-person observer.

“One of the side effects of saints is that they can make the rest of us feel crummy,” writes Todd.

Structure was a key challenge for Kidder when it came to writing “Strength in What Remains,” the 2009 book recounting the boyhood of Deogratias Niyizonkiza and his escape on foot from civil war in Barundi and Rwandan genocide and how he reclaimed his life in exile in this country and got an education, returning to Africa to help his nation.

Author and editor decided that Kidder would tell the story twice, with two alternating chronologies. The first part of the book follows the main character’s youth and his escape from danger in Barundi and Rwanda and his journey in rebuilding his life in New York. In the book’s second half, Kidder returns with Deogratias to serve as a first-person witness to what remained there and the reader discovers that the book is about resilience and courage, “but also about memory and how the mind can work to repair itself after devastating experience,” Todd writes.


Not that all of this is obvious to a reader of the riveting story.

“It seems to me the harder you try to make things fit together right and find the honest point of view,” says Kidder “the less the reader should notice what you’re doing. “The less the reader notices what you’re doing, that’s best of all. If you don’t do these things very well, then the reader does notice while reading it. That’s what you don’t want.”

Each of the books the two men worked on together presented its own unique challenges, usually a new twist they have to learn from.

When Kidder wrote about his own experiences as a bumbling ROTC intelligence officer in Vietnam, in “My Detachment,” a 2005 book he worked on for 15 years, he struggled with getting comfortable with his own memories.

“I used a lot of evasion tactics to assert very little connection with myself as a 22-year-old lieutenant,” says Kidder, seated across the kitchen table from Todd. “It took time. I kept coming back to it. It seemed there was the germ of something interesting and funny. It got funnier as time went on. So finally I wasn’t embarrassed.”

Todd, who calls “My Detachment” “extraordinarily funny” and the book he’d most like to reread for pleasure because it’s the most revealing about the author, adds, “I think he knew he wanted a certain distance from this person who was quite young, who was quite a different person, and yet he did have a connection. We don’t ever quite shuck our (former) selves.”


The longtime editor, whose own 2008 book, “The Thing Itself,” is about authenticity, says that writers need to be able to say difficult truths about themselves in memoirs and to accept that they — like all of us — are common figures.

Confronting with the obvious also played a big role in writing “The Soul of a New Machine,” the first of Kidder’s best-selling narrative, nonfiction books edited by Todd.

Todd had suggested the subject of computers for a book and pointed Kidder toward his old friend Tom West, the shy engineering team leader at the heart of the book. “West was always an inscrutable person who became no less inscrutable the more he was scrutinized, so he’d go away and make himself unavailable and that was a problem. We had a main character who ... wasn’t going to tell us something crucial and we decided finally to do the sensible thing: to make his elusiveness a virtue. We called it ‘doing a Gatsby with him’ (a reference to the mysterious, somewhat evasive central character and namesake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel). That was a moment of stress in terms of constructing the book. That, and the stress of the lawyers for Data General trying to chase Tracy out of the place.”

Kidder said he’s already familiarized himself with translating highly technical scientific concepts into plain English while at The Atlantic and that he “wanted to get down as far as he could” in understanding the nitty-gritty detail of what was so passionately driving the engineers he was writing about. But Todd adds that, as editor, “I certainly didn’t have to have same hunger that Tracy had to understand it. I didn’t kill myself trying to understand the innards of computers. I was more interested in the innards of the story.”

In “Good Prose,” Kidder remembers how years ago, when he was writing a story for The Atlantic about sewage sludge, he called Todd every day to update him. On one occasion, when he heard his editor clearing his throat “which seemed to mean that I had been talking for too long ... I hastened to explain that I wanted him to know as much about the subject as I did.”

“But, Kidder, I don’t want to know as much about it as you do,” replied Todd.


The young author’s first successful book was also a lesson in the importance of having a supportive editor in Todd, who had already been encouraging, yet honest, at The Atlantic.

“Todd had spoken very warmly to me of third draft and the fourth draft, and I remember I showed it to a mutual friend, who was utterly puzzled how anyone would find anything to like about it,” remembers Kidder, who’s tried his hand at editing with Jonathan Harr’s 1996 book, “A Civil Action.”

“In editing, you have to see what’s potentially there sometimes. That’s tremendously important. A number of people end up looking at my manuscript, but some I would never show a draft to because they just can’t look at it as something in progress. It’s a very hard thing to do. You have to have some faith in the writer.”

And yet, he says, “What’s absolutely useless to me is praise just to make me feel good.”

Todd, who’s taught at Amherst and Smith colleges and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and now teaches graduate courses at Goucher College in Baltimore, tells his writing students that he doesn’t mind reading their partial paragraphs.

“If they get a place where the sentence is stopping, (I tell them) it’s all right, send it to me rather than inventing something you know is wrong and distorts the shape of it. Let me see what you’ve got, that’s pointing yourself in the direction you’re going.”

Kidder refers back to what he was told years ago by Atlantic Editor William Whitworth: “Every writer needs another set of eyes.”

But, clearly with Todd in mind, Kidder adds, “You need the right set of eyes.”

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 30 years. He can be reached at or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.

Jerrey Roberts is a staff photographer for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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