Greg Baxter on Brendan Barrington: ‘I’d give Brendan 100 per cent of the credit. I’d give him more if I could’
Authors and editors: ‘Some writers seem to feel almost a moral duty to push back, but Greg doesn’t have that problem’ – Brendan Barrington
Brendan Barrington, left: “When editing, I try to avoid anything that comes across as pure criticism, pitting the text against some objective standard. My approach is more one of identifying elements that do not quite fit with the scheme and the implicit rules established by the author elsewhere in the text.” Greg Baxter on Brendan: “When we met, I longed to be an overwriting maximalist. Brendan, very delicately and very gradually, helped me uncover my natural style”
Greg Baxter is the author of three highly acclaimed books: The Apartment; A Preparation for Death; and Munich Airport. Originally from Texas, he has lived in Europe for almost two decades. He lives in Berlin with his wife and two children. Munich Airport is out in paperback and published by Penguin Ireland.
Brendan Barrington is an editor at Penguin Ireland and publishes literary fiction and serious non-fiction by authors including Greg Baxter, Brian Dillon, Selina Guinness, Molly McCloskey, Lia Mills, Andrew Fox and Tim Robinson. He is also editor of The Dublin Review, a quarterly literary magazine.
Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus).
Brendan, you’ve worked with Greg from the very beginning: with his short non-fiction in The Dublin Review, his memoir A Preparation for Death, his first novel The Apartment and, now, Munich Airport. What attracted you to his work? And what are the benefits of working with a writer over a long period of time? And drawbacks?
BB: Actually, Greg’s beginnings as a serious writer predate his involvement with me. By the time I published one of his short stories, he had already published a couple of stories in American journals. I was fortunate to be in the right place when Greg started writing the essays that formed the kernel of A Preparation for Death – those pieces were just the sort of thing that Dublin Review exists to publish, and I had a huge admiration for the honesty and skill and ambition of what Greg was doing. From my perspective, there are only advantages to working with a writer over a number of years and projects, provided the editor is mindful of the need to keep things fresh, to respond to each new project as an utterly distinct thing.
Greg, how much do you involve Brendan in the formation of your work? Do you discuss your ideas with him in advance, send him bits of your work as you go along? Or do you wait until you have a substantial draft before you send it to him?
GB: Brendan is being too kind. For me, “the beginning” refers to those essays that would later become A Preparation for Death. I don’t consider anything I did before this period as “serious”. When I met Brendan, I was increasingly interested with the essay form, and having Brendan and Dublin Review there as an outlet for them served as an important and necessary mentorship. In terms of his involvement in the formation of my work, I don’t share unfinished drafts with him or anyone, and I don’t think I share ideas, except to sometimes complain to Brendan that I have none. Brendan gives me a lot of space to think and write on my own, and I never feel under any pressure from him to write a certain way or produce a certain kind of book. When I do give Brendan a draft, he comes back with substantial edits and suggestions that help me really re-imagine the work. And we go through as many editorial rounds as necessary. Now that we’ve been working together for a long time, I think we’ve had an editorial mind-meld, and it seems to me that fewer and fewer rounds are necessary.
Brendan, you wear a number of different hats as an editor and, in particular, you’re a fantastic editor of creative non-fiction work. How does your role as an editor differ when you’re working on non-fiction as opposed to fiction? Or is it different at all?
BB: The distinction I’d make is not between non-fiction and fiction so much as between expository non-fiction and everything else. If a piece of writing involves truth-claims about the world beyond the writer’s personal experience, then a whole set of subtle but very important rules about clarity and facticity come into play, and form an important part of the editorial process. But I don’t think my role as editor of A Preparation was greatly different from my role as editor of Greg’s novels. These are highly personal pieces of writing, all about voice and consciousness. Clarity and facticity are not irrelevant in them, but the most important things are the creation of atmospheres and the telling of stories.
Greg, your writing style is extremely pared down and that style gives it a real emotional honesty. With each work this seems to be stronger and stronger. How much of that comes from working with Brendan as an editor?
GB: I’d give Brendan 100 per cent of the credit. I’d give him more if I could. When we met, I longed to be an overwriting maximalist. Brendan, very delicately and very gradually, helped me uncover my natural style.
Brendan, you have a reputation as a brilliant, but brutally honest, editor. Do you tailor your approach to each writer, in the sense that you think some writers can take more criticism than others? Do you ever worry that your work might be too intrusive?
BB: When I was very young, I underestimated the distinctiveness of each text and each author; my editing was a bit one-size-fits-all, a bit overconfident. With experience I think I’ve got better at recognising the relationship between what is wrong with a text and what is good about it: sometimes, it’s OK or indeed necessary to leave a bit of wrongness in. The editor’s job is to help the author make the text as strong as it can be, and there are as many ways of doing that as there are authors – so, yes, you tailor your approach to individual texts and personalities. When editing, I try to avoid anything that comes across as pure criticism, pitting the text against some objective standard. My approach is more one of identifying elements that do not quite fit with the scheme and the implicit rules established by the author himself or herself elsewhere in the text, and trying to point the author towards solutions. This has always, from my perspective anyway, been a very straightforward process with Greg, because (unlike many good writers) he has an excellent editorial mind himself.
Greg, what’s the best thing about working with Brendan?
GB: One thing is getting to boast to other writers about the care and attention I get from Brendan at the sentence level. I know there are many fine editors out there, but my anecdotal impression is that few scrutinise every word and line the way Brendan does, and few truly have his skill at it. Since that is what I want to do to my own writing – but am naturally limited by my proximity to it – his efforts feel like an extension of my own desires for my books, and not, as some people have claimed of working with Brendan, like getting teeth pulled. (Anyway, only rotten teeth get pulled.) Another thing is his patience with my ragged first drafts, and that I always know he will ask questions or make suggestions that will trigger epiphanies in me, and help me see a book anew.
Same question for you, Brendan.
BB: Above all, the joy of seeing a brilliant and utterly distinctive writer produce amazing things. Secondarily, the sense of mutual trust. If Greg pushes back against something I’m proposing, I know that he is doing so not out of authorial pride, but because, having taken my response on board, he has seen that I’m missing the point, or that the advantages of a particular change would be outweighed by the disadvantages. As long as I’m sure that I’ve articulated my concern clearly, I can be confident that Greg has given it proper consideration. Some writers seem to feel almost a moral duty to push back, but Greg doesn’t have that problem.
Greg, you’ve always combined your writing with a day job – whether editing or teaching or journalism or a combination of all of these things. Do you think this helps your work? And can you describe your writing routine?
GB: When writing A Preparation for Death, I was working two full-time jobs; while writing The Apartment, I was working one job, but it kept me pretty busy; while writing Munich Airport – and having moved to Berlin – I was writing full-time. So it’s been different with all three books. I’m not sure working other jobs helps one write, but I do suspect that having to produce work, especially a whole book, when very little time is available, is a trial that will serve one forever. My writing routine since finishing Munich Airport has consisted of me basically losing my mind while staring at blank pages every day. Though it seems to be the way I work: I write nothing for long stretches, then all of a sudden I am working 12- and 14-hour days, and I finish drafts relatively fast. My main problem is that I am not a yarn-spinner, I don’t seem to have much of an imagination, so that in order to write I must throw myself at life, usually having transformed myself into my narrator over a period of several months. I get into trouble, cause drama, act in nonsensical ways. And then I record this life.
Brendan, both you and Greg are Americans who came to Ireland in your twenties. Do you think you share a similar sensibility because of this?
BB: Greg and I come from very different parts of the US, and whereas I have been settled in Ireland for a long time Greg has moved around quite a bit. But there is probably something there, an overlapping frame of reference that means certain things can go unexplained between us. This can be a double-edged sword: when editing Greg’s work I need to think of readers in Ireland and Britain and beyond, as well as in the US. If something makes sense to me but is unlikely to make sense to a reader in Australia or a translator in Poland, then it might need a tweak.
Greg, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re reading now? And do you and Brendan tend to read the same things, have the same influences?
GB: I think it’s generally expected of writers to be aware of what’s going on around them, in terms of contemporaries, and that just hasn’t interested me for many years. However, it’s not a religious aversion and, for instance, spending a lot of time in Ireland brought me in contact with many contemporary Irish fiction writers I deeply admire. But my first great interest lies in reading and rereading and rereading the books I consider masterworks – both fiction and nonfiction. And my second great interest is in discovering new authors in translation. I also try to read books well outside the literary spectrum – on science, history, engineering, art, biography, music and so on.
Brendan, same to you. Can you tell us some things that you’ve read recently that have excited you or influenced you?
BB: It’s scary to talk to Greg about influences: his are all dead and unimpeachable. He’s completely immune to the buzz of whatever’s happening now, whereas it’s my job to be interested in that. Among people I’ve been reading lately, and off the top of my head, I’d enthusiastically recommend Rachel Kushner, Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, Marilynne Robinson, Joseph O’Neill, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Teju Cole, John Jeremiah Sullivan. And to anyone who hasn’t read Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, or Didion’s essays, please drop everything right now …
Finally, Greg, Munich Airport has just been published in paperback. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now?
GB: I am throwing myself at life in New York for a few months. We’ll see what happens.
Next week: Tana French and Ciara Considine