I love reading the interviews the Paris Review has been publishing with noted writers for years, not the products of their labors but about how they go about their work. (It was a particular thrill to see an interview with my wonderful son-in-law, poet and translator Peter Cole appear last year in this pantheon of noted writers.) These valuable and entertaining documents have been collected in at least seven volumes, last time I checked. I’ve always been interested in how people in many fields approach the formidable task of figuring out how to crack the unique challenges their work presents. I have parked myself next to our auto mechanic and our electrician doing repairs for us and asking them to think aloud about what’s going on in their heads as they problem solve. We harbor so many false stereotypes of the way people in different fieldstackle their work. The compulsive, systematic scientist and the messy, intuitive artist don’t begin to represent the vast range of ways people produce their amazing and elegant results.
Chuck, my closest friend in graduate school, shared this fascination. Together, we wondered why nobody had explored the work styles of scientists as The Paris Review had done with writers. Why not take up the challenge ourselves? Soon after we had begun to explore this idea, Chuck moved to London which might have doomed the project, but we decided that our positions on opposite sides of the pond could actually add an international flavor to the collection we compiled.
Soon, we had a list of potential interviewees. His included Nobel Prize winners like Sir Frances Crick who had partnered with James Watson on the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA and Sir Peter Medawar, a renowned cell immunologist, known for his work on transplantation. I wound up with a list that included heavy concentrations of scientists at the Rockefeller Institute in New York and at the University of Chicago.
I traveled to both sites from our then home in Mississippi, tape recorder in hand, to conduct as many interviews as I could schedule during my brief stays. Chuck did the same. One of my earliest interviews at the Rockefeller Institute turned out to be among my most memorable. A Hungarian mathematician (Yes, we included mathematicians under our scientist heading). He described his harrowing experiences as a Jew during WWII in Budapest, where he survived the war years moving constantly from one hiding place to another. In the interview, he reported that those years were the most fertile in his professional life. When the war ended, he was installed by the government in an elegant office overlooking the Danube, at which point his creative work came to a dead standstill. That was the kind of work story we were hungry for in our collection.
Things didn’t always go as we had hoped. I remember, in particular, a post card that Crick had sent to Chuck in response to a request for his participation. It contained what was essentially a printed form with a list, complete with check boxes next to each item, as follows: Professor Crick does not write book reviews, provide blurbs, accept invitations to speak at gatherings, allow interviews, etc. He was a lost cause but fortunately others were delighted that someone was interested in their work and soon we each had a few interviews that had been transcribed, edited and whipped into some reasonably readable form, not as easy a task as it may sound.
We decided it was time to send out some feelers to gauge potential interest in the project. Basic Books was a logical starting point. They had a respectable track record of publishing serious books of non-fiction in sociology, history, psychology and related fields. Their editor, Arthur Rosenthal, had built a strong reputation as the head of Harvard University Press before moving to Basic Books. So, I bundled up what we had and sent it off, along with the requisite return envelope and postage, in anticipation of the almost inevitable rejection.
It must have taken a couple of months but sure as the setting sun, here came the familiar package in our daily mail delivery which people actually eagerly anticipated once upon a time. I could pretty much recite the contents of the accompanying letter without even looking at it, but it said something like this:
“Thank you for considering us as possible publishers for your manuscript. Unfortunately, it does not fit our current needs. We are confident you will find another place that will provide it with a good home. Please keep us in mind for your future work.”
Okay, that was pretty much as expected. Whoever hits the jackpot on the first try anyway? So, I took the manuscript itself out of the package to send it on to the next publisher for another likely disheartening rejection. But, dear reader, the contents of the package did NOT contain our work. The title page read: The Psycho-Social Aspects of Surfing, with an author’s address, not surprisingly, from somewhere in Southern California.
I’ll confess that I was curious enough to dip into the text which, as I recall, was a pastiche of embarrassing psychobabble, but I finally packed it up with an accompanying letter that said something like,
“Thank you for returning this manuscript, which does not meet my needs at this time. We regret that you’re not interested in our work, but could you at least return the manuscript that is actually ours so we can send it to others who might be.”
A few days later, I received an astonishing phone call from the editor Arthur Rosenthal himself. He was abject and apologetic about the error they had made. Basic Books was indeed interested in our book and Arthur invited me to join him for lunch in New York to discuss it.
We met in one of those toney clubs in Manhattan, perhaps the Harvard Club, which I remember as very dark and over upholstered. Arthur knew that I had come up from Mississippi for the meeting, and much of the conversation centered around his guilt for not doing more himself to promote civil rights and integration. He also made it clear that he was prepared to offer us a contract for the book, and it’s possible that we actually received one, but this is where the frame on our movie freezes because the book never happened.
I dutifully completed my quota of the interviews, but Chuck never did his. I can no longer remember what the problem was at his end, and the half-manuscript still sits in a box behind my desk. I guess I could have picked up the ball and made it my own by adding more interviews with American scientists but in the long limbo period while I was waiting for Chuck to move forward, my enthusiasm for the project faded. It paled beside the intensity of the work in Mississippi. Something similar was happening on Chuck’s end. He decided that completing his dissertation, which would enable him to get on with his professional life, took precedence. Fortunately, our friendship was not tarnished and survives to this day.
The strange thing is that this is not my only failed collaboration with a friend. When we returned from Mississippi, my friend John and I decided we had the makings of a book about our efforts to support poor Black people in preparing to run the organizations funded by money from President Johnson’s antipoverty program. We thought the book might carry some lessons for community control efforts like the ones which were in the works in NYC public schools when we returned. We even received a small grant from the now-defunct Field Foundation to support us through the year- and -a -half of writing we invested in the effort. We met regularly to discuss the progress of our work, after which I returned to the narrow closet-turned-office in our Brooklyn apartment to complete the chapters I had agreed to write.
It became clear that the work was causing great emotional distress for John. He had done heroic work in Mississippi, but he was not finding the key to communicating on paper the experience and the insights that emerged from it. I needed to liberate him from the obligation to conclude his part of the bargain and to allow him to get on with his life. Once again, our friendship still stands strong and yet another box containing an aborted collaboration sits behind my desk.
There are countless examples of successful collaborations on intellectual projects – books, movies, scientific experiments, etc. – but it didn’t happen for me. All the successes I had in collaborations in my people-oriented work projects (see last week’s blog) didn’t transfer into this other sphere. Partnering with close friends created a dynamic which should have worked in our favor but instead it sank the work when it stalled. Perhaps the projects were deeply embedded in my relationships with my co-authors and the balloons that kept the work afloat lost their air without their involvement. I sure would have loved to see those finished books on library shelves, but I wouldn’t trade them for the precious friendships that have endured.