In August, 2006, I received a phone call from a legend. Ruth Cavin, whose name had become synonymous with the publishing of great mysteries, was calling to tell me that my manuscript of The Last Striptease had won the Private Eye Writers of
“That’s the best news I’ve heard . . . in a very long time,” I said.
Ruth paused, then said, “Oh, I hope not.”
Ruth had an ear for overstatement – and for the overwrought, the overly dramatic, the overly conventional. And while her news really was the best that I’d heard in a long time, she started our relationship with an editor’s critical check, and I knew that she would read every word of mine with a confident exactitude of the kind that you can’t pay for – but that, oddly and wonderfully, in the world of publishing can pay you.
Ruth was eighty-seven when we met, and she had been working at
But I also learned about myself, especially myself as a writer. Ruth taught me to think clearly and carefully – and to punch hard and on target. When she agreed to publish my first book, it was still called Unrobed, a title that she told me was uninteresting and unmarketable. We bounced various names back and forth for a couple weeks, until (short of patience) she offered, The Last Striptease. I hesitated. Was this really the name I wanted for the book? (After all, no actual striptease occurs in the book . . . and friends and family would be reading it.) When I expressed reservations, she came back hard: the title should be (and would be) The Last Striptease. This editorial “advice” hit hard and on target: it made me open my eyes.
So, the next time I gave Ruth a manuscript, I gave it to her title-ready. It was called The Bad Kitty Lounge, I told her when I was ready to send it to her. She hesitated that time. Then she said, “That’s a great title. But . . . it’s not enough to have a great title. You also need a great book.”
She expressed confidence that I could write that book – as I imagine she expressed it to many, many other writers. (She acquired, edited, and promoted about 900 books.) I don’t know how many of us have achieved the level of great writing that Ruth expected from us (though I do know of a lot of great writing that has been published under her editorship), but I can say that she made me a better writer and, I like to think, a better person.