Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ruth Cavin (1918-2011)

By Michael

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 America and St. Martin’s Press competition for Best First Private Eye Novel. The award included the publication of the mystery and fulfilled a dream that I’d had since I was a teenager.

“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 St. Martin’s since she was seventy – and as an editor only since she was sixty. A central part of her legend was that she started her best-known work at a time when most others were retiring from work altogether. I learned from – and about –Ruth over the coming years, during our dinners and lunches in Wisconsin, Baltimore, and New York. I learned about the path – through books, marriage, motherhood, and politics – that had brought her to editing. I learned that in the mid-1970s she wrote a book on trolleys about which she seemed as pleased as she seemed about her extraordinary work as an editor. I learned that as a child she had taken tap dancing lessons from Gene Kelly.

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.
















12 comments:

Mary Vaughn said...

What a heartwarming eulogy.
Do you think she'd like the title? :o) She obviously liked you.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Mary. She was an amazing person -- full of energy and enthusiasm. There was nothing "cautious" about her as an editor and reader.

Reece said...

Lovely post, Michael. Sounds like you were very lucky to get your start with such a wonderful editor, reader and friend.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

It sounds like you were very fortunate indeed to have worked with her. Thanks for a heartfelt post.

Kelli Stanley said...

Thank you for the lovely memorial to Ruth, Michael ... I wish I'd known her. What a wonderful, fascinating, and inspirational lady! And I'm very proud that our publisher recognized her talent--especially at an age when far too many people are made to disappear.

Congratulations on being part of her legacy!!

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Reece, Rebecca, and Kelli. Yes, it was a pleasure to work with her.

And I agree, Kelli. At a time when new business models have replaced the old in publishing, it's heartening to know that Ruth had a valued place at St. Martin's into her nineties.

Hilary Davidson said...

What a wonderful tribute to an amazing person. Ruth Cavin's warmth, intelligence and humor shine through this. Thanks for sharing your memories of her, Michael.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Hilary. One of the great pleasures of this business has been meeting warm, intelligent, funny people. As you say, Ruth epitomized all that.

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for writing such a lovely tribute to our editor, Michael. You summed up what made her so great very succinctly -- she was able to cut through and figure out what a book really needed. I wish I'd been able to work with her for more than two books.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

What a lovely and heartfelt post, Michael. Makes me wish I'd had the pleasure of meeting her.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Meredith. You can I were late comers to Ruth -- but I'm glad we came.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Sue Ann. Ruth had a good ear for b.s. -- and didn't tolerate it. I didn't know her well in comparison to a lot of other writers, but I liked what I knew.