The Rumpus Interview with Terry McDonell

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Longtime magazine editor Terry McDonell is more the director of his new memoir than he is its star. This is in no way a slight as The Accidental Life’s ensemble cast includes Hunter S. Thompson, Peter Matthiessen, Kurt Vonnegut, and dozens of other household name writers who McDonell edited and knew personally. In this memoir McDonell tells his own story by telling the stories of all the people he worked with during his time at Rolling Stone and Outside magazine and a host of other publications.

The memoir’s greatest strength lies in McDonell’s ability to contextualize and make meaningful the work of everyone he writes about. For instance, several sections early in the book deal with the novelist and nonfiction writer Tom McGuane, who I had never read a word of. Still, I found instructive what McDonell had to say about editing McGuane, and I also found fascinating McDonell’s reflections on the man himself, who in many ways and across many states suffered consequences stemming from his own success. Anyone who reads The Accidental Life will no doubt learn something new about a beloved writer and some readers, especially those not around in the seventies and eighties, are likely to get turned onto a new name or two. After reading only a few pages of this book I started jotting down in the back flap a list of writers and magazines and books to be googled later. The number of entries ended up being just shy of twenty.

The Accidental Life is Terry McDonell’s second book. His first was the novel California Bloodstock. He was the Managing Editor of Outside magazine in the seventies, Managing Editor of Rolling Stone in the eighties, Editor-in-Chief of Esquire in the nineties, and editor of Time Inc. Sports Group from 2006 to 2012. He is now a freelance writer. We spoke by telephone.

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The Rumpus: One of the things that struck me about this book was the way your career shifted over time. Early on you’re playing golf while on acid with Hunter S. Thompson and George Plimpton, you’re canoeing with Peter Matthiessen. Then, decades later, you’re giving Power Point presentations to CEOs, you’re creating content delivery systems, pitching investors. A definite shift there. I’m wondering if that’s a function of climbing the ranks of the business, or if that’s just the realities of the magazine publishing industry?

Terry McDonell: It was a function of not only my career moving forward, but also the changes that the digital innovations caused.

I wanted to keep editing, and I did, but I spent more and more time in my job looking at ways that we could take advantage of digital innovation. I moved from one platform to another, and I found that extremely satisfying, too. Any time you have a top job at a magazine at a big company, you have expanded responsibilities, or responsibilities that expand beyond the traditional editorial responsibilities you started out doing and loving, and in essence brought you into the business to begin with.

Rumpus: At the end of the section “Tenure” you wrote that you realized you were no longer an editor. “Check, please,” you say. If you were no longer were an editor, what were you?

McDonell: I was describing the executive. I was describing what it was like to be the editor of Sports Illustrated Group at Time, Inc. There were several magazines in that group and lots of websites. I accepted additional responsibility until it seemed to me time to move on. I had been there ten years, and I wanted to get back to working with words again. I wanted to write, is the truth.

Rumpus: Is that when you started writing The Accidental Life?

McDonell: Yes, that’s right. The writing was here and there at the beginning, and then, of course, as I got further into it, I devoted more and more time to it because I enjoyed the work so much. It allowed me to do some reporting, to go back and talk to people that I had worked with and check my stories, check what I thought had happened against the realities of other people’s memory. I also went back and read the work of all the people that I was fortunate enough to edit, which was very interesting, satisfying, and just a wonderful experience.

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Rumpus: That’s interesting, especially given that you write about David Carr, who in his book reported on his own life and found he misremembered so much, had so many faulty memories. I’m wondering when you did some reporting on yourself if anything surprised you?

McDonell: Not particularly, but I found that there were more things, there were more details to my memories that I was grateful to collect because they were useful in the writing.

For instance, speaking with Will Blythe, who had been the Literary Editor at Esquire. He reminded me of various situations where I had done something that he liked, that would not have occurred to me to write into the book. But Blythe said that I was decisive, and my taste was close to his, and that’s why we worked so well together. That was wonderful to hear. It made me more confident writing about those times.

Rumpus: Multiple sections of the book you devote to money, and one of the sections is titled “Less Money.” What advice would you give for writers today who want to be in the narrative nonfiction magazine business?

McDonell: People will pay for what they like. The business plan really should be underlined by the idea that whatever platform you’re on, you can be successful if your content is strong. A writer facing that situation has several choices. One choice is to get on as many platforms as they can, and try to become their own brand, thereby allowing them to promote themselves and to pick up additional money in speaking engagements or whatever. You just have to write if you’re going to write and find a way to get on the platforms that are most appropriate for what you’re writing. There are platforms that are good for long-form, and long-form is successful. You just don’t get paid as much for it as you did when those long pieces were only in magazines.

Rumpus: There was a specific sentence I wanted to ask you about from the section of the book “Fiction, Non-Fiction.” You’re talking about Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe and other New Journalists, who you say, “gave journalism a new position of importance above the short story, a status that lingers not as the 50-year literary hangover still talked about in MFA programs, but as a paradigm shift.” Can you say a little more about this paradigm shift?

McDonell: Simply put, nonfiction became more popular than fiction. Readers used to read far more fiction than nonfiction up until the sixties and the birth of New Journalism, which appropriated many of the techniques of fiction, even to the point of getting inside a character’s head, fleshing out settings and dialogue. All of those things were shockingly fresh at the time.

Rumpus: Is that appropriation the reason why you think nonfiction became more valued, or was there something else bigger at play there?

McDonell: I think in the sixties there was a consciousness of the culture that was heightened that could be defined by nonfiction journalism in a way that it had not been defined before. Everyone was very, very interested in that. Remember, it was the sixties. The war in Vietnam, the clichéd sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement. All of those things were wonderful topics for narrative non-fiction long-form.

It was what readers wanted, and it became more valuable, and you began to pay more for it. Much different than when Hemingway was saying that his fiction was so much more valuable. He just tossed off his journalism. That turned upside-down.

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Rumpus: And long-form seems to have had a resurgence in the past decade or so.

McDonell: The mistake that people made around 2000 with the emergence of the web was that they thought that people would not read long-form on a screen. Following from that idea, they quit doing long-form on screens. It got shorter and shorter, and then came cats toying with flowers and all of those clichés, but it was wrong. People will read long-form on a device if they want to read long-form. I read novels on my iPhone.

Rumpus: As do I.

McDonell: And The Rumpus is a great example of the sustainable values of literariness in nonfiction, and fiction of course, and poetry, but it also pulls the popular culture together in there, too, with the comics and everything. It’s very good. It reminds me that lot of people care very much about literature and literary nonfiction. So does the success of Lit Hub, which is a thing that Morgan Entrekin and I cofounded a little over a year ago.

Rumpus: I know The Rumpus will appreciate those kind words. And I’m glad you brought up Lit Hub, because I don’t think you mentioned it in the book. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about where the idea for it came from?

McDonell: Well, I had finished the book when the site began. It was conceived as an organizing principal for independent publishers, but when we began to develop it, we found that the big publishers, the big five, were interested in it, too. The site allows readers to discover all of the great things that are on all of these websites all over the country, from small websites like Tin House to Graywolf, all the way up through Simon and Schuster and Knopf and the big ones.

Rumpus: What I like about Lit Hub is that when you click on the links you actually go to the Tin House website or to Electric Literature or wherever. So many other places just embed the most essential elements of other people’s work into their own website, and it cuts out the folks who do the original work. Lit Hub seems to spread the love around in ways that other, somewhat similar sites definitely don’t.

McDonell: That was important to us. This was conceived of as a partnership whereby if you become a partner, we will expect from you, usually monthly, a very good piece from your website that you’re publishing that we can put on our site, or that we can highlight in some way. In return for that, you would get an ad on the site, not on the day that your piece appears, but within a week. That’s a very fair way to do that, I think, especially when we send the traffic out, and it improves someone’s traffic, and then they send it back. That all works. We didn’t want venture capital in this. We weren’t in this to make money. We were trying to do a service to the book business, really.

Rumpus: Your book is populated with well-known, household-name writers, but I’m wondering, are there any writers that you never edited that you wish you had?

McDonell: Of course. Michael Herr was my favorite writer, and there’s a small chapter in the book about how I wanted him to write for Rolling Stone when I was the editor there. I never got to edit Lewis Lapham, although he has edited me. He was a wonderful writer and editor, and still is at Lapham’s Quarterly. All of the big names at the time were very much front of mind for me. I edited Tom Wolfe just a tiny bit in the sense that I was responsible for the excerpt that Rolling Stone took of his novel Bonfire of the Vanities. That was not a real head-on editor-writer relationship. It was me suggesting some cuts and us going through it. I had the same experience with Cormac McCarthy. I was able to excerpt All the Pretty Horses, for example, but I never published original stories by him.

Rumpus: How is it different working with a writer who has very few credits to their name as opposed to someone like Hunter S. Thompson or Tom Wolfe, who are very established?

McDonell: The relationships change as you get to know each other. The better you know each other, the better you work together. At least usually that’s what happens. What I looked for from unknown writers was a passion for a particular thing that they were uniquely qualified to write about. It wasn’t that they just picked an interesting story and said, “I would like to write this.” It would for me always be much, much better if they were from a place and had been keeping string on that place, or that story, or that person, or whatever the subject of the story would be for years and years and years. It’s an old truth, to write about what you know. My variation on that would be to write about something you know very, very, very well already, and then you report on top of that. That was the way I started with new writers.

Rumpus: Are there any writers who you feel really could have used you as an editor, who you read and cringe and think, “Oh, if only I had been able to work with this person, I could have done this or that, helped out him or her”?

McDonell: In my secret editor’s heart and brain, I often have thoughts like that when I read pieces. But my deal with myself is that that is something that stays with me. I used to think like that all the time. You can use your ideas about pieces that are already published to explain to a writer what you want from a new piece, or to talk that particular writer into writing a new piece for you.

Rumpus: In the course of writing this memoir and reflecting on your career, did any themes or motifs or dare I say lessons reveal themselves?

McDonell: The arc of my career goes from the beginning of New Journalism all the way to the digital innovations that surrounds us now. I think the thing that was most important for me to remember on that entire arc was to try new things all the time. The more new thinking I did, the more successful it seemed to me that I could become. When magazines are really working, and when websites are really working, they’re doing new things all the time, and discovering new writers to do stories, different ways to package stories. I was always very aware that I was very lucky to be doing what I was doing, because I would get up in the morning, and go to work, and the days would fly by.

Then the night would fly by, too, and my best friends and my best times came out of being an editor at those magazines.

Rumpus: Last question. What’s your media diet like these days? Who do you read? Where do you spend your time online?

McDonell: I read all the time on every platform that there is. I have social media feeds. I’m online constantly. I still read books. I read those books in hardcover, or in softcover, and they travel with me on my phone or my iPad. I have still a great interest in art, which I never edited any magazines about, but my degree is in art. So I follow Art in America. I look at all of the art news, too. Lately, I got a dog, so I’m reading all about dogs, and there are many, many, many books about dogs.

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Author photograph © Rachel Cobb.


Ryan Krull teaches at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and is a reader for Boulevard magazine. More from this author →