July 21, 2004
Editing my Father By Jeanne Sable | printable version
Lately, my father has been calling me Ed. It has nothing to do with his mental state, which remains pretty sharp at 89. It has to do with my recent role as his editor, which proved to be one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of my life.
Writing isn't rocket science, but my father did work as an aerospace engineer with NASA on the early design stages of the Mars and Jupiter probe landings. After retirement, he took up art as a hobby, surprising us with several impressive watercolor paintings. He moved on to designing draw bridges for model railroads. At age 80, he built a cello, modeled from a child's violin. At 85, he made a bass fiddle. Did he consider his experiences worth writing about? No. But soon after I began writing a novel, my father decided to start one, too.
Dad was never a serious writer. In fact, Dad was never serious about much of anything. But he's always had a fertile imagination. He would fascinate us with tales of Billy the Raccoon—a prankster known for nailing people's shoes to the floor. Later he would write humorous letters to me at college, some of which found their way into the school newspaper. Of late, he'd been penning letters to the local newspaper, poking fun at politics. He was irked by the Enron scandals, which reminded him of the corporate greed he'd witnessed surrounding WWII. His book, “Corporate Myopia,” would be about that. But it would be woven into a love story: how a CEO's mismanagement of a corporation threatens the future of the war hero his daughter hopes to marry. It had potential, perhaps. But Dad, a romance writer? What daughter could fathom such a thing?
On my next trip to my parents' house, I found my father fully engaged in writing. I mean literally—no computer, no typewriter...not even a notepad. His manuscript was hand-printed on the back of an unwieldy stack of mismatched scrap papers. I began experiencing sympathetic writer's cramp. As the pages mounted, Dad was finding it increasingly difficult to keep track of proper names without the benefit of electronic searching. I finally broke down and offered to type the manuscript on my computer. To my relief, he had the mismatched pages photocopied onto uniform sheets. I brought the packet home and set to typing.
It wasn't long before the editor in me reared its ugly head. Marathon daily phone conversations ensued over the next several months as Dad and I went over the many changes I proposed to his text. We punched up the romantic scenes, reordered events, and fixed Dad's spelling and grammar, which isn't what it used to be. We cut some sections ruthlessly, and expanded others. We even enlisted my husband, Charlie, to add some technical details about military aircraft.
My biggest challenge was how to deal with bits of humor in the dialogue—lines that may have been hilarious if delivered Dad-style in person, but that somehow fell flat on the page. How could I question the corny humor that had been making us laugh all my life? Anyway, this was Dad's book, not mine. I cut out the worst of the corn and tweaked the rest.
Other phone discussions revolved around sensitive matters, prompting awkward questions I never dreamed I'd be asking my father. They went something like: “Dad, uh . . . about halfway down on page 100, you say Carl kissed Kim. I think we need to know how he kissed her. I mean, what does he do?” Dad: “Uhhh, Well—I suppose he touches her hair. ..”
One day, as I proposed another change, Dad responded, “No. It didn't happen that way.” Happen? That's when I learned that several of the family stories his characters share are based on true experiences my father and other members of our family had. One was an appalling episode Dad had kept secret until now.
I had hoped to learn that some of the military action in the book, like the bizarre POW escape plot, was based on fact too, as Dad rarely talked about his war days. Though that didn't happen, I came to realize that this partnership with Dad was a privilege few daughters can claim. And it occurred to me that he is among the last of his generation to write about the WWII era from a personal perspective. Could we fulfill his dream of publishing it?
Dad submitted proposals to several major publishers, breaking every rule of writers' etiquette. He addressed the letters with an impersonal “dear sir” and failed to include self-addressed stamped envelopes. He ignored warnings against simultaneous submissions and sent to publishers who work only through agents. With my own manuscript languishing on a publisher's desk, I knew he'd be in for a long, frustrating wait. He needed an agent, and none in his/her right mind would take on an 89-year-old. So I researched “Print on Demand (P.O.D.)” publishing outfits on the Internet and submitted the work to the highest rated company I could find. Dad's manuscript was among the few accepted by Booklocker.com, and the book was published within six weeks.
As a published author, Dad has become something of a local celebrity, doing book signings and autographing copies for his neighbors. He also was invited to participate in the nationwide war history project on Memorial Day. Perhaps now I could learn more about my father's war experiences. I called after the interview to ask how it had gone. “Good,” he said. “They gave me a list of questions I had to answer.” I said I'd love to read them.
Last week, an envelope from Dad arrived with a copy of the questions. Unfortunately, he hadn't included the answers.
Perhaps they'll show up in his next book.
You can read more about Corporate Myopia at: http://www.booklocker.com/books/1519.html.