C. Michael Curtis
C. Michael Curtis has been an editor at The Atlantic since 1963. Under his direction, the magazine has won numerous fiction prizes, including the National Magazine Award for fiction.
The following interview took place during the summer of 2007 at his office in the historic Main building on the Wofford College campus in South Carolina.
Lord: I read that you were originally from Arkansas. Did you miss the South while you were in the Northeast all those years?
Curtis: The short answer is no, but I need to explain. I wasn’t originally from Arkansas. I was born in New York City. I lived in Arkansas for a short time when I was eight, and went back when I was about twelve, and stayed through high school. I lived in a very small town for most of my time there, and it wasn’t a glorious place to be. I remember it with a mixture of tears and smiles. I can’t say that I wasn’t fairly happy to leave. Even so, I do feel a sort of return.
Lord: I noticed that you don’t have much of a southern accent.
Curtis: That’s what my wife says. I insist I sound like I was born and raised in the South, and she laughs. I used to tell her that when I get below the Mason-Dixon Line my speech automatically slows down, but she’s not convinced. I’m not really conscious of it anymore.
Lord: Has anything surprised you about the South since you’ve moved back?
Curtis: I was surprised to discover that the tradition of friendliness in the South was real, though whether the friendliness is authentic is more complicated. But I remember remarking to my wife, when I first began to explore Spartanburg, my amazement at meeting clerks and store managers and the like who seemed very happy to meet a newcomer and would talk to me about almost anything—and be helpful. I lived for 43 years in Massachusetts, where the same cannot be said.
Lord: (laughs) Has anything else struck you?
Curtis: Being here reminded me of Hardy, the little town in Arkansas I lived in through most of high school, where everyone seemed to be a member of four or five basic families. Here, when I say that I’m teaching at Wofford College, people say, “Oh yeah, my cousin went there or my uncle did or my barber did or my dry cleaner did or I did.”
Lord: I’m sure it wasn’t quite like that in the North.
Curtis: In the North, hardly anyone is related to anybody. And most people are from “out of town.” But Bostonians, the true Bostonians, people who grew up in Boston, feel their roots very strongly. The rest of us just came. We were opportunists.
Lord: Speaking of Boston, I have a question about The Atlantic. Do you ever get tired of people asking you about your job there?
Lord: Good, because I have a few questions. I did some research and discovered that The Atlantic was founded in 1857, and a few of the founders were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. I also read that the founders felt they had a “mission to create not just a magazine but a culture—a distinctly American literary culture.” Their goal was to cast “the light of the highest morals on an increasingly fragmented, mobile and materialistic country.” When you first came to The Atlantic did anyone talk about that sort of thing? About the founders or the original purpose?
Curtis: No. They didn’t. When I came to The Atlantic, the editor was Edward Weeks. He’d been there since about 1927, and had significantly shaped the magazine and the institution. He saw it as an extension of himself and his own ideas and values.
Lord: What do you think of the founders’ intentions?
Curtis: I’m not surprised that the goals you’ve described were the goals of the early founders of the magazine. Those goals seem to me entirely honorable, and in many ways consistent with the way the magazine was edited in its early years. Nor do I think those goals are very far from what the editors who’ve run the magazine since have felt about their mission. Perhaps it’s characteristic of our culture that few serious media folk would presume to say they were working toward a more moral society, even if their hope is precisely that. They would talk about integrity, being responsive to legitimate issues of public concern, being a beacon of truth and light. And in his way, no doubt every one of them has probably tried very hard to honor those purposes. Since I joined the magazine, however, Atlantic editors have been preoccupied with trying to keep the magazine afloat.
Lord: I know that in 2005 The Atlantic stopped publishing a short story in each monthly issue and decided to have a separate fiction issue that comes out just once a year. Has the new once-a-year fiction issue been successful?
Curtis: The current issue has sold around 55,000 copies. That’s good news or bad news, depending how you look at it. The good news is that we’re able to attract a readership of 50,000 plus for just fiction, and the fiction issue, so far, has been mildly profitable.
Lord: Why did The Atlantic decide to stop publishing fiction every month? It seems as though there are fewer and fewer mainstream places to be published, and small literary journals are all that are left.
Curtis: The people who decided The Atlantic should stop publishing fiction are not people with any special interest or relationship to fiction. They are looking at magazines from a commercial point of view, and are convinced that pages allotted to fiction in any one issue of The Atlantic, are better used for reportage or political commentary. The Atlantic, which has been running at a loss for 30 years now, wants to get back to the point where it is profitable, and fiction won’t make the difference.
Lord: I want to go back to two things that happened in 1963. One was that you came to work full-time at the magazine, and the other was that The Atlantic published Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” How did that come about? I read that it arrived as a draft on a piece of paper. Is that true?
Curtis: It’s certainly true that King or someone speaking for him sent it to us, but the speech was sent to several other places as well, and it appeared in a number of publications. It appeared in either the August or September Atlantic, in 1963. I shouldn’t speak as if I had a hand in publishing the King letter, because I was the new kid. I was barely in the office. In fact, the decision to print had likely been made well before I arrived in early July, since we were always working three months ahead. I am glad, in retrospect, that we were among the several journals that published that letter.
Lord: I wonder if there was much discussion about publishing it?
Curtis: I don’t know whether Weeks had any hesitation, but I doubt it. He was very involved with the United Negro College Fund and was, I believe, a trustee of Tuskegee University. He was very sympathetic to the cause of civil rights, in a polite New England way.
Lord: That’s interesting, because even from the beginning, several of The Atlantic founders were abolitionists.
Curtis: That’s right.
Lord: I want to jump to your comment about being the “new kid” at The Atlantic. When you first started, were you ever nervous about editing an older big name writer?
Curtis: The simple answer is no, but that was partly because I regarded myself as trying to be helpful and as the messenger of good news. Moreover, a lot of writers I was dealing with were not at that point what they are now. One of them, for example, was Joyce Carol Oates, whose work I had read when I was one of the editors of Epoch magazine (published in the English Department at Cornell). I had been reading stories by someone named “J.C. Oates.” I had no idea who J.C. Oates was. In fact, I thought the writer was a man. She didn’t come out, so to speak, until about ’63. When one of her early stories came to The Atlantic, I was surprised to discover that he was a she. The story was one that we eventually published, but not before I had to go back to her and say, “It’s about twice as long as we want it to be, and we don’t like the title, and can we make some changes?” She said, “I can’t possibly cut it in half, but you might be able to. Why don’t you try it and then let me see the cutting.” I did, and suggested a new title, which she liked. She accepted the cut version, we published the story, and it won the O. Henry Prize that year as the best short story published in America.
Lord: She sounds as though she was very easy to work with. Were there others like her?
Curtis: Some writers, like John Updike, for example, are extremely patient and forbearing even when they have to deal with editing suggestions they think are harebrained.
Lord: One of your statements that gave me encouragement was that “in the best relationship between an editor and a writer, the editor is just a good teacher or a good reader.” That comment bolstered me, because, although I’m not a teacher, I do think I am a very careful reader. I thought that was a nice way to boil down the editor/writer relationship.
Curtis: It does make it sound friendlier than it often is.
Lord: (laughs) What advice would you give me as an editor?
Curtis: Make sure you understand the writer’s voice and intentions and that you honor them with any changes you propose. When I’m convinced that certain phrasing or words aren’t apt or appropriate, I try to think of alternatives that are consistent with the tone and the voice of the writer, or the character invented by the writer.
Lord: What’s been your general experience with copy editors?
Curtis: Some are very wound up. Their job is to find mistakes, and the more they find the better they’re doing their job. When I was putting this latest fiction issue of The Atlantic together, the copy editors went through these stories with a blizzard of corrections. I warned the writers to protect themselves and their work. I sometimes feel I have to protect the writers against the copy editors who were determined to neutralize their language.
Lord: That brings me back to Atlantic stories. I’ve once or twice heard people say, “Oh, that was a typical New Yorker story.” Do you think there is such a think as an “Atlantic story?”
Curtis: I’ve always been conscious of wanting to try different voices and different structures and different tactics to protect ourselves against that sort of objection. I remember, early on, feeling that the magazine shouldn’t publish stories that could be easily categorized. I never wanted to have someone speak of an “Atlantic story,” and frankly, I never have. I’ve never heard anyone speak of an Atlantic story as if Atlantic stories had common ingredients that could be predicted.
Lord: I’m curious how you would describe a New Yorker story?
Curtis: The New Yorker has more of an appetite than I do for stories that are static. For stories that are more about accumulation of detail and private sensitivities than about narrative. They’re less concerned with “something happening” than with character or condition. These stories are often expert at exploring character or situation, but writers often have no intention of moving you towards a resolution of some kind.
Lord: I read in a previous interview you gave that you admire stories with “moral weight, strain of forward movement and built in tension.” And you also said, “I want things to happen.”
Curtis: My ideas about that have to do with what I think makes a story memorable and in some way even instructive, which is why I use that phrase “moral weight.” A lot of storytelling is about people struggling with hard decisions and finally deciding to do this or that and then, if they’re lucky, discovering the consequences of their choice.
Lord: I’ve noticed that some of the really great short story writers have more than one storyline, or there are several things going on at different levels rather than a straightforward movement.
Curtis: That’s quite true. The Toby Wolff story in this issue is an interesting example of that. It’s a story some of my Atlantic colleagues read with puzzlement. I told them it was Chekhovian, which only added to their puzzlement. It’s a story that seems to shift direction in the last page or so, and has to be read again, I think, to solve the puzzle, of how the ending connects to the beginning. It doesn’t follow conventional ideas about narrative arc; you think you’re in one kind of story, and then, suddenly, at the end, you’re in a very different kind of story.
Lord: And how would that be Chekhovian?
Curtis: As in so many Chekhov stories, the intention of the story is not immediately in view; you have to think hard about what has happened, what its implications are for other characters or circumstances, to see what Chekhov had in mind when he wrote the story. Chekhov is someone I think writers need to experience. His approach challenges a great many of our conventional ideas about story structure and import.
Lord: I haven’t read Chekhov since college, but I do notice that a lot of writers refer to him as their inspiration.
Curtis: Carver does, and Wolff and Richard Ford do. Most serious writers that I know much about have at least read some Chekhov, and a lot of them will admit they keep him in the back of their mind. His is a very different take, and, remember, he was writing in the 19th century! His work anticipated Wolff, and Carver, and Cheever, and Ann Beattie, and many other writers I think of as modernists, such as Donald Barthelme.
Lord: After so many years of editing, do you find it hard to read for enjoyment?
Curtis: Some writing I just don’t enjoy because it’s lame or artless or unimaginative or unconvincing. But I relish Cormac McCarthy, for example, who writes what you might loosely call thrillers, but who is also thoughtful and artful. I could read him all the time. I read Elmore Leonard, Tony Hillerman (mainly for Navajo lore), Harlan Coben, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, Robert Crais, and other mystery or thriller writers (Ruth Rendell and Ed McBain come to mind), or I leave fiction altogether, in favor of history or philosophy.
Lord: I read that you’ve had trouble editing poets who later turn to fiction, because they sometimes resist grammatical purity for fear it will interfere with their flow.
Curtis: (laughs) Poets who turn to fiction are used to using words they like the sound of, regardless of strict meaning. And a lot of editing is a response to language that isn’t clear enough or precise enough, or to words that are simply wrong. You know what the author means, but the author isn’t saying it clearly, and maybe saying something else instead.
Lord: I want to move to your long career in teaching. I know you’ve taught at Harvard, MIT, Cornell, Tufts, Boston University, and Bennington as well as other places. When it comes to types of students, MIT and Bennington struck me as opposite ends of the spectrum.
Curtis: MIT students are different from just about anybody.
Lord: What did you teach at these schools?
Curtis: I taught composition at MIT, and at Bennington I taught creative writing. At Harvard, I taught composition, grammar and ethics.
Lord: What was involved in the composition part of the course?
Curtis: I was mainly interested in clarity and clear thinking. I spent a lot of time on grammatical issues. But my point about grammar was that it needs to be learned not in order to satisfy some idea of what is proper so much as that it helps a writer express himself/herself clearly, and convincingly, and maybe powerfully. My thought was this: The clearer you are in your thinking, the clearer you are likely to be in your writing, and the more effective your writing will prove to be.
Lord: I know you’ve held a creative writing course in your home since 1974. How did that come about?
Curtis: I taught a writing class at Harvard in the summer of 1974, and at the end of the summer, the class had formed a kind of community, and wanted to keep on meeting. So I invited them to meet at my house. Over the next couple of years, members of that group dropped out for various reasons, but other people called, wondering if they could join, and I decided to keep on meeting as long as a sizable group wanted to continue. The class continued to meet until I left Boston in 2005.
Lord: How did you start a typical semester?
Curtis: Every term is different, but I often begin with a discussion of things that I look for and respond to in fiction, and about some of the problems I see in work that is submitted to The Atlantic, what stands in the way of publication. The people who take these classes are literate and imaginative, and a lot of them write stories that they submit to magazines. As I point out, many of those stories are returned, and the writers often don’t know why.
Lord: I send my stuff out and get rejected all the time. Maybe you could give me a few pointers.
Curtis: (chuckles) I doubt you need this sort of advice. I talk about mechanical problems, bad grammar, bad spelling and punctuation. I make the point that most editors spot such mistakes very quickly, and, in my experience, when you find stories that are damaged in that way, they tend to be damaged in a great many other ways.
Lord: What other advice can you give?
Curtis: I talk about second person and present tense and other mannerisms that are often a signal of a kind of pretense. What Raymond Carver called “tricks.” I’m very sympathetic to his objection to any kind of tricks. I point out that dialogue is one of the things an editor can spot very quickly. Bad dialogue is fairly easy to recognize: it’s mechanical, and unlike the way people talk, or not very distinguished or distinctive. If you see a story with bad dialogue, you can be fairly safe in assuming the rest of the story isn’t going to be a whole lot better, and since most stories include dialogue for a number of persuasive reasons, a story that had no dialogue at all is also likely to be far too egocentric, too involved with the writer, and very likely to represent something the writer is very eager to say rather than a story about believable people struggling with plausible problems.
Lord: Do you think you could help someone find his or her voice or is that just something one has or doesn’t have?
Curtis: All writers have voices, but sometimes the voice is synthetic or strained. Most people who are literate can write, but things get in the way. They try to control the stories too much and commit any number of other sins having to do with affectation chiefly. Some work is needed to find a voice that is both your own and engaging. It can happen, but a lot of practice and experimentation is often required.
Lord: When you said, things get in the way, I think of that saying, “If I could just get out of my own way.” Maybe that might hold true for writing. If one could allow oneself to be less self-conscious and free rather than self-editing after the second sentence.
Curtis: I’m very much in favor of doing the writing in a rush and then going back over what you’ve written once you’ve finished. People like us, who’ve had experience as editors, want to revise every sentence almost as soon as we’ve written it, and that probably does get in the way of that spontaneous, zoned-out feeling most writers I know experience whenever they’re writing well. They really do descend into their work and zone out the world around them.
Lord: I almost forgot to tell you that my godmother gave me God: Stories, the collection you edited, and I so enjoyed the stories. The one story that stayed with me was The Knife, by Brendan Gill. It was one of the shortest in the collection, but it was such a powerful story.
Curtis: It’s one of my favorites too.
Lord: Well, I don’t want to take up any more of your time, but this has been fun.
Curtis: If you find you need other stuff, just give me a holler.
Lord: I will. I hope I’m not being too forward but what does the C. stand for in your name?
Lord: Oh, I thought maybe Charles.
Curtis: No, I was named after a cat.