The Italian Butcher

Geplaatst op: 20-09-2015

The Italian Butcher

Blog geschreven voor Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine


That evening my wife and I got very drunk. I’d just received mail from a Dutch publisher informing me that they would like to buy my thriller. This was the news I was hoping for. I was almost fifty. Publishing a thriller before I reached 50 was on my bucket list and thus the reason I’d given up my very lucrative job in Dutch radio. I took the leap and moved to a small hamlet (in the middle of nowhere in southwest France) to become a writer. My colleagues thought I’d gone nuts. Did I really think I could write a book and get it published? And even if I did, was I aware of how little money a writer actually earned? For that misery, I would be giving up my professional career and all of the benefits that came with it. The moment they, my ex colleagues, would retire and start enjoying their pension, I’d be as poor as hell. Did I actually realize that?

Yes, I did.

But still I decided to follow my dream. I loved thrillers. Patricia Highsmith was one of my favorite authors. Could I write something like that? Probably not as good as she did, but I was sure I could write a thriller and – not hindered by any false modesty – I was convinced I would find a Dutch publisher.

The mail I received proved that I was right.

The next morning, with a huge hangover, I called the publisher. “Congratulations”, the man begun with a pleasant voice. “You’ve written a great thriller. We’d be delighted to present your book next year, in the spring.” After another minute of additional compliments, he sighed deeply and proceeded to tell me that there were some some things in the book that could, however, be better. Most importantly, I’d revealed the identity of the murderer too soon. He gave me a list of pages and sections that needed editing. If I could do that, he said, the book would be totally perfect. Of course I would do that, I answered.

I worked for another two weeks on the manuscript, repaired the suggested sections and checked all pages to improve everything that could be better and smoother; this also made the story quicker. Finished, I sent the manuscript back to the publisher. Yes, this was excellent, was the reaction of the man after reading my revisions.

Job done, I thought. Now I could relax for the next months and enjoy waiting for the moment that the book would be in the bookshops and I would celebrate my debut as a writer. Okay, by that time I would be a bit older than fifty, but still, my goal had been reached.

But…the book wasn’t done yet, the publisher told me. The manuscript would first be sent to the editor, some Dutch guy who’d studied Dutch literature, lived in Italy and worked freelance for Dutch publishers. This guy’s job was to make the manuscript fit to print. He sounded like somebody who was going to do some final corrections, I assumed. Nothing to get nervous about.

A couple of weeks later, the publisher sent the manuscript back to me. The editor had finished his work. It was up to me to now either approve or deny the suggestions the editor had made. The publisher assured me in his mail: as author, I had the final cut.
Okay, I thought. No problem.

When I opened the document and saw the first page, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It looked as if some raving drunk had attacked my text with pens in both their hands and left it a total mess. My carefully written manuscript was full of red and blue balloons filled with comments, corrections and explanations as to why the original text wasn’t any good. I felt devastated and very depressed. As I started to have a quick look at the rest of the manuscript, things only got worse. More balloons, more colors, more remarks - ten to twenty on every page. One chapter of the book was completely deleted. What?! Why? I was in shock. My first reaction was to call the publisher and complain about this editor who had massacred my book. I’d written an excellent thriller, the publisher had said, or hadn’t I? I still couldn’t understand it. After a couple a drinks and a lot more cigarettes, I decided to wait before calling the publisher and first let the situation sink in.

The next morning, after a sleepless night, I started to read the comments in the manuscript. The more I read, the more I understood what the editor had done. He’d skipped all the things that were redundant or didn’t contribute anything to the story or to the suspense. I’d written a lot about the house in the French countryside that my heroine had bought. The descriptions of the region and the plush surroundings were rather poetical, but was poetry appropriate in a thriller? Perhaps for a few sentences, but definitely not a two page poetical description of my heroine’s garden. Too long, too boring. The editor also skipped all sections where I’d explained things for a second and even third time to the reader. And the editor was damn right…as if the reader self was not clever enough to follow my intented hints.

I remembered reading books myself where the author had treated me, the reader, as an imbecile. I now realized, clearly, that the editor was spot on in deleting a full chapter where nothing happened and which didn’t contribute anything to the story or the suspense. The editor had made the book better. I was so glad that somebody had had a close look at the manuscript. So, finally, I approved almost all the suggestions/corrections.

Actually, what the man had done was the same as what I used to do when still working as a chief editor for the Dutch radio. Freelancers and I would listen to their productions together and I would offer my advice. “Do we really need this? I’ve heard this story before. Maybe we should put this section in the beginning to tease the audience.” Succinctly: eliminate the extraneous junk to make things better. I remembered the shock of freelancers when they first though that somebody was killing their darlings, but at the end they were always happy with the result.

Every artist needs a butcher. A nice butcher, a professional butcher with good taste who is not afraid to criticize the artist; one who does his/her utmost to make a piece of art shine. Artists who work on their own tend to get blind. Somebody has to open their eyes.

My Italian editor took care of my first five books. We have never met. I never even knew his mail address. We were not friends, but we both ascribed to the same goal: to write the best book possible. My editor taught me how to write. After the third book, the manuscript of the book wasn’t as full of balloons and remarks anymore – I considered myself a writer for the first time. In the last book he edited, the pages almost stayed as white as snow. This book earns a price, the editor wrote at the end. A year later I won the Golden Noose, the most prestigious price for Dutch crime-literature.

Thanks to the Italian butcher.