Kathy Hourigan Is Retiring, but Not From Robert Caro

What books are on your night stand?

Still there, because I just finished it, is “Martyr!” by Kaveh Akbar, a brilliant debut novel that we’re publishing early next year, about the orphaned son of Iranian immigrants searching the mysteries of his past. Dazzling and surprising and capacious and riveting; I didn’t want it to end. Just started Emily Wilson’s new translation of the “Iliad.” In the pile that keeps growing: “Middlemarch” (last read 50 years ago); “King: A Life,”by Jonathan Eig; “Warner Bros,” by David Thomson; “Tom Lake,” by Ann Patchett (I’ve never read her!!!); “Sondheim,” by Stephen Silverman; “The White Album,” by Didion (just bought at a flea market).

Describe your ideal reading experience.

Sitting on the porch of a cottage I’ve rented on Martha’s Vineyard for a few weeks every summer for 45 years, looking out over the Menemsha marsh and beach. I still remember, for example, how I felt reading there the manuscripts of Katharine Graham’s “Personal History” and Maggie O’Farrell’s “Hamnet.” I love it when a book grabs me, and, wherever I am, I can’t stop. That’s the good news and the bad news because the next thing you know it’s 5 a.m. Most wonderful experience: Just after rereading “Jane Eyre,” I was in England and visited the extraordinary Brontë parsonage, stood in the room where the Brontë sisters had written and read to each other and created worlds, and walked, as they had, up the path from their door into the moors. Being June, it was not as windswept as I had envisioned.

What’s the last book you read that made you cry?

“A Year of Last Things,” Michael Ondaatje’s first book of poetry in decades (to be published in March). You know the power of Ondaatje’s language; here he’s reached new heights in conveying the mystery of being alive.

The last book that made you furious?

“Sabbath’s Theater,” by Philip Roth: Nasty. He takes his obsessions, his sexual transgressions, to the nth degree. Absolutely outrageous and infuriating. I wanted to throw it across the room.

The last book that made you laugh?

“Sabbath’s Theater,” by Philip Roth: Profound, insightful, reveals the depth of human nature — hilarious. A sick comic masterpiece.

What book best captures the publishing world as you’ve experienced it?

“Avid Reader.” Robert Gottlieb, my mentor and beloved friend, taught me everything about publishing, and lots about life. He was brilliant, read faster and deeper and more widely than anyone in the world. He made Knopf successful — and magical. In “Avid Reader” Bob captures the joy and excitement of a life in the world of books, the exhaustion and exhilaration and creativity of the actual work. That spirit and that fun, that intellectual and literary and commercial heft, are what I’ve loved about publishing.

Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

I love great books on the process of creating. Hard to beat Robert Caro’s “Working” — in which he shares not only his experiences getting the story, the depth and quality of his research, but also the time and effort he takes in the actual writing, to get the language perfect, and to weave the facts into a tapestry that is as thrilling to the reader as it was in real life. Words matter, mood matters, rhythm matters, sense of place matters. People talk about Literature as though it’s only fiction, but Caro’s works are masterpieces of research and artistry — truly great literature.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Let’s try two:

The first: Bob and Ina Caro, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, even though the women might not get a word in. Bob knows more about L.B.J. and his character than L.B.J. knew about himself!

The second: My pals and colleagues Vicky Wilson and Peter Gethers, and Dan Okrent, whom I met at Knopf in 1969. Three great storytellers, for the sheer fabulousness of the conversation and the good-natured disagreements over books and movies and politics and Life. I could arrange that evening even now, but in my dream dinner party I’d invite Stephen Sondheim to stir the pot.

What’s next for you?

I’ll continue working with Bob Caro, as I have for 50 years, but people ask what am I going to do when I don’t have to work night and day? Read!!! A large percentage of my reading has been, for 60 years, paper manuscripts (I don’t like reading online) or bound proofs of titles we’re publishing. I’m looking forward to whole new areas of reading and rereading, and rather than be haphazard, I want to make an exciting project out of it.

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