Over the last few years I have sometimes been listed on the Ecotone masthead as Editor-in-Chief. I like that, in a vain sort of way. “In-Chief” sounds powerful, something writers seldom get to sound. It makes me want to roll up my sleeves and smoke cigars, maybe even start bossing people around like Lou Grant or Perry White at the Daily Planet. It fulfills something in me, satisfies my inner businessman.
But it isn’t exactly true: at heart I’m not really an editor, let alone an In-Chief. What I am, really, is a writer who has been lucky enough, while working with the original grad student editors of this magazine, Heather Wilson and Kimi Faxon Hemingway, to create a vision of a journal that focuses on place, and on nature, too, but on both in a way that isn’t as restricted as I often found the genres of place and nature writing to be. And then lucky enough to work with a series of great student editors, including Jay Varner, Brian Sandala, and Adam Petry, as the journal began to grow into something special.
It turned out my luck was just starting. In 2008 we hired Ben George as our editor, not a student editor this time but someone who had already gotten his professional chops at Tin House magazine. Immediately things around here changed. I’d had a general vision of what the journal could be, but now Ben made that hazy vision into something particular and concrete. He went after writers to fill these pages, some of whom I had never heard of, but almost all of whom blew me away. Emily Smith, who is both the publisher of Lookout Books and the art director of the magazine, had long wanted to revamp the journal’s look and with Ben on board, sneaking glances over her shoulder, she and student protégé Amanda González-Moreno set about re-designing—new logotype, larger trim size, pull quotes, new typeface, large art spreads—until the magazine started looking like the one you are holding in your hands.
What was obvious from the start was this: Ben cared. He cared about every single page, in the way of a real editor, and mulled them over and worked obsessively to get them right. He was a little crazy about it, too, in a way that reminded me of what my father had once called me, “good crazy,” and in the same way I still get about writing books. In fact, that was one of the pleasures of watching him work. I was used to being around writers, people who cared dearly about their own sentences, but here was someone different: someone who cared about other people’s sentences! Not that he was selfless: for him editing was a mission, a purpose, as clearly as writing is for me.
Ben George is now leaving us, heading into the dark but exciting canyons of New York City. Perhaps that is where he belongs; perhaps that is the natural habitat for an editing animal. But we can’t help but be a little sad around here. Not long after he announced that he was leaving, I happened to be walking in the Colorado foothills with Reg Saner, whose work Ben had edited for us. When I told Reg the news, he sighed out “Oh-no,” as if some small tragedy had transpired. What was that “Oh-no” about? It was about the fact that Reg, whose work is so refined and meticulous that I wouldn’t edit it with a ten foot pole, had received his essay back from Ben covered with chicken scratch notes, scores of notes written in pencil, not typed in the cold boxes of Track Changes, suggestions and questions and ideas on how to make the piece even better. That “Oh-no” said “This sort of care is something rare in this day and age.” That “Oh-no” was about appreciating commitment, dedication, near fanaticism toward an elegant end.
This was with Reg Saner mind you, a writer whose first drafts look like my fourth. With writers more like me, Ben is not afraid of making wholesale changes, of using his pencil even more freely. He has enough of the writer in him not to be afraid of helping those he works with re-imagine and re-create their pieces. And he has enough Max Perkins in him not to mind tangling with the occasional Wolfe.
Ben developed close relationships with writers. I remember driving in the poet John Rybicki’s wreck of a car, and listening to John testify, nearly evangelical, about how Ben had helped him wrestle his book, When All The World Is Old, into life, how they had worked line by line over poems that dealt primarily with the bruising topic of John’s wife’s death from cancer. I remember breathing a sigh of relief after Ben and Steve Almond were done going head to head on God Bless America, and thinking it quite a happy result when the two didn’t kill each other, though clearly their deaths would have been in the service of that short story collection. If there was a slight element of the love affair in these relationships it should not be surprising. And again not surprising that these courtships often began with the equivalent of a love letter: when Ben solicited work from a new writer he would study her work, and then compose a long letter discussing the writer’s body of work in a way that would make any writer—would make me certainly—swoon.
Ben had many worldly successes here. During his tenure, for example, Ecotone was one of two magazines in the country to have its work reprinted in Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, Best American Science and Nature Writing, Best American Travel Writing, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize. The most obvious of Ben’s successes came through his work with Edith Pearlman, and this is worth pausing on for a minute. Edith was first published in the pages of Ecotone, and then chosen to be the debut title of Lookout Books, the imprint that Ben and Emily Smith co-founded. It was awe-inspiring to watch Ben and Emily launch that book into the world, the two of them, with the help of grad students, doing all of the work that a big press does–editing, proofing, designing, marketing, selling, promoting. What happened next was unprecedented for a debut book by a small independent press: Edith’s Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories landed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Story Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the only book ever to be included on the honor roll of all those awards.
Despite the recognition, the best part of the whole experience for both Ben and Emily, I think, was their relationship with Edith. I was lucky enough to be there when they read the New York Times review to Edith, via speaker phone, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Edith was so grateful and graceful, heaping praise on them, and you could feel her great relief and pride at finally being recognized for her work. She called Ben her “knight” and for good reason. Though she had always been known as a writer’s writer, he had not just championed her work and published her in Ecotone, but then had worked to edit, arrange, and help polish her already polished stories.
Which is all to say that Ben George will be dearly missed. And while I may still have confusion about my job title, there is no doubt about Ben’s: he is every inch an editor. We wish him luck and many sharpened pencils.