November 30, 2023

The Guy Can Actually Write

In his new book, legendary editor Terry McDonell disproves a tall tale
By Clark Miller | Oct. 7, 2017

Journalist, photographer, novelist and, above all, editor extraordinaire Terry McDonell has lived large with some big names.

He paddled the Montana backwaters with naturalist Peter Matthiessen (of Snow Leopard fame). He edited and hung out for years with authors like Jim Harrison, Kurt Vonnegut and George Plimpton. Along the way, he also helped usher in the era of New Journalism as an editor at Rolling Stone, Esquire, Outside and The Paris Review.

Now, with his new book, The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers (Vintage Books), he has disproved the tall tale that those who can’t write become editors.  

McDonell appears at City Opera House at 7 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 13, as part of the National Writers Series. He will discuss his long career, the art and business of writing and the colorful characters he has met.

Audience Participation
The event will include a unique twist: Local writers can submit their own one-page story ideas to the National Writers Series. McDonell will then select a few of the best “pitches” to be read aloud to the audience.

Entries must be sent to nws.astanton@gmail by close of business on Wednesday, Oct. 11.  Judging from The Accidental Life, the tone of the pitches can be anything but straight-laced.

The Stories
Accidental Life offers behind-the-scenes vignettes of writers at dinner parties, slogging through long pub crawls and liquid “working” lunches from New York to Montana and on to Los Angeles.

His best portrayals are of the most truculent characters. 

He plays golf (stoned) with Hunter Thompson, the “gonzo” journalists who, when asked by the actor Don Johnson to explain the Zen riddle about the sound of one hand clapping, slapped Johnson across the face. Point made. 

We ride along to a Denver dive as McDonell eats pickled eggs, drinks boilermakers and talks radical environmentalism with Edward Abbey, whose go-it-along brand of anarchism produced such quotes as, “One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain't nothin’ that can beat teamwork.”
Northern Michiganders are likely to be drawn to the sections about late novelist, gourmand and poet Jim Harrison who was famous, among other things, for his resistance to editors.

As his peace-making editor, McDonell developed his own counter strategy.

“ … I learned to tread lightly,” McDonell wrote, “or risk being told, as I once was by him, ‘You lynched my baby.’”

After an enormous lunch with the rotund Orson Welles, Harrison, no light eater himself, remarked he had to “brace his boot on the limo’s doorsill to hoist the great director to the curb.”

Kurt Vonnegut, abruptly leaving a table of fawning young editors, remarks, “I think you are all moderately gifted.”

Digging Deeper
But McDonell also digs deeper, well past the fun anecdotes, when he concludes that Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall, written in 10 days and published in Esquire magazine, “seemed to have invigorated American fiction.”

“It was a surprising style,” he wrote, “Fast and clear, that suggested moving water that one reviewer said, ‘You could see through to the bottom of his meaning.’”

He captures Peter Matthiessen’s descriptions as “beautiful in their harshness.”

The Mundane
McDonell tackles everyday issues like writer’s block: “As an editor, I want to make quick work of this. There is no such thing.”

On the topic of money woes, he observed, “Hunter Thompson turned getting paid into theater, stopping just short of sending dead cats in the mail.”

Writers Versus Editors?
McDonell also deals with the often contentious relationship between editors and writers. The New Yorker’s Harold Ross, he reports, defined editing as “quarreling with writers” while writer George Higgins made it personal: “Only a seriously disturbed person would sincerely wish to have an editor for a friend.”

Then there’s the feigned optimism of John Cheever: “My definition of a good editor is a man I think charming, who sends me large checks, praises my work, my physical beauty, and my sexual prowess, and who has a stranglehold on the publisher and the bank.”

By comparison, McDonell, who seems to have a knack for getting along with people, told the Northern Express that as a writer, he works well with editors.

“I have never had a bad relationship with an editor – probably because I was an editor for so long. It’s always situational,” he said. “Some relationships are based on sharing irony and humor; others have more to do with the simple solidarity of just going out for drinks; but the subtext always has to be mutual respect.”

The New Journalism
As editor at Rolling Stone and other magazines, McDonell was on the front lines as the “New Journalism” emerged in the '60s and '70s. No longer was the reporter simply a supposedly objective bystander and collector of facts but instead was expected to add an active, colorful voice in the narrative.

He bemoans that in some quarters, that style is considered to have run its course.

“I believe there is nothing stronger in journalism than the combination of immersive reporting and original voice,” he said. “If you think about it, that’s really the combination that made the early work of Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese and Mailer and Mike Herr so powerful and riveting. And there are lots of young writers with distinctive voices coming up all the time. It just doesn’t feel like they’re as appreciated because magazines as platforms to showcase them are in decline.”

Current Projects
Asked what books he would grab if the Great Deluge came and he had only a small boat, McDonell said, “There is a deluge, and it is digital. I read so much on my phone now I don’t have to worry about the size of the boat.”

McDonell is currently reading Mary Dearborn’s "Ernest Hemingway: A Biography"; "Man of the Hour" by Jennet Conant and Hue 1968 by Mark Bowden.

“And, of course, Doug Stanton’s 'The Odyssey of Echo Company,' which I read in galley,” McDonell said. “Doug is a gifted, complicated writer and brilliant interviewer, which is why I look forward to being on stage with him at the National Writers Series.”

McDonell continues to build LitHub (, a showcase for literary fiction, non-fiction and criticism. He also has two book projects underway.

Terry McDonell will appear at the National Writers Series on Oct. 13, 2017 at 7pm at the City Opera House in Traverse City. For tickets, call 231-941-8082.



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