8Qs: James R. Babb

Eight Questions is an occasional series of interviews that I’m including on the site. Being a naturally gifted (read: lazy) interviewer, I will be using the same eight questions in every interview.

This time, the questions are being answered by magazine editor, James R Babb. James has been the editor of Gray’s Sporting Journal for the past 17 years, which has been variously described as huntin’ and fishin’ for English Majors, and Field & Stream meets the New Yorker. Prior to that he spent 12 years as an acquiring editor at McGraw-Hill and The Lyons Press, and was a nautical- and outdoor-books advisor for W.W. Norton. He has written for Gray’s Sporting Journal, The Field, Big Sky Journal, Down East, and the New York Times, among others.

Welcome, James!

1 – What did you do before you did this and what do you miss about it?
Before I became a writer and editor I drove a lobster truck, and before that I was a commercial lobster fisherman. What I miss most about truck driving is seeing the seasons progress and regress as I traveled back and forth between Maine and Boston and the Jersey shore and Montreal — and, of course, eating tax-deductible diner food. That’s also what I miss least about it — that, and all those sad tragic smashups inevitably passed on the road, or that time I did two 360s on black ice braking for a toll-booth on the Trans-Canada with 20,000 pounds of lobster onboard, and managed to stop just astern of a jackknifed 18-wheeler that had taken out a tool-booth, the toll-taker, and the driver, with whom I’d just had breakfast at a pull-out dépanneur a few dozen miles over my shoulder.

What I miss most about lobster fishing is being alone with the day, just me and the gulls and the seals and various entertaining Cetacea, and all those snapping, flapping lobsters. If I hadn’t set out 200 new and still semi-buoyant oak traps the week before a hurricane swept up Penobscot Bay, I’d probably still be at it.

I’ll be retiring as Editor of Gray’s this summer. I’ll miss the discovery, that tingle of finding someone new in the slush pile and opening the door, like one of those old correspondence-school matchbook covers promising the Stairway to Opportunity through the magic of arc-welding or refrigeration mechanics.

But wrapping my brain around both my own writing (visions of creating my own Barsetshire or Wessex or Yoknapatawpha County dancing in my delusional old head) and the writings of others gets harder with age, and I’ve reached the point where I feel I can do only one of them proper justice.

I’ve spent almost 30 years striving to help other writers sound better than they are without making them sound different. Now, as a 65-year-old writer who still feels aspiring, it’s time to defecate or remove myself from the facilities, while the facilities are still there and so am I.

2 – How many projects are you working on at the moment and what can you tell us about them?
Editing the magazine never stops. I read maybe a thousand manuscripts a year, and buy somewhere between 40 and 50 features spread across seven issues. I write a lot of dejection letters and a few encouraging letters for writers who are almost there. I edit seven or eight features per issue, plus the poem and the regular columns on Shooting, Angling, Eating, Art, and Books. This occupies almost every afternoon when I’m not off fishing or working in the garden or cutting wood. My office is in a corner of the living room in our midcoast Maine home, staffed with a MacBook Pro, Scrivener, InCopy, and three kibitzing cats.

In the mornings I do nothing but write, which until I fired myself from the position a few years ago included writing the Gray’s angling column for 17 years. I’ve just finished what I’m hoping will be my first novel, currently awaiting feedback from my agent about how best to position it in what is universally known as Today’s Difficult Market for Midlist Literary Fiction.

It’s called The Family Jewell, which while writing I code-named The Egg and I of the d’Urbervilles on the Floss. It’s the story of a small eccentric family in a downmarket niche on the Coast-o-Maine attempting to survive the Great Recession, creeping gentrification, gene-pool dilution, potato blight, the worst weather in living memory, and other insults of the 21st century, as seen through the eyes of three cousins: a troubled Boston teenager, new in town, who, at least this month, wants to be a famous chef; a young poultry breeder, organic farmer, novice restaurateur, and compulsive opera singer who, the town generally agrees, ain’t wired up right; and a crotchety old clamdigger who lives on a shipwreck and is on a magic-mushroom-fueled mission to prove that his family and his dying town descend from the union between 11th-century Viking explorers and a trio of Wabanaki women who were either legendary forest fairies of surpassing beauty, or no better than they should be, depending on whose stories you believe.

While Jewell makes its way around midtown Manhattan, I’ve started work on a final collection of my angling columns from Gray’s Sporting Journal, which I’ve tentatively titled Fish Won’t Let Me Sleep, and which I’ve code-named Tristram Shandy’s Sentimental Journey through the Plague Year.

3 – If you had to quit either reading or writing which would you pick?
Writing, I suppose. I’ve been reading since I was three, and could no more quit and stay sentient than I could quit breathing, eating, or excreting. Reading is my life; writing is more a calling mixed with a small and inadvertent dollop of talent and a moiling-in-the-mines work ethic that accidentally evolved into a profession.

4 – If you could magic another hour into the day, where would you put it and what would you use it for?
I’d stick it into that brief window between when I wake up, and when I have to get out of bed and make coffee and start a fire and feed the cats. Most of the writing problems that accompany me to bed tend to resolve themselves in that hour or so between opening my eyes and lurching into the day. Maybe if I had another hour I might actually get somewhere.

5 – What is your pet hate in writing / language?
Laziness. Writing is hard work. And too many writers I see these days — published as well as unpublishable — just don’t put in the hours to do it properly. Too many imagine that some software solution — or some kindly editor whose time is in short and expensive supply — will magically solve the problem of actually having to sit in a friggin chair straining your eyes and fingers until readers can understand everything you’re saying, and why you’re saying it.

6 – Are there any genres that you love to read but which you never write?
I love elderly literature — from Swift through Saki, Irving through James. I’m especially keen on Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen. It’s unavoidable that certain of their sensibilities must creep into my writing — I mean, if you’ve read the Barsetshire Chronicles half a dozen times, it’s hard to dodge the imagery of nervous people playing invisible violoncellos behind their backs or tossing the establishment’s foibles back into their flustered faces like the Ointment Queen in Doctor Thorne. But I could never write that kind of thing. Mostly because no sane acquisitions editor would ever buy it.

7 – Do you have any writing rituals, habits or idiosyncrasies that you can share?
I research fiendishly, amassing vast quantities of details and facts and backgrounding that I then never use.

I begin writing each day as soon as the coffee kicks in, and I usually have an uninterrupted hour and a half before my wife gets up and clatters around getting ready for work. This is my cue to check email, read the news, have breakfast, and head out to feed the ducks and chickens. Once she’s off to school, I write relentlessly until lunch.

I’m an obsessive-compulsive re-writer, beginning every morning by rewriting everything I wrote the day before, and progressing from beginning to end in a mucilaginous halt-step process. It’s infuriatingly inefficient, but for better or worse it’s the way I taught myself to write. I’ve tried snazzier, more professional methods, but they just don’t work for me. Groping for the right word forces me to grope for the right meaning, and what I’m trying to say emerges slowly, like a moth from its chrysalis.

I’m also a pacer. Almost every difficult sentence involves a certain number of revolutions of the house. The floor is guttered in my path like Roman chariot wheels etched into paving stone on the Appian Way. With particularly thorny paragraphs I might need to expand outdoors. One scene, a few years ago, needed a two-mile walk up the trout brook in January before I figured out how to turn 2,700 flaccid words into 1,850 meaningful ones.

8 – What are you selling and where can I buy it?
On the assumption that you don’t mean the surplus ducklings we sell in May, my three angling-column collections, Crosscurrents: A Fly Fisher’s Progress; River Music: A Fly Fisher’s Four Seasons; and Fly-Fishin’ Fool: The Adventures, Misadventures, and Outright Idiocies of a Compulsive Angler, are all still in print from The Lyons Press, and are available from Amazon and what few bookstores they haven’t driven out of business.

Subscription details for Gray’s Sporting Journal are on our Web site: www.grayssportingjournal.com

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Read more interviews in the 8Qs series here.