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Thursday
Feb072008

Frank and Duane and me

Earlier this week Frank Wilson announced he was retiring from the Phila Inquirer and Duane Swierczynski gave notice he was stepping down from the Phila City Paper.  I've lost both of my editors in the same week.  Truth be told, I'd known about their plans for some time (although with Duane, I didn't know when).  But it's still tough to see these two guys leave Philly journalism. 

Frank was my first editor.  Here I was, just an at-home Dad, waiting to go back to school to finish my grad work, blogging away, and Frank asked me if I wanted to write a book review "from time to time."  Would I?!   I had been mulling over asking him how to go about it.  Should I write up some samples and send them to him.  I even cut and pasted several Inq reviews and was going to outline them, see what kind of of reviews he published.  But then he just asked.  When I went to meet him in the book-filled room at the Inq, he suggested I review the new Claire Messud novel, The Emperor's Children, a very high profile book, reviews of which were leading newspaper book sections.  However, I actually turned it down.  My eye had already rested upon the new biography of Thomas Malory by Christina Hardyment.  Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur is one of my favorite books.  I've read and studied Arthurian Lit for most of my adult life.  Malory would be such a thrill for my first review.  "How about Malory, Frank?  Can I review that one?"  "Well," he replied, "I was thinking of reviewing that myself."  Perhaps it was the disappointment in my face, or perhaps it was just the truly generous nature of Frank, when he relented, " But go ahead, you can do it.  Don't take too long with it." 

I don't think Frank realized how thrilled I was to be published in the paper that I'd read all my life.  My review could have been buried in Wednesday's Daily Magazine, page 4, and I would have bought five copies.  As it happened, Frank placed it in the Sunday edition and it was the lead review on the Inq's online book page (I still bought five copies). 

As an editor, Frank has made every one of my reviews better.  He doesn't overhaul them, ask me for any major rewrites or clarifications.  He just lightly trims them, deleting my unnecessary words (I always overwrite), sharpening my reviews so my own critical judgment to comes through all the better.  I can't thank him enough for the opportunity he first gave me to do something I love.  And all the encomia that have poured forth since his announcement, about how he did so much with so little at the Inq, how he found new talent to review, etc, etc.  It's all true.  His retirement leaves an abyss in Philadelphia's book community. 

Duane Swierczynski was my first editor for a feature story.  Duane and I are also friends, so it makes it easier to pitch stories to him.  But we hadn't known each other all that long when he was sitting with me in my study, having a couple beers, talking about Sherlock Holmes, when I noticed George Lippard's The Quaker City behind him on a shelf.  I've long wanted to tell the story of Lippard's life and works, a truly remarkable figure in American (and Philadelphian) history, but I hadn't thought to pitch it to anyone as a feature.  As I began to tell him what I knew about Lippard and especially, his greatest novel, Quaker City, Duane saw the potential for a great story that still had resonance for today's urban environment.  And so was born my first feature (not to mention my first cover story).  Like the Malory review, I was fortunate to write about something I had a lot of passion for (and yes, I scooped up lots of paper copies).

Later that year, over beers (a recurring motif in my relationship with Duane) while discussing the upcoming NoirCon, I thought I'd make a pitch for a little Edgar Allan Poe piece about his Philadelphia connections.  The pitch took less than a minute.  Duane was hooked immediately.  More importantly, he saw the potential of the story.  I would have just written a piece about how Philadelphia was instrumental in Poe's career, blah blah blah.  But Duane saw it as a fight.  And what a fight it became

Duane, of course, is not retiring.  He's leaving the paper to concentrate on his fiction and comic writing.  So, his stepping down is a kind of bonus for readers.  But I'll sure miss his presence at the City Paper.  Here was an editor willing to take chances on stories about 19th century writers (unfortunately, we had already been talking about a piece on Robert Montgomery Bird for the CP's next Book Quarterly, but that looks dead now).  You don't see much of that in the alternative weeklies (nor anyplace else). 

So, my deeply felt gratitude goes out to both Frank and Duane, not just for publishing my own work and giving me my first breaks, but for their willingness to publish reviews and features that enliven book culture in Philadelphia and abroad.  They will be missed. 

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