Interview: Steven Goldleaf on the New York Stories

On June 13 I sat down with John O’Hara Society member Steven Goldleaf to discuss his new collection of John O’Hara’s New York stories.  The book is published by Penguin Classics and will be released on August 27, 2013.  Below is the first part of our conversation.  I’ll share additional responses in the coming weeks.

Robert Knott

Robert Knott: How did the book come about and why choose the New York Stories?

Steven Goldleaf: It was pretty unoriginal.  Matt Bruccoli had come out with two geographically organized collections of short stories.  He had first done a collection called Gibbsville, PA, which was almost every story that took place in Gibbsville.  It was 900-odd pages.  It was a really thick book.  And then he came out with John O’Hara’s Hollywood, which was almost—if not quite—all the stories that took place in Hollywood. 

Then Bruccoli died and I didn’t want to let the New York stories go unpublished, so I proposed the idea to Wylie O’Hara Doughty and she was very enthusiastic.  She put me in touch with her agent, the agent for the O’Hara estate, and he didn’t take that long to interest a publisher, which is Penguin.
Penguin did not want to do an inclusive collection, which is a little different than the two earlier books.  From the very beginning they thought an inclusive collection would be too long.  So, I created a list of the New York stories I thought were the essential ones, and we pared it down to the number we are doing, which is over 30.

RK: How did you arrive at the final selection of stories, from an editorial standpoint?

SG: The first thing I did, early on, when I had a list of 70 or 80 stories, I realized that about 30 of them were stories that didn’t strictly speaking take place in New York City.  They took place in Westchester, Long Island, or New Jersey.  The characters worked in New York City or took a trip there, but they were stories that were essentially set in the suburbs.  I realized that that could be a whole separate book.  So, if I let geography determine what stories could be included that made things a lot easier. 
One of the final stories, “Late, Late Show,” which I read again after the stories had been set in type, I think is a story that actually takes place in the suburbs.  But, aside from that, the stories are very specifically located in the City.

I still had too many stories, though.  So, I decided one criterion was going to be whether readers had seen these stories before, rather than including stories that had been included in some earlier O’Hara collections.  There were other stories that the publisher wanted included, such as “At The Cothurnos Club,” which is from The Time Element.  The editor at Penguin, a very smart, excellent editor named John Siciliano felt very strongly that he wanted it included. 

There was another story mentioned by E.L. Doctorow in his foreword called “The Public Career of Mr. Seymour Harrisburg,” which John [Siciliano] thought we should include because Doctorow had  referenced it.  I do mention stories in my introduction that we did not ultimately include. For example, in the excerpt already posted on the John O’Hara Society blog I alluded to a story called “The Golden” that we did not include because it is a suburban story.  But I used it to make a general point about O’Hara’s characters, of which it was a good illustration.  I ended up alluding to several stories that were eliminated from the final table of contents.

RK: The Table of Contents does heavily emphasize the later stories.  Why?

SG: I don’t think the early stories are as interesting literarily as they are historically.  They give you an idea about what got O’Hara interested in writing about New York City, but the quality of the stories is less pronounced.  Also, I don’t think the later stories have received all that much attention.   If you look at the posthumous collections like The Time Element and The Good Samaritan, I’m not sure they sold as well or were as well received and I’m not sure everyone has had an opportunity to read some of those stories.  O’Hara was also not able to publish most of his later stories in journals and many were only available in these collections.  If you didn’t see the collections you didn’t get to read the stories.

RK: Were there any stories you were sorry to leave out, due to space concerns?

SG:  Sure.  One of the stories that I was surprised didn’t make it was a story called “Now We Know,” an interaction between a bus driver and a woman he was flirting with in Queens.   It is an early story and not very weighty or significant, but it was one of the better early stories.  I’m not even sure why it ended up being excluded except that I had to keep drawing up lists of stories that we might be able to dispense with and I was pretty much taken up on all of my offers.  But I was surprised that I had even suggested that it could be cut. 

Watch this space next week for part two.

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