Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
Austin Author says Onassis had insight, concern as editor
by Jeff Guinn
Six weeks before she died, and barely two months after she publicly acknowledged the cancer that killed her, Doubleday Publishing Co. senior editor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis faxed a letter to book editors at every major American newspaper.
In it she touted Promised Lands, a recent Doubleday historical novel written by Austin resident Elizabeth Crook that had not received much national publicity. After recounting her own enthusiasm for Promised Lands, Onassis cited two early reviews of the novel and concluded by gently urging, "If you have not yet reviewed the book or scheduled it for review, we hope you will consider doing so."
In itself, such a nearly unheard of effort by a senior editor would negate uninformed opinion that Onassis was an editing figurehead at Doubleday, signed on to boost the publisher's reputation and then stay out of the way except on ceremonial occasions.
But on May 19, a tearful Elizabeth Crook sadly waited for confirmation of Onassis' death (it came later that day) and offered a vivid description of a talented, tactful editor who persuaded Doubleday to take on an unknown young novelist and then played a major role in helping her develop as a writer.
"If anyone thinks she wasn't qualified to be an editor, well, that's absolutely not the case," Crook said. "She brought exceptional knowledge to projects and had a strong sense of what she would want the writer to do, but she was also always so soft-spoken, so caring, that even when she would be telling me I had to cut one-third of a chapter or something I would come away from our meeting feeling good about my work. That's so very liberating for a writer."
Crook met Onassis four years ago when the senior editor purchased Crook's first novel, The Raven's Bride, for Doubleday. Crook was just emerging from a writer's nightmare experience: Another publisher that had purchased The Raven's Bride was acquired by new ownership not interested in publishing it. Alerted to the manuscript by a friend, Onassis read the material and accepted it for Doubleday.
"For my first book at Doubleday she was more of an acquisition editor, since the book was already completed." Crook recalled, "I didn't really have any preconceived notion of her. I hadn't even read very much about her. I knew the public image of her, but I'd never had any fascination with her and that's what made it easy for us to establish a professional relationship. And once I found out how wonderful she was to work with, the rest really wasn't important anyway."
Onassis assigned herself as editor for Crook's second novel, which portrayed the Texas Revolution through the eyes of two families, one Anglo and one Hispanic.
"She was with me on that from the beginning," Crook said. "She really did have a dramatic influence on the project."
In person and long-distance, Crook said, Onassis was gently determined "to make sure I didn't write too much or overwrite, which I have a tendency to do. She was very meticulous; I have pages and pages marked with her script. She had a real gift for knowing what passages should be left out. You see, she understood me as a writer. She made that effort."
Sometimes Onassis' comments concerned grammar — "She knew all those rules," Crook said with a laugh — and she also kept a sharp eye out for her authors' bad writing habits.
Innumerable manuscript pages were returned to Crook marked, "Overkill!" or "Overwritten!" or "Can you delete?" One more sharply worded critique noted, "She has already cried once in this scene, which is overwritten as is."
Onassis also kept an informed eye out for historical errors.
"One time I wrote that someone was wearing a gaucho hat," Crook said. "She told me, 'Gauchos are in Argentina; are you certain a gaucho hat would be worn in Texas at this time?' And she was right. These were the kinds of things she did. How enlightened she was, and how much she had to care for the books she worked on to give such constant attention to details."
Despite such constant naggings and corrections, Crook said she came to love her editor.
"If there were times I thought she was wrong, she always would let me make that decision," Crook recounted. "She let the book be my book."
Crook's third novel will have to be written without the help of Jacqueline Onassis. It's a professional loss the author already regrets.
"I don't know how well I ever put that into words in person — but I hope she knows how much I appreciate her," Crook said.