Writers and editors: They go together like scotch and water. Or like oil and water, depending on egos and dollars and slights old and new. In the United States, some of the best literary stories have to do with the writer/editor relationship. Think of Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver, Tay Hohoff and Harper Lee, or, perhaps most famously, Maxwell Perkins and Ernest Hemingway, all relationships as fraught and dynamic as the books that came out of them.

As a magazine editor of almost 50 years at some of the bastions of American journalism (Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and Esquire, to name a few), Terry McDonell was just such a lion, one who cultivated associations with the most important writers of his era. McDonell’s new book, “The Accidental Life,” chronicles those years in lively, flawless and fascinating detail. The result of his effort is a catalog of stunning portraiture.

About Tom McGuane, McDonell writes: “When I read a [McGuane] story now … his talent spins me like it did when I first read ‘Ninety-two in the Shade.’ It’s all there, the uncanny language, the surprising specifics that made me a better editor just by reading his sentences.”

It’s the sort of admission that marks a lack of ego, a quality he demonstrates over and over again, and one that makes his countless anecdotes sound like they’re coming from the sweet man at the end of the bar, not like the stuffy know-it-all in a Madison Avenue office.

Regardless of his subjects — and they truly are a who’s who of American letters, including Kurt Vonnegut, James Salter, Peter Matthiessen, Richard Ford, Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton and David Carr, for starters — McDonell treats them with respect, admiration and even a kind of reverence, regardless of whether he’s describing their work habits or drug addictions or sexual proclivities, all of which are fair game and held up in forthright detail.

But this is not a simple tell-all. McDonell also describes an industry that is constantly changing, with a cast of professional colleagues every bit as interesting as the writers he makes his subjects. And though there’s a conspicuous dearth of women among both his writers and colleagues, McDonell at least acknowledges their absence on mastheads and in boardrooms.

“There is probably a seam between reading and living, but as an editor I could never find it,” he writes early in “The Accidental Life.” And this same sentiment seems to have been true for the friendships the literary life afforded him. Certainly, for the reader pining for a recent past that suddenly seems long ago, this terrific book will be a welcome reminder. Not least because its author blurred the lines between editor and writer, to say nothing of friend and colleague.

 

Peter Geye is the author of “Wintering,” “The Lighthouse Road” and “Safe From the Sea.” He lives in Minneapolis.

The Accidental Life
By: Terry McDonell.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 368 pages, $26.95.