Once upon a time, the world of book publishing was both more genteel and more glamorous — gentlemanly editors tending the prose of genius authors before adjourning to their martini lunches. The writer Jonathan Galassi conjures this world so faithfully in his first novel, Muse, because he’s lived it: for the last three decades, Galassi has run Farrar, Straus and Giroux — one of the country’s most prestigious publishing houses.
At 65, why did Galassi, a celebrated translator and poet, decide to write a novel? “Because I’m 65,” Galassi tells Kurt Andersen. “It was now or never.” Through the book, he set out to explore and preserve the golden age in publishing history, the end of which he only witnessed. “I worked with fiction to try to explain a world to myself and to memorialize it to others.”
Compared to book publishing’s lean present, the wonderfully sordid world depicted in Muse seems impossibly distant. The character at its center, the fictional poet Ida Perkins, is meant to pull us into this age with her success, so amazing it could only be the figment of a publisher’s imagination. She’s a pop culture icon who appears on the cover of Rolling Stone and gets invited to White House dinners and is the subject of intense rivalry between two publishers in Galassi’s novel, Muse. “It’s a counterfactual, but it’s imaginable that there could be someone like Ida Perkins — a rock star poet who’s both great and accessible,” Galassi says.
Galassi even went so far as to write a book of poems as a means to show the fictional Perkins’ work. But Galassi is quick to say that although, in the world of the book, Perkins is recognized one of the best poets of the 20th century, he doesn’t pretend that these poems meet that standard. “They’re supposed to be a stand-in for something that you can imagine,” he says. “I don’t think they’re nothing, but you’re supposed to take them with a grain of salt.”
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