Daniel Menaker's 'Mistake' Formed His Life View

Daniel Menaker rose through the ranks at The New Yorker to become the fiction editor, and later became editor in chief at Random House. He joins host Rachel Martin to talk about his new memior, My Mistake, which describes a childhood incident that resulted in the death of his brother.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Daniel Menaker knows writing. He also knows writers. He was the fiction editor at The New Yorker for 20 years and later, editor-in-chief at Random House. He's worked with an astonishing group of writers over the years: Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout, David Foster Wallace, Billy Collins. This list could go on and on.

And of course, he is a writer himself - the author of six books. His latest, a memoir is called "My Mistake." It's arranged chronologically, starting at the very beginning of his obsession with words.

When did you start writing?

DANIEL MENAKER: Ninth grade. My ninth-grade English teacher at Nyack High School said: Please write sentences that are regular declarative sentences, compound sentences, complex sentences, interrogative sentences, imperative sentence and...

(LAUGHTER)

MENAKER: ...passive voice. So I wrote: The dog chased the cat. And then I wrote: The dog chased the cat, and the cat chased the dog. And then I wrote: When the cat chased the dog, the dog chased the cat. And so on. And she wrote back that it was very funny, and gave me a C.

MARTIN: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

MENAKER: And I, to this day, think that that was a great miscarriage of grading justice.

(LAUGHTER)

MENAKER: But it did start me thinking about writing funny stuff. I didn't write seriously, or in any sustained way, until after Mike's death.

MARTIN: Mike was Daniel Menaker's older brother. He died when Daniel was 26 years old.

MENAKER: It was Thanksgiving. We were playing on the front lawn of our house in Nyack, N.Y. And my brother and I were on the same team, and I got tired of playing back field, and defending against passes and so on. So I said, why don't you play back? And he said, You know I can't because I have bad knees. And I said, well, I think your precious knee will hold up - you know?

The first play, he went to defend a pass, and he came down and injured his knee very badly - the ligaments in his knee, and he needed surgery. At that surgery, a few weeks later, he contracted a septicemia infection, which couldn't be treated at that time; and he died. And that's why it has become a kind of central issue in my life, although I hope I've come to terms with it.

MARTIN: It is something, though, that stayed with you, obviously, as the death of a sibling would; but also, that lingering feeling for you that you, in some way, played a part in the injury that led to his death.

MENAKER: Well, I think I did, in goading him to switch places with me. He very seldom listened to what I had to say, so it was a kind of momentary oedipal triumph. And then I think: I didn't cause the infection, I didn't botch the surgery; I didn't do any of those things. But the guilt kicks in. And I don't have it anymore. I've come to terms with it, but I still do write about it, and I still do think about it. And it has played a central part in the way that I've looked at my life.

MARTIN: You wrote about your brother's death to try to understand the dimensions of your own grief. You used this book, I imagine, in part to explore another personal challenge. And that is your own cancer diagnosis.

MENAKER: Well, when you face mortality, you begin to sort of re-evaluate your life and what you would rather have done differently. And it has mainly led to great joy and sort of humor, and embrace of the luck that I've had. And that idea of luck, especially since I got such good treatment and am now friends with NED - no evidence of disease - has sort of made me re-cherish where I came from, and what I'd done.

MARTIN: There's a lot of humor in that part of the book, actually, especially some of your interactions with various hospital staff during your treatments.

MENAKER: It's a way of mastering it. You're terrified, but if you can get some distance on it, and if the technicians and doctors can help you with that, you can calm down. It makes a difference. It's almost a weapon.

MARTIN: Do you have to work to channel that? Do you get into a headspace where you think, OK, I'm a little freaked out now, I'm a little scared; so I'm going to find something funny. Or does it just happen organically for you?

MENAKER: The former - you hit the nail on the proverbial head. Yeah, if this were analytic session, I would say, as with my brother's death, this mortality scrape has enabled me - or maybe even forced me - to try to shape it. So it's a strategy, really.

MARTIN: You write in the book that the job of an editor is much like that of a therapist. That struck me. Are writers that fragile?

MENAKER: Well, I think when they're writers - when they're actually acting as writers - they tend to be pretty transferential to their editors. You put yourself out on a page, and you're dealing with one person who has in his or her hands the fate of your manuscript; and you tend to transfer to them. And the writer wants attention. He wouldn't be - or she - wouldn't be writing if they didn't want attention.

MARTIN: So, does the same hold true for you? Do you need attention?

MENAKER: Ah, well, here I am on NPR and...

(LAUGHTER)

MENAKER: ...think the answer sort of speaks for itself. Yeah, I think we write for attention. I think there's a brighter side, too, or I wouldn't do it, and I wouldn't have been involved with it. And that is to create a community of letters, a community of culture that is, indeed, you know, kind of crucial to keeping us as humanified as we can be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Daniel Menaker - his new memoir is called "My Mistake."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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