On Milton Meltzer

[I asked Jean Reynolds to guest blog about working with Milton Meltzer, who passed away on September 19 after a long, successful career.]

We publishers always know the age of our authors. It is not that we’re nosy, but we must use the author’s birth date when we apply to the Library of Congress for cataloging information. So when I first started working with Milton Meltzer, twenty years or so ago, I just happened to notice that he was born in the same week as my mother. Yet he had such a youthful enthusiasm that I never, ever thought of him as old enough to be in my parent’s generation.

Milton was not only a consummate researcher, but he was also a thinker. He was able to synthesize the information he found, think about it, put it into political and social context, come to some conclusions—and then weave it all into a story that actually went somewhere. I consider him to be the pioneer of the now-respected genre that we call narrative nonfiction.

I worked with Milton when he was well into his nineties. Being aware of the frailties of my mother and others in that decade of life, I was struck by Milton’s incredibly agile and active mind. Nothing got by him! If I told him we were going to replace a photo or get rid of a footnote or change a subhead, and if a jpeg showed up months later in which the matter was not yet handled, he would gently ask at what stage I was planning on taking care of it. If I was still befuddled, he could actually quote from the earlier conversation on the matter!

Many eulogies about Milton will cite his five nominations for the National Book Award and his two lifetime achievement awards—the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and the Regina Medal, as well as his other awards too numerous to mention. So rather than repeat those facts, I thought I would share with you a small example of how generous-hearted Milton was.

For sixty years, Milton had always written his books in longhand on legal pads and then sent them off to his typist, to whom he was incredibly loyal. The only problem was that his typist did not use a computer. This was OK in the 1960s and maybe as late as the 1980s. After that, electronic text was a must. But Milton wouldn’t give up IMG_9351his typist. So we would have to scan the typed pages. The technology to do this wasn’t so great in the early days. We would have to painstakingly go over the manuscript, correcting the inevitable glitches that were introduced.

After years of tactful suggestions followed by additional years of strong requests and eventually a little begging on my part, he finally agreed to find someone who could use a computer. I always had my suspicions about what happened next. Hard breaks at the end of every line, double spaces after every period, five hits on the spacebar to indent paragraphs, running heads and page numbers typed individually on every page, and a submission on a floppy disk led me to believe that he remained loyal to his original typist. Most likely, I surmised, he told her to do just what she did on the typewriter on a computer. That was Milton. His manuscripts were so good that it really didn’t matter how he did it. And besides, those corrections could keep an editorial intern busy for two days during a slow week.

I will miss his follow-up calls to see if I’d done anything with an idea he had bounced off me a few weeks before. I’ll miss the excitement of doing the initial read through of his manuscripts. I’ll miss his phone call of gracious compliments when he received his bound books. And I’ll probably even miss those darned documents on floppy disks….