Text: Solveig Hansen, 2017
Her eyes were blue beyond blue, like the ocean. A blue he could swim into… Boy sees girl and the writer cannot decide how to best describe that blue beyond blue eye color. “Like nothing but blue,” says the editor. No need for marine life references.
This is a scene from Genius, a film about the relationship between Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). It’s the 1930’s. Wolfe walks into Perkins’s office with a 5,000 (!) page handwritten manuscript that would become Of Time and the River — and eventually cut to 900 pages.
In this scene, we see the editor hard at work while the writer keeps adding more pages, arguing that every word is vital. The 200+ words long boy-sees-girl paragraph was cut to 25 words. Below is the transcript of the dialog. Who says editing is boring?
“When he meets the girl, you’ve written this,” Perkins says to Wolfe and reads the paragraph out loud: “As Eugene’s eyes became accustomed to the haze of the cigarettes and cigars swirling miasma-like he saw a woman, in serge, and gloves that crept like living tendrils up her normally ivory arms, but now sun-kissed as a blush, as the incarnadine discovery inside a conch shell seen for the first time by a bewildered zoologist as he is undone by its rosy, promising pinkness; those were her arms. But it was her eyes that stopped his breath; that made his heart leap up. Blue they were, even through the swirling vapors of pompous Chesterfields and arrogant Lucky Strikes he saw her eyes were blue beyond blue, like the ocean. A blue he could swim into forever and never miss a fire engine red or a cornstalk yellow. Across the chasm of that room, that blue, those eyes, devoured him and looked past him and never saw him and never would, of that he was sure. From that moment, Eugene understood what the poets had been writing about these many years, all the lost, wandering, lonely souls who were now his brothers. He knew a love that would never be his. So quickly did he fall for her that no one in the room even heard the sound, the whoosh as he fell, the clatter of his broken heart. It was a sure silence, but his life was shattered.”
Wolfe asks Perkins if he doesn’t like it. “You know I do,” says Perkins. “That’s not the point.” Then the arguments start about what to cut:
Maxwell Perkins: So, he sees a girl and he falls in love for the first time?
Thomas Wolfe: Yes.
Perkins: Does his mind go to deep-sea marine life?
Wolfe: At that moment, yes.
Perkins: I don’t believe it. I think you fell in love with the images, not the girl.
Wolfe: So, we cut the zoology and…
And on it goes:
Wolfe: Every word matters.
Perkins: No, it doesn’t.
Wolfe: They’re vital — vital.
Perkins: You’re losing the plot. He’s falling in love. What was it like the first time you fell in love, Tom? Was it cornstarch-yellow and pompous Chesterfields?
Wolfe: It was a lightning bolt.
Perkins: And that’s what it should be — a lightning bolt. Save all the thunder.
Wolfe: I got you. I got you. Cut that. Cut that. All right. We cut the text out. He saw a woman — cut, cut, cut. But it was her eyes that stopped his breath in his throat — that made his heart leap up.
Perkins: No, cut the Wordsworth.
Wolfe: It stopped his breath. Blue they were…
Perkins: No, cut the marine line.
Wolfe: A blue beyond blue like the ocean.
Wolfe: A blue beyond blue like…
Perkins: Like nothing but blue.
Wolfe: A blue he could swim into forever and never — hmm, cut this.
Perkins: And pick up with?
Wolfe: Had there ever been such blue? Had there ever been such eyes?
Perkins: Don’t need the rhetorical.
Perkins: It’s not a lightning bolt. It’s a digression.
Wolfe: A blue beyond blue — no. Her eyes were blue.
End result: “Eugene saw a woman. Her eyes were blue. So quickly did he fall for her that no one in the room even heard the sound.”
Too colorless? I guess it depends on how important the scene is to the story in general in a brick of 900 pages. Of Time and the River is Wolfe’s fictionalized autobiography.
Although successful, Perkins — who also worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway — comments on the dilemma that makes editors sleepless at night: “Are we really making books better? Or just making them different?”
“There’s always the fear that I’ve deformed your book,” he says to Wolfe. “Who’s to say that it wasn’t the way it was meant to be when you first brought it in?”