Fiction to food

On the verge of 50, Bill Buford relinquished his position as fiction editor at The New Yorker to slave under chef Mario Batali. Tim Adams chronicles Buford’s tranformation, admitting “I loved the idea of Buford suffering as Mario Batali’s kitchen bitch because I was once, for five years or so, Buford’s magazine bitch.” Here’s Adams on Buford’s editorial process at Granta.

When a writer submitted something to Granta, Buford could often live with it for months, even years, apparently in an effort to make it his own. He had a battered briefcase which he carried under one arm, like a linebacker might carry a football; the briefcase bulged with bulldog-clipped stories that would be sweated over and lost and found and taken out and stuffed back in until they became fetishised objects in their own right. He wanted the writing in his magazine to have a physical, organic quality; he wanted to reduce it, over and over, until it had a more powerful flavour. It was, I suppose, like a version of Mario Batali’s dictum: we get words, we fix them up and we sell them at a profit.

No writer was immune to this process. Martin Amis recalls how the first six-page story he sent was returned to him with eight pages of notes and cuts and improvements. Iain Sinclair, in his book Downriver, devotes a whole chapter to the pain of being edited by Buford, whom he reincarnates as Bull Bagman: ‘The typescript was devastated by saline smears, honey blobs, burns, wine-spits. Holmes would have gathered up enough ash for a library of monographs. Bagman truly wanted it, wanted to hack and slash, transplant, transpose, transform, until his “piece” came into a focus that would hold… pencilled comments speared the margins: a messianic tutorial. “Who is ‘I’??” was the first controversy…’

Unusually for a literary editor, Buford drove a white Ford Escort XR3i, with stripes and spoilers, a car that was, most weeks, stolen by boy racers; on one occasion he was called to a field in the fens by the police to collect the vehicle only to discover it had been stripped of seats and wheels. He swapped it for something more conservative: an open-topped black BMW that he drove like Mr Toad and which was always breaking down. He was congenitally late, and because he was congenitally late he was sorely afflicted by parking tickets. Local bailiffs, with whom he was on first-name terms, would appear in the office, just as we were pondering the question, say, of asking Saul Bellow to write about his childhood, to serve writs that Buford stuffed into his bag.

Buford believed that the ingredients of a quarterly magazine were a combustible amount of pent-up frustration, many late nights and sudden bursts of adrenaline: he sought to engender this in his writers, his staff and, mostly, himself. The only way of getting any release was to get him to read something or to edit something or to phone someone or to write something, and as each of these demanded telling him what to do, which was invariably a process of cajoling and apology and silence and procrastination, the tension mounted. In the time I worked there, the office was generally tormented by a single question, ‘Where is Bill?’ and its inevitable supplementary, ‘What do you think he is doing?’


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