Editor Robert Weil
Executive Editor and Vice President,
In his long career as an editor, Robert Weil has worked with some of the most successful and revered authors in the world. Recently, he served as editor on The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, which won multiple awards, including the 2008 National Book Award in nonfiction and the Pulitzer Prize in history in 2009, and was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Prize for biography. His storied career also includes some graphic works—two very notable works, in fact. The first is the bestselling Stitches by David Small, which spent its first two weeks on sale at the top of the New York Times' Graphics Best-Seller List, and the latest is Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated, which will debut at the top of the list this week.
“I revere the book,” Weil says. “And the book can take different forms.” The graphic novel form currently accounts, by Weil’s estimation, for about 10 percent of his list, and he’s not looking to grow that number significantly. “I’m not changing what I am and what I do. I like to work with great writers and scientists and philosophers in all different fields.”
We talked with Weil about how he got started working on graphic books in the first place, how he edits them, and what it was like to work on both Genesis and Stitches.
How did you start working on graphic books?
Sheerly by accident. We’re not a graphic publisher. In early 2004, Will Eisner’s two agents, Judy Hanson and Denis Kitchen, were selling The Plot and, given my history background, they felt that I might be a good editor to work with Will. Will felt that way too. Will was amazing and wonderful. We had such a good relationship that they let me know that Crumb had this book, and I made an offer. It was then quickly discussed with other publishers, but they decided to go with Norton. So first I had The Plot, then I had Genesis, then the Eisner people sold the Eisner backlist, and that’s how it all started. But I’m not a graphic editor.
Do you treat graphic works differently as an editor?
No, I edit graphic books the way I edit regular books. They need beginnings, endings, they need work, everything has to come together. Everything has to sound and read like a symphony.
Had you read comics before?
I had read Will Eisner, and I had read some others, but I didn’t grow up a comic junkie. I was more wedded to the literature, the written word.
Are you now inspired to do more graphic novels?
I do a few, but I would say my graphic side is maybe 10 percent of what I do. I would not call myself a graphic editor. I’d say we evaluate graphic books the same way we evaluate all other books, and they’re just part of it. Part of my interest in graphic books I credit to Calvin Reid [of Publishers Weekly and PW Comics Week]. Calvin has been telling me for years about the centrality of graphic books to book culture, and finally I believed him. I credit him more than anyone with really eliciting my interest in graphic books, and I consider him a hero of the graphic world. He was singing the virtues of them in the 1980s when no one believed him.
You also worked on David Small’s Stitches. How did that come about?
I knew David Small’s agent, Holly McGee. She’s incredible, and she said he was very special. When I read it, his artwork was so extraordinary I just felt I had to work with him. I was so drawn to this book. We had a fabulous working relationship. David is so extraordinary. David is the best. He’s an amazing person and so responsive. He’s a world-class artist. And I said, how can we create the best possible work that works symphonically? Music is very influential in the way I edit. If it doesn’t have the right beginning, it doesn’t have the right ending. How are the little notes repeated throughout it; i.e., in the drawings, the details? The dialogue works. Can it appeal to all ages? That was very important—to appeal to ages from 12 up.
That’s interesting, because the book has just been nominated for a National Book Award in the young-adult category, and a lot of people have talked about how that’s a weird place for it. But you consider it a natural place for it to be?
I think it is very natural. It’s very much a crossover book. I always thought of it as a crossover book. In fact, I think three of our five blurbs are from children’s writers. I’m older, so we don’t realize what teens and kids read these days. But 13-year-olds have had a terrific response to this book. I do know that other YA publishers bid on David Small’s book. So why people are surprised that it was nominated in young adult…we’ve just done a great book, and we’re thrilled.
What was the editing process like with Stitches?
I edit graphic artists the same way I edit language. My biggest encouragement to David was—he kept sending two or three pages to friends and his agent and to me, and finally I said, “David, I want you to be a cormorant. I want you to be a bird and go underwater and disappear for several months and just do it one last time. Just commune with yourself. Find the deepest possible images and stirrings in you and when you come up, you’ll be filled with fish in your beak. Which is what a cormorant does. I order you not to call anyone. Go in your studio and just resonate with your work.” And he did.
Have you done that with other writers?
Every writer is different. You have to…you’re a psychologist. You can’t predetermine. You know, any kind of writer or artist likes editing. You tell them what you see and then you let them decide what they want to do with it. Everyone has different needs. In David’s case, he needed to trust his own voice. Because I knew his own voice was very powerful, and I said, “Let your own voice guide you. I don’t want to hear you say so and so likes this, so and so likes that.” I said it doesn’t matter what Bob Weil thinks. It matters what David Small thinks. When he came up for air, lo and behold, he had a treasure. It was very exciting.
I think that book touches people because it’s a redemptive work because someone as traumatized as David Small can go through that and get to this, so what does that tell us. It just gives so much hope.
Let’s talk a little about Robert Crumb’s The Book of Genesis. Did it seem surprising that he would want to do this book?
He was very concerned to take this work seriously. He has great respect for the Bible as a work of literature. He was not going to do a “sendoff” of the Bible. He treated it with a great deal of reverence. He did not alter the language. It was not done for comic effect. It might be a new stage for Crumb, but it was done because he was aware of its indelible influence on generation after generation, and he was going to try to illustrate it. Robert doesn’t think, “Well, will I lose my audience?” That’s not who Robert is. Robert is more about producing a great work of art. Robert doesn’t think that way; he’s not into commerce that way. That’s why I think he’s ultimately so popular, because people respect him as a transcendent artist.
It’s interesting that this book has an “Adult Supervision” tag on it.
That was Robert’s idea. I didn’t tell him to do that. If anything, I think that will get more teenagers to read the Bible than anything else you could possible hope for. I think it’s ingenious. If you really want to improve Bible literacy, you put that cover line on the book. If adults really want their kids to read the Bible and appreciate it—kids are different these days. If you want kids to enjoy the Bible, they will pick up Genesis by Robert Crumb. Imagine taking the Bible as a blank slate and saying, What does it look like? Imagine that challenge. Robert began this in 2004. It’s frightening, just the challenge of how do you make the Bible look? No wonder it took him five years.
Were you involved with the book that early?
Really quickly thereafter.
Were you familiar with Crumb?
Everyone is familiar with Robert Crumb. He loves to read. He loves biblical history. Robert is one of the most well read people I know. For that matter, so is David Small. They both are voracious readers.
The commentary at the end of Genesis is really brilliant. It’s a nice touch for the book.
I urged him to do the commentary and at first he said no, no one would care about it. And I said, we care about it. That took a little bit of encouragement to get him to put that in. Because he’s not a biblical scholar. Well, he is… And so he was feeling he was in new terrain, and part of my job as editor was to encourage him to put it in, because people really wanted to know that.
When you see these stories, and have a chance to read them this way, it’s really interesting. There are a lot of parts of the Bible you don’t hear much about or read about.
That is why teenagers will run for this book, and not in a disrespectful way. The Bible does depict incest and sex. It depicts them in words. Robert could have been a lot more lurid. That wasn’t his intention. His intention was to imagine it through his particular lens. I do think this book will promote great Bible literacy among young people.
Was there any talk between you and Robert of how he would make the characters look?
No, you don’t do that to Robert Crumb. I know and he knows that among Orthodox Jews, you’re not allowed to depict God. In that way, it won’t appeal to—we’re not trying to appeal to an orthodox community. I think if you saw the view of the book in the Jewish publication Forward by Paul Buhle. Jews, by and large, are finding this an extraordinary work, which they’re responding to. I think this will have great interest among Jewish readers.
What interests you about graphic books?
I see the field as a work of art. That’s my vision for both David Small and Robert Crumb. I feel incredibly lucky to have worked with them. And I got to work with Will Eisner! Will was fantastic. Will was so lively and curious. It was so devastating when he died. We didn’t expect it. Will was amazing. He was working till a month before his death on rewrites. Will was a joy.