Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Remembering Ruth Cavin

by Julia Spencer -Fleming

She was called “The Legendary Ruth Cavin” so consistently, you would be forgiven for thinking her parents, in a fit of enthusiasm and foresight, had given her the name, the way a pop star might christen his offspring “Prince Michael.” I first encountered her in a message left on my answering machine in April, 2001.

“Hello, this is Ruth Cavin of St. Martin's Press. I'm looking for Julia Spencer-Fleming. I guess I'll just send an email.”

Six months before, I sent a manuscript to the St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery contest, Ruth's baby. And her email (riddled with typos because she had so much correspondence to get through) changed my life.

She congratulated me on winning the 2001 contest and said St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne Books would like to publish In the Bleak Midwinter.

Ruth once told me over drinks that making offers to first-time authors was her favorite part of the job.

“They're so excited and happy,” she said. “At least for that moment, they think you're the best, the smartest editor in the whole world.”

She was full of quips like that, of piercing observations and hysterically funny stories that would have been right at home at the Algonquin Hotel's Round Table.

She did not, however, dress the part. I don't think I ever saw her in anything other than a long, comfortable dirndl skirt, with a shirt in the winter and a T in the summer. At writing conferences, she would hike the halls with an enormous messenger bag hanging crossed over her chest, smiling non-stop, her white hair whisping around her head like a dandelion gone to seed.

When I first met her, she was already bent over from the scoliosis that would be such a trial to her last years, but her frail appearance was deceiving.

“Walking from my subway stop to the office used to be a problem,” she confided.

“I have to stop to catch my breath, and people kept coming up to me and asking if I needed help," she said.
"But then I figured out all I have to do is hold my cell phone up to my ear until I'm ready to go on again. No one bugs you if they think you're making a call.”

When she turned 87, she finally gave in to Tom Dunne and agreed to let the company have a car pick her up at the train station and deposit her at the Flatiron Building, much to the relief of everyone who knew her.

She was a joy to work with.

Not that it was joyful to hear that this and that and especially that other bit would have to go. But she had such a keen eye and perfectly-shaped sense of story you always knew after you finished the hard work of rewriting to her specifications, the book would be better and stronger than it ever could have been without her.

I became utterly blocked while writing my fourth novel, To Darkness and To Death. In order to make sense of its complicated structure, I had outlined the book—42 pages of outline, in fact. The story was to take place over 24 hours, I was four months past my deadline and stuck at 7pm—and I already had 140,000 words (for those of you not intimately acquainted with word counts, that means a published book of over 400 pages.) The characters had turned to cardboard and I had no idea how to get the thing moving again.

I dumped my problem in Ruth's lap on Friday afternoon. Monday morning I had a three-paragraph email telling me to cut one of the major viewpoint characters, consolidate two story lines, and throw away the outline—it wasn't working for me. I tossed a quarter of the pages I had already written along with that damn outline—and the rest of the story poured out to its conclusion.

That is the power of a good editor. That was the power Ruth Cavin wielded for the benefit of all her authors. The world of letters is smaller and sadder today—and so is everyone who knew Ruth.


  1. Ruth Cavin wasn't my editor, but I did meet her a few times. I can remember - it must have been my first Malice as a published author - sitting in the bar area at the Crystal Gateway. I felt like such a grown-up. Ruth Cavin knew who I was! And she was talking to me!

  2. Right before I signed my deal with Thomas Dunne Books, I visited the flatiron building to meet some folks there. It was a Friday in the summer, so there weren't a lot of people around. But my now-editor, Toni Plummer, introduced me to this unassumingly dressed white-haired woman who was sort of shuffling along the hallway. As soon as Toni said, "This is Brad Parks," the woman began energetically extolling me and my work (to which I think I replied to my agent, "Jeanne, I like this place. Can we come back here EVERY Friday!?!").

    Anyhow, the woman went on her way. And I can remember thinking she was probably in her late 60's or early 70's. That's when Toni said, "That was Ruth Cavin, and she's 89."

    I was new to the mystery community at that point, so while the age impressed me, the name didn't mean much. It's only been in the years since that I understood what a privilege it was to meet such a legend. It seemed like everyone knew Ruth Cavin, one way or another. And you could say drop her anywhere and get a smile.

    She touched a lot of lives and was, unquestionably, one of a kind. And I know she'll be missed.

  3. AH, thanks, Julia. It's so lovely to think of all the lives she changed...

    But tell us a little more about her editing process. Or, anyone who worked with her who had experience with her methods... I 'd love to hear more.

    My editor makes very polite notes like: "The reader will not understand where this scene is talking place. Please address."

    HOw did she handle changes? DId she share your brain, or how did you feel about it?

  4. I believe it was my first Bouchercon and I'd just realized that the important stuff happens outside of panels. The lasting memory was of Ruth cavin standing by the piano at 3 in the morning singing Hard Hearted Hannah, the vamp of Savannah.
    She was only in her 70s then, of course. A spry young thing, but she could belt out a melody!
    I enjoyed sitting at the St Martin's table with her many times. And the stories she could tell--of her early travels around the world. She was a brilliant story-teller. No wonder she was such a good editor! She always said she wanted to die in her editor's chair, and she preety much did!

  5. OH, Rhys, that's great...There should be more singing at conventions. Absolutely.

  6. Hank, when Ruth said "Jump," I only asked how high.

    She served as a kind of ideal reader--she could give an unvarnished view of what the experience of reading my book-in-draft was like, with the knowledge to pinpoint precisely why something didn't work. In my case, it was frequently too much padding--as anyone who's ever read me knows, I tend to write looong. Ruth taught me to focus on serving the story, while at the same time giving me the confidence to trust in my own narrative instincts.

    She only ever made one suggestion I refused to take. When she was editing In the Bleak Midwinter, she wasn't too sure about having my unmarried priest falling for a very married police chief. She said, "I think you should get rid of the wife." A few books down the line, when I reminded her of that, she looked bemused and said, "Well, that wasn't very smart, was it?" How can you not love an editor like that?

  7. Oh, yes, Julia..that's great. Nice that she saw what YOU meant--what a great team you were. And those lessons stick, you know? It'll always be like she's editing over your shoulder.

    (Yeah, my editor will cut a paragraph with the single word of explanation: PACING. And it's such fun to see how it's almost always better. I love the editng process.)

  8. Oh Julia, she sounds like a wonderful editor! Gosh, I hope we are all working so well at her age!!

    I love the editing process too--once you get over the hump of realizing your editor knows what she's doing:). I've been lucky so far...

  9. What a lovely tribute!

    I never knew her, but I've often thought that anyone who teaches you anything, lives in your head forever.

    Seems like over the many years working with so many writers, she must have carved out a huge piece of immortality.

  10. Julia, Love that you included a picture of her. Remember trying so hard to get her to pose with several of her Malice winners at the banquet one year? Sure, she seemed gentle, but we didn't get the photograph, did we? [An artist friend had told her she should never have her photograph taken ... Julia's "dandelion" comment paints a better portrait than any photo, though!]

  11. Dear Julia

    I hadn't realized Ruth had died. I'm so sorry. I first met her after I published my second book: she sent me a gently chiding letter about a mistake I'd made regarding Erie, Pennsylvania where (I think, I can't find the letter now) she had grown up. Her first name really should have been "Brilliant" followed by "and Legendary."

  12. Cathy, that's a great memory.

    And Sara, so funny and perfect that she took the time to write to you! So endearing. (I can't resist--What was the mistake?)

    Did she embrace track changes? Or did she continue to edit on paper?

  13. I did not know Ruth Cavin but what you have shared here is a wonderful glimpse of an exceptional woman. Thank you.

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  15. Like so many first-time authors before me, I pushed myself to enter Ruth's office. Her reputation intimidated me. I needn't have worried. Ruth was a writer's friend. She was always cheerful, upbeat, and tenacious. Her observations were on the money, but she always treated me with a cordial respect.

    Towards the end, her commute became more difficult for her, but she made it a point to come to the office as often as she could. She loved what she did, and so did I.

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