“The Italian Butcher” (by Michael Berg)

Michael Berg made his EQMM debut in our 2015 September/October double issue, with “The Last Run,” translated from the Dutch by Josh Pachter.  A former television and radio host, interviewer, documentarian, and program director in the Netherlands, he set off on a new career as a crime-fiction writer in 2008 and has since produced seven novels, receiving the prestigious Golden Noose Award and a half-dozen nominations for other awards along the way. His latest thriller, Het meisje op de weg (The Girl on the Road) is due for release this fall. Broadcasting and crime writing are not the only fields in which the author excels, however.  He is also a composer who has written songs for radio, TV, and theater, including the music and lyrics for a children’s television series. In this revealing post he pays tribute to someone who helped him achieve success in his writing career.—Janet Hutchings

That evening my wife and I got very drunk. I’d just received a letter from a Dutch publisher informing me that they would like to buy my thriller. This was the news I was hoping for. I was almost fifty. Publishing a thriller before I reached fifty was on my bucket list and the reason I’d given up my very lucrative job in Dutch radio. I took the leap and moved to a small hamlet (in the middle of nowhere in southwest France) to become a writer. My colleagues thought I’d gone nuts. Did I really think I could write a book and get it published? And even if I did, was I aware of how little money a writer actually earned? For that misery, I would be giving up my professional career and all of the benefits that came with it. At the age when they, my ex colleagues, would retire and start enjoying their pensions, I’d be as poor as hell. Did I actually realize that?

Yes, I did.

But still I decided to follow my dream. I loved thrillers. Patricia Highsmith was one of my favorite authors. Could I write something like that? Probably not as good as she did, but I was sure I could write a thriller and—not hindered by any false modesty—I was convinced I would find a Dutch publisher.

The mail I received proved that I was right.

The next morning, with a huge hangover, I called the publisher. “Congratulations”, the man began with a pleasant voice. “You’ve written a great thriller. We’d be delighted to present your book next year, in the spring.” After another minute of additional compliments, he sighed deeply and proceeded to tell me that there were some things in the book that could, however, be better. Most importantly, I’d revealed the identity of the murderer too soon. He gave me a list of pages and sections that needed editing. If I could do that, he said, the book would be totally perfect. Of course I would do that, I answered.

I worked for another two weeks on the manuscript, repaired the suggested sections, and checked all pages to improve everything that could be better and smoother; this also made the story quicker. Finished, I sent the manuscript back to the publisher. Yes, this was excellent, was the reaction of the man after reading my revisions.

Job done, I thought. Now I could relax for the next few months and enjoy waiting for the moment when the book would be in the bookshops and I would celebrate my debut as a writer. Okay, by that time I would be a bit older than fifty, but still, my goal had been reached.

But . . . the book wasn’t done yet, the publisher told me. The manuscript would first be sent to the editor, some Dutch guy who’d studied Dutch literature, lived in Italy, and worked freelance for Dutch publishers. This guy’s job was to make the manuscript fit to print. He sounded like somebody who was going to do some final corrections. Nothing to get nervous about.

A couple of weeks later, the publisher sent the manuscript back to me. The editor had finished his work. It was up to me to now either approve or deny the suggestions the editor had made. The publisher assured me in his letter: As author, I had the final cut.

Okay, I thought. No problem.

When I opened the document and saw the first page, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It looked as if some raving drunk had attacked my text with pens in both his hands and left it a total mess. My carefully written manuscript was full of red and blue balloons filled with comments, corrections, and explanations as to why the original text wasn’t any good. I felt devastated and very depressed. As I started to have a quick look at the rest of the manuscript, things only got worse. More balloons, more colors, more remarks—ten to twenty on every page. One chapter of the book was completely deleted. What?! Why? I was in shock. My first reaction was to call the publisher and complain about this editor who had massacred my book. I’d written an excellent thriller, the publisher had said, or hadn’t I? I still couldn’t understand it. After a couple of drinks and a lot more cigarettes, I decided to wait before calling the publisher and first let the situation sink in.

The next morning, after a sleepless night, I started to read the comments in the manuscript. The more I read, the more I understood what the editor had done. He’d deleted all the things that were redundant or didn’t contribute anything to the story or to the suspense. I’d written a lot about the house in the French countryside that my heroine had bought. The descriptions of the region and the plush surroundings were rather poetical, but was poetry appropriate in a thriller? Perhaps for a few sentences, but definitely not a two-page poetical description of my heroine’s garden. Too long, too boring. The editor also cut out all sections where I’d explained things for a second and even third time to the reader. And the editor was damn right . . . as if the reader him- or herself was not clever enough to follow my intended hints.

I remembered reading books myself where the author had treated me, the reader, as an imbecile. I now realized, clearly, that the editor was spot-on in deleting a full chapter where nothing happened and that didn’t contribute anything to the story or the suspense. The editor had made the book better. I was so glad that somebody had had a close look at the manuscript. So, finally, I approved almost all of the suggestions/corrections.

Actually, what the man had done was the same as what I used to do when I was working as a chief editor for Dutch radio. Freelancers and I would listen to their productions together and I would offer my advice. “Do we really need this? I’ve heard this story before. Maybe we should put this section in the beginning to tease the audience.” Succinctly: eliminate the extraneous junk to make things better. I remembered the shock of freelancers when they first thought that somebody was killing their darlings, but at the end they were always happy with the result.

Every artist needs a butcher. A nice butcher, a professional butcher with good taste who is not afraid to criticize the artist; one who does his/her utmost to make a piece of art shine. Artists who work on their own tend to get blind. Somebody has to open their eyes.

My Italian editor took care of my first five books. We have never met. I never even knew his street address. We were not friends, but we both had the same goal: to produce the best book possible. My editor taught me how to write. After the third book, my manuscripts were not as full of balloons and remarks anymore—I considered myself a writer for the first time. In the last book he edited, the pages stayed almost as white as snow. This book should earn an award, the editor wrote at the end. A year later I won the Golden Noose, the most prestigious prize for Dutch crime literature.

Thanks to the Italian butcher.

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One Response to “The Italian Butcher” (by Michael Berg)

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    So far, American readers know Michael Berg only from “The Last Run,”: his “Passport to Crime” story in EQMM. I’ve had the absolute pleasure, though, of reading several of Michael’s novels, and I’m here to tell ya: when and if they see English-language publication, you are in for a treat! This guy is a fabulous writer, and I hope you’ll look out for more of his work!

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