On Tom Jenks’s Editing and Teaching
“I had a kind of breakthrough in Tom Jenks’s class. . . . The first story I wrote for Tom’s class, ‘Sacred Heart,’ was one that also ended up in my collection. And everyone in the workshop loved it. But Tom was kind of nonplussed. He said, ‘Yes, it’s good, but you can do better.’ And I thought, Dude, everyone loves it, it’s emotional. What’s the problem? And he said, ‘I have a challenge for you. I want you to write a story that has no kids in it and nothing about the past.’ I remember thinking, You really have some nerve. Like, this is working well and, plus, I don’t even know how to write a story like that. But for some reason it was a revelatory experience to be cut off from those paths of least resistance. And what I ended up writing was a story called ‘The Stylist’ that had a very different quality to it than anything I had written. It was more interesting. It had more ideas in it. And it was so exciting to feel that happen. . . . Tom has been a kind of polestar for me.”

—Jennifer Egan, in conversation with Deborah Treisman in The New Yorker (March 12, 2023)

“I couldn’t be more pleased with how the story turned out. It benefited greatly from your guidance. I’m particularly grateful for these editorial dialogues because I always walk away with insights on the craft of fiction: the fine-tuning of language, letting a story speak for itself, endings that resonate back through a story.”

Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

“My agent sold my book today to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, under their FSG Originals imprint. I just talked with one of the editors, and she said there won’t be any major structural changes, which means a lot of the main story that we fleshed out years ago will be in there. I’m very excited. Thank you for your confidence in me.”

Clay Byars, author of Will & I: A Memoir

“When you suggested excerpting a section from the memoir, I was puzzled, as I could not see how it could be a coherent piece. Yet when I read it, I was astonished to see how focused and unified it is and strangely compelling. I think that is what called the true gift of an editor.”

Millicent Dillon, author of A Little Original Sin

From the New York Times Sunday Book Review

Now and then, Mark Richard would send his work to New York, to Esquire magazine, where it would end up in the slush pile in Tom Jenks’s office. “But the stories always popped out,” said Mr. Jenks. . . . “They were filled with yearning and longing.” The writer had talent, but little technique and no discipline. “Sometimes I’d work on his manuscripts and send them back,” Mr. Jenks said, “but he was always resistant to revising them. Instead, I’d get four more stories.”

In 1981, on a vacation to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Mr. Jenks finally met the author. At one point that day, as Mr. Richard remembers it, Mr. Jenks offered some advice: “Tom said, ‘You want to play hardball fiction? You’ve got to come to New York.’ ” The industry was in New York, and so was a large community of fellow travelers. He needed to meet editors and mix with other authors, Mr. Jenks told him; he needed to become serious about his work. Six months later, Mr. Jenks got a call at his desk in Manhattan. “I went around to the Old Town Bar on 18th Street off Broadway, and there he was,” said Mr. Jenks. “He had on Maui shorts, a T-shirt, and sandals. He said, ‘Here I am. What do I do now?’ ”

Mr. Richard went on to publish a few stories in Esquire and other magazines. Later, with Mr. Jenks’s help, he picked up an agent, Georges Borchardt. In 1989 Knopf collected ten of his stories in The Ice at the Bottom of the World, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and led to a Whiting Foundation grant.

Mr. Richard’s novel, Fishboy, was published by Doubleday/Anchor. His later collection, Charity, was later brought out by the same publisher. He currently writes for film and TV in Hollywood as well as continuing to write fiction.

From The New York Review of Books

Three weeks after Hemingway’s death in 1961, his widow traveled to Cuba for his literary remains. . . . Charles Scribner Jr. has described her arrival in the office, carrying a large shopping bag bulging with unpublished material. . . . It was merely a matter of time and editorial ingenuity before the shopping bag was published. With the exception of the cameo which a skillful editor named Tom Jenks shaped out of The Garden of Eden, we do not turn to these “posthumous works” for any of the pleasures of art. . . . Of The Garden of Eden we know, although not from Scribner’s, that it existed as some 2,400 pages, out of which Tom Jenks created a comely and absorbing novel of 247 pages. As we are told by a scholar who has examined the manuscript, it is “often more reiterative than cumulative, containing immense repetition that Hemingway seems to have been unable to control, and there is often little evidence among the variants that he privileged one text over another.” Seems to have been unable to control is a chilling phrase.

But Jenks has performed a dazzling feat. The published text glows with language to bring to mind Hemingway at his best, tense with the excitement of narrative clarity yet hinting at mysteries just below the skin of the prose.

Thomas Flanagan

“I’ve been working away on the stories I sent you last fall, I hacked and slashed at one called ‘The Marvelous Yellow Cage,’ taking much of what you said. I just found out that it’s been accepted at Glimmer Train.

Charlotte Forbes, an O. Henry Award winner

“I want you to know how deeply grateful I am for the help you gave me. I think you gave of yourself in very real and important ways. As a teacher, I recognize a good teacher (very, very few and far between) and . . . I’m very glad of the time I spent with you.”

Susan L. Feldman, essays in Ontario Review, New England Review, Creative Non-Fiction, Chelsea, Michigan Quarterly Review, and others

“I wanted to let you know that the piece of mine that you kindly read, about a Bolivian woman jailed on a drug charge and my visits to see her in prison, was accepted at 7,000 words in Puerto del Sol. I really like this journal and am very happy with this acceptance. I want to thank you for generously reading my piece and offering me critiques over the phone—all of which I followed.”

Lesley MacKay

“Recently I had some good news: a story accepted by Prairie Schooner, and they also nominated the story for a Pushcart. Thanks so much for the early encouragement and guidance.”

Donna Story

“Your comments are outstanding. . . . I need such thoughtful critique.”

Spencer Nadler, author of The Language of Cells

“A while ago you helped me with a story called ‘Ambition.’ I made revisions based on your feedback and the result was good enough to be a finalist in the Santa Fe Writer’s Project Literary contest last year. Jayne Anne Phillips was the judge.”

Donna Miscolta

“As I go through your notes, I am impressed by your details and your understanding of rhythm. As I reread the parts of my revisions that now include those touches of insight that you recommended, I am just plain shocked by how much more coherent and enjoyable the writing is. Also, there is a greater sense of momentum, of things building. I am following your instructions to plot boldly.”

Foongy Lee

“I don’t think I will ever stop being grateful for the things you have taught me about writing. I hold them in my mind, and I feel like I have begun to see more clearly, both my own writing and other people’s.”

Leslie Bazzett

“I’ve been amazed by your ability to penetrate to the essence of a story, at any stage of development. Your comments and insights were a great help in focusing my efforts. One of your gifts is that you treat aspiring writers and their material with a great deal of respect and tender loving care. The upshot of this is that your students wind up taking themselves quite seriously. Even if a bit fancifully.”

Blant Hurt

“Thank you for your recent feedback. You have been a tremendous inspiration and support.”

Connie Biewald, author of Bread and Salt and Digging to Indochina

“It is like you said—every scene and most sentences following a thread of conflict, action, resolution. Reversals and the movements related to recognition all along the way, moments of grace, and the ending carrying the reader back into life. Classic. I never knew this before. Wonderful knowledge!”

Kim Wickens, author of Lexington: The Extraordinary Life & Turbulent Times of America’s Legendary Racehorse

“Your comments were insightful and right on point. You have a gracious way of directing attention to the major problems without seeming overly critical, and I can see why established writers enjoy working with you.”

Bob Rice

“Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom. Your help has made all the difference to my writing.”

Mary Lea Crawley

“I just wanted to thank you for all of your help and guidance on ‘Blue Lake.’ I was so pleased with how the piece turned out, and I feel blessed to have been placed in such capable hands.”

Laura Rose, published in Narrative

“Thanks . . . for offering such sound advice.”

Lisa Okuhn

“Your class has been a godsend, and the techniques you’ve shared with us have been . . . helpful in redirecting our focus . . . on what is essential in structuring a story.”

June Meyers

“The ideas you presented have already led to big breakthroughs. More will come. Your insights were brilliant, your empathy important, your directness instructive, and your acknowledgment that the real world of publishing is much, much tougher than the workshop rang both true and sobering. It’s important what you do.”

Dave Webb

“I’m grateful that you continue to set the bar so high, even when the jump looks impossible.”

Linda Moyer

“I’ve read a number of books on the writing craft, and I’ve never encountered any that are as precise in spelling out the elements of narrative fiction the way you did.”

Bill Roberts

“Thank you so much for pointing me in the right direction. You were true to your promise to be rigorous, but your patience and humor were equally important.”

LaNette Schmeidler

“Your instruction and feedback have been enormously valuable. You’ve provided a wide-angle view, enabling me to work in new, more challenging and productive ways. Your constructive criticism and encouragement have been great.”

Kira Peterson

“I must thank for the workshop. Already, the revisions to my novel show me that I have found the beginnings of that ‘next level’ I sought. I have thrown out passages and sections of the existing manuscript and written new, more dramatic pieces. Thanks to your passionate love of good writing, I am finding the opportunities in my own work. Thanks for a workshop beyond value.”

Xu Xi, author of Habit of a Foreign Sky and Unwalled City

“I just wanted to let you know that I got accepted into the MFA program at Arizona State. Had I not come out to San Francisco for the workshop, I’m quite sure I would have given up on my writing and found myself studying law right now. Thanks for everything.”

Michael Croley, published in Narrative, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, and others

“Thank you so much for your kindness and faith in my work. Every good thing that’s happened to me this year has its source in Narrative. I can’t thank you enough for your generosity and for giving my piece a place in your pages.”

Kirstin Valdez Quade, author of Night at the Fiestas and Best American Short Story winner