by Jennifer Ciotta
Literary Traveler had a chance to catch up with Playboy magazine’s literary editor, Amy Grace Loyd. The December issue, on stands November 10, 2009, is the release of Vladimir Nabokov’s lost novella, The Original of Laura. Ms. Loyd discusses the details behind acquiring first serial rights and the longstanding literary tradition of Playboy magazine with LT’s Network Editorial Director, Jennifer Ciotta.
Literary Traveler: You have built a career of working at publishing houses, The New Yorker (assisting famed fiction editor Bill Buford) and The New York Review of Books. What originally attracted you to Playboy?
Amy Grace Loyd: I think it was because in college and before, I was aware that they published great fiction. As I got older, I thought, what a great combination of elements. You’ve got things drawing a man’s eye then you’ve got things that are enriching his intellectual and spiritual life. When I was an English literature major and French minor at Bowdoin College, I would dig up all these stories that I couldn’t find elsewhere and think, Playboy, really? It was then I realized that they published up to three or sometimes four stories an issue. I thought their commitment to [literary fiction] was great.
While I was still at The New York Review of Books, I heard that Playboy was really making a commitment to their editorial offices [in New York City]. I thought, is it worth sending a resume to see if they’d be game to hire a real literary editor? I’d heard that they hadn’t had one on their masthead in a while. I sent it as a fluke, thinking that it was one of the few places in this country that you can still edit fiction for a magazine. I sent it in 2003 and never heard anything back and thought, maybe I’m too rarefied a bird for these guys. I’m not flashy enough.
Chris Napolitano, former Editorial Director of Playboy, kept my resume on file for one and a half to two years, and when he had the resources, he called to hire me. He did interview others, so it wasn’t such a Cinderella story, but he did end up hiring me. We really hit it off and his vision for the literary side of Playboy was really developed. It turned out that Chris Napolitano and I had an amazing working relationship.
I got a full length Denis Johnson novel in the magazine. I got Woody Allen back in the magazine after so long, and Stephen King who said, no more Playboy!
I think I said the right things, which is that we can reach so many more people than anybody else, and we’re also reaching people who don’t read fiction generally, or at least literary fiction. I was reminding people, who maybe were more interested in breasts, of a good story that was told with carefully crafted language.
I get letters from prisoners, truck drivers, and professors as well. And people who just like a good story. I’m more thrilled by the people who I wouldn’t expect to be reading fiction.
LT: Why was it so important for you to seize this publishing opportunity for The Original of Laura?
AGL: It’s based in Playboy‘s history. Nabokov loved being published in Playboy and got a kick out of it. Also, Nabokov really read it. In his collective and selective letters, even when he wasn’t writing directly to Hef [Playboy‘s founder Hugh Hefner] or A.C. Spectorsky and Robie Macauley, who were the editorial directors/fiction editors in the 1960s and 70s, he is writing to other people and saying, hey did you see the great cartoon in Playboy about Lolita?
Nabokov recognized it was a place where good fiction was published and [there was] some interesting blend of high and low and some really good intellectual work.
Hef is very fond of Nabokov and very proud of his history with [the writer]. They never met. But Nabokov published two complete novels in our pages, The Eye and Despair; about six stories and one novel excerpt, from Ada or Ardor.
I thought [publishing The Original of Laura] would be a reminder of our history with Nabokov, but also [Playboy‘s] really rich literary history. Where better to give it a great showing and translate the sense of its importance to herds of people who would be surprised, thinking this is a disgrace [versus] people who would say, ahh, but of course?!
LT: In Nabokov’s infamous novel, Lolita, he evoked a strong sense of place through road trips, and in and out of motels and hotels throughout the United States. It is a travel book. Can we expect more of the same in The Original of Laura?
AGL: Certainly there are a lot of different locations that are evoked, from Russia to the United States, from New York to Massachusetts. But I think it’s more of an expression of Nabokov’s worldliness. And the worldliness that he imbues his characters with, and also this sense of being an emigrant and coming from other places.
LT: Nabokov had a good relationship with Playboy. However, he was the ultimate perfectionist in regard to editing his own works. With all of this in mind, how did you go about editing The Original of Laura?
AGL: That’s a good question. What I wanted to do was to give our readers, who come to the magazine with various levels of interest and sophistication, as fluid a read as possible. And I also wanted, and if Vladimir were still alive I think he’d agree with me or at least I hope he would, to do something distinct from what Penguin in the UK and Knopf here were doing. They were presenting it very much as a found document and they’ll have the note card and then underneath the text typed out so you can decipher Nabokov’s handwriting.
In my case I took what I thought was the most cohesive part of the manuscript. I had to take as many distractions out of the manuscript as possible without betraying the fact that this is an unfinished work. Just so you could get a sense of what this might be like, not in a more finished form, but get a sense of the story there.
Again, my interest, because I care about Dmitri (Nabokov’s son, who sold the rights) and the book and the life of this book, was to draw people to the book. And I thought I had a better shot at drawing people to the book if I could give them something that was a good meal onto itself.
LT: When people think of Playboy, pop culture images come to mind. For the future, how do you intend to showcase the magazine’s literary side?
AGL: I think the challenge is less about Playboy in particular than it is about what’s happening to the publishing industry. And because of that, Playboy, like other magazines and other companies interested in publishing literature, has to deal with less revenue and corporate people who are debating over the size of their resources. In our case we have less editorial pages. So for me, what I have to do is to make sure I’m still getting something into the pages that is interesting, has integrity and is in balance with the rest of the features in the magazine. That’s a real challenge. The fiction isn’t taking over so much space that there’s room for the rest of what Playboy is, because of course, Playboy is many things.
That’s my challenge: to make sure that in this panicked time that our commitment to [publishing literary fiction] stays strong. Though I may have to be more mindful of my word counts, I don’t have to compromise quality.
LT: After The Original of Laura, what do our readers have to look forward to from literary Playboy in 2010?
AGL: We’re in negotiations now, but it looks pretty good that were going to get an excerpt of the new Martin Amis novel. I’m so excited about that because it’s going to be the first time he’s in our pages. I don’t know if he became more interested because of the Nabokov [novel], because he’s a great admirer. The other thing is we have a really funny short story from Ethan Coen [of the Coen brothers]. It’s short but it’s very funny. We have a Chris Sorrentino story too.
There’s a great Dennis Lehane story in the double issue, the January/February issue. It’s about 8,000 to 9,000 words. It’s great; it’s a real meal, so that will be a lot of fun for everybody.