David Hartwell

David Hartwell

David Hartwell, Senior Editor Tor Books

Much will be written of David Hartwell over the years. This may be the least of it, because I didn’t know him well, or hardly at all, but we did cross paths a few times, and he was a bit of a towering figure to me.

I first became aware of David Geddes Hartwell when I was hanging around with author Robert J. Sawyer for a bit, trying to make a CBC Radio show called Faster Than Light. In between attempts to get our radio show off the ground, I made a couple of documentaries on science fiction. For one of these, Robert suggested I attend one of Allan Weiss’s Academic Conferences on Science Fiction. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was quite a who’s who of Canadian SF attending this particular conference, maybe because Allan had snagged Margaret Atwood as one of the guest speakers, or (more likely) because they’re always like that.

Sitting a few rows up from me was a distinguished looked fellow in his early sixties, one of the few fellows present wearing a suit. Rob pointed him out to me. “That’s David Hartwell. He’s the Senior Editor of Tor Books.” Tor is a major publisher of science fiction and fantasy. Hartwell was Rob’s editor. At this time Hartwell had already edited hundreds of books, working with authors such as Frank Herbert, Gene Wolfe, and Philip K. Dick. He was nominated for the Hugo Award over forty times. The man was a legend in the SF field.

I decided right then and there that I wanted Hartwell to edit my books. He was the goal, the Holy Grail of editors. I wanted access to Hartwell’s brain, to his knowledge of how to write effectively, how to write books that other people wanted to read, and not just read, but read compulsively, and weep and laugh, and afterwards go wow, what a book.

But Rob didn’t introduce us and I didn’t have a complete novel at the time. I didn’t see Hartwell again until the World Science Fiction convention Anticipation in Montreal in 2007, when I drove up with my pal Fergus Heywood and hung out with the Rayner boys, Mark and Mike. In between all the panels and the boozy nights, I made it a point to attend one of Hartwell’s talks.

I don’t remember much of what he talked about, but during the Q&A I got up to ask him a question, because I still really wanted to pick the brain of this man. I asked him this: “You edit professional writers who are presumably quite advanced in their craft. What do you as an editor have to tell them that they don’t already know?”

He said, “That’s just concise enough a question that I can answer it in less than half an hour.” Everybody laughed. He went on to tell us that the big thing that professional, experienced authors mess up is setting. Their books often have no proper sense of place. There’ll be lots in the way of dialogue and ideas, but no sense of where it’s all happening, to the detriment of the story.

I was heartened by this, because I had spent a lot of time on setting in my novel (which still wasn’t quite finished), and ultimately set it mostly on Prince Edward Island, except those parts that take place on other worlds.

Hartwell also mentioned that Canadian writer Karl Schroeder had given him a 180,000 page manuscript that was obviously too long, and he quickly determined that 80,000 pages of it was a digression, which he urged Schroeder to cut, which Schroeder did. This prompted me to look over my own manuscript for digressions, and I concluded that there was a chapter about seagulls that was a digression, so I cut it. Until my sister Susan said, “You cut the chapter about the seagulls? I loved that chapter!” And my daughters Keira and Erin said the same thing, and I realized that it wasn’t actually a digression; in fact, in some ways it was the heart of the whole story thematically. So I put it back in.

I didn’t see Hartwell again until 2014, when I attended Rob Sawyer’s Academic Conference on Science Fiction, which was also celebrating the inclusion of Rob’s personal papers into the McMaster University library. At the time, I was almost finished my novel. Actually, shortly before the conference I had convinced myself that it was done, because I was tired of writing it. I knew I needed to finish it and get on with the next one, so I ended it, but in my heart I knew it wasn’t really done. I gave it to some friends to read and they weren’t too keen on the ending, so I picked it up again, and by the time I attended Rob’s conference I thought I could wrap up this new draft in about five pages.

I was nervous about attending the conference, which I’ve written about elsewhere. In the end I had a great time, mostly because I met a friend and we spent the day hanging out and attending the panels. Hartwell spoke at the end of the day, and I asked him another question during the Q&A. He said he was always on the lookout for talented writers. I asked him to define talented, and he provided a flip response that got a big laugh from the audience. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what he said, and I don’t want to do the man a disservice by guessing what it might have been, though I will say that I don’t believe it was particularly encouraging. After the Q&A I got a chance to have a proper conversation with him. He apologized for being flip with me during the Q&A.

I’m a little embarrassed about what happened next. I was on a mission. I wanted him to look at my manuscript. What began as a conversation with me, Hartwell and a couple of others quickly became a conversation between me and Hartwell as I monopolized the conversation. I was basically buttonholing him. I remember the look on one woman’s face as she realized what was going on, that she was not welcome in the conversation anymore. I wince remembering it. Looking back, I could no doubt have negotiated that moment infinitely more graciously.

David Hartwell (seated right) with Chris Szego and Robert J Sawyer at SF Academic Conference Sept 14 2013

David Hartwell (seated right) with Chris Szego and Robert J Sawyer at SF Academic Conference Sept 14 2013

Finally, I came right out and asked Hartwell if he would consider reading my manuscript. To my surprise and delight, he agreed, and offered to take it right then and there. But I hadn’t brought the manuscript with me. I hadn’t even thought to put it on a USB key. I figured I would just email it to him.

Also, there was the business of last five pages. I asked him if that was a problem. He said, “No. Just make sure the first five pages are perfect.”

I assured him that I would.

He invited me to dine with him and Rob and several others. I would have loved to, but I had already accepted an offer from my friend to drive me home.

When I got home I was quite excited about getting my manuscript to Hartwell. I realized I hadn’t asked Hartwell for his email address. I emailed Rob and asked him for it. Rob responded right away. In his email, Rob warned me that Hartwell was notorious for taking forever to respond. This fact was quite well known in SF circles, I think, but it was the first I’d heard of it. It was my first hint that Hartwell might take, well, forever to respond. Rob also suggested I only send the first five pages.

I opted to send the entire first chapter, but I didn’t send it to Hartwell right away. I took his advice about making the first five pages perfect. I enlisted the aid of a couple of friends to edit the first chapter. This was another instance of obnoxiousness on my part, presuming upon my friends to get their edits to me quickly. Which they did. Brilliant edits, which improved the first chapter immensely.

I sent it to Hartwell, reminding him of who I was, that we had spoken, and that he had generously agreed to look at the manuscript.

He never replied to tell me got it. I thought, this doesn’t bode well. He’s seventy years old, I told myself. Maybe he doesn’t have email etiquette down. Or more likely, I’m just some pipsqueak who’s not actually important enough to respond to.

For the next year, though, I felt like I could tell people that, hey, yeah, my manuscript’s at Tor Books with their senior editor, they’re taking a look at it.

A little over a year later I decided, well, enough of that nonsense.

I wrote Hartwell a friendly email with the intention of letting him off the hook, to make sure I could show the book elsewhere with impunity. I did not expect a response.

To my absolute astonishment, he replied within two hours. He apologized for not having gotten around to reading my submission. He said I was free to show the book around elsewhere, but promised to find the time within the next couple of months to read it. He wrote that he was “really sorry to have disappointed” me.

It was a humble, gracious note.

I never heard from him again, at least via email.

I met Hartwell for the last time at the CANCON writer’s conference in Ottawa in October 2015. We ran into one another in the hall in the Sheraton, where (again, somewhat to my astonishment) he greeted me like an old friend, and we stood and talked and he told me personal details of goings on in his life that I might have expected from a close friend. I told him that I was considering a publishing deal with another publisher, Five Rivers Press (I signed the contract two days later). Hartwell said he didn’t mind losing out to another publisher, so long as the book got published. I thought, he didn’t mind losing out? He thought he was losing out??! I didn’t pursue it.

We spoke again the next day, when fellow author Melissa Yuan-Innes and I ran into him in the hotel bar, after he insisted on taking a picture of Melissa in her faerie wings (did I mention it was Hallowe’en?). I happened to remark that I was rereading Stephen R Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant trilogy. He said (as I have written elsewhere), “I rejected that trilogy.”

John Park, Joe Mahoney, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Jean-Louis Trudel at CanCon in Ottawa, in a photo taken by David Hartwell

John Park, Joe Mahoney, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Jean-Louis Trudel at CanCon in Ottawa, in a photo taken by David Hartwell


I was talking to a man who had rejected Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Trilogy.

It wasn’t that he didn’t see the value in the series. He explained that Donaldson had originally submitted the first three books as a single volume. To make it work had ultimately required a massive amount of work on the part of Lester Del Rey, an investment in time that Hartwell couldn’t commit to at the time.

Knowing that Hartwell had rejected one of my favourite series, I immediately felt better about him not accepting my book (technically, he never did reject my novel).

A fact I have observed about my life: whenever I want something really bad, I often don’t get it. Instead I get something else. Something that, at first glance, doesn’t look anywhere near as appealing, but that in the end is really just a weird-ass portal to something beautiful (to paraphrase author Lidia Yuknavitch). For instance, when I was in Grade Seven, I wanted to play the trumpet in the junior high school band. I got the baritone instead. I came to love the baritone, a sweet sounding brass instrument which frequently played the melody of whatever piece we were playing. As was so often the case, it was only much later that I realized I’d lucked out.

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

Dr. Robert Runte and Me

I wish I could believe that I have some kind of guardian angel protecting me, steering me towards what’s best for me. I know that’s not the case. Probably I view what actually happens as positive because I’ve cultivated a positive attitude. Because the fact is we are not guaranteed positive outcomes. Bad things happen. Good people, talented people, important people fall down stairs and die.

I have lucked out with my novel, though. I’ve found a Canadian version of David Hartwell in the form of Robert Runte, who is currently editing A Time and a Place for Five Rivers Press. He’s the perfect man for the job. I couldn’t be happier about it.

In the meantime, I was privileged to have known (however briefly, however tangentially) a man many believe to have been one of the three greatest, most influential editors in the history of science fiction.

David Geddes Hartwell passed away January 20th, 2016.

4 Comments

  1. “Canadian version of David Hartwell”. Yeah, I’d be pretty happy with that designation!

    Hartwell was the first (maybe the only) American editor to ‘get’ what Canadian SF writers were doing and he published / launched the careers of many Canadian authors who were otherwise getting no traction. He regularly traveled to Canadian conventions, actively recruiting the talent he found here. And he was a brilliant editor, the equal to Terry Carr at identifying new talent and the best at editing the established pros. Everyone respected his skills, yet he was one of the least arrogant and most approachable editors I’ve ever met. (Editors, like surgeons, often suffer a bit from god complex because the job requires a level arrogance to cut in to a body and yank stuff clean out…) Hartwell was a charming, wonderful man and will be missed.

  2. What a great post. David was also gracious when I met him at World Fantasy in Montreal and CanCon with you.
    I like Robert Runte a lot too. Now I know why!
    P.S. I’ve buttonholed people before. I thought it was normal, though. Oops.

  3. When my first novel, Fools Errant, came out, I heard that there was a review in the New York Review of Science Fiction. I wrote the editor and asked for a copy of the review, which he obligingly sent. Then the sequel, Fool Me Twice, came out, and we repeated the process.

    In thanking the editor for the second review, I mentioned that it looked as if Warner Aspect, the publisher, was not interested in a third book. He replied, ” If they’re not interested, I am.”

    And underneath the message he put his name, and under that he put “Senior Editor, Tor Books.”

    As far as I knew up until then, David Hartwell was a guy who edited a journal that reviewed science fiction. I sent him the opening of a new novel, Black Brillion, and he bought it. His notes on the final draft were a few lines about not killing the only sympathetic character in the story, and also not following that by killing off the protagonist. So I rewrote the ending.

    Unfortunately, Black Brillion didn’t do a landslide business, and that was the end of my Tor period. Again, as David once told me, “Publishing is a hard, hard business.”

    I will miss seeing him at cons. He was a total mensch.

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