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The Mentor: C. Michael Curtis
I was an intern at The Atlantic Monthly. Mike Curtis was the fiction editor whose kindness changed my life.
He offered me an orange from a big box he had received as a holiday gift. One of many gifts lying around his office. I took it, and he plucked one for himself, and as we both sat unpeeling our oranges, he asked, “How far along are you in this novel?”
“I sent you all of what I have so far.”
He nodded slowly. “I’d like to help you find a publisher for it. When you get 100 pages written, print it out and get it to me. I’ll send it to some editors.”
I was sitting in the office of C. Michael Curtis, the fiction editor for The Atlantic Monthly. It was one of the turning points of my life, though not for the reasons I expected.
I was an unpaid intern at The Atlantic during a semester at Boston University, where I was completing my MA in Creative Writing. The previous semester, another guy in the masters program had mentioned that his girlfriend was doing an internship at The Atlantic, which sounded like something worth exploring. I was surprised to find how easy it was. I suppose the ‘unpaid’ part contributed to that. And it didn’t hurt that I was studying to be a writer, of course. Still, I couldn’t believe my luck.
To most people, the work wouldn’t have been very exciting. But for me, sitting in a windowless room with file cabinets filled with the past correspondence from the magazine, and reading all of the unsolicited stories, was the opportunity of a lifetime. We interns would occasionally raid the files to read letters from Salinger, or Hemingway, or John Updike. It was a sacred room. I learned that The Atlantic received about 1000 fiction entries a month, and they only published one. That didn’t include stories submitted by agents. So the odds of any unsolicited story making it into the magazine were almost nil, although there were rumors that it had happened before.
But the best part of the experience was Mike Curtis. He started working at The Atlantic in 1964, fresh out of college. This was 1991, so he had been there for nearly thirty years. He would be the fiction editor for another ten years after that, then stay on as an emeritus when they stopped publishing fiction.
Unlike most of the staff at the magazine, Mike was approachable, kind, and engaged with the interns. I sent him every story I wrote, sometimes several times, as I tried to learn to become a better writer. He always wrote back with a thoughtful response. And he would pop in every couple of weeks and ask me to join him for lunch, where we talked not only about writing, but about basketball, and Montana. Mike had attended the Flathead Writers Conference near Glacier Park several times, and he was very fond of Montana. He was also an avid gym rat himself, earning the nickname ‘The Bear’ among his fellow players. I never found out whether this was because of his short, stocky build, or because of his approach to the game.
Mike was quiet, but not shy. He had a very slight stutter, but didn’t struggle with expressing himself. It was actually more of a hesitation than a stutter. His demeanor and personality reminded me of Bob Newhart. And he was unreasonably humble for a man who had earned the respect of the best writers in the world. His eye for talent was obvious, but it was his ability to edit that made him special. He would take a story from where it was to a place you probably didn’t even realize you meant for it to go.
When I started working on a novel at the end of that semester, I sent the first couple of chapters to Mike. I wanted his insights on how to improve it. So when I got a call inviting me to come to his office, I didn’t know what to expect. It was the first time.
When he offered to help find a publisher, I was convinced that I was on my way. How could anyone turn down a book recommended by Mike Curtis? I had a lot to learn about the publishing world. But his offer inspired me so much that I finished the first draft of the novel six weeks later. I sent it to him immediately.
Mike was old school—not a big fan of multiple submissions. He sent the manuscript out to one editor at a time. And they were big names, among them Michael Pietsch, who was an editor at Little Brown at the time, but is now the CEO of Hachette, the crown jewel of publishing companies in America.
These people were not quick to respond. Each submission took several months. And each time I was gutted by their rejections. Mike would always write back with an encouraging note telling me he had several other options. But after about three years, and just under ten publishers, he apologized and said he’d run out of ideas.
I was a middle class kid from Montana. I had lived with constant doubt about whether I was wasting my time trying to write. To have someone of Mike’s stature tell me that I was good enough to get published was a boost that sustained me for years. As it turned out, that’s how long I needed. It was another eleven years before that novel, the first thing I ever published, found its way to bookshelves. It was finally published and it was well received, getting a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and a review in the New York Times.
Which proved two things. First, Mike was right. I was good enough. And second, every writer needs someone like Mike Curtis to help us believe in ourselves.
Mike passed away at the age of 88 on January 11th. I felt as though I’d lost my mentor, my friend, and the person who made me feel special just when I needed it the most. And as I read one tribute to him after another, I realized that perhaps Mike’s greatest gift was making so many of us feel that way.
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Russell Rowland is the highly acclaimed author of seven books, including Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey, In Open Spaces and Cold Country. He hosts a podcast, Breakfast in Montana, about Montana books, and he also hosts Fifty-Six Counties, a radio show on Yellowstone Public Radio. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University and lives in Billings.