When authors describe editor Lee Boudreaux— ex-Doubleday, ex-Random House, ex-Harper/ Ecco, who has been given the notable mandate to build a fiction imprint at Little, Brown, launching in January—they say she reminds them of a 1940s movie star, larger than life and inflected with a strong Southern core, even though she has made her home in New York for two decades, married to a painter from Brooklyn.
Yet as soon as Boudreaux speaks, it’s the keen mind, enthusiasm and passionate commitment to books that take over. As Jennifer Senior, a New York Times journalist and author of one of the rare non-fiction works Boudreaux has published, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, puts it: “She’s a gal’s gal, who leads with her brains and feistiness. Think Rosalind Russell in ‘His Girl Friday’. "
Boudreaux’s accent doesn’t mean that her taste is Southern. Indeed, it’s the wide range of fiction she has published, from Arthur Phillips’ Prague, Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap novels and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep (while at Random House), to Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist (at Ecco), that brought Hachette to her door.
A similar eclecticism informs her eponymous début list. Lee Boudreaux Books will take in, among others, Auschwitz survivors (Affinity Konar’s Mischling, set for October 2016); Hurricane Katrina survivors (John Gregory Brown’s A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, June 2016); the 1999 WTO protests (Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, January 2016); and five marriages and one gun in Zimbabwe (C B George’s The Death of Rex Nhongo, July 2016). She will publish between eight and 12 titles per year.
Taken as read
After reading English and Government at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, Boudreaux thought about a career in law, but a stint at a firm of toxic tort litigation specialists (“like Erin Brockovich but on the wrong side”) convinced her otherwise. Since “the only thing” she liked was reading, she headed to the Radcliffe Publishing Course, then secured a job working for Deb Futter at Doubleday.
Futter left for RH, Boudreaux went with her; Futter returned to Doubleday and Boudreaux stayed. She started with authors Futter left behind. Peter Straub told Publishers Weekly that when he co-wrote Black House with Stephen King, King judged her work “splendid”.
Towards the end of her nine years at RH, she paid a modest sum to the unknown Sittenfeld (eight others rejected Prep). But things were changing, editors were being encouraged to bring in more non-fiction. Boudreaux wanted to edit emerging fiction. She left, and soon was editorial director at Dan Halpern’s Ecco. It was small—only Halpern, Matt Weiland and Boudreaux. “You can’t make luck happen fast. You have to give a book long enough to let the lucky breaks occur,” she declares. Halpern, a “perpetual optimist”, allowed her to follow her nose with books such as David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, 900 pages of unlikely bestseller about a mute boy. It was on track to sell 300,000 copies even before Oprah Winfrey chose it for her Book Club.
From Ecco to Little, Brown
Boudreaux, who is 47, had known Little, Brown publisher Reagan Arthur for some time, and was acquainted with Hachette US c.e.o. Michael Pietsch as well. During her nine years at Ecco, other houses made “friendly inquiries”, but Boudreaux resisted. She was happy, and had “no interest whatsoever in administrative tasks”. Yet when Arthur—who had given up her own imprint after Pietsch’s elevation to c.e.o. and her own to Little, Brown publisher—came calling, it was different. Boudreaux was “so impressed” with what Little, Brown did with Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Joshua Ferris, Tina Fey et al, that the chance to develop her own imprint there was irresistible.
She arrived “with all guns blazing”, Arthur acknowledges. When she enters a room “everything seems more exciting, fun and of a higher wattage”, says Madeline Miller, whose Orange Prize-winning The Song of Achilles was edited by Boudreaux at Ecco, and Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury. Yet, Miller adds, “she also understands that she’s in a tough business. Beneath the Southern charm is steel.”
She comes by it honestly. Life lessons as a child were unusual. Her mother grew up a voracious reader in genteel Alexandria, Virginia. After university, she met Boudreaux’s father, a young Louisiana Cajun and ex-marine. They married, even though he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
By the time Boudreaux was six, he was in a wheelchair, her mother his full-time carer. They lived on his veteran’s pension in rural Virginia. Boudreaux’s father enjoyed catching snapping turtles on their property with his children; her job was to clean the big, bloody things, which they cooked and ate.
Boudreaux often returns to Virginia with her six-year-old daughter Effie to visit her widowed mother, and finds herself “amazed” to have lived in New York so long. Daniel Bergner, who she will soon publish for the third time—he’s the lone non-fiction exception on her launch list, with Sing for Your Life, the story of a young black man’s journey from juvenile detention to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera—is grateful for her outsider origins. “Many of us live in a New York bubble. It’s important that Lee brings complexity and perspective,” he says.
Those who wait
Miller speaks of Boudreaux’s “pinpoint jeweller’s precision”, with her comments written “in an infinitesimally small hand” on paper. Yet Boudreaux “gives lots of room to breathe”, Miller says. She’s persuasive rather than coercive.
Ben Fountain, a late bloomer—he was 48 when his first book, the story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, was published—knows that well. Boudreaux wanted to buy Che when she was at Random House in 2003, but wasn’t allowed to. Nobody bought it, and after six months Fountain’s agent reeled it back in.
Two years later, Fountain published a story in The Paris Review, and Che found its way to Harper. By chance it was passed to Ecco, where Boudreaux had just landed. She snapped it up. It went on to win the PEN/Hemingway Prize and the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction, and was selected by the American Booksellers’ Association for its Indie Next promotion. But when Fountain, who had signed a two- book contract, submitted a novel he’d been working on for 10 years, Boudreaux rejected it. “I tried to save it,” he recalls. “But she told me she knew I could do better, and I knew it, too. It really takes the strength of your convictions to say no to a writer you’ve had success with . . . When I went in a direction she wasn’t that high on, she said that if that’s what I really wanted to do, I should do it. She was all in. That was Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” The novel won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Fountain speaks of Boudreaux’s ability to “zero in on a narrative engine”. Senior adds, “she’s a crackerjack diagnostician, great at the talking cure. I’d go in with a garbage pail of files and talk through them. By the end, she’d have an outline.”
WME’s Suzanne Gluck represents two writers Boudreaux published multiple times: Trigiani and Bergner. What stands out in Gluck’s mind is her “broad ear for specific voices. She doesn’t run with the pack. She listens to her own heart and head, and is not in the least influenced by publishing gossip. She’s deeply optimistic, and that is contagious and inspiring.”
Many of Boudreaux’s published authors have commitments to Ecco, thus all the unfamiliar names (apart from Bergner) on her new list. But their feelings about her come through loud and clear. Her feelings about them—old and new—seem shockingly straightforward in this publishing age. “I care about the people I work for,” Boudreaux says. “My authors.”