“I really loved the book business,” Mary South says as we sip our beers on the rooftop deck of Cabana yesterday afternoon, watching tourists line up along the dock at the South Street Seaport for a harbor cruise. “The job I had at Riverhead was the best job I ever had in publishing.” After helping the imprint launch in the mid-’90s, South took a detour into the dotcom industry, then came back to book editing for a stint at Rodale. “I like the Rodale family, and I admire the fact that they had a genuine sense of mission that was historic, going back to their beginning… It was a good company with good goals,” she reflects, “but it wasn’t a good fit for me.” In fact, the opening scenes of her memoir, The Cure for Anything Is Salt Water, detail how she reached her breaking point as an editor there, finally leaving the industry behind and buying a 30-ton trawler, which she then proceeded to navigate from its Florida berth back to New York. But it’s clear in the telling that the abrupt rebooting of her life wasn’t just about the job, but about everything else that was going on as she approached 40. “I’m always glad I took that job,” she emphasizes, “because it forced me to take the leap and have that adventure.”
We’ve met the day before she drives out to Sag Harbor with her girlfriend and two Jack Russell terriers to prepare her boat, Bossanova, for its latest voyage—a one-week journey along the New England coast, with stops at independent bookstores in Mystic, Edgartown, and Nantucket. As we talk, I discover that South had actually sold the proposal for her book before she took her boat out. “I always wanted to have the adventure,” she explains, “but then it occurred to me that there just had to be a book in here.” And, luckily, the advance helped cover some of the trip’s finances, as the process of selling her house and buying the trawler was pretty much “an even trade,” absorbing all her finances.
What was it like for her on the other side of the author/editor relationship? “I was a spoiled by my own experiences at Riverhead,” she admits, discussing her active involvement in every step of the publishing cycle for the books she acquired there, and her enthusiasm for creating the imprint’s paperback line even before they’d had their first hardcover frontlist. In contrast, she’s learned now what it’s like to be one project among the many on an editor’s agenda. “But I’m sure it’s difficult for any editor to deal with a former editor as an author,” she concedes. Is she ever tempted to get back into the game? “I can’t really see going back to being an editor,” she shakes her head. For now, she’s happily supporting herself with freelance writing and mulling over the proposal for her next book—which is also likely to be of a nautical nature.