The thing itself: Family, friends, writers remember life of editor Richard Todd

  • Richard and Susan Todd in front of their house in Ashfield. COURTESY OF MAISIE TODD

  • Richard Todd. Courtesy of Maisie Todd

  • Richard Todd, of Ashfield, a renowned book editor, died Sunday. He was 78. MICHAEL BAUMAN

  • Richard Todd and Tracy Kidder sailing Kidder’s father’s boat around Cape Cod, circa the late 1970s/early 1980s.  COURTESY TRACY KIDDER 

  • Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd sailing Kidder’s father’s boat around Cape Cod and Maine, circa the late 1970s/early 1980s. Courtesy of Tracy Kidder

  • Richard Todd sailing, circa the late 1970s/early 1980s. Courtesy of Tracy Kidder

  • Richard Todd and Tracy Kidder at a party at Todd’s house in 1983. COURTESY OF TRACY KIDDER

  • Susan Todd, Richard Todd and Tracy Kidder. Courtesy of Tracy Kidder

Staff Writer
Published: 4/23/2019 11:06:24 PM

ASHFIELD — Writer and editor Richard Todd once commented that his longtime collaborator Tracy Kidder’s “great strength is that he’s not afraid of writing badly.”

But Kidder contends that this observation wasn’t exactly true.

“I was very afraid of writing badly in public,” Kidder, who lives in Williamsburg, told the Gazette, “but not in front of Todd.”

“I was always eager to show him material,” he added. “He wasn’t a scary editor at all.”

It was Todd’s ability to be at once astute and reassuring that made him not only a celebrated writer — penning the 2008 book “The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity” and articles for publications such as the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly — but also a beloved editor who guided the careers of writers including Kidder and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc.

Todd, 78, died early Sunday morning due to injuries sustained in a fall, which were aggravated by cancer complications. He was surrounded by two of his great loves in life, according to his daughters — family and words, read to him by his loved ones. Among other selections, his youngest of three daughters, Nell, read him lines from “Moby Dick.”

Todd was an editor until the end, according to Nell: While reading to her father, she recalled, she didn’t pronounce the word “vexatious” correctly.

“I don’t think I pronounced it at all,” she said. “And some of his last, clearest words were ‘it’s vexatious.’”

A writer’s friend

On Monday, friends and family recalled Todd’s skill and influence as both a writer and an editor, as well as his role as an influential force in the literary community of the Pioneer Valley. Todd, known as Dick by his friends and family, lived in Ashfield. In addition to his wife, Susan Todd, and three daughters, he leaves behind six grandchildren.

Kidder, whose works include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Soul of a New Machine” and “Home Town,” the latter focusing on life in Northampton, met Todd in 1973, when Todd was an editor at the Atlantic Monthly and Kidder was a young writer hoping to land a spot in the magazine. In the decades that followed, Kidder said that Todd became “the most important person in my professional life,” as well as a close friend.

In 2013, Kidder collaborated with his longtime editor to publish “Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction,” described on the book’s cover as “stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and publishing.”

While Todd edited with a light touch, he was not one to withhold honest feedback, Kidder said, nor did he give unearned praise — when Todd told Kidder that he felt he had written a good book, Kidder felt “like I’d gone up to heaven.”

Todd had a unique relationship with each writer he edited, Kidder said. But his kindness and honesty stood out as constants in both his professional life and his personal one, according to a number of family members and to writers with whom he worked.

Journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of “Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx,” met Todd in the mid-1980s while she was a student at Smith College. Around the same time, she worked as an intern at the Haydenville office of New England Monthly magazine, which ceased publication in 1990. According to LeBlanc, Todd’s editorial guidance played an instrumental role in shaping her career.

“That was the greatest gift to me really,” she said of his edits. “I had no appreciation for it at the time … But he launched my career in a very real way.”

LeBlanc recalled Todd as a remarkably patient editor who “truly understood the need for messy first and second and third drafts.”

“He never made you feel like you weren’t a good writer,” LeBlanc added. “He just assumed everything about the confused draft to be an ordinary part of the process, and that was such a kind of profound giver of confidence.”

Alix Kennedy, executive director of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, said that Todd also influenced her early in her career when she worked as an editor at New England Monthly.

In addition to his skills as an editor, Kennedy also praised Todd’s writing style, saying that he enjoyed clever phrases and wordplay — referred to by friends and co-workers as “Toddisms” — that she and her former co-workers still use this day.

“He had this incredible gift for language and choosing just precisely the right words,” Kennedy recalled.

Journalist George Howe Colt, of Whately, worked with Todd while writing his book “The Game: Harvard, Yale, and America in 1968” — the last completed book that Todd edited. Colt said that Todd provided him with the guidance he needed when he was feeling lost with his writing.

“He was an incredibly careful reader,” Colt said. “As I drove back to Whately, I would always feel reinvigorated, reincited, reinforced. And that was another great gift that not all editors have — making the manuscript better at the same time as making you feel better.”

A ‘sacred process’

Two of Todd’s daughters, Emily and Maisie, recalled that their father’s professional outlook held true in his personal life as well.

“When we showed him a paper we were working on, he treated it as the most important paper he had ever seen,” Maisie Todd said, “even if we were 16 and in high school.”

Todd’s drive as an editor came not only from a love of words, Emily Todd said, but also from an interest in people.

“He was really attentive,” she said, “and I think that’s one of the things that made him such a great editor.”

Susan Todd, his wife of 54 years, described editing as a “sacred process” for her husband, also remarking upon the individual attention that he gave each writer and a particular “respect and attention” paid during the editing process.

“I think it comes from his reverence for the written word, and for the people who put it on paper,” she said. “I think he was such a wonderful writer, a gifted writer, and yet he put that aside when he read other people.”

Todd was also thoughtful in his choice of collaborators, said Nell Todd, choosing to engage with authors and subjects who appealed to his deep sense of ethics.

“He focused on authors that were advancing important subjects,” Nell said. “I felt that, in some ways, this was really his way of affecting change and affecting important things in the world — by focusing on important subjects.”

Todd’s interest in people also revealed itself in his ability to foster community among writers, said LeBlanc, who added that she met many close friends through gatherings hosted by Richard and Susan Todd.

“All these people know each other because of them,” LeBlanc said, “so it’s another lesson. I hope I can do that for young writers.”

Anne Fadiman, author of the book “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures,” added that, while she was never edited by Todd, she knew him and Susan Todd as friends and as “an essential part of the literary community here in the Valley.”

When Colt, who is Fadiman’s husband, was feeling overwhelmed while writing, Fadiman suggested that he seek out Todd for guidance.

“He represented to me the best of English used beautifully,” Fadiman said of Todd, “and human connections negotiated generously.”

While Todd was just five years older than Kidder, who is 73, Kidder said that Todd seemed “born old” — “old enough to be my father.”

Kidder is adjusting to the loss of a mentor as he finishes the draft of an upcoming book, which was about halfway completed at the time of Todd’s death. Although the remaining stretch of the book will reflect the first time that Todd has not played an editorial role in Kidder’s work since “The Soul of a New Machine” was published in 1981, Kidder said that Todd’s influence will remain apparent in the text.

“I was almost tempted this morning to call him to ask how I should deal with his death,” Kidder said. “It sounds bizarre, but it’s true. It’s a big hole in the world for me, and for many others.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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