We're so saddened to hear that C. Michael Curtis passed away this week. We're highlighting the article by Betsy Teter originally published on our blog in 2020. It details Mike's incredible life and how he ended up in Spartanburg, helping out Hub City Press.
When I first heard that legendary fiction editor C. Michael Curtis was moving to Spartanburg, South Carolina back in 2006, I remember wondering if he would walk among mortals like us. Curtis had been selecting short stories for The Atlantic magazine in Boston for more than 40 years, and now he was moving to the small city where I was the director of a fledgling literary publisher called Hub City Press.
This is the story of the improbable alliance of one of American literature's great fiction editors—a man who was among the first to publish Ann Beattie, Louise Erdrich, John Sayles, Bobbie Ann Mason, among others—and a plucky Southern publisher with a growing reputation for strong novels and a brand-new $10,000 C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize.
But first the improbable story of Mike Curtis himself.
Long before he moved South to work at Wofford College, long before he settled into a career reading thousands of short stories a year at The Atlantic, before he roomed with Thomas Pynchon and Richard Farina in college, Curtis was a student at a tiny high school in Magnolia, Arkansas, a school that taught neither English, nor history, nor social studies, nor math. Born out of wedlock and saddled with a teen-years stutter, Curtis graduated at age 16 to a job as fry cook at Hack & Hazel's Café in upstate Arkansas, where he came across a magazine article about the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University and was drawn to its promise of vocational training with a minimum of academia. If he could flip burgers, surely he could he could find work in a hotel.
With $3 in his pocket, he showed up in Ithaca, New York in the summer of 1951, sans college application, and asked for admission. The response? "There's no chance in hell you are going to be admitted," he recalled, now 83, having lunch with me at a health food restaurant in a strip mall in Spartanburg.
With nowhere else to go, he took their suggestion to enroll in advanced courses in algebra and geometry at the local high school. A semester later he was admitted conditionally into the hotel school, where he studied everything from hotel bookkeeping to quantity cooking to mixing concrete. At an off-campus party one night, he pulled off a bookshelf a collection of stories by someone named Franz Kafka. Reading "In the Penal Colony," he recalls, "I was transfixed."
Several semesters later, after doggedly petitioning administrators to let him pursue an English degree, he was at last admitted to Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, and later to a PhD program in political science. By that time, Curtis had taken most of the undergraduate Cornell writing courses, many without credit ("I learned a great deal through listening to a story being read—what worked, what didn't work"), had helped edit virtually every campus publication, and had become a cub reporter at the Ithaca Journal. Then came his apartment-sharing with Pynchon and folkie songwriter/novelist Farina. "They were writing up a storm, winning prizes and enjoying celebrity in the campus literary world," he recalled about his roommates. So Curtis began to write in earnest himself.
In 1961, Peter Davidson, poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly, made a visit to campus, along with poet Anne Sexton. Curtis handed Davidson a group of poems, one of which was accepted for the magazine's young poets section. Davidson later invited him to intern in Boston at the magazine. And thus began Curtis's 55-year career of finding the jewels in an ongoing pile of some half-a-million stories. Along the way, Curtis selected books for Atlantic Monthly Press (now Grove/Atlantic), edited several special sections of The Atlantic magazine, taught writing at Harvard University, and created friendships with many of the major American literary figures of the last half-century—among them, Tobias Wolfe, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates.
Curtis was a 71-year-old fiction and senior editor in 2005 when Atlantic owner David Bradley announced the magazine would relocate to Washington, D.C. and implement cost-cutting measures designed to staunch the red ink. One of those cuts was Curtis's job, though he was offered a contract position. By this time, Curtis had married Tennessee-born novelist and poet Elizabeth "Betsy" Cox, and she had recently left her faculty position at Duke University to join him in Boston. Then came a phone call from Betsy's brother Herb Barks, a South Carolina private school headmaster, alerting her that he had mentioned the couple to the president of Wofford College, a 1,600-student liberal arts college in upstate South Carolina.
In 2006, then-Wofford College President Bernie Dunlap paraded his incoming John C. Cobb Chairs of the Humanities in front of a small group at Spartanburg's swanky Piedmont Club, including my husband John, a Wofford English professor, and me. John and I had created the Hub City Writers Project ten years earlier, mostly to publish anthologies of personal essays written by Spartanburg writers. We dreamed of breaking out as a literary publisher.
We also ran a reading series, and soon thereafter, I invited Betsy Cox to read.
In the audience that night was Michel Stone, an unpublished Spartanburg writer with a master's degree in education. "I made a beeline to Mike Curtis that night and asked him if I could audit his fiction class at Wofford," she recalls. When the class ended for the semester, Curtis asked Stone if she could help him round up a group of local writers for a fiction workshop at his home. She remembers him as a "brutal critic" at those living room sessions. The local writers, disillusioned about their chances at literary success, melted away. But Stone kept visiting Curtis at his office at Wofford, bringing him oatmeal chocolate chip pecan cookies. "We'd sit across from each other at his desk and visit while he ate cookies, and we'd discuss what was or was not working in my fiction. He was a magician in his editing. I couldn't believe the seemingly tiny tweaks he'd suggest that could significantly change the quality of a story."
Somewhere around that time, my husband John came home from a Wofford English Department meeting and said Curtis was looking for ways to be more involved in the local writing community. "Let's put him on the editorial board," he said.
So in 2007, one of the greatest fiction editors in America joined 10 local writers around a folding table at the Hub City offices, as we sorted through what books we would publish next. I remember him grousing, "You need to publish books that look more like New York books." To keep him engaged, I suggested he edit a collection of short stories that would be "the essential fiction of Spartanburg." Hub City had recently decided to begin publishing fiction, striking a deal with the South Carolina Arts Commission to publish the SC First Novel Prize.
We also had begun a writer-in-residence program that was heavy on community service, and that summer I sent an email to a 28-year-old poet named Patrick Whitfill in Lubbock, Texas: "Your project will be to help Mike Curtis edit a fiction anthology." Whitfill's grandmother had been an Atlantic subscriber her whole life—still clipping the stories she liked best—and the whole family was flabbergasted. Whitfill remembers that Curtis "didn't really need my help, but I couldn't stop myself from emailing friends and colleagues from graduate school, casually mentioning my (not-really) apprenticeship to C. Michael Curtis."
The title story in that anthology was Michel Stone's "Expecting Goodness," and among the 20 pieces in the collection was the first published story of Thomas Pierce, one of Curtis's students at Wofford. Pierce, later published by Curtis in The Atlantic, went on to place multiple stories in The New Yorker and was named one of the winners of National Book Foundation's "5 under 35" prize.
Meanwhile, we kept feeding Mike novels to read. Most he rejected, but we inched toward becoming a publisher known for solid literary fiction.
One of the early successes was Michel Stone's The Iguana Tree, a fast-paced novel of a Mexican border crossing gone bad. With Curtis's help, she had written and rewritten the book. On one particular day he told her to get rid of two narrators and to completely change the end of the book. "I thought he was nuts for about four hours, then I began the work. Six months later we met again in his Wofford office. I handed him two dozen cookies and the revised manuscript. A week or so later he called me. 'This novel is quite good,' he said."
The Iguana Tree has sold 14,000 copies for us. Stone's next book went to Nan Talese at Doubleday.
A year later a Spartanburg writer named Susan Tekulve won the South Carolina First Novel Prize with her manuscript, In the Garden of Stone. Curtis had been a screener in that contest and had gotten quite attached to the story of three generations of an immigrant Sicilian family in the coal country of West Virginia. He asked for a meeting with Tekulve at a local German deli, and Tekulve showed up with a box of apple and blueberry turnovers for him. ("Locally, Mike’s sweet tooth is almost as well known as his editing," she says.)
Curtis arrived in shorts and a baseball cap, she remembers, carrying under his arm her 360-page book manuscript, its pages softened and earmarked, fluttering with neon orange and pink Post-It notes. "He surprised me by telling stories about his own hardscrabble childhood. He ended with a harrowing tale that involved his elderly mother, living alone and failing, piling too many newspapers too close to the burner on her oven. I recall being amazed at what a good storyteller he was."
Curtis told her she needed to fill out a murder scene in the book. Then when she did, he cut it in half. She followed all his instructions on the Post-It notes. In the Garden of Stone received a starred review from Kirkus and was a spring pick from Library Journal.
Along the way, I was becoming a better fiction editor too.
Curtis and I haven't always agreed on books. I have taken books he didn't love, and I have turned down books he campaigned hard for. But we moved forward, usually with both of us tinkering with the novels. Over the Plain Houses (2016) by Julia Franks was named an NPR book of the year and won the Southern Book Prize; Minnow (2015) by James McTeer became a Kirkus book of the year. This year, Curtis has been deeply involved with a forthcoming Hub City novel set in World War II Czechoslovakia, The Wooden King by Thomas McConnell, a professor at one of the local colleges. “Mike has been through my whole novel—all 387 typescript pages—three times,” McConnell says. “After an editing feat like that, I know this: give him a sharp pencil and a line to hone and he's a happy man.”
This spring, Hub City received a major contribution from a donor who wanted to endow a $10,000 prize for a first collection of short stories. There was no question who we wanted to name this prize after: C. Michael Curtis. Our donor agreed, and Curtis praised the choice of Lee K. Abbott, whose work he had published in The Atlantic three times. For his part, Abbott wrote me in an email: “Do know how honored I am to be part of this project which recognizes the invaluable service Mike has given to literary America over the decades. I am just one of hundreds of writers he has brought to important print. More personally, my career would not be what it has become without his sharp eye and even sharper pencil. Would that more were like him.”
Between now and then, Curtis will read much more fiction for Hub City. As I leave him at the restaurant, he makes sure I know that he wants more manuscripts to read. I come home and crank up the copy machine.
Betsy Teter is editor of Hub City Press.