by Clair Willcox, Editor-in-Chief, University of Missouri Press
A Books That Matter Essay
Blue Highways Revisited, by Edgar I. Ailor, III; Foreword by William Least Heat-Moon (University of Missouri Press, 2012)
All acquiring editors of a certain vintage have stories—half-repressed and revealed only under substantial duress or with sufficient libation—about the manuscripts that got away. The hook thrown with a savage twist, the frayed leader snapped during an abrupt leap, the fumbled landing net in the shallows along the bank…a flash of silver, and it’s “Sayonara, sucker! I’m off to Random House or Routledge.” On the other hand, there are those manuscripts that take you completely unaware, those that astonish and gratify with their unforeseen proximity and disguised promise, the ones that nuzzle at your waders while you squint through the glare to survey distant prospects upstream.
Such unexpected catches under the least likely circumstances are among my favorite books. An old college buddy somehow weathers the stultifying jargon of a postgraduate education in anthropology to find his own prose voice in a lively, informative depiction of zoos and their often canny residents. A prosecuting attorney who pens historical novels on the side relates humorous and horrifying experiences he has had with cops, criminals, lawyers, and judges. A professor of jazz at a distinguished music academy reaches back through her family’s clouded history for a narrative of slavery, racial ambiguity, deception, and survival. The widow of a longtime guard at Alcatraz Penitentiary comes forward with his overlooked account of life on the Rock in the era of Machine Gun Kelly and the Birdman.
One such instance followed a chance meeting at the entryway of a local big-box emporium. As I muscled our overloaded cart toward the doors, I saw my wife pause to chat with someone. Dr. Ed Ailor is a soft-spoken man with an accent that reflects his upbringing in Cape Girardeau, a historic Mississippi River town near the Missouri Bootheel at the state’s southeastern extreme. For me, his manner has a certain gentility without the word’s contemporary associations of snobbery, gentilesse as Chaucer used it to convey the natural courtesy and dignity of the gentlefolk. By all accounts, this quality served him well in his medical practice as a specialist in ailments of the ear, nose, and throat. In contrast to the unmuzzled egos of too many surgeons, volatile prima donnas of the operating room, he had a reputation among nurses and surgical technicians for displaying a cool head and a cordial demeanor even when procedures didn’t go well. He was also known for explaining the complexities of his arcane trade to patients and their families in respectful, down-to-earth terms.
My wife and I had witnessed his medical skill firsthand some twenty-five years before. Our only daughter, an undersized toddler barely two years old, suffered from a sore throat accompanied by some swelling. One night a few days into her course of antibiotics, the swelling worsened until it obstructed her airway and severely interfered with her breathing. We hustled her off to the hospital, where we arranged to meet Ed Ailor. He didn’t delay in having our daughter admitted, and she was soon prepped for surgery and under general anesthesia. Operating through a tiny incision, Ed removed liquid from the festering abscess that had formed alongside a lymph node beneath her jaw. A week’s stay in the hospital, including a day in the Intensive Care Ward, and our energetic youngster was back in action.
My wife, an operating room nurse with more than thirty-five years’ experience, still marvels at Ed’s craftsmanship that night, the way he minimized the size of the scar and hid it cleverly along a contour of skin. That detail, trivial to a two-year-old, would mean everything to a teenaged girl a decade down the road. Today, with a good magnifying glass in the right light, you might be able to find that scar on our adult daughter, who now has a toddler of her own. Oh, and there is the fact that Ed probably saved her life.
Ed had closed his medical practice about six years before our casual encounter at the store, and he had turned to fine art photography in his retirement, a hobby since high school now parlayed into a second career. I knew his work had won some prizes and had seen his landscapes hung prominently in several businesses about town and offered for sale in local galleries and craft fairs. Despite my appreciation for his newfound vocation and gratitude for the results of his former one, my internal reaction to my wife’s announcement that Ed had been working on a photography book was tempered by the expensive realities of producing four-color, oversized art books and the steadily diminishing market for them. We talked a bit about the difficulties of finding a publisher, particularly attracting the interest of a commercial house in New York. After the usual pleasantries about our families, we parted, and I really didn’t expect to hear any more about Ed’s book project.
I should have known better. Within a couple weeks, his manuscript was nestled among others awaiting my review. In the ensuing days, as it made its way ominously toward the front of the queue, I grew increasingly nervous about what I would find. If there is anything worse than rejecting the work of perfect strangers, it’s rejecting manuscripts by people you know and respect. Turning away someone you actually like reaches another level of regret entirely, a situation that the euphemism “awkward” doesn’t begin to register. Of course, I did what any savvy publishing veteran would do—I procrastinated until it was impossible to stall any longer.
When I did steel myself to look at the manuscript, it was immediately obvious that my anxiety was unwarranted. Ed had found a unique and rich topic, a combination of photojournalism, literary exploration, and subtle social commentary. Shortly after launching his photography business, he had approached bestselling author William Least Heat-Moon, one of his neighbors and a fellow fan of the University of Missouri’s athletic teams, to discuss a scheme to retrace the nearly 14,000-mile journey that the author had recounted in his 1982 travel classic, Blue Highways. Along with his son, also a photographer, Ed hoped to visit as many of the places and people that Heat-Moon had written about in his book as it was still possible to see, photographing them in their current conditions and describing their fortunes, good or bad, during the thirty years since the first publication.
Heat-Moon, who had originally intended to pack Blue Highways with his own photographs, decided instead to limit the illustrations mostly to portraits he had made of those he interviewed. Over the years at signings and readings for his books, many people had encouraged him to revisit the byways of his long journey. Although he was more than a little dubious that anyone would again traverse the entire 13,889 miles, he warmed to the proposal as he came to appreciate Ed’s enthusiasm and resolve for the undertaking. Over the course of six years, Ed and his son completed their trip in stages, and Heat-Moon assisted as his schedule permitted, allowing them to photograph objects associated with the creation of his book, giving access to his notes and numerous typed drafts, and offering editorial advice. He also arranged for them to include monochrome images from his original trip beside their own color shots from the present.
Graced with a foreword by Heat-Moon, the manuscript was a clear winner. It created a virtual dialog between aspects of everyday American life in the late 1970s and its legacy just after the turn of the new century. With before-and-after photographs of the folks Heat-Moon had met, as well as the landscape and buildings he had seen, the Ailors created historical resonance and propelled a prototypical American quest forward into the present. Detailed captions and quotations from relevant parts of Blue Highways enhanced the artful photographs, which were worthy of acclaim in their own right. After the manuscript sailed through the review process, it underwent routine copyediting, the careful ministrations of a book designer, and before long it was ready for its debut.
Mild-mannered though he may be, Ed Ailor proved to be a relentless promoter of Blue Highways Revisited. He set up gallery and museum exhibits of his prints, signed copies of the book at every opportunity, presented slide shows, and gave talks about the process of creating the book. He also did interviews whenever he could. One afternoon, I received an urgent call from him. He and Will Heat-Moon were slated for an appearance on a local radio show within the hour, and he was calling from his mobile phone while driving to the studio. It was a terrific promotional opportunity, and between the two of them there would be plenty of discussion about Ed’s book and Heat-Moon’s well-known inspiration for it. In addition to taking calls from listeners, the radio station would be transmitting live internet video with high-definition reproductions of the photographs.
The reason for Ed’s call took me completely by surprise. Not long before air time, the host of the program had phoned to say there would be an additional, unexpected guest. The surprise guest would be given the first fifteen minutes of the program to talk about the shaky future of university presses and the “broken model” of scholarly publishing. Knowing something of his argument, in part that university presses, including our own, had become hidebound relics from the age of Gutenberg, Ed wanted me to provide him with details about the operation of our press, including information such as the number and kind of digital formats we employed for our books. My immediate response was to advise him and Heat-Moon not to participate because the producer had booked them under the false pretense that the show would focus exclusively on Blue Highways Revisited. By throwing them together with a critic of Ed’s publisher, the producer was clearly trying to spice up the discussion with artificial controversy. She wanted to turn the program into a sensational free-for-all.
But Ed and his friend would have none of my protestations that they should avoid a potentially embarrassing fiasco. They not only intended to appear on the show as scheduled, but they wanted to make sure they were armed with as many pertinent facts as I could provide before the confrontation. In the midst of my objections that he shouldn’t have to fight someone else’s battle or sacrifice the chance to pitch his book, Ed interrupted me. He said simply, “There are more important things than my book.”
I can say in all candor that I’ve never heard an author expressing a sentiment remotely resembling Ed’s straightforward declaration. I have serious doubts that I ever will again.
It almost seems anticlimactic to add that the two of them were more than equal to the opposition that day.