Oliver Sacks’s Partner On Readying The Author’s Final Book
Oliver Sacks was not a writer who mystified his process, writing quite a bit about how his work came together in books like “On the Move.” But what was it like to edit the neurologist and author? And how, now that he’s passed, did his collaborators put together a new book of his essays?
Bill Hayes, Sacks’s partner for the last years of his life, let readers in on the on the process of preparing “Everything in its Place,” Sacks’s final book, in an essay published on LitHub. Hayes, also a writer, was one of three editors, along with Kate Edgar and Dan Frank, on the book of 33 essays, which was released April 23. While the book is the third posthumous work by Sacks, following “Gratitude” (2015) and “The River of Confessions” (2017) it’s the only one on which the writer didn’t have input before his death in 2015.
“In our initial cut, our first question was not what one might expect,” Hayes wrote of the 18-month deliberation on which of Sacks’s unpublished essays and case histories to include in the book. “We didn’t ask ourselves, What would Oliver want? After all, how could we really know.”
“But also, there was this: Oliver had a deep respect for editors, whose role is to make judgments, to offer critical comments, to say if something doesn’t work — whether a point, a passage, or an entire piece — or if it unequivocally does.”
Hayes emphasized one particularly painful editorial suggestion heeded by Sacks. Dan Frank, after reading a draft of Sacks’ first memoir, “On the Move,” told the writer to include something about his older brother, Michael, who was, in Hayes’s words, “deeply schizophrenic.”
“Within days, Oliver turned out a whole new chapter, both heartrending and unsentimental, which added further insight into his empathy for his patients—many of whom, like Michael, had been institutionalized or marginalized by their conditions,” Hayes wrote.
Sacks, we learn, was not particular about where his essays landed: “Even after publishing 13 books and hundreds of essays and articles in his lifetime, Oliver still considered it a privilege to ‘get’ his work in print,” Hayes writes. But the British-born Sacks did have English stylistic leanings, reportedly rankling at certain house styles of both preeminent and obscure publications.
“American publications would always change his very British use of the word ‘which’ to ‘that.’ He never got used to that,” Hayes wrote. “Moreover, the NYRB insisted on turning his footnotes into endnotes, which did not sit well with Oliver, an inveterate footnote writer.”
The footnotes are restored to their proper position in “Everything in its Place.” Sacks would be glad of it, likely celebrating the book’s publication, as Hayes says was his wont, “with smoked salmon, fresh herring, Champagne, and plenty of friends.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.