Literary history is full of women who served as quiet enablers of male talent: Milton’s daughters, who read aloud to their blind father in languages they didn’t understand; Dorothy Wordsworth, who declared, “I should detest the idea of setting myself up as an author,” even as her poet brother borrowed images from her journal; and Elizabeth Hauptmann and Ruth Berlau, Bertolt Brecht’s lovers and unacknowledged collaborators.
“I think when I was young, I thought, ‘Oh my God, that would be horrendous. Why would anyone want to do that?’” Margaret Knox said in a phone interview from her home in Boulder, Colo. For the past 15 years, Ms. Knox has been serving as the “bureau chief and editor,” for her husband, Dan Baum (as his eponymous Web site puts it). Mr. Baum, a former New Yorker staff writer, recently detailed his train-wreck-like relationship with the magazine in a hotly followed Twitter feed promoting his most recent book (or perhaps we should call it their most recent book), Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans.
The couple first met at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where Ms. Knox was the Savannah bureau chief. Mr. Baum was a young hotshot from The Wall Street Journal who had come to “slum it” as a cops-and-courts reporter, she said. He made a point of stopping by to meet her when he first arrived at the paper, having praised one of her stories during his interview.
Soon they were married, honeymooning as international correspondents in Harare, Zimbabwe. They had a simple rule: Whoever wrote the first draft of the article got the byline. Sometimes they put both their names on a story. Often, though, their joint work would go out under a single name.
After three years of intense reporting—Ms. Knox sometimes worked alone, Martha Gellhorn–like, covering conflicts in Angola and Mozambique—they moved to Montana and began to focus on freelance magazine work.
It was here that Ms. Knox’s husband began to pull ahead in terms of output. He worked faster, and that meant he made more money.
“Probably I am not as much of a competitive person and more of a cooperative person,” she said. “But the stresses have been, from the beginning, he was earning more.”
She liked to dwell on her prose and make the writing perfect. “You’re being a prima donna,” her husband told her, encouraging her to crank out the stories.
Still, when their daughter Rosa was born in 1993, the pair split the days equally: One of them would spend the morning with the baby while the other was writing. In the afternoon, they would switch.
Then Mr. Baum broke into the high-end, high-paid magazine market with a regular writing gig for Rolling Stone. Ms. Knox kept editing his work. The better magazine pay—and then his first book advance—gave her the time to be a mom and work on her fiction. Writing a novel, she said, has always been “my holy grail.”
The way that Mr. Baum and Ms. Knox now describe their collaboration on their Web site, danbaum.com, is a 50-50 split. Ms. Knox said she thinks the division of time is “more like three-fifths/two-fifths, two-thirds/one-third.” Mr. Baum does the reporting and knocks out the first draft. Then they edit the piece together.
On the phone from Colorado, where he was barbecuing a deer he had shot for dinner, Mr. Baum said he and his wife think any controversy over their arrangement is “silly.”
“Good writing, at its best, it’s collaborative,” he said.
“Max Perkins’ name is not on the cover of Look Homeward, Angel.”
Or as Ms. Knox put it: “One of us gets fame and one of us gets a more, ummm, smell-the-roses lifestyle, staying home with the kid and being involved with a lot of community activity,” she said. “That’s a pretty good division.”
Mr. Baum said that he and his wife haven’t really tried to get dual credit. “I think that readers like to identify with a voice and a writer, and a double byline on anything more subjective than a newspaper story is confusing,” he said.
Twice when he was working for The New Yorker, Mr. Baum said, expanding on his Twitter feed, he asked that Ms. Knox’s name be included in his description in the magazine’s contributors box, but was told, “No, David [Remnick] doesn’t want to do that.”
“I didn’t get an explanation and I didn’t ask for an explanation,” Mr. Baum said. (Mr. Remnick passed on an opportunity to comment.)
What about the book?
“We talked about it and we decided, ‘Maybe it’s muddying the brand.’ Margaret’s just like, ‘Don’t do it,’” Mr. Baum said.
Sanguine as she is, Ms. Knox conceded that the couple’s process is not without its kinks. She was deeply involved in the editing process of Nine Lives, both in cutting the manuscript from 190,000 to 117,000 words and talking about how to formally structure the book’s nine intertwined narratives.
Then, she said, in the last weeks before the book was due, the book’s editor, Christopher Jackson, told them the book was stylistically too close to fiction. “It would be incredibly messy to go roundabout with three people,” she said, and so she stepped aside. “It was like being halfway through childbirth and then having to stop.”
She added that she is beginning to shoulder more of the family’s financial responsibilities, recently editing for nonprofits and writing copy for a local business. But selling the Margaret Knox brand has been a challenge.
“I can’t just pop out of the box and say, I’ll write for $3.50 a word when I’ve never earned more than a dollar a word for anything,” she said.
“A while back, I went to a shrink and learned all about my position in the family and my struggle is to ‘get my voice out’ and why don’t I and what’s wrong with me. Part of it is a Buddhist attitude of being in the here and now. There are things in my life besides my word processor.”
That’s not to say her personal writerly ambition has been entirely quashed.
“Hope springs eternal,” Ms, Knox said. “I’d like to have both. You know, earth mother, and also publish my novel.”
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