Review Fix Exclusive: Interview With Charles Ardai, Editor of James Cain’s Lost Novel, ‘The Cocktail Waitress’
Review Fix chats with Editor Charles Ardai, who worked tirelessly to bring legendary author James Cain’s lost novel “The Cocktail Waitress” to print. Discussing his passion for Cain’s work, as well as the process behind his adventure as the book’s editor, Ardai’s dedication has led to the resurfacing of a literary master more than 30 years after his death.
Review Fix: How has Cain’s affected you as a reader? What made you want to take
this project on?
Charles Ardai: I first encountered Cain when I was a freshman at Columbia and came across a battered copy of DOUBLE INDEMNITY on a used-book table. Bought it for a buck or two, started reading, and – I was hooked. After I finished it, I hunted down every book Cain ever wrote, gobbled them all up. There was something about his voice, his storytelling, his characters and their desperate situations, that I found irresistible. So when I heard there was one more Cain novel out there that no one had ever read, I was ecstatic. I had to find it. And it took me nine years, but I finally did.
Review Fix: What was the most challenging aspect of the editing?
Ardai: As a practical matter, it was that Cain wrote the book longhand, and had terrible handwriting, and I have terrible vision. So deciphering each scrawled word was a headache, often literally. But at a more substantive level, the challenge was that Cain left behind multiple drafts of the book – some complete, some partial; some in first person, some in third – and I had to figure out which pieces belonged in the final draft. This is not all that different from what I do with living authors every day, but there I can consult with the author to understand his preferences and intentions. Here, the author’s been dead for 35 years, and he’s a legend to boot. Imagine trying to mix a new John Lennon song out of various takes he left behind. It would be an honor – a privilege – but also a little daunting.
Review Fix: How did it feel to get a ringing endorsement from someone the likes of Stephen King on this project?
Ardai: It felt great – great knowing that I’m not the only one who’s still passionate about Cain’s work, and great to hear that the editing job I did was successful enough that the book is a satisfying read, not just a historical curiosity. And of course the fact that Steve is as widely known and widely loved as he is means that a quote from him can have a real impact on how many people pick the book up. So I was very grateful that he was so enthusiastic about it.
Review Fix: How will fans of Cain’s work feel about this work? Or, how would you like them to feel?
Ardai: If they’re like me, they’ll be thrilled just to be in the master’s presence once more. Who would’ve thought that after all these years we’d get to hear Cain’s inimitable voice again, and be taken on one last dark and devious ride? And for people who haven’t read Cain before, maybe it’ll be a gateway drug to reading his classics: THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, MILDRED PIERCE, DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Maybe even some of his more obscure titles, such as JEALOUS WOMAN and SINFUL WOMAN and PAST ALL DISHONOR. All great stuff.
Review Fix: How do you want this book to be remembered?
Ardai: I just want it to be read, and enjoyed, and I want people to tell their friends about it. If they also remember it twenty years later, the way I remember my first encounter with Cain’s writing, that’s fantastic. But it’ll take twenty years to see if that happens. First things first.
Review Fix: There are often moments of doubt and clarity after the publishing of a book. How did you feel about the project while it was progressing and what do you think of the finished project?
Ardai: When I was in the depths of the editing, with piles of indecipherable handwritten pages on one side of my desk and printouts of the in-progress final draft on the other, I sometimes asked myself whether anyone else out there cared enough about Cain for it to be worth the enormous effort the project was taking from me. But now that I see the response the book’s getting, and how many people are really dying to get their hands on a copy of the book, I realize the answer is clearly yes. Cain was and is an important writer, and readers deserve to be able to get his last novel. I only wish he’d lived to see it. I just took a copy of the finished book to the park the other day and cracked it open and read the first 50 pages or so…the way a new reader coming to the book for the first time would…and damn it, I was sucked right in. I wanted to find out what would happen next. Even as an old man, Cain still had the knack, that thing that made Cain Cain.
Patrick Hickey Jr.
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