Jeanne M. Leiby (1964-2011)

I’ve struggled with what to say about my friend Jeanne Leiby, who passed away last week. When she took over as editor of the venerable Southern Review a few years ago, she instituted their radical Resident Scholar program in which a recent creative writing grad would go to work for the magazine and teach one class each semester at LSU … and get paid for his own writing time.

I was the first person to get the job, which allowed me to work with Jeannie twenty hours a week (give or take) for two years at Old President’s House, located on the campus of Louisiana State University. During the first year, she and I pretty much made up the job responsibilities on the fly, day by day, and tailored it to the things I can do well (which do not include, I might add, Chicago Manual-style line edits or catching typos). Then, every year another talented writer came in for a two-year stint, so there would be overlap and more distinct voices contributing to the magazine. What an awesome idea. The two Resident Scholars there now are great people, and have also made their jobs their own.

Creating the Resident Scholar position was the kind of too-crazy-to-work idea that Jeannie excelled at. (I can hear her now giving me grief about ending that previous sentence with a preposition.) At least once a day, she would come barreling into the conference room, where I liked to read the manuscripts under consideration, and yell, “I got it!”

50% of the time her ideas were terrible (e.g. moving all the editors into one room) and I would tell her so. 25% of the time the ideas weren’t very good, but I didn’t want to break it to her, so I suggested she run it past other people on the staff. (Sorry, Leslie!) But … 25% of the time, she was on to something.

25%? I would take those odds any day of the week.

Jeannie was a visionary editor, someone who painted in strokes broader than anyone else thought were possible. She had big ideas, all the time, and I was the lucky recipient of one of them. Of course, with that kind of vision usually comes an equally super-sized personality. Working with her wasn’t always easy, but she never wavered in placing the long-term needs of The Southern Review ahead of her own well being and that of her staff. Her methods and her management style were unorthodox to say the least.

She could frustrate me beyond all comprehension, though I’m sure that I more than returned that particular favor. She was also a stickler for paperwork—“It’s too bad your boss is such a bitch,” she told me once, talking about herself—until something more important crossed her desk and distracted her. One thing I found unusual, if not outright baffling, was her dogged insistence that everyone fill out their administrative paperwork in blue ink. It had to be blue. Mind you, these forms never left the confines of The Southern Review’s offices. No one ever looked at them. On one occasion, I filled out the paperwork to her exacting standard of color and penmanship and she promptly fed it into the shredder.

In retrospect (my position having ended almost eight months ago), I see all too well that although Jeannie’s focus on the minutia of process often seemed eccentric and unpredictable at the time, it’s what made her such a remarkable editor. The issues of The Southern Review she helmed will speak for themselves forever. She expected a lot from the people around her, from her colleagues and students, and in turn we all improved as editors and writers. She was enormously inspiring, if not in the traditional rah-rah ways. I wrote a ton of fiction during my two years there. Whatever her methods any particular week, there’s no questioning the final product. Her issues of The Southern Review are incredible in every way. Her contribution to Southern letters, though cut short, cannot be overstated.

(I’m giving some thought to writing an essay about her 13-issue tenure, if I can. Her too-short time there covered Summer 2008 to Spring 2011, with another issue currently in production. It will be difficult to live with those texts again—oh she hated the word “text”—and with the emotions they will surely dislodge in me. We’ll see…)

The last time I saw Jeannie was in mid-July of 2010. She was going on vacation shortly before I was leaving Baton Rouge for my native Philadelphia. We met for lunch at Chelsea’s, the kind of gourmet dive that Louisiana specializes in. We were there for hours, consuming massive amounts of iced tea and Diet Coke; the wait staff had cleared all the other tables, but we were unwilling to leave, to say goodbye.

Finally, it was time to go, but we both had to pick up a few things across the road at the Bet-R supermarket. There, in the produce section, she hugged me and said, “I love you, Drew.”

I was a little surprised, I admit. Not at the love, but at its expression. “I love you, too,” I said. And I meant it. And I still do.