NEW YORK — When Julie Grau was presented with the journals of the late Kurt Cobain, she was anything but a Nirvana groupie. As she said several times during a 45-minute interview, “I am not an expert.”
This story first appeared in the November 19, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Indeed. Grau, 38, is the co-editorial director of Riverhead Press and, in nearly 15 years as an editor, she has never had the task of editing a rock star, much less a dead one. She lives on the Upper West Side with her husband Adam Stern, a producer of music videos and commercials, and his six-year-old son Jackson, and she is slightly more likely to be seen at a PEN Gala than an underground rock show at CBGB’s.
What interested her about the idea of publishing Cobain’s journals, she said, was that they contained “a fairly complete self portrait of a talented, troubled teenager — extremely gifted in some ways, who had a vision of what he wanted to become and what he definitely didn’t want to become and wasn’t sure of how to navigate those two things. It has all the elements of a classic American tragedy.”
She also saw dollar signs, a fact that she makes little attempt to hide. “I hoped it would be a big seller,” she said. “I found the journals fascinating and I bet hundreds of thousands of people would, too. And that’s my job as a book editor, to represent a segment of public taste and be a barometer for that.”
So far, her instincts have been remarkably on target.
At the age of 25, while employed as an editor at Random House, Grau got her first big project: Julia Phillips’ autobiographical account about flaming out in Hollywood, “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again.” The book went to number one on The New York Times best-seller list. Shortly afterward, Grau edited Susanna Kaysen’s “Girl, Interrupted” and Sandra Cisneros’ “Woman Hollering Creek,” which also became best-sellers.
“She’s very smart and she has a great sense of humor,” said her friend Kate Betts, whose husband Chip Brown is edited by Grau. “Some people in New York media circles you’re able to categorize right away. She’s always transcended that. She’s very curious about things and she’s not pretentious.”
Grau’s editing choices have reflected that. After moving over to Riverhead, a startup operation funded by Putnam, in 1994, Grau found continued success with a slew of books that had seemingly little in common with one another. There was the brainy mystery “An Instance of the Fingerpost” by Iain Pears, “My Dream of You” by Nula O’Faolain, and “The Courage to be Rich,” a self-helpish, personal finance book by Suze Orman, which went to number one on the Times’ best-seller list.
There have been some complaints over her current book. Cobain’s journals were presented to Grau by Jim Barber, the manager and boyfriend of Cobain’s wife, the singer/actress Courtney Love, and save for a couple of mentions, Love is conspicuously absent from the finished product.
When asked about this, Grau acknowledged the complaints but pointed out that Cobain biographer Charles Cross had been widely quoted as saying the book seems fairly complete. “I am inclined to agree with [him],” she said, though she acknowledged that “I have no way of ascertaining what I did not see.”
The controversy does not seem to have dampened the book’s success. Next week, it will enter The New York Times Best Seller List at number one, she said.
Next up for Grau is O’Faolain’s memoir “Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman,” and a first novel called “Vicious Spring,” by Hollis Hampton-Jones, about a Nashville teenager who descends into the skin trade. “It is a dark project,” Grau said with a laugh. She has also done some magazine writing, (for Vogue and Allure), but has no plans to change her career path.
“I got into book publishing on a lark, and I vowed that I would do it for a year or until I got bored. And I never did get bored.…Writing,” she said, is just, “a fun hobby.”