An Interview with Don Roberts
Editor and Publisher of The Diaries of Adam and Eve (Translated by Mark Twain)
More than 20 years ago, in the spring of 1999, in the skies somewhere between Denver and Las Vegas, I began reading The Diaries of Adam and Eve, translated by Mark Twain and edited by Don Roberts.
I could have finished the book during the flight, but it was too good. I purposely stretched it out, made it last, savored every word, basked in favorite passages, and asked opinions of the passing cumulus clouds. Soon after, in my previous review of Diaries, I wrote, “… although I enjoy reading anything Twain has written, I believe The Diaries of Adam and Eve to be his finest. In fact, I consider it one of the best pieces of fiction written by anyone at anytime…ever.”
And I hoped it would hold true.
Not to worry. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve reread the book and listened to the audiobook. I’ve gifted copies of both the book and the audiobook to choosy reading friends — all who have had the same intense, positive reaction as mine.
So when Don Roberts contacted me back then to express his gratitude for the favorable review shortly after it first appeared on Ed’s Internet Book Review, I realized I wanted to know more about the Diaries, Mark Twain (for this was a side of him I hadn’t seen), and anything Don Roberts wanted to tell me about the making of this book. He honored me by consenting to an email interview and enthusiastically answered all my questions. And if that weren’t enough, he waited patiently over several months as I put it together, working ten or fifteen minutes here or there, as my crazy schedule permitted.
So get comfortable, sit back and relax, have an apple. Here, then, is that long-ago conversation.
Want to read my review of the book before you take on the interview? Here ya go: The Diaries of Adam and Eve.
Another note: I hoped to publish the original headshot Don Roberts provided that was published with our interview. However, that was a long time ago and I no longer have the digital copy. I’ve also lost contact with him. So if you know how to get in touch with him (or if you yourself are Don Roberts), please reach out to me.
Without further ado, here we go . . . . .
Wren Wright: Your edition of The Diaries of Adam and Eve combines six of Mark Twain’s essays:
- Extracts from Adam’s Diary
- Eve’s Diary
- Eve’s Autobiography
- Eve Speaks
- That Day in Eden
- Adam’s Soliloquy
When and how did you first come across Twain’s Adam and Eve essays?
Don Roberts: The expanded edition of the Diaries is comprised of two short stories known as “Adam’s Diary” and “Eve’s Diary,” as well as four other Twain writings that cover similar territory. I’ve known the two stories since 1970, when I was working as an English teacher in the Middle East. I lived in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip for two years, and because of curfews that began at sunset and a general sense of isolation, did a lot of reading. Among the books I read, which I ordinarily might not have read, was an anthology of Twain’s short stories. Even then it seemed odd that the Diaries weren’t printed back to back; they belonged together.
WW: Everyone I’ve gold about the Diaries is so surprised — they had never heard of them. Why aren’t the Diaries well known?
DR: Like many of Twain’s stories and sketches written toward the end of his career (another was “A Horse’s Tale”), they first saw print in magazines. This automatically limited interest in the small hardcover editions that followed. And there was probably some thought at the time that his Adam and Eve stories poked fun at the biblical story. I’ve encountered that with our edition a century later.
WW: From what I understand, Twain was not fond of religion. Why do you think he chose to write about the images of Adam and Eve?
DR: It’s true that Twain didn’t find a niche for himself in traditional religion and claimed to believe only in what he called the Moral Sense. But he was reared on Bible stories and his social circle always included members of the clergy. References to Adam and Eve appear throughout his writings, and I cannot help but suppose that he was fascinated with that story above all others. If you read the biblical account of Adam and Eve, you’ll see that there’s really not much there. It’s a simple story that leaves itself open to endless conjecture.
If you think about how often Adam and Eve appear in our popular culture — in advertising, cartoons, politics, etc. — you realize how accessible they and their story remain. And references to them don’t incite too much controversy. Twain’s interest also seems to focus on the beginning of the human experience. In The Innocents Abroad, he says, “What is it that confers the noblest delight? Discovery!” And that is the life he imagines for his Adam and Eve.
WW: Why and how did you decide to put this book together, and how long did it take to reach the final product?
DR: As I said, it seemed odd that the Diaries weren’t printed together. But in 1996 I attended an exhibit of Mark Twain stuff gathered from the collection of the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley. Included were bound editions of each work. I hadn’t realized they’d ever been published separately as books, and it was like seeing old friends after a long absence. I thought about rereading them, side by side to follow whatever narrative parallels there were.
As fate would have it, I broke my foot shortly thereafter (I guess you could say I literally “stumbled” into this project) and suddenly had a lot of sit-down time. So I began typing the two stories into the computer from the paperback I’d read 25 years earlier. If you want to begin to understand a writer’s thinking, I recommend that! When I came across a typo in the text, I realized I needed to find another edition, or even better, the hardbound books I’d seen at the Twain exhibit. But I had interwoven passages from the two stories and was amazed by how neatly the stories intersected.
Something else was happening. When I told my well-read friends what I was doing, they all gave me this puzzled look. They’d never heard of the Diaries, but they were intrigued by the lines I quoted. Also, I began to wonder why Twain had written something so uncharacteristic of his work, something so romantic and even sentimental. So by the time the cast came off and the crutches were put away three months later, I was immersed in those two stories and eager to clarify that typo and research Twain’s life. I didn’t know much about him, hadn’t ever read that much of his work. I happened on “Eve Speaks,” the first of the other four pieces, and it was a revelation. By then I found myself thinking that someone should publish the Diaries as “a beautiful little book.” Finally, it seemed to me that “someone” had had almost a century to do that and hadn’t, and that I could (and should) do it.
While researching Twain’s latter years, the period when he wrote the Diaries, I came across a recently-published book titled The Bible According to Mark Twain that not only included the Diaries but also Twain’s final revisions of them, “Eve Speaks,” and the other associated works.
All in all, it took two years to turn this into a book — much longer than Twain had spent writing the six works that were included.
WW: How much of your edition is from the Diaries and how much from the other short stories, and what can you tell us of the other stories?
DR: About 30% of the final manuscript was added from the other four writings. And I should say that the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley allowed me to include those selections that aren’t in the public domain. Only “Eve Speaks” appears in its entirety. A couple of sentences were taken from “That Day in Eden.” And the selections from “Adam’s Soliloquy” and the unpublished “Eve’s Autobiography” had to be very carefully chosen and edited into the Diaries because the greater context of those works is fairly alien to the Diaries. (In some ways, it’s a different Eve.)
I could easily have thrown in another dozen pages from these pieces, but as much as I liked the writing, it somehow would have intruded. The three works that had been published were published ten years after Twain’s death and titled by his literary executor. So Twain knew that they weren’t really quite “there” yet.
“Adam’s Soliloquy” is wonderful. It starts with Adam describing the dinosaur skeleton in the Museum of Natural History, which was really something to see in Twain’s day, and concludes with Adam in conversation with the young mother in Central Park. Adding a portion of that piece was the toughest editorial decision of all. (It will sound weird, I know, but I trusted Twain to guide me — and there were times when I imagined he was looking over my shoulder nodding or shaking his head.)
The Diaries have always ended so sadly at Eve’s grave. But here was an opportunity to lift their story to a resolution that was magical and moving. And so the book ends with Adam (or Twain) reminding us so sweetly that we children of Adam and Eve are all brothers and sisters.
WW: As you said, Diaries was uncharacteristic of Twain’s earlier work. Some critics believe this is Twain’s eulogy to his beloved wife, Olivia (Livy). What’s your take on this?
DR: I’ve continued to read biographies and Twain letters, to the point that I understand even more clearly now than then the motivation behind his writing it. And I have to say that preparing a script for the audio edition and listening to the actors’ interpretations was a revelation.
“Eve’s Diary” was certainly written to honor his wife Livy, as a eulogy of sorts, but there’s probably more to it than that.
Their daughter Susy had died at age 24 several years before Livy’s death. Susy was the apple of Twain’s eye and had his spirit and interest in writing. Susy once told Livy, “Mamma, we can never disagree; we think just alike about things. Why, Mamma, we seem like one person.” There is a lot of Susy in the character of Eve — and certainly in Gladys, Adam’s and Eve’s first daughter.
Also, I believe that he was writing about the loss of their home in Hartford and a way of life that was mostly idyllic. It was their Eden until his failed business ventures forced them to leave it for a decade of wandering around Europe. They didn’t sell the house, but it was cheaper to live in Europe. With Susy’s death, they never lived in that house again.
In contemplating Livy’s influence, I discovered that very few of her letters to Twain survive — but she saved all of his. In reading what I have of her letters, I was struck by phrases that are sort of repeated in “Eve’s Diary.” If you were to read any of her letters, though, I believe you’d hear the similarity in voice and tone.
A good example is in an 1871 letter she wrote to Twain about their infant son Langdon: “The baby is so sweet and dear, I know as he grows older you and he will love each other like everything.” He was their first child. Born prematurely nine months after their wedding and never well, he cried incessantly and died before he reached two years of age. Twain was traveling a great deal during this period and never seemed very attached to his first child, and in his usual self-deprecating way blamed himself for Langdon’s death.
In “Eve Speaks,” Eve says of her dead son Abel, “…he came to look as he had looked when he was a little child…so sweet and good and dear.” Another example appears in an 1877 letter Livy wrote about their daughters: “I made wreaths and crowns of Golden rod for the children this morning.” That’s echoed in Eve’s lines: “I gathered them (flowers) and made them into wreaths and garlands…”
Another interesting fact that creeps up in the Diaries is that Livy’s education had given her an interest in science and the scientific method, which her husband thought little of. He wrote mockingly of scientists as “these sleapy old syentiffic grannys from the Coledge.” In Diaries, Adam notes that Eve “was born scientific.” (Adam shows little curiosity about the nature of nature until later in their story.)
WW: Did you come across any disconnects between Twain’s and Livy’s letters and what was written in the Diaries?
DR: In editing the Diaries, I was always bothered by Eve’s saying, “If he should beat me and abuse me, I should go on loving him. I know it.” Those words might not have raised a red flag a century ago, but they’re pretty scary today. I considered deleting them but couldn’t take that liberty. Then in reading one of his letters written during their courtship, I was delighted by this reference to a statement in her previous letter:
“It was just like Mr. Langdon (Livy’s father) in his most facetious mood, to say he would kill me if I wasn’t good to you — and it was just like you, dear true girl, to say you’d never tell — for I believe you would go bravely on, suffering in secret from ill-treatment, till your great heart broke. But we shall circumvent Mr. Langdon, utterly — he will never have the satisfaction of killing me — because you and I will live together always in closest love and harmony, and I shall be always good to you Livy dear — always.”
We’re left to imagine what she had said in her lost letter, but it couldn’t have been too far removed from “If he should beat me and abuse me…” We’ll never know if he was rereading their letters when he wrote “Eve’s Diary,” but I believe it’s possible.
WW: You mentioned a typo in one edition. What that Adam’s or Eve’s Diary? What was it and were you able to clarify it? It must have been important to the content or interpretation of the Diaries.
DR: The typo that I finally noticed was the last few words of one sentence that were repeated at the end of the next sentence. This was easy enough to correct, but it helped me to imagine that there might be other, less obvious mistakes, which pointed to the need for a more authoritative edition. I found a facsimile of the first edition of each, which only revealed differences in punctuation.
WW: You said “Eve Speaks” was a revelation to you. How so?
DR: When I read “Eve Speaks,” my first thought was that it was mistitled. It should have been “Eve Shouts.” Gone were the sunniness and sentimentality and humor of the Diaries. Here was the rest of the story: the loss of Eden and innocence and, most importantly, immortality. Eve is questioning their fate and whether or not they deserved it. She says, “We did not know right from wrong — how should we know it? We could not without the Moral Sense; it was not possible”
As I said earlier, whatever “religion” was to Twain, he often called it “the moral sense.
“Eve Speaks” consists of four short sketches written around 1905, about the same time as “Eve’s Diary.” No one knows if they were intended to be included in it. Most likely, Twain set them aside for publication after his death, along with a number of other angry, blasphemous pieces. “Eve Speaks” was published in 1923 as part of a collection titled “Europe and Elsewhere.” The other controversial writings were finally published in 1962 as “Letters from the Earth,” when his daughter Clara finally felt they wouldn’t tarnish his reputation.
In order to use the first three pieces, which are voiced by Eve (the fourth by Satan), I had to take editorial liberties. In them, Abel is slain three months after they leave Eden, while in “Eve’s Diary,” their children are born outside Eden. It was the only way to include the death of Abel, which prepares the reader for Eve’s death.
WW: What sort of obstacles did you encounter while putting this wonderful book together?
DR: The biggest obstacle in editing this book was the need to take those editorial liberties without intruding upon the author’s intentions as I understood them. I had decided from the start that I would delete from, but never add to his words. (I did have to add one word, “it,” for the sake of clarity.) And that I would alter punctuation for the sake of consistency.
The long wait for the completion of the illustrations gave me months to consider and reconsider every word, and to study more biographies of Twain.
There were many sentences and paragraphs that I wanted to include, but just couldn’t. When a piece fit perfectly, almost as though it had been returned home, I felt elation. It was like collecting Twain’s thoughts.
WW: The Diaries of Adam and Eve is Literature with a capital “L,” mainly, I think, because it can be interpreted on numerous levels. Do you think of it as Literature as well? Why?
DR: I suppose my own test of Literature (and it is a subjective thing) has to do with the enduring universality of a piece of writing. Who can say whether anything written in our day is Literature or not? Time will tell.
Oddly enough, the Diaries are better known to Argentinean, Japanese, and Russian readers, through translation, than to those of us who can enjoy the original text. To me, that proves its universality.
Mark Twain probably didn’t know for interpretation, and I believe he’d be dismayed and also flattered by all our very fine Mark Twain scholars. I’m just a Mark Twain enthusiast, and my pleasure in interpreting these words comes solely from the parallels to his life and marriage.
WW: What do you think Samuel and Olivia Clemens would say if they read this book today?
DR: If Sam and Livy Clemens could come back today, the way Adam does in “Adam’s Soliloquy” to see what became of their children, I know Livy would be pleased with “Eve’s Diary.” She adored The Prince and the Pauper, and without imagining that “Eve’s Diary” was written as a tribute to her, she would appreciate its lyricism and poignancy.
Sam wrote specifically about Livy only once in her lifetime, so far as I know. He paid tribute to her in a letter to the editor published in a periodical, and she was not pleased.
I can only hope that this edition of the Diaries honors Twain. He detested editors and typesetters who tampered with his manuscripts!
WW: The illustrations, by Michael Mojher, are beautiful. Why did you decide to illustrate Diaries?
DR: When I imagined this as “a beautiful little book,” it seemed to me that it had to be illustrated. In fact, Twain insisted that his longer works be illustrated and usually selected the artists and directed their work. Why? Because his books were intended to be read aloud, and in most families in the 1800s, not everyone was literate. Reading aloud to the family was home entertainment, and the illustrations helped maintain interest.
WW: How did you know Michael Mojher was the right artist to illustrate this book, and how did you find him?
DR: In 1978, I worked at the Arts Alliance in Birmingham, Alabama. I was the public relations director and Michael Mojher was one of a team of artists employed to paint murals around town.
He’s a remarkably sensitive artist (and person), and I thought of him when I thought about the book’s illustrations. In fact, I felt that only he could do them. It took months to locate him, and after almost 20 years he had no memory of me at all.
I sent him a manuscript. He read it, loved it, and said he didn’t see any need for illustrations. He felt that the writing illustrated itself. But I insisted, and he came around. We spent months on the phone just talking about them, going in circles because we couldn’t decide what Adam and Eve looked like. Our breakthrough came when I mentioned that one drawing should be “fish and feet.” Within two minutes, he suggested that the reader should decide how Adam and Eve looked.
Once we determined which moments he’d illustrate, it was a matter of the illustrations not turning into a series of body parts. A year after I first contacted him, the first illustration arrived. Although it wasn’t intended for the book’s jacket (the apples of the frontispiece were), we agreed that it was the image we wanted there. Adam is pictured watching Eve from a tree, and we were both delighted when some people imagine it’s Eve.
The other seven illustrations were completed within the next eight months, giving me blessed time to fiddle with the text. That last one arrived three weeks before the book went to press, and I had to reject it. That was a very hard call to make. It seemed to belong in some other book. Michael hurriedly did another one, Eve’s eyes reflected in the pond, and it was perfect.
WW: You produced an unabridged audiobook version of The Diaries of Adam and Eve, which was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Spoken Word category. Mandy Patinkin is the voice of Adam, Betty Buckley is Eve, and Walter Cronkite narrates. You co-produced it with Gary Jones. Why did you choose to co-produce the audiobook, and how did you choose Gary? What were your individual contributions to the production?
DR: (Before I say anything about the audio edition, I have to say that “we” refers to Gary Jones, my associate producer and partner in this enterprise, and myself.)
Gary is my best friend — a very bright, talented, good-hearted fellow. When the first recording session (Betty’s) was approaching, I realized that I couldn’t handle it alone. It takes two people: someone to follow the script and see that every word is read and another (myself) to listen and offer whatever direction the readers need. So Gary agreed to be the note taker.
Gary is very talented musically, so I asked him to direct the music recording session and oversee editing the music onto the tape. He did a brilliant job with the music, and I would’ve been lost without him in New York.
A session starts leisurely, with lots of retakes during the first hour, but the last hour is simply a race against time, and all along you’ve made notes of lines you want to go back to at the end. If there’s time.
My own contribution? After the editing was completed, we wrote a note to all the people we had worked with — a thank you — and told them that “we never said we knew what we were doing, only what we hoped to accomplish.” That’s the producer’s contribution, I suppose: lining up these talented people who know exactly what they’re doing.
WW: How did you decide who to cast in which part, and why did you decide to go with several readers?
DR: When I had the thought that the Diaries should be an audiobook, I knew that Betty Buckley and Mandy Patinkin were Mark Twain’s Eve and Adam. There was never a list of other possibilities. In fact, had we not been able to enlist both of them, I doubt that we’d have proceeded with the project. They have musical voices; they sing and interpret lyrics better than anyone I can think of. And there’s so much music or poetry in Twain’s word.
Later, when I realized we’d need a narrator, I immediately thought of Walter Cronkite’s voice. I never imagined the Diaries being read by just one voice. The interplay of the male and female voices was essential.
WW: In the afterword of the audiobook, read by Walter Cronkite, who does the voices of Sam and Livy?
DR: I considered asking Betty and Mandy to provide the voices of Sam and Livy Clemens, but decided the afterword should have a more documentary sound. It was Ward and Elaine Anderson who recorded the excerpts from Sam’s and Livy’s letters (although several listeners have assumed it was Mandy and Betty). Ward and Elaine enjoyed performing with a community theater group in Berkeley. To me, Elaine is Livy, as surely as Betty is Eve. And Ward’s and Elaine’s voices give the letters a reality that is altogether separate from the imagined Diaries.
WW: What can you say about developing the script for the audiobook?
DR: The audio script mostly follows the book, except for the addition of those lines from Adam from the British edition. It had bothered me that Adam came across as a sort of dolt compared to Eve, especially in the first half of their story, but those added lines reveal his sensitivity, his musical side, as well as Twain’s wry humor. So discovering them was like finding a gift from Mark Twain to Mandy Patinkin.
We gave him and Betty Buckley a copy of the book and a script of only their lines. (They recorded separately, a month apart.) If they had recorded from the actual book, there would have been a lot of problems with pages turning, no place to make notations, that sort of thing. I included notes of explanation and pronunciation wherever I thought it would help, because we had a very limited number of hours with each one in the studio.
Then in post-production we made a couple of very slight changes to the script when we had something on tape that we just had to use: Betty’s humming and flipping pages between takes, not realizing that the tape was rolling; Mandy’s baby sounds.
WW: Do you have any stories from the recording studio?
DR: I’ve listened to the entire six hours we have on tape, and it’s pretty fascinating to relive those sessions — and listen to two extraordinary actors at work.
Twain wrote some incredibly long sentences for Eve, and it’s interesting to hear Betty’s struggle with some of them. At one point, she groans magnificently and says, “This is hard,” but she always managed to find the rhythm in Twain’s word play. She has incredible vocal control.
Mandy was as much a pleasure to watch as to listen to. He leaned into the mike and would “conduct” his reading with his arms and hands. He became fixated on one passage, where after 12 years Adam admits, “It is better to live outside the garden with her, than inside the garden without her.” He read it 30 times (I counted!) before he was satisfied. It was as if he were cutting and polishing a diamond.
WW: Did anything surprising happen during production?
DR: Because of the incredible pressure of time, a recording session isn’t where the revelations are realized. I suppose it’s like taking a photograph: you can’t be quite sure what you’ve got until later on. So it was a few days afterward that we listened to Mandy’s tape and noted how haltingly he speaks at first. Whether that was his intent or not, it made great sense to us since Adam isn’t the natural-born talker that Eve is.
WW: What is your fondest memory of producing the audiobook?
DR: As exciting as the Manhattan recording sessions were, the happiest moments occurred in the editing studio here in San Francisco. Gary and I spent well over 100 hours with our engineer, Mary Ann Zahorsky trimming six hours of tape into the final two-hour audio. (We had scheduled and budgeted for only 40 hours.)
As closely as Gary had followed the actors’ readings, we discovered a handful of mistakes that seemed impossible to correct. But because so much of the text is concerned with words as words, an accurate reading was essential. Our favorite instance was Betty’s reading “flames” instead of “flares.” (An easy mistake because both words do have the same shape.) We were determined to correct it, and through the miracles of digital recording and editing, we were finally able to combine her readings of “flames” and “bears” to create a perfectly acceptable “flares.”
The final editing session lasted four hours — devoted to what amounted to fewer than 10 seconds of sound. And not all sound, because we were also increasing or shortening pauses! Mary Ann performed miracles, and that was really exciting.
WW: Would you like to say anything else about the audiobook?
DR: I have to admit to mixed feelings about audiobooks in general. Listening to a book can never replace the pleasures of reading a book. But there is a place for audio literature. Some literature, poetry for sure, should be read aloud to be fully appreciated. And Mark Twain did write for the oral reader as much as for the silent reader. We’ve heard from people who have read our The Diaries of Adam and Eve and then listened to it and felt that they were two entirely different experiences. That pleases me because one doesn’t cancel the other — although I would suggest that the book be read first!
WW: Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to these questions. The best of luck with Diaries and all your endeavors.
DR: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.
Once again, here’s my review of The Diaries of Adam and Eve.
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