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Richard Todd, editor who shaped work of Tracy Kidder and others, dies at 78

Richard Todd at the Cummington Fair in 2018.Maisie Todd

“What you choose to tell first affects everything else,” Richard Todd once said of how writers open stories.

So it was with each book he edited, and so it is now with the stories told by those who worked with him, knew him, loved him.

“He taught me to write,” said Tracy Kidder, whom Mr. Todd guided from struggling, fledgling freelance efforts to a Pulitzer Prize and bestsellers.

Their uncommonly close writer-editor relationship — “I think of it more as a collaboration, really,” Kidder said — lasted from 1973 until April 21, the day Mr. Todd died in Northampton’s Cooley Dickinson Hospital, where he was being treated for complications from a fall, and for cancer. Mr. Todd was 78 and had lived in Ashfield since 1981.

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As an editor at Houghton Mifflin, The Atlantic Monthly, and New England Monthly, he played a key role in shaping some of the best writing that defined literary journalism from the 1970s onward.

Though best known as Kidder’s editor, Mr. Todd worked with authors who published enduring works of nonfiction and fiction: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Suzannah Lessard, James Fallows and Darcy Frey, Ann Patchett and Mark Kramer.

Mr. Todd’s contributions to his writers, and to the genre itself, reached beyond his editing notes on manuscript pages. When Kidder was looking for a writing topic in the 1970s, Mr. Todd remembered that his former college roommate Tom West was at Data General in Westborough. “He said, ‘Why don’t you look into computers?’ I laughed. I couldn’t think of anything drearier,” Kidder recalled.

The book turned into “The Soul of a New Machine,” which earned Kidder a Pulitzer for general nonfiction in 1982.

The two worked closely on all of Kidder’s work. “He was by my side, shoulder-to-shoulder, looking over everything,” Kidder said. When each book reached a final edit, their last ritual was to trade off reading it “aloud to each other, usually one page apiece,” Kidder said.

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Mr. Todd was an author, too, most recently of 2013’s “Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction,” co-written with Kidder. The book offers guidance and includes the kind of sharp, short tips that can fit on a sticky note perched on the edge of a laptop’s screen: “If you can’t imagine yourself saying something aloud, then you probably shouldn’t write it.”

In 2008, Mr. Todd wrote “The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity,” which “manages to be a memoir without being an autobiography,” Cullen Murphy, editor at large for The Atlantic, wrote in a tribute on the magazine’s website after Mr. Todd died.

In essays for The Atlantic and New England Monthly, both of which he led as the top editor, Mr. Todd examined subjects as disparate as visiting Las Vegas or swimming in Maine, where even summer waters refrigerate the soul. He willingly surrendered to that numbing pleasure.

“After 10 minutes or so,” he wrote, “people watching you swim in this water grow affectingly anxious, unable to comprehend that for you, suffering is only a memory.”

Admirers welcomed reading Mr. Todd’s unfiltered voice, rather than guessing which of his memorable observations had slipped into the prose of writers he edited.

“Dick’s own writing generally took a back seat to the writerly assistance he gave to others, whether as an editor or as a teacher,” Murphy wrote. “He was a keen social observer, and his manner and voice fit naturally with the demands of the personal essay.”

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In his Back Bay office at The Atlantic, with its marble fireplace and framed Emily Dickinson poem in the poet’s own handwriting, Mr. Todd could seem like a character from a book — at least in Murphy’s telling. Visitors might chance upon pages from an article in progress, all planted on the floor. Amid them, Mr. Todd stood staring down at sentences and paragraphs, like a farmer contemplating seedlings.

Near the end of “The Thing Itself,” Mr. Todd wrote: “I think within these sheltering walls I may sometimes understand another meaning of what it can be to ‘live in the moment.’ Not that striving, self-forging, abyss-staring quest — not that at all, but instead something more like acceptance.”

An only child, Samuel Richard Todd Jr. was born in 1940 in Newburgh, N.Y., the son of Samuel Todd, who worked in sales for DuPont, and Miriam Walsh, who had been a dentist’s office manager.

While his father served in the military during World War II, Mr. Todd and his mother lived on his paternal grandfather’s Newburgh farm — an experience that shaped his love of rural living.

The family subsequently moved to Park Ridge, Ill., and to Darien, Conn., where Mr. Todd was a middle-class teen among affluent peers.

He graduated from Amherst College in 1962, majoring in English and writing a senior thesis about Dickinson. While there, he met Susan Bagg, who would graduate from Smith College, after a poetry reading that featured her brother.

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Mr. Todd worked in New York City in advertising after graduating, and then did graduate work at Stanford University in the creative writing program Wallace Stegner founded.

In Palo Alto, Calif., Mr. Todd and Susan eloped, marrying in 1964 in the city’s courthouse and living in a converted water tower. A couple of years later they headed east, where Mr. Todd began freelancing and the couple settled in Cambridge.

He wrote for The Atlantic, eventually becoming its executive editor, and published elsewhere, too. In a 1971 New York Times profile, Mr. Todd wrote that author Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s “face is a sculptor’s clay model of itself; he often passes his hand over it as if to get it right.”

For a time, Mr. Todd, his wife, and their three daughters lived on a farm in Westminster, growing vegetables that they sold at a roadside stand and raising chickens, pigs, and sheep. They returned to Boston for a few years before settling in Ashfield.

“My father helped me connect so deeply to our home, our land, and our town.,” his daughter Nell of Washington, D.C., said in a eulogy at his memorial service Friday.

He was his daughters’ editor, too. “He taught me how to write by listening,” Maisie Todd Wallick of Redding, Conn., said in her eulogy. One night at home she was stymied by her writing. “Just tell me what you want to say,” he told her, and “I did, surprising myself with a sudden clarity. . . . Listen to how your words sound, he said. Trust your ear.”

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Mr. Todd “was gentle and encouraging as a father, too, but also a seeker of ambition on our behalf,” his daughter Emily of Northampton said in her eulogy. “He believed in who we were becoming and kept pushing (gently), helping us to reach toward there.”

In addition to his wife, Susan, a retired elementary school teacher and principal, and his three daughters, Mr. Todd leaves six grandchildren.

“There was no one wiser,” Maisie said in her eulogy. “No one who listened as closely. No one who made us laugh more or knew us better. He loved us so well.”

For Mr. Todd, the acceptance he sought as a husband, as a father, as an editor “happens perhaps at a table at night with the closest people and you feel not unpleasantly that you are no more or less real than the candlelight,” he wrote in “The Thing Itself.”

At such moments, he was sure “that they have your substance, your very self, in their hands. That it is their gaze and their laughter, their unspoken and inexplicable affection that give you substance, that you are held there like a fallen leaf on an invisible updraft of air.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.