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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Editor Janet Silver

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July/August 2008

7.01.08

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That seems to have become increasingly important over the last decades. How did that evolve, from your perspective?
It's happened in different ways. First, it happened with the book tour. Today the book tour has become less and less productive for some authors—so now we have the book tour plus media. But I think publishers also have found that there are special interest groups for particular books that their authors are aware of, and that that kind of micro-marketing—whether it's regional marketing or a medical group or something else—can be really effective. I'm thinking about Jacki Lyden's memoir, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, which was a great success for us. This was a very compelling memoir about her mother's manic-depression. Since it was published, Jacki has really been on the circuit. She talks to support groups, psychological associations, groups that work with families who have manic-depression in their families. She was aware of some of that in advance, so we were able to think of different ways to approach the promotion of the same book.

More and more, publishers are looking for nonfiction ways of talking about fiction. You have to find new ways to interest people. You have to get them to pick up the book. If one of the ways to do that is to find an extra-literary element to talk about, and if the author can do some of that talking and not just the publisher, it makes a big difference.

You've never worked in New York. Was that a conscious decision?
No. I made my home here, and I was very lucky because I started building a list at a moment when it was still not difficult to do that—there was still enough publishing in Boston that it wasn't an outpost. Little, Brown was still here in addition to Beacon and all the university presses. There was a real publishing community that doesn't exist as much anymore.

Still, I would imagine there are advantages to being in Boston now.
Well, that's what we all say. Everybody has always said that the great advantage of being in Boston is that you're not so much in the center of the hype. It's a little bit easier to have some perspective. And to some extent it's true. If you're not always talking to the same people in the same small publishing community, I think you don't get quite as caught up in the machinery. Houghton really had to think about distinguishing itself from the rest of the publishing community in order to attract the best authors. So, one way you do that is to say that it has this long, distinguished tradition with a vision that's outside the New York publishing community. But I think the main advantage is that it's a very sane life. It's a wonderful place to live. And there's a kind of intellectual energy because of all the universities, a kind of cultural energy around you that's really fabulous.

Which is a nice segue to talking about poetry.
My great love.

Yeah?
Yes, it is.

Were you always editing poetry?
I started editing poetry pretty early on at Houghton. We used to have a fellowship, a poetry contest, and as soon as I came on I knew I wanted to be one of the judges for that. Peter Davison was the poetry editor at the time. Houghton had this long history of publishing poetry, but one way of bringing on new writers in addition to Galway Kinnell and Donald Hall and the Houghton stable of writers was to find new talent through this annual contest. I became involved in judging it, and one of the early winners—maybe even the first year I was at Houghton—was Andrew Hudgins for a collection called After the Lost War, which is about the Civil War. I just loved having a chance to be engaged with those writers, so I copyedited that book. I copyedited Tom Lux and Rodney Jones and some of the other writers who were there at the time.

Peter was a great supporter of poetry and a poet himself, which maintained a certain profile for the list. But from where I sat we were really just publishing one poet at a time rather than having an actual poetry program. So at the point when I could make a difference, when I became the editorial director and then the editor in chief and the publisher, I wanted to expand the list, to bring on some different kinds of poets, and also to try to engage the rest of the house more. It's so hard for a trade house to publish poetry if it's just one book at a time. But if you can go to a reviewer with a whole campaign for the house's poets, three or four on a list, and you can advertise them together, you can get more attention and spread the costs over several books. I think they just needing some nurturing and attention and a sense that marketing and publicity were behind them.

What other things did you do?
I hired Michael Collier, who is the head of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. First I brought Michael to Houghton as a poet, and then the busier I got and the more I had need for somebody else to manage the program as it evolved and developed, I felt that Michael would be just the right person for that. Poetry is such a small world and there are so many egos involved that you need someone to manage it who is just so open-minded and generous. As the head of Bread Loaf, he's used to dealing with a wide array of writers and personalities. He also has impeccable taste. Another nice thing about having Michael come on is that he was able to really edit the manuscripts—I didn't have time to do that anymore—and to keep the poets in the loop about other book that were coming out and to foster a sense of community among the Houghton poets.

One of the other ways in which I worked with Michael was to take on the publication of the winners of the Bakeless Prize, which is awarded by Bread Loaf annually. Houghton would publish the winners in paperback original in Mariner. One of the earliest winners was Spencer Reece for his collection The Clerk's Tale—the judge was Louise Glück—and this was just a fabulous collection. This is another example of a way in which you can talk about poetry in the same way you can talk about fiction, with a nonfiction hook. The Clerk's Tale was an obvious allusion to Chaucer, but Spencer himself had a wonderful story. He was a clerk at Brooks Brothers in Florida. That's what he did for a living. After he won the prize, Michael was able to send the poems to Alice Quinn, and she loved them and published the entire title poem on the back page of the New Yorker. I think that was unprecedented. So here was a way to launch a poet with a prize-winning collection and to talk about his work in ways that could attract popular attention. It was always about quality, but it was also about good publishing—finding ways to grow the poetry list and bring attention to it.

As you've read first novels and story collections over the years, have you noticed any common mistakes that beginning authors tend to make? I'd like to get a sense of how you evaluate first fiction.
The one thing that every aspiring novelist and story writer should know is that it's really about personal taste. So much depends on taste. People always talk about the pros and cons of creative writing programs. It's a little clichéd now to say that there's an identifiable "writing program style," but there kind of is. It can be solipsistic, it can be dialogue based. I do think that some of the work coming out of those programs is being published too early. I find that the best writers, the most ambitious writers, are the greatest readers, and not just of contemporary fiction, but of classic fiction.

There are a couple of things I see in first fiction that always tell me something is not for me. The first is usually in fiction by young women. There will be a young female protagonist with a vaguely artistic temperament who goes to New York to do something. At some point, usually about page ten, she looks in the mirror and describes herself. And you see this device in many wonderful novels—this is the way the author's going to let the reader know what the narrator or main character looks like—but now you just see it too much. So I usually get to that on page ten and say, "Not interested."

The other is that you're only allowed one dream per novel. Because it's too easy. It's sort of like looking in the mirror—you get to know something about the main character's fears and inhibitions or whatever because it all came out in a dream. If there's more than one dream, I think, "Oh, wow, that's just too easy."

What about the opposite? What are you always looking for in a new writer?
I tend to like character-driven fiction by writers who are sort of pushing their own ambition and their own vision. Someone like Peter Ho Davies, who has this marvelous background. He can write about his Welsh heritage or his Malaysian heritage—and sometimes the two meet—but there's always a strong sense of history. In his story collection The Ugliest House in the World, there's a central story called "A Union," which is about the Welsh mining strikes. But it was also about a marriage. And I just loved the way these characters were set in time—which is not to say that I like historical fiction, because I don't especially—but I really do like to know that the author has a sense of history, so there's a context and a richness, a textural kind of context. Peter's stories take you all over the world, but they also are very grounded in his sensibility.

I also like when a writer can write all different kinds of characters. Back in the nineties we published a story collection called The Coast of Good Intentions by Michael Byers. He was a Seattle-based writer who now lives in Michigan. And he could write from the perspective of an eighteen-year-old immigrant living in Seattle as easily as a twelve-year-old girl or a forty-five-year-old man or an elderly woman. That flexibility, the ability to inhabit a character so fully, to make them totally believable on the page, is something I really look for.

Tell me about a particularly memorable editing experience.
Peter Ho Davies comes to mind. The greatest thing for an editor is when you read a manuscript, you give some comments, and then the author goes off and does something completely different from what you expected, but it's brilliant and wonderful. With some of Peter's stories, especially that one I was just describing, I gave him some comments, and the story came back about three times as long. So there was this kind of ebullient response from him—a kind of magnanimous sense of possibility. You could see him sort of stretching toward a novel in that experience.

How many times do you read a manuscript you're editing?
Quite a few. When I first read a manuscript, I feel like I have to read it all the way through without putting my pencil down, and then you make notes and go back through and make more specific comments. Then you get a revision and you have to do the same thing all over again. So I probably read every manuscript two or three times. Sometimes, if you've been through enough drafts of a book, you get confused. You forget if something was in this draft or a previous draft, you lose track of what's been dropped. When I was editing Jonathan's second book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, there was this line in the beginning where Oskar was talking about his grandmother—they needed to get somewhere—and she says, in this perfect Jewish grandmother kind of way, something about how she believes in God but she does not believe in taxis. In a subsequent version of the manuscript that line got dropped, and it stuck in my mind, and when I realized it wasn't there, I thought, "I loved that line. Put it back in!" So he did, just for me, I think.

“I find that the best writers, the most ambitious writers, are the greatest readers, and not just of contemporary fiction, but of classic fiction.”

Reader Comments

  • stardancer101 says...

    I always get excited when I get to read the new Agents and Editors section. I see hooks like 'editor Janet Silver discusses what she looks for in a new writer and what every author should know about agents," and my eyes light up, being a young unpublished writer myself. But I find myself consistently disappointed in the article. There are usually only two or three questions in the interview that really speak to the subject line, and the rest of them are about publishing eras, job history, name-dropping, discussions of relationships with well-known published authors.... These topics are good to note, but I just wish there was a lot more meat in the article in the areas of advice and the things the opener promised.... Names and positions being slung around don't really catch any interest for me, and that takes up the majority of the article. I found myself craving more from the all-too-short section of common mistakes for new writers, and what she looks for in a writer. I've felt this way about the last three Agents and Editors sections too....

  • Myfanwy Collins says...

    Thanks for this interview (as well as the others). I appreciate Janet Silver's enthusiasm and willingness to share information, and finally I have found someone who has read Moby-Dick as often as I have.

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