What was it called before?
I think it was called The Wave. When it was on submission, the agent kept calling and asking if I had read it. I thought it was about surfing and that I had no interest in reading it. But it wasn’t about that. When I read it, I said I really wanted a title that had a Raymond Carver feel to it, and I think we did that with “You Know When the Men Are Gone.”
The only other time was with City of Women. When I bought that it was called something else, and David Gillham really wanted to keep the original title. I didn't like it, and I don’t know why I agreed at the time. As we moved closer to publication, I went back and said, “I would be remiss not to bring this up again. I think it would be a mistake to go with this title and we should change it.”
The first time you’re talking to an author, they don’t know you. Why should they trust you? I would like to think that David decided to change the title because by that point I had earned his trust and he believed it was the right way to go.
We can talk all day about marketing, but it comes down to this: Is the book good? That’s what I need to focus on.
How did you learn the lesson to always be up front and direct with your authors?
I never had an issue with something that really came back and bit me in the ass, but I do remember buying a book when I was a young editor for Washington Square Press—a collection from a writing group of men in LA who were HIV positive.
The woman who ran the group wrote an introduction, and I edited it. I was really young, and I was intimidated, and I didn’t do a heavy edit. She noticed and told me she thought I would have done more.
I saw her fifteen years or twenty years later, and I apologized. Of course, she didn’t remember that. But I remembered that I chickened out. That was a good lesson. It doesn’t matter how old you are. You are the editor of the book, and this is what your job is.
Did you notice that you were approaching or publishing your books in a different way once you started this imprint?
Yes. When you’re publishing on a big list, in a way you are publishing anonymously. People in-house might know it’s your book, but I feel like having it be in your own imprint is a much bigger responsibility. I felt like people were going to associate this imprint with me, so I wasn’t going to put books on my list that I didn’t love—or that I knew could sell even though I didn't love them. I couldn’t do that. All we have is our names. This business is all about reputation.
For example, I might see a partial manuscript in translation and think, “I can’t buy this because I don't know how the whole book is.” I’ve bought some books where I might be the only one who sees it, and it’s great to take a flyer on that gut feeling. But even though it might just be my mother who’s watching, there’s more of a spotlight on what you're doing on it if it’s your imprint.
Has your relationship with your authors changed since you established your own imprint?
No, I think I’ve had the same relationship with my authors that I’ve always had. Susan Jane Gilman and I were extremely close when I was at Hachette, and I am still close with her. The interaction between an author and an editor is fundamentally the same regardless of where you are. At least, it's always been the same for me.
What was the last really, really great thing that you read?
I hate when they ask this in the New York Times Book Review because sometimes authors will only choose dead authors. I'm going to sound like I'm not giving props to anyone living, but the first thing that comes to mind is that I brought Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s last year—I had never read it—and while I liked Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there was also this short story, “A Christmas Memory,” that was so amazing. That was actually the last truly oh-my-gosh moment. And I loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette? I thought it was so much fun, and spot on, and terrific.
Do you feel competitive with other people who have their own eponymous imprints?
No, I guess because I’m friendly with all of them. I think we all have distinct tastes. Or rather, we’re all in competition with each other regardless of whether someone has an imprint or not. I mean, Lee Boudreaux at Ecco doesn’t have an imprint, and Jordan Pavlin at Knopf doesn’t have an imprint, and they’re amazing editors. I don’t think the imprint is the barometer of anything.
Any editor’s list is a reflection of her personality. You talked about being an outsider, but in what other ways do the books you publish describe who you are?
The irony is that I’ve had all these Southern novels and I’m a Jew from New Jersey. Maybe my list describes me in that the books are so different from my experience. Siobhan Fallon is writing books about families of the military, which is as far from my experience as possible. Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters takes place in a small college town, and I grew up as far from academia as you possibly could.
Do you want the books you publish to be reflections of you?
I don’t. That may sound strange coming from someone who has an eponymous imprint. But this should not be about me—it should be about the authors. The reason why I have this imprint is that I believe it’s the most effective way to advocate for my authors. I don’t tweet, I don’t do any of that, and I was hesitant about doing this interview because I really don’t think it’s about me. It’s about my authors. I’m much more comfortable talking about them.
If anything, in terms of reflection, some of my books have a good sense of humor. That’s not say that I'm actually funny, but that I appreciate their humor.
As a reader or an editor, have any writers changed your life?
That’s a good question. I have such different relationships with my authors. I do meet most of them in person, though most of them do not live in New York. I might talk to them multiple times a day, but it’s through e-mail. In a way my authors’ books have all changed me, and I think that's why I'm publishing them. They are important.
My daughters were telling me that they heard people saying a quote from The Help, when Mae Mobley says, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” That’s neat, that those words have become part of the culture. The books I love tell a very particular story that may be far from my own experience, but there's something universal in them.
But that doesn’t quite answer your question. In a way, it’s like asking me to pick who's my favorite child—which, depending upon the day, I could tell you.
Have you learned anything about creativity from your writers?
Creativity is really hard. There’s a reason why I do what I do and why my writers do what they do. I can help them make their work better, and I can write well about what they’re doing in terms of flap copy and all that, but being the storyteller is extremely hard. It’s extraordinary to see people who can do it. That Liane Moriarty can write a book a year, and make each book better than the previous, is amazing to me.
What do you think about MFAs?
I’m on the record right now, right?
[Laughs.] You’ve said that your creative writing degree wasn’t very useful to you, and that most of your authors don’t live in New York. I would guess that most of your authors don’t have MFAs.
I think Siobhan Fallon does. M. O. Walsh, whose book I just bought is My Sunshine Away, has one from the University of Mississippi. They might be the only two.
Are you deliberately seeking out writers who don’t live in New York or have MFAs?
I’m not. I always look at the author’s bio last. If the author bio influences you one way or another, that’s a problem. It should be the work itself that speaks to you. For instance, I didn’t know anything about Kathryn Stockett until I finished reading The Help. I didn’t know if she was white or black; I knew nothing.
I don’t want to offend anyone in an MFA program, or graduates of them, because there are many wonderful writers with MFAs. But when I was at Poseidon, I saw a lot of precious, navel-gazing MFA-type writing with beautiful sentences but nothing happening in the stories. I had patience for that when I was younger, and now I don’t.
I do like the fact that my authors come from a variety of different experiences. Lyndsay Faye is a good example. She’s been nominated for an Edgar Award, she trained as an actress, she’s totally self-taught, and she’s an amazing writer. But she’s lived life. Before you go into an MFA program, live a little.
Do you go to writers conferences or retreats? Bread Loaf or places like that?
I don’t. Maybe this goes back to my “outsider” thing. I’ve never been invited to Bread Loaf.
You play a role in your authors’ financial lives simply by cutting their checks. Do you consider yourself a steward for their careers?
One day when I was an assistant at Poseidon, Ann Patty was out, and an agent called. A check was late and he was screaming at me, “Do I need to come down there and give you a fucking pen to sign the check?” As if I had any sort of power to write the check! When Ann came back, she said, “Did you tell him to fuck off?” I said, “No!” And she said, “That’s right, you can’t do that yet. You’re too young.”
So do I feel any responsibility for them fiscally?
When I kick a book back to an author, I sometimes do a little math. I paid the author X dollars as an advance, and the first draft took Y months to write, and the author has another job, or doesn’t….
My husband is writing a book for you guys at Simon & Schuster. I always knew my authors worked really hard, but being married to someone who’s writing a book while he has a full-time job gives me such profound respect and admiration for what they’re doing. I see how hard it is, and I see how what seemed like a lot of money really isn’t that much once you drag it out over how long it takes to write the book. If you break it down by the hour, writing a book is a horrible way to make a living. Therein lies madness, to look at it that way.
My job—in the big-picture, endgame view—is to push my authors to make a book the best it can be, because in the end, that will sell more copies. I remember being in a postmortem meeting once at another company. They had done a huge push with this book, and the book didn’t work, and they were going through it, asking why. They did TV advertising and all this stuff. Finally, someone said in a very small voice, “You know, the book wasn’t very good.” [Laughs.]