Agents & Editors: Jordan Pavlin

Michael Szczerban

I think the editorial response to a jacket is essential, because it’s also the writer’s response to a jacket. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay for me to art-direct a jacket. That isn’t my job.

There’s a powerful feeling of helplessness among editors. You fall in love with this book, and you work so closely with a writer, and you care so much. And yet all the care in the world is not going to allow you to control, or even necessarily significantly alter its fate.


A lot of productive things come out of that helplessness. All of the handwritten letters editors send out to people on bigmouth lists, urging people to read and talk about the book. Trying to cultivate a groundswell of support in the wider world. But at the end of the day, what is most helpful for a book is to have everyone in the house feel equally invested.

Has one of those notes ever led to something wonderful?
Bill Loverd, who used to run our publicity department, was famous for using a purple pen to write handwritten notes to book reviewers, and I think he had an impact. It was legendary.

Frankly, I have no idea whether my notes have been the variable that helped something reach critical mass. You very rarely hear back, and the impact isn’t always a direct one. But it is an accretion of effort and commitment around a book, and you keep putting your note into a bottle and releasing your bottle into the sea in hope that someone will find it.

So in that feeling of editorial helplessness—maybe it’s after the galleys are in but before the book is published—how do you support a writer who may be feeling the same thing?
That’s an uncomfortable moment. It’s uncomfortable for all writers, that span of time between the arrival of galleys and the publication of the book. My tactic usually centers on urging writers to get back to work. That’s a great moment to begin book two, when they’re casting about, slightly unmoored, with great anxiety and uncertainty. To get back to the page as quickly as possible. Then, if that doesn’t work, there’s always whiskey. [Laughs.]

How do you begin collaborating with a writer?
I tell all my writers, when I enter into a new relationship, that I’m available to work with them in whatever way they are most comfortable. There are writers who want to read whole chapters to me over the phone, and others who won’t share a book with me until it’s virtually complete.

The first time Julie Orringer let me read her novel The Invisible Bridge, she had been working on it for years. It is like a great nineteenth-century novel, truly. It is so expertly crafted, but it is also so ambitious and sweeping in its scope and covers generations. And she would not release it to me until she had a full first draft.

Many other writers would have given me those pages—a hundred pages in, or two hundred pages, or five hundred pages. But Julie had to make that journey on her own. What she gave me was magnificent. It was so thrilling to roll up my sleeves and get to work on it, because I saw instantly the scope of what she had undertaken and what she had already achieved. The heart of the book, the structure of the book, it was all masterly.

Then there is the first letter, in which I put everything I possibly can out on the table, but I always finish those letters by saying that these are suggestions. That this is your novel, these are your stories, and your instincts are magnificent and you should implement those things that coincide with your own instincts, and be wary of the things that don’t.

What should a writer expect from any good editorial letter?
Encouragement. Clarity. Specificity and direction. I tend to use my editorial letters to call out the most substantive issues an author will face in his or her revisions. Structural issues, issues of character development. I try to set those forward sort of as a road map so that the author will have a sense of the scope of the work I am suggesting that they undertake. There are always extensive notes in the margins; I feel I do the bulk of my correspondence with a writer in the margins.

The greatest challenge with an editorial letter is to offer criticism without leaving the writer feeling demoralized. You want to provide the writer with the sense that you see what’s best in the book, and have a vision for how to bring everything up to that level. You want the author to walk away feeling buoyed rather than daunted.

Is it part of your job is to educate a writer about what it means to be edited?
I can’t really say that I’m educating anyone about anything, to be honest. [Laughs.] Most writers know what they need.

How do you determine when a book is ready?
I think it’s something a writer feels in the gut. Editors are always looking for that moment in which the writer stops creating something and starts to take it apart, but I also know that there are many refinements and miraculous insights that happen in the eleventh hour.

Now I have to ask about Sheryl Sandberg. You were promoted to executive editor at Knopf two months after Lean In landed at number one on the New York Times list.
This book had—has—an almost magical impact on its readers. I count myself among them. It is such a wake-up call, on so many levels, to women at every level to value the work that they do. Not to denigrate themselves, and not to diminish themselves, by deflecting responsibility for their own achievements. It had a huge impact on me personally. It had an immediate impact on the way I thought about myself in my daily life, in how I hoped to carry myself. And certainly it made me want to believe more in myself, to take greater risks.

Who represented her?
Jennifer Walsh. I wrote her a letter telling her why I wanted to publish the book. I said that I was born to publish this book because it spoke to me so personally, as Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It did. That was a novel about being a working mother, and I remember my voice cracking when I presented that book at launch, because I felt I was revealing so much of myself.

I don’t publish a huge amount of nonfiction, but I always have published some of it, primarily narrative nonfiction, when I had a particular vision for a book or when something spoke to me so directly. And this book did.

What are you most confident about in this business?
I’m most confident that great writing will continue to find its way into the world, and will be championed and recognized. It’s a glorious time for the short story. And we have seen so many superb first novels, and literary novels, hit the New York Times bestseller list. It’s a great time to be a writer. There are more opportunities for reaching more people than there ever have before.

Tell me about a recent high point.
A true high point for me was when both Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Ayana Mathis’s novel were on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time. A short story collection and a gorgeous, literary first novel. It can’t get better.

What are you least confident in?
There are a lot of unknowns. There are certainly a lot of unknowns.

What is the most satisfying part of your job?
The most satisfying part of my job is the moment in which I feel I have been of use in some way to a writer in his or her work. It’s such a privilege to be entrusted with something so early, when it is still taking shape and coming to life. It’s immensely gratifying when I feel I have been able to help a writer on his or her way. On the page, especially, and then into the world.

You now speak at the Columbia Publishing Course?
I go up there and talk once a year, because I will do anything for Lindy, because I owe her my life!

What do you talk about?
I did it last week, and I have no idea. The great thing about the talk I give at the course is that I go with [FSG editor] Eric Chinski. And Eric Chinski, in addition to being a brilliant editor, has actual, practical advice to offer. I tend to be more abstract and to tell stories about some of the great moments of my life in publishing, as a way of providing a glimpse into what the work is, and what the life that ensues from it can be like at its best. Then Eric provides real wisdom. [Laughs.] We’re a very clever pairing.

Do you work on paper, or on a device?
I read on paper and I edit on paper. I would be happy to read on a device, but I haven’t yet found one I really love. In a pinch, I read things on my husband’s iPad. So far, that’s the device I like best for reading.

I would never read poetry on a device, except if I was stuck. I like to be able to come back to a place, to mark. I find it very difficult on a device.


Are you able to make time for extracurricular reading?
I love to read! I actually haven’t read a book in so long, but I’m hoping to read this summer. In my personal reading I try to read as much of what’s being published by other houses as I can. The books that I feel I missed, or wish I’d seen, or wish I’d published. I love to read books that my colleagues are excited about, but I always come back to the classics.

You’ve mentioned poetry a couple times.
Poetry’s very important to me.

Which poets do you return to?
Yeats, Auden, Rilke, Eliot, Stevens. I try never to go a day without reading poetry.

What about contemporary poets?
I love Mary Oliver and Sharon Olds. I absolutely worship Philip Levine. But I tend to reach back.

You mentioned that there aren’t any lacunae in the editorial department of Knopf. What distinguishes you among your editorial colleagues?
I have never been able to answer that question. I think you could just as easily send a novel to me and three or four other editors here. And that’s fine. If I see fewer novels than I might elsewhere, I’m okay with that. I’m willing to see less for this experience, to be in such excellent company, with such an extraordinary apparatus, and to work for people I admire so much.

Readers may recognize that a Knopf hardcover often becomes a Vintage paperback. Does that mean you only work on the hardcover?
That is the case here. It is very different, I know, at other houses where the hardcover editor is also the editor of the paperback.

This is one of Vintage’s unique strengths—that a book is truly republished at Vintage. It has a new editor, a new publicity department, and so another chance at finding its audience.

Even in an increasingly digital world, the paperback is so often the way that people discover a book.
It’s also where a book lives. A book’s hardcover life is finite, in the big picture. But it lives in paperback forever.

Does publishing in a digital-only format interest you?
Anything that builds a writer’s audience interests me. It’s not something I have a particular talent for, or vision for, yet.

When you’re working on a collection of short stories that have been published by a magazine like the New Yorker, where the editorial standard is superb, what kind of editing do you do?
That’s an interesting question. There is certainly a standard of excellence at the New Yorker, but they are also constrained by word counts. Not infrequently, when writers publish their stories in book form, they will reinstate portions that have been cut for reasons of space for the magazine.

I don’t re-edit stories that have been published in the New Yorker. I frequently re-edit stories that have been published in other publications.

There’s no urge to leave your palm print, like a kid confronting a patch of wet cement?
No, no. I feel that less is more. It’s a question I ask myself, in relation to almost every single sentence: Does it really need to be fixed?

I would rather not see my handprint on the work. It’s important to resist the temptation to tamper with something that is not fundamentally broken.

I love line editing. I love finding the music in a sentence and clearing away the clutter. But the music of the sentence should be the author’s music and not my own.

Do you think that’s a mistake that editors make—to get caught up in ego, or to forget whose name is on the cover of the book?
Maggie Shipstead’s new book is set in the world of the New York City ballet, and she took me to the ballet last night, at the Met. Right before the curtain went up—which is a moment I love, it gives me goose bumps—I confessed to Maggie that I have stage-manager fantasies, which, we decided, was analogous with being a book editor.

I am drawn to working offstage. I think that’s a requirement of the job. I can’t speak about other editors, but, for instance, this interview is very uncomfortable for me. I hate talking about myself. I love that my work is known only to my writers. That’s where I am most comfortable.

What advice can you give young editors who want to learn from your mistakes?
The hardest thing, and the most essential thing, is to trust your own instincts. At the end of the day, this is a completely unscientific business. There are very few empirical facts.

This is why on every list there are sleepers. If we knew which books were going to succeed, perhaps we would publish only those books! [Laughs.] We are constantly being taken by surprise. The only thing we can be certain of is our own instincts. So we have to allow ourselves to be guided by them, even when others disagree.

That means fiercely pursuing the things we feel most passionately about, and it also means resisting the temptation to acquire a book because other people are excited about it.

What can separate a young editor or agent from the pack?
There’s a certain amount of natural attrition that occurs when progress is halting or slow. In other words, those early years, the years spent reading for someone else and Xeroxing for someone else and trying to make someone else look very smart, can be an extremely protracted and challenging period for a young person who is hungry to begin to achieve on their own.

During that period, there’s a lot of falling away. There are people who can’t summon the patience, or who find that their desire is attenuated by these menial responsibilities. The people who go on to do this are the people who really can’t live without it, who almost don’t have a choice, who don’t see another life.