On Editing, with Alana Wilcox
At Open Book, we love to talk about writing and books. One of our longest-running series is our Q&A-style interview, On Writing.
This summer, we're exploring the other side of that equation by talking to the editors who help writers shape their work into the very best version of itself. We're thrilled to launch this new series today with our conversation with Alana Wilcox.
Alana is one of Canada's best known and most respected editors, as the mind behind venerable Toronto publishing house Coach House Books.
Today Alana talks to Open Book about her favourite projects, forbidden metaphors and Jean Rhys.
Stay tuned this summer for more interviews with the great minds behind your favourite books in our On Editing series!
Tell us about a project or a particular piece you worked on recently that you really loved.
Unfair question! I love ALL the books we publish at Coach House! But I sure had a lot of fun working on Maidenhead, a novel by Tamara Faith Berger. It’s absolutely filthy, which makes for some very unusual editing (‘If one hand is there, is it really possible for the other hand to be … there?’ for example). It’s also fun and rewarding to send out into the world a book that challenges and scandalizes people, and to work with such an interesting thinker as Tamara. We’ll be reissuing her first two books next year, so I look forward to diving into those and refreshing them for a new life.
What do you look for when you're acquiring a project?
The unsatisfying answer to this question is that there is no consistent answer, at least for fiction and poetry. If I could make up a formula, I would: maybe equal parts Distinctive Voice, Stellar Writing, Inventiveness and Skillful Bravery, all somehow swirling together alchemically into gold. Alas, none of these things fit into a measuring cup, so we’re on our own. Mostly, I just like to be surprised by a manuscript, to find something clear and smart and adventurous. (And, of course, we need to be able to sell a few copies too, though that’s a different and equally unpredictable branch of magic.)
What do you see as the editor's role in shaping a book, poetry collection or story?
An editor’s role is to make a book/poem/story the very best it can without allowing it to stray from the author’s vision of it. An editor needs to make sure the two-by-fours are all securely attached and architecturally sound, and then she makes sure the wallpaper all lines up. For instance, a good editor would forbid the use of a house metaphor to talk about a book.
Tell us about one or two of your favourite editorial experiences, from any point in your career.
This is as unfair as the first question! I reckon my favourite part of publishing is watching an author’s face as she sees that very first copy of her book come off the gluing machine. Not everyone gets to see it in person, but sometimes the authors tell me how they felt to see their book for the first time — one said she ‘bawled like a wiener,’ which made me tear up too.
Fantasy editor moment — of any writer, alive or dead, who would you love to work with?
I wish I had been the one to track down Jean Rhys in her retirement home. After not publishing for decades, someone (accounts vary as to who) found her and wheedled Wide Sargasso Sea out of her, which Diana Athill published.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I’m working on Cosmo, a collection of smartly dazzling short stories by Spencer Gordon. I’m not sure which is my favourite, the story about a Miss Universe contestant’s anxiety attack on a visit to a humanitarian medical ship or the one about Matthew McConaughey driving naked through the desert. Potato, po-tah-to, really. It’s a delight to edit, and will be fun for you to read this October.