The Natural Bridge Three-Part Interview #1 – Editor Anita Streitfeld

Dan Chaon

Anita Streitfeld

Jennifer Burgess

What are the particular pleasures involved in editing Dan Chaon

Working with Dan has been an incredible privilege, and a lot of fun. He was about a hundred pages into Await Your Reply when we began working together, and he soon started sending me a chapter every few weeks. I would read the chapter and then we’d talk. In every chapter there would be lines or images that would take my breath away; he is a beautiful stylist with a formidable, distinctive imagination and I had a front-row seat as this book emerged. It was like reading a brilliant serialized novel, but better: I would get to ask questions, tell him what I wanted more of (or what scared the hell out of me), and hear what his plans were. I’ve heard writers talk about wanting someone else in the room with them as they work, and that’s a little how it felt as this novel evolved – we would go through what was working, what challenges were arising, and how he was piercing everything together. Dan works extremely hard, but maintains a great sense of humor about the process.

How would you describe your style of editing – “pencil intensive” or “laid back and strategizing?”

I definitely fall into the “pencil intensive” school of editing, though I aspire to be more of a laid-back strategizer. I love having big-picture conversations with authors – about structure and character arcs and storylines – but when I have a page in front of me I’m hard-pressed not to fill it with suggestions for alternate phrasing, notes about words that have been used recently, and thoughts about character development. An editor friend once told me she tells her authors she’s going to tell them everything she is thinking as she reads and they can decide what to take and what to leave – my approach is very similar.

What makes a writer difficult to work with?

I honestly can’t think of a writer who has been consistently difficult to work with, but I will say that what makes working with an author enjoyable is (aside from talent, of course) their enthusiasm and sense that they are part of a team. Most writers have become very good at working alone, and it’s gratifying to watch them realize that being published means their work isn’t quite so solitary anymore. In terms of editing, I appreciate it when authors take all of my comments (and those of other readers) seriously but trust their instincts about which to implement.

What is the biggest misconception about what an editor’s job is? What is an editor’s job?

I’m often asked if authors resent being edited. Almost all of the authors with whom I’ve worked have been grateful for the close reading and the feedback, some of which leads them to make revisions and some of which does not. I wonder if this misconception comes from a vision of the editor as a red pen-wielding grammarian. I, for one, rarely use red pens, still have a lot to learn about grammar (thank goodness for copy editors!), and try to frame my edits as questions (i.e., “Can we see more of their back story?” or “Another word here?”) whenever possible.

Most in-house editors’ jobs fall into three parts: acquiring books, editing books, and being a kind of project manager and liaison between the author and the publishing house throughout a book’s publication. Acquiring books entails finding projects – whether through literary agents or directly from authors – reading manuscripts, and making a case to one’s colleagues about why a particular manuscript is worth pursuing. Editing a book can mean reading it once or twice and making scant notes in the margins or being involved in a book from its inception and helping to shape it as it’s being written – and everything in between. Most books I’ve worked on have required several rounds of edits; with each round the edits become more about fine-tuning and less about the big picture. The project management/liaison role often includes presenting a book to colleagues in other departments, brainstorming about the cover design and marketing and publicity plans, and conveying information back to an author.

How’d you get to be, you know, the way you are?

An anthropologist mother, a physician father, and a house full of books.