When Alana Wilcox fished me out of the slush pile, she walked into my life with ease, ferocity and intelligence. Working with an editor is an experience of intimacy. But, like working with a director, an intimacy/closeness that exists nowhere else in the world. We worked for about nine months to get The Drifts to print and on bookshelves. Both of us came to appreciate the book a great deal in that time.
I feel a little sheepish that when she rang me up and said Coach House wanted to publish my book I had no idea of her legendary status in the lit community. You know, I'd only fallen off the truck here three years before. In April, at a party of U of T English profs, word'd got out that my book was coming out; that Coach House was publishing it.
Do not tell me that Alana Wilcox is your editor. — Uh. Yes. — Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck. Man. You are so lucky. Shit. Man.
I'm thrilled she took a shine to the book. Up until then, no one was as fiercely protective of the people in my book as me. When I was sitting across the table from her, Alana fought for them. Fought. At Spadina, I thought: okay, these people (the characters in The Drifts) might have a chance. Here are a few questions I tossed to Alana and the answers she offered back.
1. What’s your background and how did you end up as Senior Editor at Coach House Books? Was it the Intern to Glory road?
I never intended to work in publishing, but in retrospect, it does seem like it was inevitable. I studied literature, worked in a bookstore, organized literary events and worked as a freelance editor. So the move to Coach House, which happened sort of accidentally, brought things into focus, really. But no, I’ve never taken a publishing course and never worked as an intern.
2. What draws you to a book or a story?
Voice. Character and plot are interesting, but what makes a book – fiction or poetry, or, heck, even non-fiction – stand out for me is a clear, unique voice that puts words together in some distinctive but compelling way.
3. In what ways can editors make or break a book?
Gosh, I hate to even consider that I could ‘break’ a book! An editor’s job is to help the author to focus the manuscript into the best possible version of the book the author wanted to write. I guess I’d break it if I tried to force it into someone else’s idea – my own, for example – of what the book ought to be. But usually the author and editor can find some nice vibe and then trust and understand one another, which can help make a book better.
4. What are common blind spots that editors and writers have about their work?
Well, if I knew what my own blind spot was, it would no longer be one! Authors, and probably editors too, can run into trouble if they stop being able to hear it in some voice that’s not theirs; by this, I mean becoming blind to what the words really say instead of what you meant them to say. If your editor miscues on a sentence three times and doesn’t get it, the problem might be the sentence, so even if you like how it sounds and YOU know what you intended to say, we might not...
As an editor, a potential misstep is not trusting yourself or not trusting the author to understand what you’re saying. I’ve been editing long enough that I rarely second-guess myself, but I used to. And I think I’m better than I used to be about conveying what it is that I think is wrong; often, it’s hard to articulate, especially if it’s about shape or tone or pacing, but I’m finally developing a clear vocabulary for those things. At least some of the time...
And it’s important to know your biases. For example, if you loathe Times New Roman, as any sane person might, you should print out the MS you’ll be editing for at least eighty hours in something else, like maybe Garamond. You don’t want to take out that kind of rage on a helpless manuscript.
5. You’re a smart cookie. What do you think is your particular knack when it comes to choosing a book and getting it to a reader's hands?
Getting it into readers’ hands isn’t, luckily, my purview. Coach House’s publicist, the brilliant and intrepid Evan Munday, takes care of that. Which is best for us all.
As for acquisitions choices? If I could clearly articulate that, it would sure make sorting out the slush pile a lot easier. Imagine a formula for scoring a book’s quality and appropriateness for our list! Failing that, instinct.
Oh, and you mentioned cookies? Where? Sugar helps, I’m convinced.
6. Which stories aren’t being told?
I wish I knew. Unfortunately, there’s little way to tell what stories don’t exist, since they, well, don’t exist.
That sounds glib. I don’t mean it to. There are the obvious omissions within the canon, of course: CanLit tends to be pretty white, pretty straight, and very much still the domain of the privileged (financially, linguistically, geographically, etc.). How to remedy this? I’m not sure...
7. Do you have any particular habits or rituals you do while you’re editing? Sip tea, munch candy, smoke copious amounts of cigarettes, whiskey…?
The first half of a novel takes me twice as long as the second half — I’m still learning the rhythm and vocabulary, the patterns, and I’m still mapping it out. So I tend to duck in and out of it, reading, thinking, making weird colour charts, checking email, drinking tea, eating cookies, etc. And, always, music with no words, or with lyrics that aren’t interesting enough to listen to. But as I begin to figure out what’s ‘wrong’ with the book in the second half, I can move more speedily, with greater focus. Oh, and bourbon for afterwards!
8. You seem to be a fan of the slush pile. What’s so great about it? Isn’t it messy?
‘Fan’ would be a bit of a stretch. It exists as a constant admonishment about how far behind I am. There it sits, currently 100 manuscripts deep, some in an avalanching stack in my office, most piled up on my Sony Reader, taunting me always. I hate keeping people waiting, but there’s just never enough time to catch up.
So, why do I bother reading it? Because every once in a blue moon something really lovely and smart and interesting pops up. Something like a very fine novel called The Drifts...
9. You’re no schmo when it comes to designing either. Can you share a little bit about your thoughts on book covers?
Oh, I’m no expert on book covers. But I’m tired of sepia, of solitary silhouettes. We’ve had some pretty brilliant covers appear in Canada in the past few years, so the bar is set pretty high. Me, I just like to start with a really strong piece of art and go from there...
10. Is there a Wilcox/Coach House aesthetic?
I hope so. Again, I’d hate to have to divine some kind of formula for it, but I have a pretty clear idea of what I like. As I said, voice is a huge part of it. And I want it to be surprising, adventurous, dexterous, smart, engaged, etc. I get a lot of cover letters from bewildered writers who’ve never heard of us but have been told by three other editors that it’s really more of a Coach House book. I’m glad that there’s a sense out there of what a Coach House book is. And, sometime soon, maybe after making nine fall books and reading those 100 manuscripts, I’ll find some time to better articulate what that aesthetic is!
Raymond Carver is one of my favourite writers. But his editor made him. This is really clear when you look at the MSS before and after. If The Drifts is all it's cracked up to be, that is in no small part due to Alana Wilcox.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
Thom Vernon has worked in film, television and theatre since 1989. He has been the Actors’ Gang Youth Education Program director and has worked as an arts educator at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People. The Drifts (Coach House Books) is his first novel.