News and Interviews

On Editing, with Anita Chong

On Editing is our newest interview series at Open Book, giving us the chance to speak to the great editors who help writers shape their work into the very best version of itself.

Today we're pleased to talk with Anita Chong, Senior Editor at McClelland & Stewart, the iconic Canadian publisher founded by Jack McClelland. M&S published early works by Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro and many other CanLit titans.

Anita acquires and edits fiction, poetry and non-fiction and is single-handedly in charge of the celebrated Journey Prize program and its accompanying annual anthology.

Today Anita talks to Open Book about "tapping the walls", what she looks for in a project and her recent (literary) trek up Everest.
Open Book:

Tell us about a project or a particular piece you worked on recently that you really loved.
Anita Chong:

It’s impossible to pick just one! As an editor, you’re always learning something new about the craft of editing and of writing from every book and writer you work with, and I’ve been lucky to work with many wonderful writers.

The most recent book I worked on was Above All Things by Tanis Rideout, which tells the story of George Mallory’s 1924 attempt to be the first man to conquer Everest, and of a day in the life of his wife, Ruth. The challenge with any dual narrative is to ensure each strand is compelling in its own right, something I feel Tanis achieved by having fully-realized characters anchor each strand so that no matter which character you’re with, you feel wholly a part of their world. To get there, Tanis had to dig deep to develop her characters until they emerged on the page as real people, though quite distinct from who the historical figures might have been. I remember reading an early draft and coming across a line of Ruth’s dialogue that struck me because it felt so true, so genuine in its emotional intimacy, that I had to ask Tanis if it was an excerpt from one of Ruth Mallory’s actual letters. It wasn’t. That was an exciting moment for us both, and it was to happen again and again.

What do you look for when you're acquiring a project?

A strong voice. Writing that lives and lifts off the page. A perspective that’s fresh, surprising or provocative. A sense that the story is one the writer is compelled to tell. Bonus points if a manuscript makes me cry, hold my breath or laugh out loud. But perhaps more than anything, what I’m looking for is great potential.

What do you see as the editor's role in shaping a book, poetry collection or story?

For me, the editorial process is an ongoing dialogue, and a very exploratory one at that. An editor’s role is to question, probe, discuss; to help a writer to think through and evaluate the consequences of certain decisions, test ideas and motivations, and close the gap that can often exist between what the writer intends or envisions, and what she’s actually put down on the page — all while cheering the writer on. Someone once described this process to me as “tapping the walls,” an image that nicely captures how an editor has to get right inside the world of a book, a story, a poem. Ultimately, the goal of all that tapping is to help a writer make her work the best it can be.

Tell us about one or two of your favourite editorial experiences, from any point in your career.

Because of how the book came to be, one of the highlights has been working with JJ Lee on his gem of a memoir, The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit, which I commissioned after I heard his CBC Radio documentary of the same name. JJ’s voice and his story stayed with me long after I first heard his documentary, so I reached out to him because I knew he was a great storyteller and I had a hunch he had so much more to say. But I think we were both astounded by the extraordinary book he would go on to write, one which uses his decision to alter his late father’s suit for himself as a launching point for a moving story of fathers and sons, and the things we do for love and forgiveness.

As the manager of the Journey Prize and the editor of the associated annual fiction anthology, The Journey Prize Stories, every spring I have the privilege of telling a dozen or so writers the good news that their stories have been selected by a jury to appear in the anthology — and then I have to ask them to keep the good news confidential! The anthology is considered a who’s-who of up-and-coming writers, and over the years it’s been amazing to hear past contributors share how crucial the Journey Prize’s acknowledgement of their work has been in giving them the confidence to continue to write, as well as to see so many JP alumni go on to become bright lights in CanLit. The Journey Prize is a remarkable project — all the more so for now being a part of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s roster of literary awards — and I feel very lucky to be a part of it.

Fantasy editor moment — of any writer, alive or dead, who would you love to work with?

I’d have to say Raymond Carver. But to be honest, I get more excited thinking about the writers I’ll get to work with next.

What are you working on now?

I’m editing a delightful debut collection of stories entitled Circus by CBC Literary Award–winner Claire Battershill. I’m also looking forward to receiving final artwork from cartoonist Seth for a new illustrated gift edition of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, reviewing the rough art for a graphic novel collection of ghost stories by Ray Fawkes and planning for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Journey Prize in 2013.

Above All Things high res

Anita Chong is Senior Editor & Associate Publisher, Emblem Editions at McClelland & Stewart. She has worked with many celebrated Canadian authors and runs, in partnership with the Writers' Trust of Canada, the annual Journey Prize and its accompanying anthology, The Journey Prize Stories.

For more information about McClelland & Stewart please visit their website.