In praise of editors

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In praise of Editors

Inspired by Stephen Stratford’s recent article ‘The Book didn’t sell…’ I decided to write about my experience of editors from an author’s point of view.

My first novel ‘About turns’ was published by Random House. I had the great good fortune to be assigned Jane Parkin as the editor (arguably NZ’s best editor). I was totally new to this process. Although, most gratefully, the manuscript had been somewhat tamed and shaped through the generous mentoring of Barbara Else of Total Fiction Services, before being offered to Random House.

Jane invited me to her home. We sat at her kitchen table. We chatted like old friends about the characters in my novel. It was a revelation to me. Jane engaged with my characters as if they were ‘real’. She even went so far as to identify one of them as just like her friend from the local tennis club. I was flattered, delighted and excited. The experience was unforgettable. I knew that Jane had worked with the likes of Maurice Gee and Witi Ihimaera and other luminaries. It was my ‘pinch me’ moment.

And then, the edits came back to me, and I was dismayed to see how many things needed my attention – a word order reversal (actually many), a sentence (many sentences) to remove, a paragraph to create, a scene to cut, and queries in the margins of every page. It was daunting and then it was exciting. Jane made me a better writer (well, she made me look like a better writer).
Once my novel was published, I had a coffee with Jane and chatted about the edits and her experience as an editor. Where did I fit on a scale of how bad to how good, I nervously asked? She told me that when she read Maurice Gee, she barely had to touch a thing. She said there were some novels she joked she could have put her own name as author and somewhat hesitantly I asked ‘Where do I sit?’ Perhaps generously, perhaps she fibbed to flatter, but she said ‘somewhere in the middle’… I was relieved – after all, this was my first novel.

Then came my second novel ‘Turbulence’ published by Random House. My assigned editor was in Auckland, so we worked on-line and on the phone. She’d just finished editing the reissue of works of Janet Frame. I felt trepidation that mine was the next manuscript. We developed a working rapport but there was none of the affection and connection to the story or my characters in the same way there had been with my first novel. It felt like more of a ‘technical’ edit. The novel didn’t do so well, although all my male friends preferred it to my first novel and Owen Marshall, who I so admire, felt it was better than my first novel.

My most recent novel ‘Daughters of Messene‘ (7 years in the making) was by far the most stressful and yet the most rewarding editing experience. I had done so many revisions prior to the novel being presented to Makaro, but Mary McCallum, both a writer herself and a publisher, saw where the novel wasn’t working. She pushed me to increase the pace in the first part of the book, to get my central character to Greece where the action would take place. She pestered me for conversation, names of characters, and challenged me constantly. Then work began with the Whitireia students Emma Bryson and Megan Kelly, two very talented young women completing the Publishing Diploma. They became champions for my young character Artemis. They identified with her and took me to task when she wasn’t on track. They pushed me to make her stronger, to give her a backbone. It was thrilling. I revelled in the collaborative nature of this editing – lots of it was on-line and every new query became an opportunity to either stand up for my work or take up the challenge to improve it. Although exhausted, and at times utterly frustrated, it was exhilarating and unforgettable. I always be grateful to Makaro and Whitireia. It is my best piece of work.

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Questions about Appropriation – My Greek Novel (The right to write fiction)

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It wasn’t until days before the final print run of my Greek novel that any sense of audacity crept in. Up until that moment, I’d been so focussed on the story, certain of it in the way that only an author can be when in the grip of writing fiction. My novel took seven years to be ready and to find the right publisher. The writing of it, the revising of it and finding a publisher, consumed me as a writer. I believed in the story. But now my book is out and about, it’s not doubt that grips me, but the realisation of what I’ve done. You see, I don’t speak Greek. Yes, I travelled to Greece for three months in 2007 to do my research. I was fortunate. There I was, a woman of a certain age, alone in a foreign city, seeking stories from the locals about the Greek Civil War. It’s only now in hindsight that I can see with clarity, the audacity of this venture. I met with resistance as you can imagine and then too through circumstance and happenstance, I stumbled on opportunities, including an extraordinary invitation to the home of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor on the Mani, to celebrate his Name Day, in November that year.

Why did a Kiwi author want to write about the Greek Civil War? It started with my father. He was a lad from Kaikoura who ended up on Crete with the 22nd Battalion during the Second World War. I’ve written an essay about this in Landfall. In the 1980’s the Greek Government offered a Greek Medal to Kiwi veterans still living. My Dad was still alive and with the help of my Greek friend Maria I applied for his medal. At that stage I had a young family and we’d just moved next door to Maria. I had no idea of her own amazing journey from Kalamata to Wellington during the 60’s but I was eventually to find out.I’m a writer, so what did I do? I realised very few people knew about the journey of the young Greek girls (most of them from Crete), to New Zealand in the sixties, as part of a special scheme between the two Governments. The girls had to be under 30, unmarried and work in the hospitality industry. The established local Greek community were less than impressed with this sudden influx – the thought of any scandal.And so, using my imagination, I began to weave a fictional account of a young woman who leaves Greece to live on the other side of the world. I’m a baby boomer, born in 1950, only five years after the end of the Second World War. It’s only now that I recognise the very proximity of that war to my own parents’ lives at the time I was born. Back then, ‘the war’ seemed like a very distant affair. I began to imagine what impact not just the Second World War, but the ongoing Greek Civil War might have had on the lives of some of these young women. My story is purely and simply imagined. It is not any one girl’s particular story. Through research and reading, I’ve woven a story which at the heart is a mother and daughter story. It is a story of immigration. It is a story of war and its aftermath.

My local Greek friends have embraced my story and I am grateful. I’ve had generous feedback. The novel has had very good reviews so far. While writing this novel, I had so much help from the Greek community. My intention was to bring the story of these brave young women to the fore, to honour them and to re-imagine the possible circumstances that might have propelled them to travel so far from home. And yes, it is only now, that my novel is out and about, that any sense of doubt has arisen, that a writer who doesn’t speak Greek, has dared to write a Greek-Kiwi novel. Did I have the right? Have I got it right? Who has the right to write a story? During the editing process, one of the super smart young editors working at Whitireia made the observation that I needed to be careful with the use of the Greek language, the insertion of Greek phrases, lest I strayed into the territory of ‘exoticising’, and thus undermining the integrity of the story.

I recall my book group, reading Alex Miller’s ‘Lovesong’, a story I loved. Two of my book club friends were unhappy that within the story, two male characters had appropriated the story of the main character, a woman from Tunisia. Not that the author had written about a woman from Tunisia, but that he’d allowed two male characters to tell her story.

My second novel ‘Turbulence’ was about a middle-aged man from the suburb of Lower Hutt. He worked in manufacturing. He was a stepfather in a new relationship, with a broken marriage, the result of his child who had died in a tragic accident in his driveway with him at the wheel. Did I know this man? I knew aspects of him, but he is a fictional character. I had worked in recruitment for many years in the Hutt Valley and so I felt I knew this man, an ordinary man, the sort of man who doesn’t always make it into fiction – not an artist, a doctor, a lawyer, but something rather more ordinary – a man running a factory.Did I have the right to write with the voice of a man? It never occurred to me that I didn’t. And I was heartened by the first review on Radio NZ by John McCrystal who felt I’d nailed it. Unfortunately, the ensuing reviews from two younger, academic women, did not concur. We bring to our reading our own experiences. Many of my women friends didn’t enjoy ‘Turbulence’, but almost all my men friends did.

My first novel ‘ About turns’ was about book clubs and marching girls. This is territory that I know well. It was about a sixties working-class childhood. Yes, I mined my own experiences and many people who’d known me during my childhood claimed to recognise characters. But the book was also about a transgender character, female to male. Did I have the right? This book is fiction with experiences rendered to represent truths, both my own and other peoples.

I won’t have got everything right in my Greek novel in spite of all the support from native Greek speakers and spouses of native Greek speakers. But I’m hopeful that being an outsider, has enabled me to write with a different sort of clarity, that of the observer. But this begs the question. Did I have the right to appropriate a foreign language, to use it and many of its sayings, without being a speaker of that language? All the mistakes (if there are any and there must be) of history, time, place, language and ideas of what it is to be Greek, and how to express this, are entirely mine.

Links to reviews of ‘Daughters of Messene’
http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/books/75331829/Sizzling-summer-reads http://www.listener.co.nz/culture/books/my-big-fat-greek-family-reunion/ http://www.odt.co.nz/entertainment/books/365679/story-greek-womens-voyage-nz-informs-book

It’s my best book

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I was clearing my mailbox in our local village this week, and bumped into a fellow writer. She is a published children’s writer. I hadn’t seen her in a while and so I commented. “You haven’t been to any meetings lately.” The meetings I was referring to are the local meetings of the Wellington Branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors. We host local writers as guest speakers and there’s a good sense of community and shared experiences.

“No,” she replied, “I can’t get my book published!” I was taken aback, and queried her. “It’s my best book,” she told me. She went on to tell me how writing is her raison d’être, and how she feels about rejection … well, I know how she feels, but there’s no point is there, I told her in hiding away. Yes I understood, but I was also less sympathetic than perhaps I might have been a few years ago. The fact is good writers are being turned down all the time by publishers right now, I told her… I tried to jolly her along, with tips for self-publishing (quoted Ted Dawe’s success with ‘Into the River’), spoke of EBooks, plied her with encouragement and as I urged her forward, I was barracking for myself as well.

And then on Facebook, I saw a link to this comment by the astonishing, grounded, super-talented, Man Booker Prize long-listed, Ellie Catton, answering this question for the Herald…”Are you an easily intimidated woman?” She replied:
No. In my experience intimidation is linked to competition in a fundamental way – people who are intimidated, or who consciously intimidate, are competitive in their attitudes towards others – and there’s no room for competition in literature. I do feel very impressionable, though, both as a writer and as a person.

And this set me to thinking about my conversation with my fellow writer in our local village. I know she felt very alone in her sense of rejection, as if only she could understand how awful it was. I think I used to feel like that, but I don’t any more. I recognise now, such things as what a privilege it is to be able to write (the time for one thing). And too, what an honour and privilege it is to be published. And, more and more, how many talented writers there are – what competition we face.

I love the quote from Ellie Catton and too, I admire her talent and modesty. But I disagree. Writing in itself is not a competition. But being published, having your book purchased, making the long list (and surely the short-list) for the Man-Booker is all about competing. There are judges, and they have to choose, and this is a fiercely literary sort of competition – high art – and how do you judge – but judge they do, and it is the very best writing we hope that will win.

Here in New Zealand I sense pride, I think we are thrilled about Ellie Catton’s success. But too, it’s partly self-interest. I suspect we imagine that her success will cast a glow upon New Zealand literature and that somehow the reading public will be more inclined towards us – yes, us (local writers) all of us, by association. But that’s not true, not really. Ellie’s triumph and her talent is all her own.

“It’s my best book.” This lament has stayed with me. I feel the same about my third novel. But there’s no point in lamenting or wailing, there is only the writing – and it’s either good enough, or not. It may have been good enough before the advent of the EBook and the closing of book shops, but now your manuscript will have to compete even harder – it will have to look like a best seller.

Ellie Catton’s runaway best seller debut ‘The Rehearsal‘, evidently sold… 3,500 copies in New Zealand. You’d expect a lot more wouldn’t you for an internationally acclaimed, prize winning novel? I imagine it has sold more internationally – I sure hope so.

No, literature is not a competition in the way that sport is, but if you’re going to cross the finish line (i.e. a published manuscript), then you’re going to have to compete. Nowadays it often begins with competition for a place on an MA course at a university. Well, just like being selected for the swim team, you have to compete in the trials and meet a certain standard. this means submitting your ‘best’ pieces of writing. Not all of those who get selected get published, but the odds are probably stacked in their favour… normally an MA course means a University Press with a vested interest in their own ‘product’ and why not?

And then, if you win that round and have a real book in a real bookshop, you’re competing with all the other beautiful books (oh covers do matter), and you are competing for readers, reviewers, or goodness me,stars on Goodreads…and on it goes. And unlike swimming or running, where you know what the world record is, in writing, you have no idea… and nor should you, other than your ‘own idea’.

You can be a Booker Prize Winner, but still not sell as many books as, well, er Dan Brown. I guess it depends what you’re competing for…but readers surely are the bottom line, or not…

My friend’s lament ‘It’s my best book’ may well be the lament of writers everywhere. And indeed it may be true, and that indeed that is all you can do – the rest, is up to the publishers, the readers and the judges. And all the best to Ellie – go team New Zealand!