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The Lives of the Editors, from Big Press to Indie

In this episode, novelist and editor Rakesh Satyal and Dead Rabbits Books founders Brian Birnbaum and M.K. Rainey talk to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about editing and being edited. Satyal discusses the ins and outs of big publishing houses, how he revises, and the simple but revealing question he heard another editor ask an author. Birnbaum and Rainey share what it took for them to start Dead Rabbits Books, how they give each other feedback, and why they appreciate fresh eyes on their work.

To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (make sure to include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below.

Readings for the Episode:

No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal · Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal · Rakesh Satyal on the pick up line that changed his life, Lit Hub, Nov. 7, 2018 · No One Can Pronounce My Name Is A Charming Take On Loneliness And Connection by Maureen Corrigan, NPR, May 10, 2017 · Dead Rabbits Podcast by Brian Birnbaum · Dead Rabbits Episode 33: Vulnerable by Brian Birnbaum · Discovering an iconic literary character was based on your grandfather by Brian Birnbaum, Lit Hub, May 16, 2019 · Emerald City by Brian Birnbaum · Reading Your Work in Public: 12 Tips from Dead Rabbits Reading Series Founder by M.K. Rainey, Writer’s Digest, July 15, 2019 · Citizen Uncensored: The Power of Student Centered Learning by M.K. Rainey, Writer’s Chronicle, July 2019

From the episode:

Part I: Rakesh Satyal

Whitney Terrell: I think it’s really interesting that you are a writer as well because I feel like learning how to edit is an incredibly important part of learning how to be a writer. When I am teaching workshops, I say, look, you’re going to think that the parts where you’re not up for workshop, and you’re editing other people’s stuff, are the boring parts of this class, but actually, that’s where you’re going to learn a lot of stuff about how to be a writer. In that context, when you are giving editorial suggestions, how do you do it? Do you line edit? Do you write something up? Do you work in track changes? What’s your preferred mode of doing editing? Or do you have several?

Rakesh Satyal: The approach is different for fiction and nonfiction, I should note, because, for example, in nonfiction, because I typically sign up a project and it then has to be written, my authors are usually submitting maybe a chapter or a few chapters at a time. I read them through and I can do one or two things. I give general feedback, because it’s a work in progress and I’m just giving them a gut check of where things are going with the understanding that things are going to shift and move as the book comes together. There are authors who I line-edit at that stage, just to give them that instruction, because I kind of can’t help myself. I do that in track changes. I used to do it on a hard copy, but I’ve learned over time how to do it on track changes. So, I’m sending that work through and when it gets to a final draft stage, then I do another structural and line edit through the book. And I do believe very much in being involved in the line level of the book as I want the books to really shine in that way.

In fiction, it’s different, as you might imagine, because if you do buy something on a full manuscript, then you’ve got it. You’re dealing with the whole thing and ideally, you have a very constructive creative conversation during the acquisitions process with the authors so that they know what you’re looking to do and what you actually want to be changing and what might happen. Dawn Davis, who I mentioned, who’s just an amazing editor and just an incredible person—I was pursuing a book with her and we had a conversation. It was a novel, and it was with the author, and she asked such a simple question that I had not thought to ask, even as a writer. I had not thought about this before. She said to the author, authors often have a sense of what’s not working within their books and I’m curious to hear what you think is not working about your book right now.

And it was very telling, because the author actually answered the question in a very meaningful, self knowing way. It actually helped his case, because it showed us there are some things that we want to change and we’re not sure how delicate the author is going to be about this, but the fact that he could pinpoint it, and then could see a way forward to address it was very heartening. To know that the ability was there, because then there are creative things that authors don’t pick up on and they don’t know how to solve and that can be its own kind of warning. You think, if I give you this instruction, it’s a question of whether or not you’re actually going to be able to take it. It’s usually a line edit, in track changes with an editorial letter that outlines both the larger kind of macro issues that are happening, and then the kind of point by point, page by page thing where I have a query on page 72 about this, because this doesn’t track with just what happened before etc. etc.

WT: That was such a great answer!

V.V. Ganeshananthan: That was an amazing answer. This is so useful. I wish I could go back and listen to this episode, like 10 years ago, but I think having a good relationship with your editor is so incredibly valuable, and you were mentioning before that you felt like it had made you a better editor to be edited. What were the things that you learned from your—who was your editor? And what did you learn from that experience?

RS: So I’ll give an example that I’ve mentioned before. My editor was Anna DeVries, who is now at St. Martin’s. She’d been at Picador—the hardcover imprint of Picador, which has gone away, but the paperback imprint is there. She’s now executive editor at St. Martin’s and she’s brilliant. One of the things, for example, she helped with is, in my last book, it’s in three parts and originally the first part, it was three long sections—it shifts in perspectives, so the first part had long sections of one kind of voice or POV, and then a second long one in that POV, and the third one in the POV.

And then when the second part of the book happens, they start getting braided together and moving together, and it has a certain pace. She gave a comment to me, which I completely knew—she was like, why don’t you just do that from the beginning? Why are you starting this out with these long swaths of these narratives that aren’t kind of dovetailing because it just makes it harder for the reader to keep track of what’s going on?

I had this kind of ridiculous answer—but no, I want people to live fully in the world. She was like, no, you know you should just do that from the beginning. Of course it was the right decision. So that’s an idea of a structural change that happened. Then, she just on the line level was very perceptive. Like, if a thing went on a beat too long, she could tell me so and these are things I’m trying to be mindful of as a writer to when I’m revising myself. There are just some things where your editor is very helpful for those kill your darlings moments, obviously, where you’re steadfastly stubbornly holding to something, just because you like it, and it just doesn’t belong there. Having the sounding board to be like—you’re being ridiculous and get rid of it. It’s very helpful, because you just need that extra push sometimes to do that. This is where having the double perspective of being a writer and an editor helps.

When I got her edits, a thing I told myself was, I am creating a document, and in this document, I’m just taking all of the edits. I’m just making them, I’m going to take them all, and I’m going to see what I have there. If there’s something outstanding that I don’t agree with, or that’s something that’s missing after that process, then maybe I’ll know. The truth was, she was generally right about everything. There was one very short section that she suggested whether or not I should have there, and I ended up maybe cutting it in half, but I still kept it. She was totally cool with that. Other than that, I really took her instruction. I had to kind of have that existential conversation with myself, like, you’re an editor, you should be trusting your editors instincts here the way that you would want your authors to trust your editing. And so that’s what I did during that process.

* Part II: Brian Birnbaum and M.K. (Katie) Rainey

Whitney Terrell: This is our editing episode. And speaking of not taking yourself seriously, novels are a lot of work and investment for writers who generally do take them very seriously, as I do. Which is why there’s a lot of anxiety around the editing process for a writer. On an episode of your Dead Rabbits podcast, Brian said that he went through something like six revisions of his novel. So I had this question, who edited Emerald City? Was it Katie? And if so, was it strange to work with somebody who’s so close to you? Or do you treat it more or less the same as any other project?

When someone points to something and says, there’s something wrong with this, I’ve found it’s more important to look at what they’re pointing at than how they say you should fix it.

Katie Rainey: I did edit. Brian definitely wrote and it wasn’t just like six rewrites, it was like six complete overhauls from the first word to the last. So I’ve read six different novels. Because Brian’s such a prolific writer in a way that I never will be. So over the last five years or so, I’ve read six different iterations. It’s not strange to us, I think, to work on each other’s novels. We’ve been told we’re a little odd in that capacity, because most of our writer friends are like, I’d never give it to my partner, my partner never reads my work until it’s finished. I think that’s the one place where you and I have no ego, where I’m just like, here, what do you think of this and Brian’ll be like, it’s garbage.

Brian Birnbaum: I don’t say that.

KR: And I did the same for his book where I would just be like, this is not working here. Or I really liked this thread, or whatever. And then we did hire two other editors for it. At some point, I was just so involved in the process that we were like, we need somebody with a more objective eye. So, we hired our friend, George Sawaya, who is a poet and writer living down in Florida and we hired his partner, Cheyenne. She was the copy editor and they really dug deep into it. Getting it to its sixth iteration was mostly you and I and some other people reading along, our thesis advisor, things like that.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: Listening to you guys talk I’m reminded of—my first novel was edited by someone who I had gone to school with from kindergarten through 12th grade, and we read The Baby Sitters Club and Anne of Green Gables together and knew each other absurdly well. Then she ended up being an editor. After the deal was done, we ran into someone from another part of publishing, who was British, and—I’m afraid we still imitate this conversation a little bit. Well, I won’t do it now, but she was like, what are you two thinking? This is going to be terrible for you. And we were like—we think this is going to be fine.

Both of you are writers, as well as being editors. I’m curious, as you have edited each other and other people and gone through this process, what is it like to think about the writer side of the transaction? What kinds of mistakes do you think writers make about the way they receive edits or deal with editors?

BB: Well, I’ll give a really personal anecdote—a really short one, and then one that’s a little more universal. Hopefully, they kind of conflate, but in my early twenties, I received edits with disdain.

WT: Which is, of course, the right way. That is what we’re here to explain to everybody.

VVG: The disdain episode will be next.

BB: The thing is, two days later, I’d be like, oh, yeah, you’re right. I thanked people at my launch, and other people more privately, for giving me advice, even though I didn’t react very well to it when I was in my early twenties. I knew they were right, but more generally, I think that some advice maybe that I could give that I learned in workshop especially, was that when someone points to something and says, there’s something wrong with this, they’ll then usually follow that up with something you should do about it, or what’s wrong with it. I learned that every opinion is so specific and unique, and might even be sort of ad hominem in a way, that it’s more important to look at what they’re pointing at than how they say you should fix it. Because usually when people notice something is wrong, they’re usually right.

WT: That is so true. I got that exact same advice, a long time ago, from Jonathan Lethem when he came through Kansas City on tour for Fortress of Solitude, and he said that exact thing and I’ve always remembered that—I think it’s very true.

BB: That’s really funny you say that. I just met a writer who submitted to us, Chris Wood, and he’ll be happy that I’m giving a shout out, but he’s interviewed Lethem a lot. We actually talked about the same thing. So it’s good to corroborate that.

WT: I wondered if we could talk just a little—and Sugi, I’d be curious to know what this was like with your editor as well—I think readers or listeners might be curious to know what form edits are done in these days. Sometimes I get line edits. Sometimes I get edits that are Track Changes. Sometimes I just have a conversation with my editor. What does that look like? Physically, for Brian, when you were working with Katie or the other writers, and Sugi, when you were working with your editor?

KR: I guess working with me, I prefer making, with a pen, marks in the book. I never did Track Changes for Brian, that just drives me bonkers.

WT: So you’re doing hand line edits on on manuscript pages.

KR: I’m doing that same thing with our second novel right now. Currently, David Hollander. We’re republishing his book in May. He’s sending me pages every day. It’s pretty great because I love his novel so much. I’m getting new pages every day, so it’s really fun for me. I’m not doing line edits just yet for him. I’m still reading big chunks and then we call each other on the phone or send emails and just discuss it right now.

BB: When I was working with George, it was Track Changes, but that a lot of that could have been distance. I don’t know if that was his preference. I’ll also say that Katie and I are almost polar opposites when it comes to editing. I would sometimes go like 10 or 15 pages without seeing a note and then there would be something and then we’d talk about it, whereas you can see on Katie’s first draft–

KR: –of my novel.

BB: It’s like a lunatic went over it.

KR: You should see my first draft right now that I’m working through, Brian’s notes. They’re insane.

VVG: I guess I’ve had all sorts of different experiences. When I was in college, Jamaica Kincaid line-edited a draft of Love Marriage, which was pretty bananas. I would fax her pages, and then she would read them on a printout, and then I would go to her office, and then I would read them aloud to her, and then she would verbally edit me—

WT: Yikes! I don’t like that.

VVG: Oh, no, it was actually amazing. So that’s one example. And then, when I was a journalist, I think I learned a strange amount as a college journalist, having people just come over to my computer, pull up a chair next to me and rewrite me, but explain why they were doing it while I was watching, which was hugely useful. And then, with the editor of Love Marriage, we talked on the phone all the time, but she would also send me line notes. So, she did both. And when I edit people, I usually prefer pen to paper. If I have to do Track Changes I can, but it’s not my preferred strategy, because I feel like it actually, weirdly, makes me write more. It makes me explain too much. I would rather use the standard editing marks and work things out and have that process be clear. The other thing is that editing is also a process. Sometimes I get to a spot and I have a question, and then I think well, maybe it would be good this way, maybe it would be good that way. If I do it pen to paper, the writer can see all the versions I went through, and can understand that I am also just a person and uncertain. If I do it in Track Changes, then all of that gets deleted and hidden. And I feel, I guess, that I might as well confess to my own questioning.

BB: I like that a lot, and I can commiserate with that experience because a few pages later you go—Oh, yeah, I see and you still have that. You can’t go back and erase that. I like that. That’s true.

VVG: Well, Whit, what happens with your editor?

WT:Well, you have the global conversations. My editor is Sean McDonald at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And Sean—I think with my last book—I’ve told this story many times, but the book is told in reverse chronology in its final version, but he read it in a version when it was in normal chronology. He just said to me at dinner one time, this last hundred pages is really great. You should get here sooner. Which is a way of saying—could you please cut these first 250 pages? That was like a koan that I had to figure out. That was helpful. I ended up solving it by starting with them.


Transcribed by and condensed and edited by Damian Johannson, Gilbert Randolph and V.V. Ganeshananthan.

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