How Does an Editor Know When a Novel Is Going to Be a Success?

Reading between the lines.
May 3 2013 7:00 AM

Claire Messud and Robin Desser

The Slate Book Review author-editor interview.

Author Claire Messud, left, and editor Robin Dresser.
Author Claire Messud, left, and editor Robin Desser.

Left photo courtesy of Lisa Cohen. Right photo courtesy of Michael Lionstar

Knopf’s Robin Desser edited Claire Messud’s breakout novel The Emperor’s Children, and is also the editor of Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs. This month, Desser and Messud emailed each other about their experiences working together on that surprise best-seller and this very different new book.

Robin Desser: I’d admired your work from your first book, and so it was a particularly exciting moment for me, reading the early manuscript of The Emperor’s Children. I’ll never forget it.

Claire Messud: I, too, remember the excitement of that time, of sitting down to lunch with you and talking for hours. I was ruefully aware afterward that I’d talked your ear off, in fact; but you were too gracious to shut me up. 

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Everyone at Knopf worked so hard to make the book’s publication a positive one, starting with your long letter full of editorial suggestions—I can’t remember whether it was 18 pages or 30 pages, but long, your questions at once delicate and probing. You’re always careful to comment on the positive—which makes it possible for touchy authors to hear the tougher things, too. I never know if you and I are old-fashioned, in the nature of our editorial exchanges—these piles of paper marked up with ink, these long typed letters—or indeed whether you do it all by computer with other writers.

Desser: Yes, we are both quite old-fashioned. I guess. Though you are one of the most scrupulous, meticulous writers I’ve ever worked with.

Messud: But the rhythm of our editorial exchanges works well for me: I think we both love to talk, and talk to each other, but that we talk best about the manuscript when we write, if that makes sense. 

Desser: Did the book’s reception change anything for you—the writing of this new book for example?

Messud: I couldn’t have imagined the reception. It was thrilling, and an amazing experience in so many ways (not least to meet readers all over the country, and have so many interesting conversations), but also challenging in others: My children were so small, and I was traveling so frequently for what felt like a very long time.

But your question is how the book’s reception changed things for me. I honestly can’t say. As you know, soon afterward I entered a time when first one parent and then the other was ill, and eventually both died—these have been the defining facts of my 40s thus far. These years have changed me, and changed things for me; and it’s hard now to distinguish what part The Emperor’s Children played in that transformation. I was always such a good girl, as someone nastily said once, “an A student.” But at this point in my life I’m powerfully aware that there isn’t an unlimited amount of time ahead, that if you don’t please yourself, then you please nobody, and that nobody will ever care more about what I write than I do. Which is a liberation, really. I’m pretty late to come to these realizations. I knew them in principle before, but now I really know them because I’ve lived them.

Desser: I’m glad you felt this freedom—I worry about writers feeling burdened by the success (or disappointment) of whatever happened before. How open are you really with your work-in-progress? Do you let friends, family, have an early glimpse? And might you feel particularly wary of your editor or publisher glimpsing any of that?  And other writers?

Messud: As you know, I’ve never been a huge collaborative writer. I’m someone who wants to feel a book is as finished as I can make it before I show it to people, including you. I used to ask James to read things earlier on than I do now. He is always my first reader, which is great for me and hard for him—he has to live with me! But then Georges and Anne Borchardt, my agents, are the next readers; and then you, of course. I’m not a writing group member, not a joiner in that way. I don’t seek a wide swath of feedback. By the time Georges or you read a manuscript, it has its integrity. Which is not to say it can’t be improved, even by a lot; but that any editing is aimed at attaining the platonic ideal of an existing work, rather than at changing the nature or shape of that work. I’m not very flexible that way, as you know. But I don’t know whether, as an editor, you work more closely, from an earlier stage, with other writers; do you feel that you’re usually, or often, or even sometimes, involved in shaping the substance or nature of a book, rather than just refining it? And are those two different undertakings, if so?

Desser: Some writers won’t say a word about what they’re up to—and won’t sign a contract or show you anything, until a book’s complete. Some want to talk a lot about a book they’re contemplating, and then it might turn out they don’t write that book at all, but surprise you with something completely different.

Messud: It means a lot to me that you as an editor understand and support this basic impracticality in this writer’s approach. I know it’s not easy to do that, either, in the heartfelt way you do. After all, you’re answerable to the publishing house, and I’m sure it can be uncomfortable to be defending your writers and our odd books to colleagues who don’t necessarily feel as you do.

Desser: Mostly I think as an editor you have to listen, to water the soil, and simply not get in the way. Sometimes you do say something completely idiotic, and there’s an explosion. Well, but maybe that might not be so terrible—if something great gets produced as a result. What do you think about that? How do you deal with the things I say that get stuck in your craw, maybe especially with this new book?

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