Interview between Emma Donoghue and her editors in America and Canada.

How Do Two Editors in Different Countries Edit the Same Novel?

How Do Two Editors in Different Countries Edit the Same Novel?

Reading between the lines.
April 10 2014 7:50 AM

Two Editors, One Novelist

The Slate Book Review author-editor-editor conversation with Emma Donoghue.

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Clain: Iris, I’m curious just because obviously we’ve had such a great working relationship, the three of us. You don’t have to name names, but have you ever gotten into a situation with another author being published somewhere else where you’ve completely disagreed about something fundamental in the edit?

Tupholme: No, not yet. I’m looking forward to that! When I read the other editor’s editorial notes or have a conversation with the author who has already then received the other notes, sometimes I’m surprised by the emphasis that the other editor puts on something that I might not have thought was crucial or interesting or relevant, but the other editor feels strongly about that point. And then, in the end, if the author calls, we do quite often have long conversations about the other editor’s notes and talk them through to see if they make sense within the author’s vision of the book.

Donoghue: You know, me neither. I’ve always found my editors’ suggestions to be compatible. They make different points but almost never directly clashing points. And of course I do feel it’s my call in the end, so I’ve had times where I reject certain views of one of my three editors, but it’s never caused a big fight. It’s never been something really substantive like, “I think you should cut the second half of the book,” or something like that. Because I’ve had some encounters with the world of film, I often tell friends how different film is than the publishing world, because in film, these people have to invest so much money in every scene that it gives them the right to boss the writer around. In the publishing world, it seems as if what you want is my best book, and you want to have me get there, but you’re not going to tell me what to do. So I’ve never felt bullied within the editorial relationship.


Tupholme: How about you, Judy? Have you ever had another working relationship with an editor where your idea about how the novel should be developed is radically opposed?

Clain: No, not in terms of how the novel should be developed, but I did have one situation where there was a political issue. There was a scene in the book about the burning of the Quran, which this particular editor felt would be hugely inflammatory in their territory. And the author felt very strongly about keeping it in, and so there was a lot of back and forth almost to the point of things coming to blows. It was really complicated for the editor. She had very strong feelings about the scene, but at the end of the day, as you say, it was the author’s choice. It actually all worked out fine in the end. But it was an intense conversation, and pretty unique!

Tupholme: What was the inspiration for Frog Music?

Donoghue: It all began with the murder: I came across it in somebody else’s book. There’s a wonderful historical survey of Victorian women called Wild Women by Autumn Stephens. She lives in the Bay Area, and literally one little paragraph of hers was on Jenny Bonnet, and it mentioned the circumstances of this murder. And I thought Jenny Bonnet was a perfect murder victim in that she was such a maverick figure, a joker, a rebel, and so she seemed the right kind of person to get shot dead at 27. Her character and plot fit together in the way they do in the best works of literature, whereas in real life it’s pretty random who gets killed. What surprised me in the writing process was that the survivor of the crime, Blanche, turned out to be the single point-of-view character. I tried it a few ways, and I tried it in a different order, and I tried it with Jenny telling half of the story, but it turned out to be very much Blanche’s angle on the whole thing. It’s always fun when a project, even the one that you’ve been planning for 15 years, then surprises you in how it works out.

Clain: While you’re writing Frog Music, are you thinking about the next book? Do you always have your next project in mind even when you’re working on the one you’re absorbed in?

Donoghue: Yeah. Typically the next four. They’re lined up looking at me a bit patiently; it’s like a queue of supplicants at the door. And they’re each tapping their watches and saying, “I’ve been waiting years already. When are you going to write me?”

Clain: Well, that’s good for us, right, Iris? That means we’ll still be in business if Emma’s got four more ideas.


Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. Little, Brown.

Judy Clain is the editor in chief of Little, Brown.

Emma Donoghue is the author of Frog Music and Room.

Iris Tupholme is the publisher and editor in chief of HarperCollins Canada.