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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From left, Judy Clain, Emma Donoghue, and Iris Tupholme

Photos by Beowulf Sheehan, Nina Subin, and Kate Cassaday

As is the case with many novelists with an international profile, Emma Donoghue has more than one editor. Her newest novel, Frog Music—her first since the best-selling Room—was edited by both Judy Clain, editor in chief of Little, Brown in the U.S., and Iris Tupholme, editor in chief of HarperCollins Canada. The Canadian novelist and her two editors talk about sharing responsibilities, resolving disputes, and the long list of ideas Donoghue has waiting for the novels to express them.

Judy Clain: Emma, what is it like working with two editors on your books? When I came aboard for Room, I was the new girl stepping into an old relationship. So I was very conscious of the fact that the two of you might have had systems and ways of working together in place.

Emma Donoghue: Well, I think Iris and I had worked together on only one book ahead of you, so it’s not as if she had been my editor for 20 years and you were intruding or anything. I suppose it was less scary for me because I knew one of my editors (Iris) already. But Room felt like a new experience anyway—there was so much excitement about its publication worldwide from the start. So I had no sense that you were the new girl, Judy.

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Clain: Well, that’s good. What helped for me, just in terms of process, was that you, Emma, were very clear from the start that you wanted to hear from both of us separately.  And I think with some authors where there are two editors working on a book, they get together behind the scenes and communicate about the edits and combine them into one editorial letter. And you wanted to hear from me, what I thought, and from Iris, what she thought. And I suppose we’re lucky, or maybe it’s not luck that neither of us said anything that completely contradicted the other!

Donoghue: It’s very interesting that you say that some authors ask for a single editorial letter. I much prefer to get everyone’s opinions separately, because if I got a single editorial letter, it would be like getting a note from God!

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Clain: I know. Well, I think it’s an unusual situation. But I think that with many authors, especially younger authors, they might get confused by hearing two different voices. And so for them having one set of notes that suggests to them what to do is perhaps easier, whereas I think you would sort it out if one editor said one thing and the other said something totally different. 

Donoghue: Yeah, I’m not looking for a homogenous, blended editorial view. I love the specificity of one of you being confused by Page 10 and one of you being irritated by Page 20. Also, I often have three editors (including the U.K.), and I find that if two editors agree on something, I pretty much give in and say fine. But if only one editor out of the three makes a point, I might think, “Oh, that’s just a minority view!” I didn’t specifically ask all three of you when you guessed who the murderer was in Frog Music, but I know that Iris figured it out early, and so I remember thinking, “One in three of my readers, that’s too many! I’m going to have to fix that and remove some of the hints there.” It’s useful for me to have the entirely individual feedback you each give me.

Iris Tupholme: Frog Music was a more thorough edit than Room, because it’s more complicated in its setting and main characters. With an historical novel, so much more needs to be on the page in terms of detail so that the reader can locate the character in the setting. Everything from the way the city streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown looked in 1876 to Blanche’s clothing when she dances “The Flea” and to the particulars of a Baby Farm. Each detail has to be perfectly placed to create the backdrop and yet not get in the way of the story.

Clain: What is it like when you first give your work to us? Are you nervous? I never think of you as being nervous!

Donoghue: When I hand it on to you editors, I’m extremely nervous that you won’t like it. With the first book bought by any one editor, there’s no prior relationship there, so in a way I don’t take the judgments personally. But as soon as I’m onto a second or third book, I really want the relationship to continue, and I hate to disappoint. I feel like a child handing in my essay to a trusted and beloved teacher. So of course I’m afraid you won’t like it. But I would say that once you’ve bought the book, I then relax, and I feel OK that I may get 30 pages of editorial notes from you, but that’s fine, because we’re all working toward the same goal here.