Max Porter, 2016 winner of the Young Writer of the Year Award, edited Sarah Moss’s work while he was Editorial Director of Granta Books. They discussed what editing means to them, as writers, readers, and professional word-people.
Max: Hello Sarah. You are a novelist and a professor of English Literature and Creative Writing, so you have been edited, and you have brought an editorial mind-set to bear on the work of students. I was your editor for four novels when I worked at Granta Books, and those four books didn’t need much editorial work in the broad sense (plot, pacing, narrative arc, characterisation) and they needed hardly any micro-editorial work because you write immaculate sentences and do not make sloppy or ill-advised decisions about punctuation! And yet we did a lot of work together and had a fruitful and serious relationship over your work. So what do you need from an editor? What has editing meant to you, in academia, as a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and as a reader of other people’s work?
Sarah: As a writer, I look to an editor to see the book’s ambitions and experiments and tell me where the writing is falling short of the project’s ideas. That’s a kind of structural reading that I find very hard to do for my own work, especially when it’s new: I can’t usually see the big thematic and formal concerns of text until I’ve rewritten it a few times. I don’t set out to write a book ‘about misogyny’ or ‘a Brexit fable’. I start off with a place, characters, weather, a plot and let all the interesting lit crit parts find their own way into the work, so then I need an editor who sees those deeper ideas and can tell me where their workings aren’t fully realised in the book. As you know, I don’t want to be told how to make it better – that’s my job – but I do need someone to tell me where and why.
Reading/editing/marking students’ work, I’m thinking similarly: what are the ambitions of this project, what are the constraints and pitfalls, has the writer seen them and developed an intelligent or imaginative or creative response to them? Because my students’ work isn’t in the marketplace, I don’t have to worry about perfection or a readership so we can focus on the artistic and intellectual work of making something excel in its own terms. In that mode, I’m more interested in process than product and very happy to reward interesting, clever experiments that haven’t quite worked or even could never have worked. Students who just want someone to tell them how to do it can be very frustrated by working with me, but I can’t tell someone else how to write her own work.
Max: I absolutely agree with you here, as writer who loves being edited, and ex-editor who enjoyed being deep in other people’s work. Having the work shown -especially holistically- in ways one cannot see it oneself, to be able to move around it and see its unflattering angles, that’s the best part of it.
You are technically formidable and extremely clever, which early on prevented me commenting honestly on the work lest you thought I was just appallingly stupid, but I came to realise how that might be my most useful offering to you, my coming to the text and saying “I just don’t get this” or “I’m confused by this bit, and wasn’t confused by this bit before you added X to it”.
I’m so pleased you describe the ‘project’. Each book has to be so different. Each editorial process is a completely bespoke collaboration determined by the specific aims and challenges of the book. In some books that’s on the page, in some that’s miles way, in the finances, or the personal lives, or the politics surrounding a book. We have to learn to be all things to the one who needs us most; the book.
Reading your answer here made me remember how defined by the route-to-market context the editorial process was. Horribly so, but rightly so. The editorial encounter is polluted by the machinations of sales, marketing, publicity, and that’s for the best. But a really vanishingly small part of the job was battling with you over sentences, or whether a physically violent gesture on p245 is going to undo the subtlety of linguistic violence ten pages later.
That’s one of the reason’s I had to quit my job, to work on my own stuff more in the way you describe here with your students. The artistic and intellectual work.
So, can you give us a peek into your writing life. How have you edited your own work before it gets to your in-house editor? Have you shown it to others? And how do you get on with copy-editors? And do you -as Zadie Smith does- edit even as the book is in the world, right before a reading, changing and improving syntax?
Sarah: I hadn’t thought at all about the editing that’s not on the page. Or at least, I knew and was grateful for your representation of the books in all those other contexts and especially for your bookselling background, but I didn’t exactly think of it as part of our collaborative work of editing. I don’t think that the obscure bits in my writing are produced by cleverness but by being too close to see them. I was thinking as I wrote the last answer about distance from books, the need to leave the work and walk away and eye it up from across a field or maybe the other side of the valley, or to bury it under a tree and come back later to see if anything’s sprouted. Your editing often showed me how the book looked from a place I couldn’t reach on my own, or at least not by starting from where I was.
I don’t remember ever battling with you over sentences, or at least, ever battling against you.
The artistic and intellectual work is the main thing but we both know that this is a profession. I don’t think the marketplace is dirty or polluting. Sales are a poor measure of literary merit but at least not necessarily an inverse measure. I want my students to learn how to write as well as each of them can, but the protected space of the university isn’t usually where the real writing happens. I think of Warwick Writing Programme as an incubator, a studio, a place to learn and rehearse and experiment before we go out and perform.
You know the answer to this: I spend much more time re-writing and editing than I do writing the first draft, which is usually quite fast. I’ll go on rewriting until my editor or agent pulls the document from my cold hands. I know now that it’s good to stop around the time I start changing things back to the way they were before, but even then I could probably leave it six months and come back and do something different and possibly better. I like revising and am perfectly comfortable deleting what needs to go. I’ve never felt that words are a limited resource or that once I’ve put them in a particular order they should stay that way. It’s all provisional, experimental.
I don’t show unfinished work to many people. (I don’t much like writing workshops because they so easily become editing by committee and I’d certainly never subject my own work to that process, though students like them.) My agent Anna Webber is usually the first reader, and then my friend Sinéad, who is a literary critic and writer, and then my editor. My PhD supervisor taught me never to ask another person to read work until I couldn’t improve it myself, and I always think it’s a little disrespectful to ask someone to spend time on your writing while saying ‘and I know the dialogue’s a bit rough and there’s a problem with the setting and the dad’s name changes half-way through.’ Sort it out and then ask your reader.
I find it hard to be nice about copy-editing. By that stage I’ve thought hard and often about every punctuation mark and the weight of every adjective and I get very cross when someone decides that a particular comma ought to be a semi-colon, but it is also true that I’m lax about days of the week and timings in general and sometimes a good copy-editor will say ‘but yesterday you said it was Thursday’ or ‘ wouldn’t she be in Year 8 by then’ and I suppose that has its uses.
What I read out loud at events isn’t usually exactly what’s on the page, but that’s more because I think a text and a performance are slightly different beasts. I write for the person with the book in her hands and I’d write something a little different for reading aloud, so I adjust as I go along.
Max Porter’s first novel, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers won the Sunday Times/Peter, Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year, the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the Europese Literatuurprijs and the BAMB Readers’ Award and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Goldsmiths Prize. It has been sold in twenty-nine territories. Complicité and Wayward’s production of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers directed by Enda Walsh and starring Cillian Murphy opened in Dublin in March 2018. His second novel, Lanny, was published to great critical acclaim in March 2019, and was long listed for the Booker Prize. Max lives in Bath with his family.
Sarah Moss is the author of six novels and a memoir of her year living in Iceland, Names for the Sea, shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize. Her novels are Cold Earth, Night Waking (Fiction Uncovered Award), Bodies of Light (shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize), Signs for Lost Children (shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize) and The Tidal Zone (shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize). Her latest book, Ghost Wall, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2019 and shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize 2019.
Sarah was born in Glasgow and grew up in the north of England. After moving between Oxford, Canterbury, Reykjavik and West Cornwall, she now lives in the Midlands and is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Warwick.