Review: The Choice

My wife read this book – an autobiography of an Auschwitz survivor – and recommended it so highly that I had to read it.  Dr Edith Eger, the author, was born Editke Elefant in Kosice, Slovakia (then part of Hungary) on 29 September 1927.  In early 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary and forced Edith, her two sisters, Magda and Clara, her mother and father into the Kosice ghetto.  In May, 1944, when Edith was 16, she, her mother, father, and sister, Magda, were loaded onto cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz, where her mother and father were murdered; Clara, a violinist, is away from home at a concert, and survived the war with a false identity.

Edith Eger

Edith is made to dance by the infamous Dr Mengele.  Together, Edith and Magda endure the terror, famine, forced labour,and extreme hardship of Auschwitz; in late 1944, they are moved by train to Germany where they work as slave labourers in factories.  They are moved again to Austria.  Of the two thousand prisoners who were forced on a death march to Gunskirchen, the sisters are two of only one hundred who survive.  Edith was discovered in a pile of the dead, more dead than alive, by a US soldier in May 1945.  The sisters are nursed back to health and travel to Prague, where they are reunited with Clara.

They return to Kosice, and find their old house which has been occupied and looted.  Edith meets Bela Eger, a wealthy Jew, who has survived the war as an anti-Nazi, and they are married.  Many Hungarians feel threatened by the Communist take-over of Hungary and cast about for a safer refuge.  Clara emigrates to Australia, Magda chooses the US and Bela has made arrangements to start a business in Israel.  At the last moment Edith decides to take her baby daughter to America, and Bela goes, too, first to Brooklyn, then Baltimore and El Paso.  They face low wages, poor accommodation and discrimination.   Bela finds work as and accountant, and Edith gets her masters and doctorate degrees, becoming a clinical psychologist.   She has three children and now lives in La Jolla, California.

There are poignant descriptions of Edith’s journey to Hitler’s castle in the Bavarian mountains where she slept in Goebble’s bed, of her return to Auschwitz, and of her counselling sessions, particularly with soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

The title of the book, The Choice, is derived from Edith’s belief that we cannot change the external events in our lives; we can only choose how we respond to them.  She and Magda chose to survive against all odds.  She also highlights a piece of advice from her mother: “They can never take away what you put in your mind.”

Perhaps the most important passage in the book occurs on page 307: Edith is recalling that on entering Auschwitz, Dr Mengele asked her, “Is she your mother or sister?”  She replied, “Mother,” and learned later that this choice effectively condemned her mother to death, as all those over 40 or under 14 were executed.  She says, “Could I have saved my mother?  Maybe.  And I will live all the rest of my life with that possibility.  And I can castigate myself for having made the wrong choice.  That is my prerogative.  Or I can accept that the more important choice is not the one that I made when I was hungry and terrified, when we were surrounded by dogs and guns and uncertainty, when I was sixteen; it’s the one I make now.  The choice to accept myself as I am; human, imperfect.”

This is a timeless book, well-written, that speaks constructively about life, death, humanity and uncertainty.

Doing Whatever It Takes

There is an article by Sandra Wendel which appeared in the December 2017 issue of the IBPA Independent magazine.  Ms Wendel is an experienced book editor who specializes in helping authors write, polish, and publish their manuscripts; she gives the following example of “doing whatever it takes” as an editor.  Her website is https://www.sandrawendel.com/.

 

Sandra - headshot 082918.JPG

Sandra Wendel

“After working his way up through the ranks in narcotics and homicide, putting plenty of bad guys in prison, and retiring from exemplary work on the Omaha Police Department, detective Brian Bogdanoff sat down to write a story.”  (A true story of two bad guys who stole tons of marijuana from three Mexican drug minions, shot the three and burned their bodies along the roadside near Omaha.)

“Brian and I met in a book-writing class I was teaching at the community college. The manuscript he brought me read like a police report with words like “vehicles,” “perpetrators,” and “victims.” So I invited him to my home office, sat him down, and we began.

“He had written:

As I spoke with each of them separately, I could see nobody wanted to talk yet, so I made it very clear to Preston and Gaylan that I was a homicide detective, not a narcotics officer, and this case that brought me to them was just getting started.

As if he were on the hot seat in an interrogation room, I grilled him: “What did Gaylan look like?” “What was he doing?” “What exactly did he say?” “And then what did you say?” “Describe the room—how big, furniture, what?”


Here’s the revision of the same passage:


Gaylan was first. If someone was going to talk, I thought it would be Gaylan.

I walked into a fourth-floor interview room of the Criminal Investigation Bureau at downtown police headquarters. Gaylan was sitting at the same table where he’d been sitting for nine hours while we were searching his house, the recording studio, the lawn service, the remaining storage units, and his secondary houses.

His head was down, he looked up at me and said, “What’s up, man?”

He’s a big guy, twenty-four years old, and was tired from sitting in a ten-by-ten room all day. He wasn’t handcuffed, but there was a guard outside the door.

“You got big problems.” I opened the conversation. “I got a receipt and inventory of all the stuff we recovered today, and it doesn’t look good.” I handed him a list of the property seized.

“I’m a homicide cop, and that’s what this is all about, so you might be in your best position right now to tell me what you know,” I said. “If someone else wants to talk first, they’ll get all the good things that come with it.” And he chose not to talk.

I gave the same spiel to Preston. He had the same attitude. He wasn’t talking.

Roscoe and I then walked Gaylan to the jail elevator and rode it to the basement of the police station. We put our guns in the gun locker and walked him into jail. He was booked in for his marijuana charges and taken to his concrete ten-by-ten cell in solitary confinement, which on the street has earned the name Bedrock.

We did the same procedure for Preston.

“And the story came out, excruciating detail by detail, so readers could go inside the mind of this talented detective and follow his story from crime scene to courtroom, gasping when blood was found under the carpet of a home, unbeknownst even to the current residents. Readers followed the thread of a note found in the pocket of one of the burned bodies to the hotel where the cartel guys stayed.

“We described more key scenes with fresh detail and dialogue. And then we went to the crime scenes themselves where I took photos of the roadside burn site where religious artifacts had still been left presumably by grieving family five years later; to the yellow house where the gangbangers shot the Mexicans and loaded their bodies into a pickup that left a dripping blood trail down the street; to the neighborhood where the bangers lived that didn’t feel safe even at two in the afternoon with an armed police officer giving the guided tour.

“We gathered yet more detail, so I could add pertinent facts and observations. That’s what an editor does.”

Three Bodies Burning by Brian Bogdanoff

The moral of this article is that it takes a different mentality to be a good homicide detective, than the mentality of a writer who can make the detective’s story come alive in the mind of the reader.

Bookshops: A Retail Bright Spot

Margareta Pagano’s article in the December 12th issue of the Evening Standard contained welcome news, ending with this: “But the best news of all is that people are buying books again in physical book shops, rather than on line with Amazon.  It’s difficult to get accurate figures, but there is a definite shift back to bricks and mortar: Waterstones, which bought Foyles earlier this year, is making excellent profits and opening new stores again.  And, for the first time in years, there are more new opening of book shops this year than closures.”

ResPublica says about Ms Pagano. “(She) is a columnist and the Independent and the Independent on Sunday. She is one of the UK’s leading financial journalists and has worked for the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph, the Times and the Sunday Times. A founding editor of the Financial News, Margareta helped turn this specialist newspaper into one of the City’s premier online news services which is now part of Dow Jones. She also writes for the Spectator and the First Post and appears on TV as a financial commentator.”

Margareta Pagano

The article begins: ” . . . here’s as safe bet; you are going to buy or receive from someone in your family either Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming, or The Ice Monster, by David Williams and Illustrated by Tony Ross. . . . To date, Obama’s Becoming is the fastest-selling, hardback, non-fiction title in the UK since Alex Ferguson’s My Autobiography published five ears ago. . . . It is being gobbled up by women of all ages around the country to give to their female friends and relatives.  They also reckon that with two million copies of Obama’s book having been sold worldwide more or less at the full price, Penguin Random House may be close to raking back much of the enormous $65 million (£50 million) advance paid to the Obama couple for their books- the former president, whose biography is out next year, has a job on his hands to beat his wife’s record.

“Like in the jewellery business, December is the Holy Grail for the book trade with u to 40% of all fiction and non-fiction books sold in the Christmas month.

“The latest figures from Nielsen BookScan show that sales for the year up to December 1 are 1.3% up on the year before at £1.3 billion, although volume sales are down a smidgen.  This is still along way off its pre-crash heyday, when sales between 2006 and 2007 hit a record £1.9 billion.  But Tom Tivnan of The Bookseller says the industry is going through a renaissance and reckons that sales this year could be a\s high as £1.6 billion after Christmas is taken into account.

“What is driving this revival? Fewer retailers are discounting prices, digital has opened up new markets and book shops have woken up to the need to host live events with authors and other experiences to attract readers.  Growth is most marked in the childrens’ books market and in audiobooks.  Audiobook sales are up 20% year on year and have created a new market, notably among men aged between 25 and 45, a demographic that traditionally reads the least.  In an era when time is short and the mood troubled, readers are also pouncing on ‘smart thinking’ books and authors who stir debate. That’s quite a contrast to the Ladybird books and adult colouring books which did so well after the crash.”

On a personal note, I should mention that Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives has been named winner in the Novel category, Pinnacle Book Achievement Awards, 2018.

Review: Washington Black

I went through the short list of candidates for this year’s Man Booker prize, and I selected Washington Black by Esi Edugyan as one I wanted to read.

Esi Edugyan was born in 1978 to immigrants from Ghana and raised in Calgary, Alberta.  She studied creative writing at the University of Victoria and received a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.  Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne was published at the age of 24, and despite favourable reviews of it, she had difficulty finding a publisher for her second manuscript.  She was a writer-in-residence in Stuttgart, Germany, where she found inspiration for Half Blood Blues, which was published in 2011 and short listed for the Man Booker.  She has since written a book of non-fiction, Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home, and Washington Black, which was published in September 2018.  She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia with her husband, the novelist and poet, Steven Price and their two children.

Esi Edugyan

Washington Black is set initially on a sugar plantation in Barbados in the 1830’s.  An eleven-year-old field slave, Washington Black, is selected by the younger brother of the plantation manager,, Erasmus Wilde, to be the younger man, Titch’s servant.  While Erasmus is the irascible slave driver, Titch is a scientist with abolitionist sentiments, and he needs Washington to help him launch a prototypical lighter than air ship, the Cloud-cutter.   While preparations for the launch are underway, the Wilde brothers’ cousin, Philip, arrives on the plantation.  Philip brings news that his cousins’ father has died, and that their mother requires Erasmus to return to England, while Titch should take over the plantation, an assignment which he definitely does not want.  Philip commits suicide in the presence of Washington, so that the boy becomes a suspect of murder.  Titch and Washington depart hastily in the Cloud-cutter, but the craft is downed in a storm at sea and they are rescued by a ship which takes them to Norfolk, Virginia, where they find passage into Hudson’s Bay, Canada, where Titch’s father, an arctic explorer is supposed to have died.  But he hasn’t died, until later.  Titch disappears and Washington travels to Nova Scotia where he finds work and a Mr Goff, a marine biologist and his daughter Tanna, who becomes his love interest.  Washington travels to London to help the Goffs set up a pioneering aquarium.  Washington has Titch on his mind and he tracks him down in Morocco.

There is something surreal about this tale of achieving adulthood in the midst of tenuous relationships while travelling through a strange and hostile world.  All of the characters, with the possible exceptions of Washington and Tanna, are lost souls: people who have no chance of realising their human potential.   It is not clear to me what Ms Edugyan is hoping I will take away from her novel, except that being black is a life handicap and a being a slave is intolerable.  While the story in intriguing, I found my credibility being stretched now and then.  For example, Washington is uneducated except for some reading lessons from Titch, yet he designs a grand, state of the art aquarium, and aspires to have his name mentioned by the Royal Academy. Ms Edugyan’s writing is interesting, but occasionally it slips away from her as when she describes one character: “His was a small, square face in which the bones sat high and prominent, and the gesture seemed to thrust his skull to the very surface of his brow.”  I had the impression that the skull is just below the surface of the brow in any case.

Washington Black will appeal to those who enjoy the rousing adventures of an ex-slave.

Creating An Author Persona for Interviews and Live Events

A post with the above title appeared on The Creative Penn blog back in September, and it caught my eye.  The Creative Penn is a business started by Joanna Penn, author, speaker and creative entrepreneur.  Her website says she is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of thrillers and non-fiction, and an international professional speaker and entrepreneur voted as one of The Guardian UK’s Top 100 Creative Professionals in 2013.

Joanna Penn with some of her books

“First let go of your belief that writers get to simply clack away at the keyboard, spinning tales and immersing themselves in story.  Most successful authors have social media accounts and go on blog tours, but they also complete interviews, participate in panels, set up book signings, and maybe even deliver keynote speeches.  These are great ways to build an audience, but a far cry for the reality most of us imagined when we dreamed of becoming authors.

“Shannon Baker has published seven books and says she still finds it difficult to network at conferences and meetings ‘Often, I’m hovering around the outskirts of conversation groups, feeling awkward and dull-witted.  Then, I get tongue-tied or flat-out say the wrong thing,’ Shannon says.

“Fortunately, there is a way for an introvert to navigate this situation and maintain her sanity: create an author persona.  Jess Lourey, an author of sixteen books says she received some of the best writing advice early in her career.  She says, ‘It came from Carl Brookins, a gruff, Minnesota mystery author with a background in television.  He said that to survive, I should create an author persona.  I told him I was no actor.  He said it’s not acting: it’s taking that gregarious, unique person we all have somewhere in us, and shoving her on stage,’

“The steps:

  1. When creating your author persona, try to keep your mask as close to your real face as possible, but make the public one more cheerier and more upbeat.
  2. Make a conscious decision about whether your public persona will discuss (online and in person) politics, religion, civil rights. i.e. important polarising issues. Shannon avoids these areas, Jess does not.  You have to decide what your comfort level is, but make the decision consciously and early so your audience knows what to expect.
  3. Choose one quality that you like about the real you, and amp that up in your author persona.  For Jess, it’s humour; for Shannon, it’s being an excellent listener.  Deciding what organic quality of yours you’ll rely on in public situations keeps it authentic while also giving you comfort.
  4. Finally, have a special wardrobe that  you save for author events.  Don’t go out and buy something new and expensive.  Rather, use your regular wardrobe, but make it a little more fun.  Some authors are know for wearing hats, or a scarf, or blue shoes.  The item/wardrobe signals to you that you’re about to perform.”

I think this is good advice, and I’ll welcome the opportunity to putting it into practice.

Yesterday, I received notification that my latest novel, Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives, was the winner, Inspirational, in the Beverly Hills Book Awards, 2018.

 

“Don’t Call It ‘Chick Lit'”

There was an article in the 20th October issue of The Daily Telegraph, written by Camilla Tominey, titled: Don’t refer to women’s fiction as chic lit, says author’.  “Books should not be referred to as ‘chick lit’ because more women than men read novels – and it should be men’s fiction that is the ‘sub-category’, the author of Big Little Lies has said.  Liane Moriarty, who sold the rights to the book to Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon for a blockbuster TV series, said women’s fiction should never be treated as a sub-genre because women read more than men.”

Ms Moriarty’s page on Goodreads says: “Liane Moriarty is the Australian author of six internationally best-selling novels, Three Wishes, The Last Anniversary, What Alice Forgot, The Hypnotist’s Love Story and the number 1 New York Times bestsellers, The Husband’s Secret and Big Little Lies.  Her breakout novel The Husband’s Secret sold over three million copies worldwide, was a number 1 UK bestseller, an Amazon Best Book of 2013 and has been translated into over 40 languages. It spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. CBS Films has acquired the film rights.  With the launch of Big Little Lies, Liane became the first Australian author to have a novel debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. An HBO series based on Big Little Lies is currently in production, starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. . . . Liane lives in Sydney with her husband, son and daughter. Her new novel, Truly Madly Guilty, will be released in July 2016.”

Actually, the first series of Big Little Lies completed in April of last year, and a second series was announced in December. Ms Moriarty has since written Three Perfect Strangers.

Liane Moriarty

Most of the rest of the Telegraph article deals with Ms Moriarty’s excitement in meeting Nicole Kidman, reaching an agreement on the sale of rights, and of her creation a a character to be played by Meryl Streep, whose real name is Mary-Louise, we are informed.

But to return to the main point of the article, I certainly have some sympathy for the name given to what Wikipedia calls ‘genre fiction which consists of heroine-centered narratives that focus on the trials and tribulations of their individual protagonists”, because ‘chick lit’ has become a somewhat pejorative term.  Wikipedia goes on to say, “While chick lit has been very popular with readers, critics largely disapproved of the genre. Reviewer Alex Kuczynski, writing for The New York Times condemned Helen Fielding’s novel, in particular, writing ‘Bridget is such a sorry spectacle, wallowing in her man-crazed helplessness, that her foolishness cannot be excused.’ Writer Doris Lessing deemed the genre “instantly forgettable” while Beryl Bainbridge called the genre ‘a froth sort of thing’.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, there are literary agencies which specialise in chick lit, though they don’t specifically say so; their focus is immediately clear from the covers and titles of their authors.  Chick lit is big business!

It seems to me that if Ms Moriarty doesn’t like her work to be called chick lit, she should change her subject matter and style or she should invent a new name for her genre – something like ‘Good Women’s’.   It certainly doesn’t classify at Literary Fiction.

To argue, in effect, that the chick lit genre should be deleted because women read more fiction than men – while it is true that women read more – doesn’t make sense.  How are we going to distinguish serious female writers like Kate Atkinson from writers like Helen Fielding?

London Literature Festival

My wife and I attended two events at the London Literature Festival: readings by Carol Ann Duffy (the Poet Laureate,) ‘and friends’; and an interview with Salman Rushdie, both at the Southbank Centre, London

Carol Ann Duffy was the last of four readers; the other three were Imtiaz Dharker, Keith Hutson and Mark Pajak.  Ms Duffy, born 1955, is a Scottish poet and playwright. She is Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University and was appointed Poet Laureate in 2009. She is the first woman, the first Scot and the first openly gay to hold the position.  Her poems address issues such as oppression, gender, and violence in an accessible language that has made them popular in schools.

Carol Ann Duffy

Of the four poets, I liked the readings of Mark Pajak best.  His poems were quite ordinary in their subjects – the one I liked best was about removing dead birds from a hen battery – but he has a way of expressing emotions with unique yet powerfully descriptive phrases.  This is a talent which I aspire to emulate.  Mr Pajak is quite a young poet, currently completing an MA in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.   My wife’s preference was Imitiaz Dharker, a Pakistani-born, English poet in her mid-sixties.  Ms Duffy’s concluding poem was a bad-language rant against the corrupt elite using seven key words.  It was intended to be clever but for me, it came across as bombastic.

Salman Rushdie was interviewed by Erica Wagner, and American-born (1967) author and critic, who was literary editor of The Times from 1996 to 2013; she has written several books, including a novel, a collection of stories and a biography.  She has served twice as Booker Prize judge.

The discussion with Salman Rushdie began with Midnight’s Children, which he characterised as a history.   He made the point that one writes an historic novel, one must have a road map of places and events to be covered before one starts writing.  This road map makes the task of writing quite different than when one starts with a character-based novel, and lets the development of the characters control the flow of the novel.  He confessed to being very torn between Midnight’s Children and Children of Midnight.  After writing both titles down repeatedly on a sheet of paper, he woke up the next morning and realised that Midnight’s Children is the better title.  He said that while in Italian and Spanish, there is a similar choice between the two constructions, in French there is only one, so one has to be attentive to the advice of translators.

He confessed to be a reader who is ‘not anxious to turn the page’, and this confession reminded me of my criticism of Rushdie’s writing: that it is sometimes too verbose.

The narrator of his latest novel is a young man called René, and he made the point that it is an important decision for an author to select the narrator: there have to be good reasons for the selection.  I agree.  He then spoke about the difficulty for a seventy-year-old writer in getting into the head of a hip young New Yorker – though he didn’t mention his technique for the transformation.

Much of the dialogue with Ms Wagner was about The Golden House, Rushdie’s most recent, which is a parable of American politics, written after the Obama inauguration.  There is a Trump-like character who likes to refer to himself as The Joker.  Rushdie said, “In a deck of cards, only two of them don’t behave properly: One is the trump and the other is a joker.”  He read from The Golden House: “It was the year of The Joker in Gotham and beyond, as America had left reality behind and entered the comic-book universe. . . Suddenly lying was funny, and hatred was funny, and bigotry was funny.”

Suggesting that perhaps Donald Trump, The Joker is insane, Rushdie said, “people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it. What would have disqualified any other candidate made him his followers’ hero.”

Most of The Golden House was  written before Trump was president, so it was prescient in predicting the outcome. “The book knew,” Rushdie joked.

Having met on several occasions, Rushdie and Trump are acquaintances, though there is some doubt that Trump has read the novel, not being much of a reader.  “I’m still waiting for that tweet.” Rushdie said.

Freelance Editing

There is an article on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) website with the title ‘Freelance Editors: Find and Cultivate Top Notch Talent’ by Deb Vanasse who is a reporter with the IBPA Independent magazine.  Wikipedia says that: “Deb Vanasse is an American writer of more than a dozen books, many of which are set in Alaska. Her children’s books include six picture books and two young adult novels.”

Deb Vanasse

While the  article appears to be directed mainly toward publishers, it interested me, because I used an editor for the first time on Achieving Superpersonhood, and while the editor did a reasonably good job for me, I felt that she was sometimes missing the points I was making in the novel.  So, while I’m now committed to using an editor, I need a better process to select him/her.  An editor can help the author see problems in the construction – the substance –  of a novel that an author might miss.  So I am interested in getting some ideas about a selection process.  I should mention that the editorial work to which I’m referring here precedes the copy editing which comes just before preparation for printing and which includes grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.

I also thought that there is material in the article which could be of interest to readers of this blog who wish to become freelance editors.

Ms Vanasse says, “Within the past decade, market changes have created a healthy supply of freelance editorial talent. But in the wide-open field of freelance editing, quantity is no guarantee of quality.  ‘There are more editors looking for freelance work since the Big Five have let a vast number go from full-time or part-time work,’ says Geoff Brown, acquisitions editor at Cohesion Press. ‘Combine that with the many self-published writers who think they can now work as editors because they put out a memoir or urban fantasy through Kindle Direct Publishing, and you have a lot of freelancers looking for work.’

“Freelance editor Amanda Spedding laments that some in her field fail to grasp the nuances of language or understand how it contributes to storytelling. ‘I know of a lot of authors who have been burned by people claiming to be editors when they have no right to call themselves such,’ she says. ‘It gives a bad name to those of us who have done the study, have put in the long hours, who continue to learn, and keep up to date. I hate defending my profession, but I’ve had to do so more these last few years.’  Some publishers even outsource editorial work overseas, a trend that puzzles freelance editor Kelly Lydick. ‘To me, this is a difficult thing to understand,’ she says. ‘Not just because it affects me personally and narrows the job market, but in particular how a non-native English speaker could have an expert command over grammar in the same way a native English speaker could. It is a genuine concern when the ultimate goal is to honour an author’s work.’  Lydick ranks those in her profession in terms of good, excellent, and superb. ‘A good editor will have a sense of content and how content can be organised so that it’s interesting and sparks something in a reader—hopefully inspiration,’ she says. ‘An excellent editor will have a good sense of audience and how a particular work will be received by a reader—and will tailor the work with this in mind. A superb editor will have a sense of the literary marketplace and how and why a book may do well in the market, knowing that it’s often a tough market to predict.’

“‘Talented freelancers also enjoy what they do’, says Renni Browne, founder of an editing service called The Editorial Department. ‘I’ve been at it for over 50 years, and I’ve never known a good one who found their work boring,’ she says. ‘Every author is different, every manuscript is different, every chapter, paragraph, sentence is different.’  Ms Browne likens the work of a developmental editors to that of an architect, suggesting where to place lines and paragraphs for maximum effect. Ross adds that good developmental editors use diagnostic skills to identify strengths and weaknesses, which they must then convey effectively to the author.  When they work at the line level, Renni likens editors to mimics who recognise an author’s distinct voice and then work to make it shine. Line editors also need a good ear, says Ross, Renni’s son. ‘By ear I mean sensitivity to the way language sounds, the way it flows, to the rhythm between dialogue and narrative,’ he says. ‘They’ll know what sounds real and what sounds phony, what sounds natural and what has a strained literary effect. And they probably won’t think about any of this.’

Internet searches, professional associations, and personal recommendations are among the resources for publishers to tap when seeking editorial talent.  An internet search led Crosstown Publishing’s Jim Laughren to The Editorial Department. ‘I saw they were owned by Renni Browne, author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a book I had read and been impressed with,’ Laughren says. ‘There are good bios of all their editors on the website, so I was able to select an editor who I felt was most appropriate for my particular book.’  Geoff Brown, acquisitions editor at Cohesion Press, discovered Spedding through a professional association of writers. After he confirmed her qualifications and experience and checked references from previous clients, he hired her to handle all editorial functions at his small press.  Professional associations may offer request-for-quote (RFQ) services that broadcast publisher needs to their members, notes Ross Browne. But depending on how the service is set up, he warns that the response can be overwhelming. ‘Editorial Freelancers Association has several thousand members, and you can expect several dozen members to respond to your RFQ,’ he says. ‘Thankfully, EFA also allows you to post a supplemental notice stating you have received sufficient replies.’   Other professional associations of freelance editors include the American Copyeditors Society and the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors.

“Editorial relationships begin with an exchange of information between publisher and editor. Specifying the scope of services, scheduling, and compensation, a formal or informal agreement binds the relationship.  ‘When I’m exploring the possibility of a new project, I first get a sense of how well I communicate with the author and how well the author communicates with me,’ Lydick says. “’ also take a look at the content and see if it’s within my scope of understanding or, even better, expertise—a subject I know a lot about—and also whether I like the style of the writing.’

“At The Editorial Department, the business relationship begins as something of a matchmaking process in which Ross Browne works with the client to choose the best fit for the project from among the company’s 16 editors.  ‘We ask a lot of questions of our new clients at the intake stage about the manuscript and its author, including publication goals and intended readership, the author’s experience with writing and publishing, and where they feel they need the most help,’ he explains. ‘I read some of the manuscript to make sure it’s ready for our process and to get a feel for the writing so I can make a good match to an editor.’  After recommending an editor, Browne offers details of the services, costs, and time frame proposed for the project. He provides formal agreements upon request.

“Lydick affirms arrangements with work orders, project agreements and, if necessary, confidentiality agreements.”

 

Review: Midnight’s Children

Having finished the books I brought with me to Sicily, I went to the local bookstore which has a small selection of English language books, but I found nothing that intrigued me.  Looking on the bookshelves in the house, where guests occasionally leave books, I found Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.  Mitigating against reading it were its length (647 pages), and its author (I’ve read The Satanic Verses and admired it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it).  The main factor in favour of reading it is that it is twice the winner of the Booker of Bookers: the best Booker Prize winner in the last 25 years and 40 years.

First Edition

The story, written in 1981, deals with the recent colonial past of the Indian subcontinent, its independence and its partition into two states: India and Pakistan.  The narrator is Saleem Sinai who was born at midnight, the precise moment of India’s independence, and who is telling the story to his future wife, Padma.  Saleem is born with a huge, dripping nose with exceptional olfactory powers, such that he is able to read thoughts and identify intentions.  He learns that all the children born at the moment of independence are gifted with extraordinary powers, and he forms a Midnight Children’s Conference to try to influence events, including political developments and subcontinental wars.    In particular, allegorical style is used to critique the governance of Indira Gandhi during the ‘Emergency’ period.  Mrs Gandhi brought a suit against Rushdie, not for his slating of her administration, but for a single sentence criticising her family relationships; this sentence has been removed from current editions.  As well as the Conference, the tale involves Saleem’s extended family: mother, father, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and his infant son.  The style of the book is magical realism, not conforming to any particular genre, it is factual, comical, suspenseful, magical, surreal, historical and mythic.

In his introduction to the 2006 edition, Rushdie says, “In the West, people tended to read Midnight’s Children as a fantasy, while in India, people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book.”  Though I have traveled to India three times, and know something of its history and culture, I read the book primarily as a fantasy, which is a shame: I feel I have missed an important dimension of the book.  It must be said that Salman Rushdie is an extraordinary story-teller: he has great imagination and invention, and sometimes I felt that he has invented himself into a corner – how can he get out of this one?- only to read a clever, smooth and sensible transition out.  His command of language is breath-taking, leaving one with the clearest possible image of what is happening.  Occasionally, though, I felt left out by his use of Hindi (or other native) words and expressions which are undoubtedly appropriate.  There were also times when I felt that his excursions into descriptive fantasy were too lengthy, and yet, long as it is, I wanted to read on.

So, for me Midnight’s Children is a literary masterpiece, and there is much to learn from Rushdie’s skill as a writer and a story-teller.  But did I enjoy it?  Not particularly, having missed too much of it,

Review: Living Buddha, Living Christ

My wife read this book by Thich Nhat Hanh, and when I ran out of handy books (we’re on holiday), I decided to read it.  The subtitle is “A revered meditation master explores two of the world’s great contemplative traditions.”

The author is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, born in 1926; he is active in the peace movement, promoting non-violent solutions to conflict.  He has written more than 100 books, including over 40 in English.  He is fluent in French, Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit, Pali, English and Vietnamese.  He is based in Plum Village in Dordogne in the south of France, and has established Buddhist facilities in Vietnam, France, USA, Germany.  He is a Zen Master of Buddhism and a teacher of mindfulness (meditation).

Thich Nhat Hanh

This book does a very credible job bringing the teaching of Jesus Christ in line with the teaching of Buddha.  If these two men were to meet, one can suppose that they would have gotten along well.  More on this below.  Contact with the Holy Spirit is suggested to place one in a similar state of near nirvana to Buddhist mindfulness or meditation.  In fact there are references to the benefits of mindfulness on nearly every page, and although Thich Nhat Hanh is a master teacher of Buddhist mindfulness, and he has written books on the subject, there is no prescription for reaching near nirvana.

(When I was much younger, the company I worked for put its sales people on a course in meditation taught be a man named Jeff Coats.  The reason for the course was that sales people needed to have a constructive escape from the stress of selling.  I can recall reaching a meditative state only once, but it was quite sublime.)

The author takes issue with the Roman Catholic church on its implied position that it is the only true religion.  He makes the point that this can lean to real conflict and it inhibits constructive dialogue.  I agree.

While the ethos of Christianity and Buddhism may be similar, there are two important points on which the two diverge,  Buddhists do not believe in an immortal soul; Buddha taught that the soul, like the body is constantly evolving and therefore impermanent.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “A good theologian is one who says almost nothing about God, even though the word ‘theology’ means ‘discourse about God’.  It is risky to talk about God.  The notion of God might be an obstacle for us to touch God as love, wisdom and mindfulness.” and “The Buddha was not against God.  He was only against notions of God that are mere mental constructions and do not correspond to reality, notions that prevent us from developing ourselves and touching ultimate reality.”  It seems to me that there are several problems with this.  Christians believe that Jesus, as part of the Trinity, is God, and He is not a ‘mental construction’.  Thich Nhat Hanh seems to accept the reality of the Holy Spirit, also part of the Trinity; is the Spirit a ‘mental construction’?  In the last sentence quoted above, the author uses the word ‘reality’ twice, without being clear about what ‘reality’ he is referring to.

When I imagine a meeting between Jesus and Buddha, I don’t think it would be entirely friendly.  In my scenario, Jesus chastises Buddha for being a ‘man of little faith’.

For this reason, I found Living Buddha, Living Christ to be a book of little value: it focuses on relatively minor similarities while ignoring the important differences.