ALL THINGS FRESH AND DIFFERENT: an interview with Rebecca Starford

Posted on December 3, 2011 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

WILL HEYWARD

Félix Fénéon, a gifted turn-of-the-century French publisher (of both Joyce and Proust), in response to an invitation to publish his own writing, once said: I aspire only to silence. I want to ask you, generally, in light of this quote, about being an editor and a publisher at Kill Your Darlings and Affirm Press. Many people who read fantasise, at some point in their lives, about becoming a “great writer”, but not nearly as many fantasise about becoming a great editor. And yet the skills required of writers and editors are not so different: a comprehensive understanding of the mechanics of language, a feel for narrative, a willingness to read, etc. So, what made you choose to edit and to publish other people’s writing? And to what do you aspire?

REBECCA STARFORD

I’ve always been interested in the mechanics of the publishing industry, but it was only at university that I decided I wanted to be a fiction editor. I am one of those pesky creative-writing graduates, and writing – and the way we use language – is my primary imaginative pursuit. To me, being an editor and writer are synonymous. You can’t be one and not the other.

Of course, not all writers are editors – luckily, or I’d be out of a job. But to be a good fiction editor you need to possess many of the same creative characteristics and sensibilities as a writer. You need to be imaginative, whimsical, prone to daydreams and flights of fancy; you also need to be organised, dedicated and perseverant. Editors go through fazes of reclusiveness, too (we’re also locked away in a room, day after day, working on a manuscript). You need to be patient and diplomatic, too. You’re working with both the work and the writer – those lines are often complicated, and restraint and empathy are important (even if you really don’t think the character Timmy would talk like that!)

What drew me most to being an editor was the working relationship developed between author and editor. I’d read Hilary McPhee’s Other People’s Words, Jacqueline Kent’s wonderful biography of Beatrice Davis, A Certain Style, as well as all about Gordon Lish – famous for working with the likes of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, as well as being a very good fiction writer in his own right. All this was inspirational, and fuelled my desire to work with writers and their words.

The relationship between author and editor is intimate and symbiotic – at times, in the throes of difficult edits or under time pressures, it can be intense and claustrophobic. It’s a most curious form of familiarity; you must adopt the viewpoint of your author; in a sense, you have to step inside their imagination. You become, as Text Publishing’s editor Mandy Brett wrote in her excellent article in Meanjin recently, ‘their avatar and their advocate’. There must, therefore, be a high degree of trust and confidence.

What do I aspire to? Not to silence, that’s for sure. I’d like to see more recognition for editors – both creatively and professionally. But the tactile work a good editor should always be silently discernable – more than silent, it needs to be invisible: deft, light, retaining the integrity, mood and feel of the work. In terms of my role as a publisher, I’d like to continue finding new Australian voices and publishing them. I’d like to contribute – through my work at Affirm Press and Kill Your Darlings – to a cultural conversation, and to enrich the literary landscape. I’d like both publishing ventures to broaden their scope, to grow in size and influence. And I hope, one day soon, to find the time for more writing of my own – an editor knows the difficulty of finding that little bit of space, away from ‘other people’s words’.

WILL HEYWARD

I want to ask you about Australian voices. Jo Case’s recent article, ‘Aborigines, Sharks and Australian Accents‘, concluded that Australian writing is important because it, ‘reflects our world, our places, our subtle rhythms of speech and communal psychological drives and cultural assumptions.’ And Simon Leys once wrote that, ‘The death of culture lies in self-centeredness, self-sufficiency and isolation. (Here, for example, the first concern – it seems – should not be to create an Australian culture, but a cultured Australia.)’ Do you agree with either (or both) of these statements? Can you describe the Australian voices that you hope to find and have already published?

REBECCA STARFORD

I get nervous when people talk about ‘Australian writing’ and an ‘Australian voice’ in any definitive context – so often it’s discussed within a very narrow paradigm. What ‘Australian’ means to one person means something else to another. To me, it’s more productive to be debating the necessity for pluralism in this definition.

I agree with Simon Leys in that ‘the death of culture lies in self-centredness, self-sufficiency and isolation’. But his ‘cultured Australia’ might be different from mine or yours – in 2011, ‘culture’ is a contested site. You only need to look at the recent debate surrounding the erosion of singular critical authority [in relation to literary reviewing, particularly] to see how reluctant the establishment is to shift with the tides of change.

Jo’s excellent article highlighted the imperative of ‘Australian fiction’ – that it nourishes our understanding of our culture and society. But what are our cultural assumptions? Obviously our place in the world determines these views – and as Jo’s article demonstrated, too much of ‘Australian’ life located in the bush and by the beach is recognized and rewarded in our literary community in the shape of prizes and awards yet it’s not an accurate representation of Australian life in its totality. It seems to me that whenever there’s a conversation of this nature, it’s still very skewed towards a single canon, one that’s very Anglo/male/hetero/bourgeois, versus ‘everything else’.

One of my favourite novels of the past couple of years was Kalinda Ashton’s debut The Danger Game. It was a sophisticated three-tiered narrative, which balanced past with present, different registers and modes of voice, threading Kalinda’s own political and social preoccupations through the story without it ever becoming overwhelming, as well as engaging her readers with authentic, multifaceted protagonists.

I think, then, for all these reasons that I’m not able to answer succinctly what voices I hope to find as a publisher – only that I would like to see a variety of new writers writing about a variety of different (Australian) lives – from the bush to beach to city to suburbs; from men to women; from gay to straight to intriguingly in-between; from the range of intersecting ethnic communities who make up the fabric of Australian society.

WILL HEYWARD

A quote from Roberto Bolano: ‘I’ve had the misfortune of meeting a number of editors who were a burden to their own mothers and I’ve also been lucky enough to meet several, maybe seven or eight, who were and are responsible people, rather gloomy (melancholy is a mark of the trade), intelligent, with guts to spare and a sense of humour, editors who’re determined, for example, to publish authors and books that they know from the start will sell very few copies.’

This quote touches on a problem that I’m sure all publishers and editors have faced: how to publish books that sell, but also books that one loves personally. How do you see this problem? As someone working in Melbourne, what’s it like starting a career in publishing, a profession in which, if we are to believe Bolano, unprofitability is a trait of distinction, at a time when the foundations of the industry (bookshops, and even the book itself) are being called into question? And how fair is Bolano’s double-edged characterisation of editors?

REBECCA STARFORD

Well, I hope I’m not too much of a burden to my mother…

I’m in the fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on my mood) position of being, often, both editor and publisher – so I always have marketability at the back of my mind when it comes to new books. Which is a frustration at times, but it’s also simply a reality of the business. Publishing houses are not charities; they are not benevolent do-gooders (some projects might be altruistic *insert shameless spruik of The Boy and the Crocodile*) – they are commercial enterprises.

As we spoke about earlier, editors and publishers are tireless advocates for their authors – they believe in them as artists, as well as members of the collective enterprise. And it is the art of the work that comes first because really, no one, especially in the current economic climate, goes into publishing to make enormous profits.

At Affirm Press, we embarked on a risky commercial series for a new publisher – Long Story Shorts. The series comprises 6 individual collections of stories from new and emerging Australian writers. These days, fiction itself is hard enough to sell – short-fiction is even harder. Throw a new or emerging Australian writer into the mix and it’s dangerous territory!

Fortunately, the books have done a lot better than we anticipated, which is a happy surprise. There is a genuine hunger for the form, and I reckon we’re seeing something of a renaissance in the form (short fiction is so celebrated in the Europe, the UK and the US, and we all know how much we love to imitate those guys).

Long Story Shorts was always planned as a long-term commitment: to our authors, to short fiction and to new and emerging Australian writers at large. New writers are encouraged to cut their teeth on the form, but it is increasingly difficult for them to build a profile from short-fiction (there are, of course, celebrated exceptions – Nam Le, for example).

It saddens me that the book industry is currently plagued by a degree of caution and uncertainty – that’s not a healthy atmosphere, and it’s not conducive to innovation. And this may be naïve, or overly earnest – but I do believe that if you’re hardworking, passionate and shrewd about writing and ideas, there is enormous opportunity in our industry; the potential is enormous – and that’s without even getting into ebooks. So I’m excited for the future, rather than fearful – there’s equal scope for revision and change and all things fresh and different.


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