Revealing Brilliance: an interview with Jo Case

Verity La Lighthouse Yarns

Alec Patric: If we love a film we want to know more about it. We stay for the credits if we’re struck by the way it was shot, the locations or music, perhaps even how well it was edited. A novel we love in a similar way bears just one name. The publishing house is a stamp that gives us little more than the relevant years of publication. We don’t worry about the credits yet a book is a major production, involving experts with different specialties, all contributing talent and commitment.
You’ve emerged as a prominent editor and I was wondering why you think so much of the work you do goes uncredited? Even when an editor is mentioned, there’s no real appreciation for how significant editors are as curators and creators of anthologies, collections, magazines, etc, as well as vital collaborators in the production of the works we love. How do you see the role of an editor and why do they rarely get a mention?
Jo Case: Thank you – I’ve never thought of myself as a prominent editor! To tell the truth, I think there are two kinds of editing, and one attracts far less recognition than the other. Book editors remain invisible and unacknowledged – apart from in the author’s acknowledgement pages, if they’re lucky. And their contribution is often enormous, in some cases transforming the work beyond all recognition; in others building on the authors’ strengths while helping them work on their weaknesses and eliminate them from the final work. In my publishing days, I’ve worked with editors who basically wrote the authors’ books for them – taking them from a very rough first draft to a polished final product. Not only did the reading public never know this, but in some cases, the author themselves managed not to realise. The more the author is hired for their profile or expertise rather than their writing, the more likely this is to happen. The more serious the writer, the more they tend to recognise, appreciate and – yes – acknowledge the work their editor puts in. Then again, it’s the job of a book editor to be invisible, as Text editor Mandy Brett wrote in her recent Meanjin essay. It’s the craft of the writing that’s on display – its seams should remain hidden. There are a handful of famous editors – Beatrice Davis, Maxwell Perkins, Gordon Lish, Hillary McPhee – but they’re rare.
I do think that the other, more visible, kind of editor – editors of anthologies, magazines, etc. – are quite well recognised. Think Louise Swinn and Zoe Dattner, co-editors of the Sleepers Almanacs. Or Ronnie Scott, editor of The Lifted Brow. If you look beyond our cosy little publishing world, at commercial publications, their editors can have huge profiles. Look at Ita Buttrose, and the huge success of the recent ABC mini-series Paper Giants, on the birth of Cleo magazine, starring Ita as its girl-power heroine. (Or, on a smaller scale, Mia Freedman, who gained visibility as editor of Cosmopolitan and can now be seen everywhere.) Of course, that recognition comes from the glamorous (say, thirty per cent) part of the work they do: the commissioning. The hard slog that makes up the other seventy per cent – working with writers to improve on the structure, then the detail of their work; negotiating with them; proofreading; sourcing images; and often dealing with production elements – is less acknowledged. Then again, why should it be? There are plenty of integral but decidedly unglamorous jobs that go unacknowledged. (Like the role of deputy editor at most publications!)
Recently, someone asked me for advice on how to become an editor. This person admitted she didn’t have a wonderful command of English, so couldn’t see herself being much good at proofreading or working with structure. But she had decided that she really, really wanted to be an editor. After some minutes of (for me) quite confusing conversation, I asked why she wanted to be an editor. After all, if she wasn’t much good at manipulating words and language, and this held little interest for her, what was the appeal? ‘I read magazines and newspapers, and there’s often a “from the editor” column,’ my would-be editor explained. ‘I want to write that column!’
Visibility aside, I think people are attracted to the glamour and excitement of finding new talent, or convincing established talent to appear in their pages. That element of discovery. And I’d be lying if I said those things don’t appeal to me, as part of the job. (Though I quite relish the task of working with an author on a piece that needs structural work – it’s so satisfying to see the end result.) I also enjoy deciding on the shape a publication will take, and assembling the elements that will bring it together. For example, in editing The Big Issue’s fiction edition, we don’t just look at individual stories and writers when we put it together; we also select the pieces with the overall feel of the collection in mind – for example, we want a variety of styles and subjects, and at least a sprinkling of humour.
Alec Patric: Raymond Carver stumbled around his home for a week after he got Gordan Lish’s version of his first collection of stories — clutching his head and muttering that he was going to go insane. A month later, Carver said he was pleased with the version his editor had sent him. Raymond Carver’s stories have recently been published as they were before Lish brought his judgment to them. Some readers prefer them over the classic Carver style that had such a colossal impact on the short form. Worth noting is that Carver didn’t stick to the minimalist game plan later in his career that Lish had set out for him at the beginning.
I’m interested in the relationships between editor and writer. You’ve mentioned the roles an editor can play but can you talk about the different kinds of responses you’ve seen from writers. Some writers must be almost impossible to work with and others might accede to all suggestions too easily. What’s the ideal balance in a good relationship between editor and writer? I’m wondering if you could talk about some of the experiences you’ve had with writers. Have you driven any of them insane?
Jo Case: Absolutely. I have worked with writers who are very attached to their prose and resist any editing or suggestions almost by instinct. Rarely, but it’s happened. And I’ve worked with others who accept all suggestions. (To be perfectly honest, I don’t experience this as a problem!) In between are those writers who accept some suggestions, argue the toss with others to keep the words as they originally wrote them, and compromise by offering alternatives for other suggested changes. It’s generally a pleasure to work with these writers – they’re attached to their words, offer sound reasons for the changes they want to keep (even if I don’t always agree with those reasons and don’t always accede) and in offering compromises for suggested changes, they’re agreeing with the need for editing, but putting those changes into their own words and style. That’s really your ideal author to work with. The first kind of author I mentioned – the ones who fight every change almost by instinct – are the worst to work with. (Unsurprisingly.) They’re also rarely the best writers – the best writers can usually spot changes that make their work better when they see them, and will either accept those changes or offer their own versions as alternatives. Or they will argue their case convincingly for why the work was better the way they wrote it in the first place. And sometimes they’re right. But usually this kind of conversation will then lead onto ‘yes, I see this now, how about if you change that bit earlier to make that clearer’, or similar. It’s a conversation; a collaboration. And that’s the ideal balance, I think.
On the other hand, while there are writers who’ll resist change as a defensive or possessive measure, there are also editors who’ll make changes not to make the work better, but to make it read as they would’ve written it. Which is quite a different thing. And that’s why writers who look critically at edits and can intelligently argue against any changes they see as changing their work in a way that changes what they’re trying to say, or changes their tone or style, are – in my view – the best and smartest writers. I see the main overall editing approaches as enabling editing (the best kind) and interventionist editing (the kind I mentioned earlier – where the editor makes the work read as they would’ve written it), with of course a huge grey area in the middle.
An enabling editor works with the writer to make their work the best it can be, aiming to help the writer achieve what they set out to do, and keeping to their writing style as much as possible. Gordon Lish was not, of course, an enabling editor. Those early Carver stories are almost co-authored by Lish! While I prefer to be an enabling editor, the kind of editing that’s appropriate depends on the work itself, the genre, the writer and the amount of time available. For me, I think fiction requires the most care in terms of keeping to the writer’s own style and aims. And if I’ve commissioned a piece – particularly if it’s a piece that’s part of a series – I’m a tougher (and more interventionist) editor. But then, I think if you’ve commissioned something specific, then you are, if not co-authoring, at least co-shaping and conceptualising it, from the start, and part of your job is to ensure that the writer meets your aims, or the aims and style of your publication.
I’ve done brutally intense edits on pieces with writers who’ve then thanked me for them – rare, but occasional. Then again, I’ve done quite minor edits with writers who have then argued with almost every tweak (also rare). I guess I drove them insane. There was one incident with a writer – also a friend – who wanted to use the phrase ‘pant-wettingly funny’ in his article, which I changed to ‘pants-wettingly’. He was really very attached to the use of ‘pant’ and we did go back and forth a few times on it. I refused to back down because you can’t spontaneously wet one ‘pant’ (it would require remarkable precision and planning, I’d think); he refused to back down because he really liked the sound of ‘pant’ rather than ‘pants’. I hand-balled it up to the editor above me to make the final decision. She backed me up and the author backed down. It was all done with grace and humour, but I think we both drove each other a little nuts during the process.
Alec Patric: The New Yorker has been refining an American attitude from the 20s to the present day. We can applaud consistent contributors like Updike, Cheever and Beattie, but their careers were cultivated and their perspectives given focus through the editorship of The New Yorker. When The Paris Review emerged it introduced a European sensibility into American literature, but it was a development of what was still a clearly defined aesthetic. The consistent factor is people whose names are overlooked.
Our country lacks an Australian aesthetic and what constitutes a home grown attitude is becoming harder to define. You wrote about the different degree of involvement that comes when an editor commissions work and has an ‘aim and style’ for a publication. Have you seen any journals attempting to focus on the Australian voice and cultivate experiences unique to our people?
Jo Case: Definitely. I think that (almost by default), most Australian-based journals focus on developing new Australian literary talent, not so much in terms of trying to cultivate a particular style of writing that can be seen as ‘Australian’, but in terms of supporting and nurturing new Australian writers, both emerging and established. Publishing good local writing is the aim of most journals, I’d think, though some do have a particular focus on publishing international writers alongside local ones. (For instance, Ronnie Scott’s The Lifted Brow.)
I suspect that most journals are shaped more by the taste of its editors than by a mission to pursue and publish particular styles or aesthetics. They publish what they see as interesting, involving and exciting. What does happen is that influential journals – like The New Yorker and The Paris Review (and, I would argue McSweeneys) in the US, and Meanjin and Overland (and the Sleepers Almanacs, though they’re not technically journals) here in Australia – tend to influence the shape and aesthetic of the wider literary culture they’re part of. And this is, more than anything, because they provide a platform for new and emerging writers to be read and noticed, which enables them to hone their skills and build a career – and, sometimes, to be spotted and signed by publishers.
This means the aesthetics of the editors and journals who support local writers with publication early in their careers almost subconsciously start to influence what an ‘Australian’ aesthetic is – they become part of the Australian aesthetic. Sleepers, for instance, were instrumental in supporting writers like Karen Hitchcock, Kalinda Ashton, Patrick Cullen, Jon Bauer and Daniel Ducrou – all of whom have moved on to release novels or collections. That’s the thing – most writers don’t start off with a full-length book; they find their way and are noticed through shorter publications first.
I’m not, of course, saying that journal editors are the tastemakers of Australian publishing. But they do play a role.
Black Inc is one local publisher that seems to draw on its magazine and anthology arm – The Monthly and the Best Australian Stories/Essays – to great effect, and vice versa. There’s definitely an Australian aesthetic developing there: Black Inc. senior editor Chris Feik has commissioned a series of memoirs by talented writers who aren’t famous, but have terrific stories to tell and wonderfully distinctive voices. Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem, Anna Goldsworthy’s Piano Lessons, Craig Sherborne’s Hoi Polloi and Muck, Benjamin Law’s The Family Law. Arguably, Anna Krien’s book of reportage on the Tasmanian forest wars, Into the Woods, also fits into that series-of-sorts. That’s just one example – I see a similar curatorial thread running through Aviva Tuffield’s fiction list at Scribe (which includes some terrific domestic literary fiction with an edge as a consistent recurring theme within a varied list) or Sleepers’ fledgling fiction list, which consistently takes risks, from their first full-length book, Steven Amsterdam’s interlinked short-story collection set in an apocalyptic future, Things We Didn’t See Coming, to David Musgrave’s Glissando, an absurdist satire with a bush setting. I could go on.
To get back to your question, I think there are several attempts to cultivate distinctive Australian voices and capture unique Australian experiences in print, all happening separately and simultaneously, with plenty of crossover – by passionate local journals and publishers. The ‘Australian voice’ is incredibly varied, and that’s a good thing. Despite all the doom and gloom, and the very real and daunting challenges, I think the Australian book industry is a really exciting place to be right now.