‘You edit fiction as well as write it?’ I was asked by a fellow word-wrangler recently. ‘Wow,’ she sighed into her coffee: ‘That’s tough.’
‘Yeah!’ I laughed above the shared editorial melancholy, and with some strange delight, because it was the first time this tricky toughness had ever been acknowledged by a colleague.
‘Tough’ is probably too tough a word for it, but working on both sides of the storytelling curtain as I do is a little like walking an emotional tightrope at times.
Despite making a conscious effort to always maintain a critical distance, to not get too close to the authors I work with, I become very close to their words, their stories, and the hearts that exist within them. I often hear my father at my shoulder, telling me: ‘Stick to the text. Don’t pay any attention to the author’s biographical note or photograph, or care anything about their circumstances, or for what others say about them. Find everything you need to know inside the story, inside the way the author uses words and ideas.’ And so, in the intense intimacy of this kind of reading, I often fall in love with the manuscripts that come my way, or at least feel a profound sense of respect for them.
When one of these manuscripts becomes a published book, I fizz with all kinds of sunshine for the author, as if at some atomic level I have a stake in the work’s success, but at the same time, if that work is harshly or hollowly dismissed by a reviewer, or treated with disregard by a publisher, I feel the wound, too. It’s not uncommon for me to have a bit of a cry at each tip of the balancing pole, at the fabulous achievements and the devastating losses. Just as I do with my own writing.
Of course, there are also those few infuriating manuscripts that have been picked up by a publisher predominantly for the saleability of the author or to follow some trend in the market. These little heartbreakers can sting all round. Their words are tossed about with little care but for the money involved, which is usually a great deal more than the norm; the editor is expected to fix holes made by soullessness, and we do, with our story-love – enough so that readers will buy the book and not be too disappointed.
Editors are meant to be invisible in this way, and so they should be. There are plenty of beautiful books in the world wrought by wonderful, sparkling minds that just needed a little assistance, whether that be in seeing a flaw, overcoming a block, or the clarity that comes from simply having a conversation with someone who loves their beautiful thing almost as much as they do. An editor can help an author find the courage to make an essential change they’ve been resisting; courage to dive deeper into a place they’ve been fearful of going. An editor can help an author find the confidence to step out into the spotlight for the first time, or to get back on the horse. And none of this behind-the-curtains stuff is anyone else’s business.
But for me as a writer, although editing others’ work has nourished my own in all manner of marvellous ways, it’s also thrown a shadow. I might have worked with lots and lots of writers over twenty years in the biz, but the private nature of these relationships has meant that I don’t have a tribe of other authors willing or able to endorse my own books, and that has made my tightrope walk a little lonely. It’s as if I don’t quite belong to either world – as if the writer in me is some kind of impostor and the editor is some kind of spy.
I do try to keep the two worlds separate – working as an editor under my father’s name, Swivel, and writing under my mother’s name, Kelly – but really they’re two halves of a whole. The thought of dropping one completely in favour of the other is more frightening than falling from my wire. And fall I do, all the time. I’m still learning how to tumble so that I don’t hurt myself too badly. But I couldn’t ever stop this gig.
‘I’m just a narrative junkie,’ I told my editorial coffee companion.
And she laughed with me: ‘Aren’t we all?’
Too true: editors, writers and readers of all kinds, we’re all hopelessly devoted. We’re all suckers for a good story.