Emily Bell on What It Was Like to Edit Lucia Berlin
With Kendra Winchester and Autumn Privett on Reading Women
This week on Reading Women, Autumn and Kendra talk with Emily Bell, editor of Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, out now from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Kendra Winchester: What does a day in the life of your job as an editor look like?
Emily Bell: It’s a ton of emails I’m either ignoring or addressing, and if I’m addressing them I’m not getting any editing done, and if I’m editing then I’m being terribly unresponsive to emails. But the first step in my job is acquiring titles—writers have agents who send editors books that they think would fit their tastes. So I’m reading those submissions and deciding if it’s something I’d want to publish. And for me, I’d have to be head-over-heels in love with something and think it’s unbelievably special and unlike anything I’ve ever read before, because it’s a ton of work to publish a book, and I don’t want to let an author down. If I had spent year and years writing a book, I wouldn’t want my potential editor to be lukewarm about it. So there’s a ton of reading, a ton of saying “no,” which feels bad but I know it’s the right thing to do for lots of reasons.
The editing itself—I’m not a copyeditor, so I edit for style and structure and character development. The fiction I publish is not super plot-driven—it’s not what I care most about. I care more about interesting writing and narrative tension and momentum substituting for plot. A lot of the stuff I publish is very voice-driven, so the editing I do is, as opposed to saying, “this person needs to make this kind of decision in order for that person to fall in love—” I don’t actually even know anything about the process for that kind of writing. But anyway, I try to inhabit the world that the writer’s built and track the narrative logic of that world.
KW: Recently we’ve interviewed book cover designers and talked to them about how we as readers could support women designers. I wanted to ask you the same question about editors: how can we support women editors in the publishing industry?
EB: That’s such a generous question! Buy books, and buy books that you think are going to challenge you. When you read descriptive copy, especially if there’s something that makes you feel a little uncomfortable, buy that book. Don’t only buy the ones that are going to reinforce your worldview. Buy the ones that make you think differently about the world. Those are the kinds of books I’m trying to publish, so selfishly, that’s what I’d like for people to buy.