Louise Dennys: Stories from a Publishing Legend
This Week on Beyond the Page: The Best of the Sun Valley Writers‘ Conference
Welcome to Beyond the Page: The Best of the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference. Over the past 25 years, SVWC has become the gold standard of American literary festivals, bringing together contemporary writing’s brightest stars for their view of the world through a literary lens.
Every month, Beyond the Page curates and distills the best talks from the past quarter century at the Writers’ Conference, giving you a front row seat on the kind of knowledge, inspiration, laughter, and meaning that Sun Valley is known for.
In this episode of Beyond the Page, host John Burnham Schwartz talks with editor and Canadian publishing titan Louise Dennys about her extraordinary career working side by side with writers including Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan… to name just a few. Dennys talks about how she got started, what it’s like to nurture and promote some of the strongest literary voices of a generation, and the importance of freedom of expression, now more than ever.
From the interview:
Louise Dennys: An editor and even a publisher are, by and large, not visible. And I think that’s absolutely right. But they’re also two very different tasks. The editor’s task is to work very closely with the writer to help them achieve what it is they want to achieve, if they want that help or need that help.
And a publisher’s job is to make public the book to find the widest possible readership for the book, for the writer, and to champion that book around the world. So a publisher has to be a great champion and learn how to be a great champion of an editor.
You know, being a very good editor has to find a way to have that conversation with the writer prior to the publication, and that conversation can be immeasurably important. Some writers less so for others, and it’s one task to do whatever one can with smarts and understanding, to try to match the ambition of the writer and to try to bring that ambition to its fullest understanding on the pages themselves, not just in terms of individual sentences, although that can be obviously a really important part of it through language, but also just to really understand the ambition of the writer and try to meet them in that place and thereby become another ear for them, another eye for them, and to love the work as much as they do.
I don’t believe any editor can be a good editor unless you’re passionate about the book you’re working on. As a publisher, I would take an editor off the work on the book if that passion wasn’t clear to the editor or to the writer, because there has to be that genuine belief in finding the best possible route to a great book, whether it’s poetry, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction. It’s the same in that sense.
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Louise Dennys is Executive Publisher and Executive Vice-President of Penguin Random House Canada, but also a “hands-on writer’s editor,” working directly with many of Canada’s most renowned writers, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Yann Martel. Some particularly interesting facts about Louise are that she started her own publishing house at age 25 (amazing, right?), is the founding publisher of the Canadian arm of Knopf and Vintage, is a past president of PEN Canada, and is a recipient of the Order of Canada for her contribution to Canadian culture.