Molly McGhee on the Importance of Acknowledgments
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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from the episode:
Maris Kreizman: The acknowledgements in your book are kind of what I thought they were meant to be when I first started working in publishing.
Molly McGhee: Thank you for saying that, Maris. I agree.
MK: Tell me about that. Tell me about what you’ve done.
MM: My publishers and I just decided, so I wanted to do something really special for the people who helped create my book. Because it’s a real team effort. And the readers who are taking a chance on me as a debut novelist, so only in the first edition of the hardcover, the acknowledgements will be included.
And in these acknowledgments, I have listed out all of the credits. It’s by name, every single person who has worked on the book, what they did on the book. I even went to the trouble of listing everyone who has ever taught me. So I just really wanted there to be physical evidence that someone put their time into this book and I wanted them to be able to keep it and for it to be special. Since book workers are often the first people to receive, especially debut novelists’ hardcovers, I wanted them to have something really special that if I’m lucky enough to go out of first printing, that text that they will have gotten, hopefully for free from their job, will eventually be able to compensate them for its own success.
So I really wanted to be able to pay them back for the work that they did. I don’t know if I’m gonna go out of one printing or go into something else but I just really wanted that to be there for them. As a book worker I know what it’s like to be so invisible and to be so in the process and to dedicate months and months of my life to a text and for the author to not even know that I worked on it. And that really hurt because those texts meant a lot to me. They became a companion in my life. And so if that is true for anyone who worked on my book, I really wanted to acknowledge how much that meant to me.
MK: I love that. And it really does bring home the idea that you’re not just an author floating in the ether, like there is an entire team.
MM: To create something from nothing, to create a book from nothing, it takes at least… For my book, I think there were probably at least a hundred people who worked on it. I’m not saying necessarily worked on it by, like, having a direct hand in crossing out text or writing the words, but there are so many steps to creating a book that we forget about.
There’s designers, there’s typesetters, there’s printers, there’s booksellers, there’s librarians, there’s… marketing folks, publicity folks, publishers. There’s so, so many people. Sales reps. Like, there’s so many people who just do the work because they love the work and they’re not doing the work because they get paid well.
MK: They certainly are not.
MM: So I just really wanted to acknowledge all of that labor. It would have felt dishonest for me to write a book about labor and not acknowledge all the labor that went into the book.
MK: I think that’s so lovely and I’m wondering because maybe for listeners who don’t know, you left your job at Tor a couple of years ago now? I don’t want to misspeak, but seemingly just disillusioned with the entire publishing process, which I very much relate to. And yet you’ve made a beautiful book with, with the help of so many people. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MM: Yeah, totally. If I’m being honest, the reason I started down the editorial path is because I thought it would help me become a better writer. And it did, in a lot of ways. It really helped me understand the mechanics of writing and the way readers engage with the text, which is invaluable knowledge.
But I did not anticipate how much the business part would break my heart. I love books a little too much to be in the business. I just really, really love them. I love books. I love the people who read books. I love the authors who write books. And sometimes when we are in publishing positions, those people are not necessarily valued, and learning that really hurt me.
Saying that, I also know that industries are populated by people who feel the way I do and are perhaps in a lot of ways emotionally stronger than I am. I’m sensitive. So I’m glad they have the capacity to do the work. And when I realized that I might have the talent to do the work, I might have the knowledge to do the work, but I just could not handle the sort of brutal, exploitative side of the business that maybe has been brought in by shareholders or folks who don’t give a shit about reading who are weirdly in charge of things.
MK: Selling products?
MM: Selling products. I was like, wow, I just can’t do this, but I want to use my knowledge to help other people because if I’m struggling and I’m feeling this bad and I’ve spent my whole life dedicated towards this one goal, I cannot be the only one.
And there are so many elements of publishing that we can’t talk about because of its inherently political nature. Like, you never know who’s agenting who. You never know which authors are under which editor. You never know which publicist has dirt on somebody, blah, blah, blah.
And so you just can’t really talk about a lot of the sort of underlying forces that, I guess I want to say, really control the experience. And I suddenly found myself in a position where I actually would not be politically disenfranchised by speaking about it. I never wanted someone to go through what I went through with my mom again, where it’s like, you know, this was the worst moment of my life and I was at a job that I had given up everything for including spending time with my family and proximity to my family. Like I moved to New York to take the job and I knew how much of a sacrifice that was for me and for my mom to pass away and then for that job to ask me to miss her funeral and come back to work. I missed her funeral because I had to have a job.
And that has been the biggest regret of my life. But it was during COVID, I didn’t know what to do. And I was a caretaker for my sister. And it just, I just couldn’t see any other options. And after that happened, I was like, I have to do everything in my power to never let this happen to another person.
And I don’t know if that’s necessarily in my control, but it is the only way for me that I can make up for having missed that ceremony. And so really a lot of my activism in the last two years has been a way to sort of atone for those decisions I made during an incredibly stressful time. And they were the wrong, in my opinion now, they were the wrong decisions. I made the wrong decisions and I have to live with those decisions forever. However, if I can do just a little bit of good, then it will have been, if not worth it, then at least I would be able to bear it.
MK: It’s a real testament to you that you were able to take that and write this novel that is not only smart and funny, but is also weirdly hopeful.
MM: I don’t know if this is true for you, Maris, but being alive is really hard for me. Like, making the decision to be alive tomorrow is like, some people are blessed and they do not have to make the active decision, but I was not blessed in that way.
And I have to make the active decision every day. I wanted to be able to explore the emotions of some of these topics and realities without just subsuming to hopelessness. I wanted to be able to engage with them on an intellectual level, without feeling like I was just dying from pain. And so I set out to write this book.
Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah • Terrace Story by Hilary Leichter
Molly McGhee is from a cluster of small towns just north of Nashville, Tennessee. She writes fiction, essays, and teaches in the undergraduate creative writing department at Columbia University. Her debut novel, Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind, is forthcoming from Astra House in late 2023. Her work has appeared in publications like The Paris Review. In addition to writing, Molly has worked in the editorial and digital departments of McSweeney’s and The Believer as well as MCD and FSG Originals and as an assistant editor at Diane Williams’ NOON. Most recently, Molly worked in the editorial department of Tor bringing luminaries such as John M. Ford back to print through The Tor Essentials Series, launching the instant New York Times Bestselling Atlas Six series, as well as assisting in the launch of Tor’s horror imprint, Nightfire. Molly graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in fiction. While there she taught undergraduate creative writing as a Teaching Fellow.