Editors are the ghosts in the binding of books, holding everything together...secretly. Luckily we know a friendly ghost, one of the most prolific contemporary editors of African anglophone fiction. She is currently mentoring the SSDA/Worldreader Editing Fellows as part of our new mentorship programme. She spoke to us about how she got her start, the obligations of an editor and dream projects amongst other things.
When I was a little girl, about 7 or 8, I used to go to the library several times a week. I love libraries. Every time I found a spelling mistake in a book I had borrowed, I took it to the librarian whose fault I thought it was (sorry Barking Library!). I showed them the mistake and asked them to fix it please. The librarians were very nice about it, perhaps they incorrectly thought I was autistic. They put a sticky note on the page and promised to get it fixed. Where I was wrong (often), they told me in very simple terms about regional style, tone, meaning, slang. I think that in some way, my neurotic childhood tendencies contributed to me becoming an editor.
And how did you become one?
HELEN: By accident. I had always proofread and/or edited friends’ theses at university, but I intended to become an academic (I adore teaching young adults). But back in the early 1990s, when such things were Not Done, I blew the whistle on systemic sexual harassment in my department, effectively not only burning my career bridges but napalming the river. A friend for whom I’d done some freelance work asked me to work on a poetry project for Oxford University Press, and I landed up becoming their academic editor for four years. So that was how I learned the ropes, especially re production.
Then I bounced between freelance editing and the academic world before joining the African Gender Institute at UCT. Interestingly, there I was harnessed mostly as an editor (I worked on the journal Feminist Africa for five years), and that was when I really fell in love with the kind of mentoring that editing enables. I was working, as part of a team, with brilliant (but often unsupported) young feminist writers and thinkers (mostly women) from all over Africa and the diaspora. I left the AGI to take up a fellowship at Emory University, and had the chance to take a long, hard look at academic scholarship and publication. The overall picture was bleak.
On my return to South Africa, I was amazed at the energy and talent I was seeing in local publishing and writing, especially in fiction and memoir. I arrived in the middle of the first Cape Town Book Fair, and I remember thinking, this is where I want to be, this is where I want to work. I really do believe we’re living in the golden age of Southern African writing, and that being an editor right now, right here, is one of the most wonderful opportunities I’ve ever had.
What attracted you to the Short Story Day Africa/ Worldreader Mentorship project?
HELEN: The thing I miss most about being an academic is teaching. So I gravitate to any project that lets me take part in what Amina Mama, chair of the AGI, called “skills transfer”. I also get agitated about the fact that I have 25 years of experience in editing and publishing, but that there are few formal channels for passing this on. One great thing about working at OUP was that we were given a lot of official training. This is now almost unheard of (because: shortage of money and time) at a moment when it’s most needed.
I’ve always supported SSDA as a project, and am on the board, and so when we got chatting about mentoring, I got really excited and volunteered myself (I didn’t really give the team much choice). I’ve always hated “top-down” editing (where you enforce changes on a distant author and there’s no collaboration or real dialogue or opportunity for both parties to learn). I believe (maybe idealistically) that the SSDA mentoring gives all the participants a chance to learn from each other. We so seldom SEE what editors do, we only ever see the finished product. I know it’s a laborious system all checking each other’s edits, but it’s also an amazing opportunity. It’s going to be so interesting once the authors come on board and also see editing as something pliable and organic, not a fixed process.
You're something of a polymath. When you come to a manuscript - who comes? The academic, an impartial judge, a pleasure reader, an editor or Helen the poet? How do these sensibilities help you get the best out of a manuscript?
HELEN: I come first as an (admittedly unelected) representative of the reader. The words on the page have to be able to fly off it, have to be available and accessible to an audience. So first I’m a reader. Meanwhile, the other hats are whizzing around as well: as project manager, I’ll often be thinking about practical issues, like whether the book should be cut to a more manageable (read: less costly) length and whether we shouldn’t push it out for the Christmas market; as an editor, I’ll be mulling over issues like how to handle regional or idiomatic language use, or whether the author needs to do more research; as a feminist, I’ll be considering unconscious bias in the text. I take off the academic hat unless I’m editing an academic text (which has all kinds of rules, such as citation support, that don’t apply to fiction). I don’t consciously edit as a poet, but now that you mention it, my inner ear is always tuned to how the words are falling, their music, as I read and edit. I try to hear the lines. I guess that does make me a poet-editor.
Is the editor’s responsibility to the author or the integrity of the story? What if the two conflict?
HELEN: Once, during a meeting concerning a very tense situation on a huge multi-volume project with over forty contributors, I announced that I was “the servant of the book”. My first loyalty was to it – to see that it was the very best it could be. That said, I think it was Arthur Attwell who once remarked that 85% of editing is people management. That’s certainly true of the emotional energy that goes into editing. And there’s Louis Greenberg’s dictum: “Editors are basically shrinks who charge a lower hourly rate.” You’re doing something extraordinarily intimate and delicate when you’re handling the product of someone’s imagination, their hours of creative effort. At the same time, you have to be their blank screen, the objective slaughterer of their “little darlings”. Diplomats have nothing on editors.
You’ve been on both sides of a huge change in history - analogue, now digital; handwritten now typed. How has the digital age changed your role as an editor and the editing process for you, if at all?
HELEN: Ahem. I am not THAT old. Oh all right, I admit, all my university essays were handwritten. I was one of the first Masters students at UCT to type my thesis on a COMPUTER – we had to insert floppy disks into these boxy PCs in a room in Social Sciences. All my initial editing for OUP was done with a programme called PerfectWriter, that was pretty close to HTML, and I was always forgetting to shut down italics or bold. (You might as well put me in a dinosaur museum.) Authors had to compare their original MS with the one we would have edited on disk, but we all marked up hard copies of manuscripts and gave photocopies to the author. So much paper, so much postage, so much couriering. The tracking functions in Word and other modern programmes, the capacity for comparing documents online – they’ve revolutionised editing (and publishing) in terms of ease of communication. I still insist on hard-copy editing, however – the eye works differently when reading screens and paper. I see things on the latter I miss on the former, and vice versa.
Editing’s a big deal. We’ve seen what happens when the wrong editor gets in the saddle, like Nietzsche’s sister or the first English editor of Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Are any classics you think are well-written but perhaps poorly edited? I love Midnight’s Children but I’ve always felt it could have done with a bit of a chop.
HELEN: Ooh, it is tempting to spend the rest of the DAY on this question. I am notorious for being asked what I think of a book and replying, “It needed editing.” Next most likely response: “I liked it, but it could stand to lose ten thousand words.” I like LEAN books, although I confess I loved the rustling shrubbery of words that is Midnight’s Children. I think almost all Nadine Gordimer’s late novels needed more ruthless editing and cutting – I am choosing her as an example of a common phenomenon I see in international publishing, which is the tendency to stop editing (beyond a lick and a promise) later works by famous authors. There are “fat” writers – Jonathan Franzen, Wally Lamb, Tom Wolfe – I just can’t read because my hand is itching for a red pen.
Who would be your dream author or manuscript to work with?
HELEN: I’ve had several dream projects already – thinking of Elinor Sisulu’s biography of her parents-in-law, In Our Lifetime, Bob Woolmer’s magnum opus on cricket, working as a green young fiction editor on Ivan Vladislavic’s The Restless Supermarket (a masterclass in editing). There’s a long list of authors – too long to list here – I’d work with, or work with again, in a heartbeat. As an academic author, I’d pounce on anything by Pumla Dineo Gqola or Kopano Ratele. In a perfect world, Barbara Kingsolver would write a memoir and beg me to edit it.
On Helen's Bedside
Something local! Jen Thorpe’s The Peculiars – four chapters in, and loving it. Quirky and effortlessly written. Plus the usual pile of secondhand thrillers and chick-lit, travel books (just finished Riaan Mansen’s Around Iceland on Inspiration), classics (re-reading Pride and Prejudice) and memoir/biography (recently finished a biography of Daphne du Maurier, re-reading Diana Athill’s Stet – both of these give fascinating insights into the world of editing and publishing in the UK in the mid-twentieth century).
Over the next few weeks, Helen will guest blog for us as she takes our Worldreader Fellows (and you) through the process of editing Migrations.
Helen Moffett is a writer, freelance editor, feminist activist and recovering academic. She’s compiled three editions of a poetry anthology as well as a guide to academic English for Southern African students, and a collection of South African landscape writings, Lovely Beyond Any Singing. She has toured Canada with her debut collection of poems, Strange Fruit, published by Modjaji Books. Her collaborations include the Girl Walks In erotica series with Sarah Lotz and Paige Nick under the nom de plume Helena S. Paige. Her extensive academic work is published locally and abroad, and she also writes for the Mail & Guardian.
She is one of the most experienced editors in anglophone Africa, with a special interest in development editing and the training of young editors, writers, journalists and researchers. She blogs at http://helenmoffett.bookslive.co.za/. Her latest offering is Prunings, a poetry collection.
Interview by Efemia Chela a.k.a @efemiachela