Penguin Editor Beena Kamlani

A long-time editor at Viking Penguin, now part of Penguin Random House, Beena Kamlani has edited a wide range of authors—among them, Garrison Keillor, Kim Edwards, Terry McMillan, Diane Middlebrook, Sir Peter Medawar, Peter Kramer, David Leavitt, Jiang Rong, Paul Beatty, Robert Kanigel, Bob Shacochis—and was Saul Bellow’s editor for nearly two decades until his death in 2005. She worked with Robert Fagles for over twenty years on his translations of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, and Virgil’s Aeneid. She has also taught book editing at New York University for the past eighteen years and was presented the university’s award for teaching excellence in 2002.

In 2017, she won the Yeovil Literary Prize best novel award. She is also aPushcartPrize winning fiction writer whose work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, Identity Lessons: Learning to be American (Penguin, 1999), Growing Up Ethnic in America (Penguin, 2000), The Lifted Brow (Australia, 2008), World Literature Today and other publications.

What do you feel is the most valuable thing an editor offers to writers? 

The first thing to know about your editor is that, unlike your reader, who may not read beyond the first twenty-five pages if she’s bored, the editor has committed herself to your book wholeheartedly, warts and all. She knows better than anyone what’s involved: not just the hours spent reading the book but also the many hours that go into thinking about it. Speaking for myself, I believe that it isn’t enough to see a problem, whether this is with the structure, the plot, the characters, the book’s pacing and drive, or the story. An editor must go beyond the problem and think deeper with what’s at hand—within the bookends of the work and its own grooves—to come up with potential solutions. An editor must, at the very least, know how to initiate the right kind of conversation about the problems she sees and to have a constructive dialogue about them. A good editor will respect boundaries, never put an author on the defensive, and come to the work with a “can do” spirit. Yes, there’s a problem, she will say, but it can be overcome, and here’s a suggestion or two to fix it. These conversations are the energizing sap behind the book and lead to all the things that happen in the revision process—the strengthening, highlighting, adding, deleting, muting, moderating, tempering, and amplifying that go into second and third drafts. This is why those early conversations are so important and a good editor will prepare for them much as she would for a marathon!

How has the craft of editing and the role of the editor evolved with the rise of self-publishing? 

It’s true that every writer needs an editor, and if this is true of traditional publishing, it’s even more true of self-publishing.  My main reservation about self-publishing is that it has a low bar where editorial standards are concerned. Plot lines are abandoned halfway; characters are not as strong as they could be; the story flags. Sloppiness shows; good grammar is essential (when a knowing writer breaks the rules, she will send a subtle signal to the reader saying she knows she’s breaking them, earning our deference; the unknowing writer is shown no such tolerance); typos will make your reader shriek; and a disregard for style, form, and pacing will never buy you more readers. What can be said of self-publishing is that it needs to be seen as a solid alternative to traditional publishing, and, as always, it’s the quality of what is put out that will determine how serious an enterprise it is, how it’s likely to succeed, and how seriously it should be taken. If you’ve spent so much time writing the book, do your book a favour, and find yourself a good editor to work with you on it. It will be worth it. And though finding a good editor can be a bit of a minefield, and you don’t want to get this wrong, there are ways of reaching them, which I hope to go into a bit more in my talk. All of this is by way of saying that an editor’s role has never been more important to the publishing process.As advice to writers aspiring to publish, what does an editor really hope to find in a manuscript, or perhaps dread finding?

This is such a large question and I hope I can do justice to it here. Sometimes you know within five pages that a writer’s got what it takes. There’s the subtle push to engage you—whether through a major development right at the beginning, or through language that makes all resistance go limp, or through arresting images and characters, or through the authenticity of dialogue (you can hear the characters speak, and that becomes your bond). A reader facing the first page is looking for reasons to continue reading. Engage me, the reader says, and I’m all yours. If the writer has done her job, she’ll win that reader over with something from the very beginning, whether it’s language, action, or an appealing element in one of the characters. Something will pin you to that page and make you turn it, and on andon, because you’re now like a dog with a bone. It’s a bit subjective, but books become beloved and adored because many readers find the same things—a scene, a moment, a mood—that captivate them and won’t let go. I hope to share some of those moments, when I became putty in a writer’s hands, in my talk.How do you navigate when you hit a wall with a manuscript, and its writer?

There are several reasons why this might happen: 1) I haven’t really explained myself as well as I should have; 2) I overestimated the author’s ability to deliver, that is, I hadn’t seen that she’d gone as far as she could and there was no going further with it; 3) She was at a level of exhaustion that made it impossible for her to do what was needed; 4) The author believed in her original more, even in its flawed state, than in the possibility of it scaling new heights. Perhaps she didn’t share my vision of the manuscript, in which case I, perhaps, had gone beyond what the author herself wished to do. Having exhausted these possibilities, I would have to face the final one, which is that the author and I were no longer in synch about what the manuscript needed. Fortunately, this has happened to me only twice in my career, and in both cases, I had to relinquish the project and move on. I cannot stress enough why it’s important to have a shared vision of what the book can be. Without that, there are walls and endless frustration. With it, there are rarely any issues, other than those of failing inspiration on the author’s part, when you step in again and remind her of the original undertaking and why, and do what’s necessary to enable her to go on.What advice can you give to both editors and writers alike for having a successful, creative relationship over a project? 

There are five components to having a great relationship with your editor and these are:

–Respect. Ideally, this is mutual. The editor understands that the creative act is complex, and messy, and respects the author’s determination to navigate those shoals. She will respect boundaries and not try to do the author’s job for her. The author, in turn, will respect the editor’s judgments and be willing to consider her point of view, however–Passion. This

–Flexibility. This is about how much to push, and when to step back, for both editor and author. The editor should be able to recognize when it’s going to be fruitful to push the author for more, and when the best course is to step back. The author should be flexible enough to see something critical the editor has pointed out (say, a flaw in the protagonist that hasn’t been acknowledged implicitly and which is creating problems for the plot), and not push back because she had never seen it before. Both positions involve flexibility. There is a constant shifting in both people understanding how far one can go, and being able to recognize those shifts is crucial to the process.

–Passion. This is about honouring the work—its needs, its strengths, its highs—to both achieve the same thing in other areas of the book, and to remember what is possible. Passion is what you use to fuel the weaker moments in the work. Both the editor and author will milk this for all its worth. Both will remember the amazing beauty of a scene or a moment and say, “Look how you did that there. It’s a sublime scene. Go back to that moment, what was fuelling it, what was behind it.” And even if the author doesn’t remember what it was exactly, she’ll work towards that feeling, she’ll dig deep to find it, and often she does.
–Purity. This is an effort, I won’t deny it. You must be almost superhuman to avoid the pitfalls of straying from this, but it’s really about keeping the manuscript as free from external influences as possible. This is easier said than done, for births, deaths, divorces, breakups, sick pets, and flooded basements will do their best to wreak havoc on the creative process. Trying to return to its needs in the face of other ones can be extremely hard and challenging, and this goes for both the editor and the author, but an understanding of this, of how external influences can affect the work at hand at the very outset is a guard, is a natural preventative.
–Thanks. Just as an editor is elated when an author achieves the goals set and meets the vision for the book, and cheerleads at every step along the way, so the author should offer thanks to the editor for helping her hone the book to meet that vision. It may seem like an obvious thing to do, and so easy, and so simple, but for all those reasons, it’s the one thing that gets overlooked—fortunately only sometimes. I raise it because it shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s not obligatory but it is the decent thing to do and it goes a long way toward ensuring that that particular editor will continue to work with you in the future.

Find out more about Florence Writers’ Publishing Day.

Interview with thanks to Allie Vandersanden: 

Allie Vandersanden is a freelance writer and editor from Ontario, Canada, currently living in Florence and teaching ESL. Allie completed her undergraduate degree in English literature and pursued her post-graduate studies in creative book publishing. Her interests include travel, blogging, seeking sunny spots to lounge in, and curling up with a good book and a cup of tea.

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