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An evening with Michael Redhill and Martha Kanya-Forstner

By Joanne Haskins

Editors Toronto hosted a special branch meeting in January, when acclaimed author Michael Redhill took the stage with his editor, Martha Kanya-Forstner, to discuss the writing and editing of Bellevue Square, the 2017 Scotiabank Giller Prize winner.

Redhill’s novels include Consolation (longlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and Martin Sloane (a finalist for the Giller Prize). He has written a novel for young adults, four collections of poetry and two plays. Redhill also writes a series of crime novels under the name Inger Ash Wolfe and is an editor and Editors Canada member. Kanya-Forstner is editor-in-chief for both Doubleday Canada and McClelland & Stewart. Along with Redhill’s prizewinner, she’s edited David Chariandy’s novel Brother, which won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and James Maskalyk’s Life on the Ground Floor, winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

There were few empty seats and the audience of writers, writing students and editors anticipated an enlightening discussion as two of the most highly regarded figures in Canadian literature today promised to reveal the ins and outs of the editor-writer working relationship. The biggest takeaway of the evening for editors was “Ask questions.”

After introductions of both Redhill and Kanya-Forstner, each discussed their process as writer/writer-editor, and editor. The respect they had for each other was evident throughout the discussion as they listened carefully to one another, built upon each other’s responses, and focused on each other’s strengths and abilities to bring the best of the writer’s words to the page.

Questions serve intention

Kanya-Forstner laid out the bottom line when it comes to the editor’s role. She stressed that it is the editor’s job to ask questions that the reader shouldn’t have to.

Asking questions, and having the author answer them, allows the reader to be immersed in the moment, not distracted, even as several clues about the mystery of what drives the plot are being dropped. She noted the danger of an editor suggesting or providing answers. While she didn’t elaborate, most editors might link this to the quiet voice that tells us not to control the author’s vision or try to tell the story the way we want to tell the story.

At the same time, the editor shouldn’t try to settle everything. Don’t have the writer answer every  question the reader would have, Kanya-Forstner advised; let the reader come up with the answer sometimes.

It is key to establish the intention of the writer so the editor can help them achieve it. Typical questions that guide her are: “What is happening in the book? What is the story? Where does the author want to get to?” It’s about creating space, through questions, to help the story, she said.

Redhill agreed, and said he thinks about how one, as a writer, brings everything in line with these questions.

His approach to crafting an engaging read is not to hold back major secrets or delay a reveal; it’s wasted effort. Redhill’s goal is to reveal just enough to establish trust with the readers.

Do that, he said, and you can set up an interesting world that is not quite right; readers will have enough faith to keep reading to find out why the oddities exist in this world. You want to keep the reader on the main track while introducing further complications, he said.

The floor was opened to questions from the audience, and discussion began with a straight-forward query: “What is a good question?”

Redhill said he asks “What is the one thing you’re trying to accomplish in the scene?” Answering this question helps determine direction, what to keep, where to keep the focus.

Kanya-Forstner elaborated. Another question to ask is “What’s motivating the character?” Editors need to focus on any clarification that gets them to “the answer.” She urged editors not to be afraid to ask questions.

How does it start and what is the best path?

An audience member asked where the idea for a story comes from. It starts for Redhill when he poses a “What if?” scenario. He doesn’t necessarily know the destination. He said he expects the writing to include a series of backing up, cutting, choosing new paths in finessing the storyline and direction. “How do I mould it so it does what I intend it to do?”

In later discussion, Redhill and Kanya-Forstner concurred that a successful story is built out of removing everything that isn’t essential—a familiar mantra to many editors in attendance.

The evening ended with enthusiastic applause from the audience. It was a rare firsthand opportunity to dig into the process and the relationship between writer and editor, an element that can shape a book’s overall success.

Joanne Haskins is a recent transplant to Toronto from the small city of Orillia, Ontario. She has been editing for 30 years, 20 of those as a freelancer as the owner of Think Communications. She is a long-time member of and volunteer for Editors Canada. Currently, she is the Facebook members-only group moderator. 

This article was copy edited by Ann Kennedy.


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