by Raya P. Morrison
In January, Editors Toronto, Canadian Authors–Toronto, and the Creative Writing program at the University of Toronto (UofT) School of Continuing Studies struck gold, bringing Esi Edugyan, two-time winner of the Giller Prize, for Half-Blood Blues (2011) and Washington Black (2018), to speak in front of a packed audience of writers and editors. The brilliant Edugyan took the stage along with four of her editors—Patrick Crean, Marie-Lynn Hammond, John Sweet, and Jane Warren—to discuss their collaborations and the editing process.
The event, which took place at UofT’s Sidney Smith Hall, started with an introduction by Lee Parpart, program chair at Editors Toronto, and was followed by Edugyan reading the opening passage from Half-Blood Blues. The audience was then treated to a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into the editorial process as structural editor Jane Warren and copy editor Marie-Lynn Hammond shed light on the different stages of editing, from the first structural edit to the minutia of copy editing.
Here is a short video of Jane Warren discussing the crucial part a structural editor plays in shaping a novel, and how honoured she was “to work on something that’s going to be read and re-read for the decades to come.”
Marie-Lynn Hammond talked about dialects and tics in speech that help with character development. In her example from Half-Blood Blues, one character used “a” as a determiner for nouns starting with a vowel sound (“a answer,” “a hour”) in the passages of the book that take place in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, but in the passages taking place in the 1990s, the character shifted to using the correct indefinite article, “an.” She said that copy editors may not always get direction on certain linguistic nuances, but they should always pay attention to characters’ unique usage of language.
Hammond also relayed an anecdote that emphasized how an editor’s personal interests or hobbies might come in handy in their work. Half-Blood Blues includes a plot detail involving a musical recording that had to be transported from Paris to the US. Because of her musical background and friends in the industry, Hammond was able to point out that the record material described in the draft was not the right kind for that particular time period.
When the conversation turned to Edugyan’s most recent work of fiction, Washington Black, structural editor Patrick Crean commented on how important it is to try to preserve a “fresh-eyes” perspective on the text: “You always want to keep that first impression.” He later added, “When I first read something, I listen to it. I’m not using my intellectual, left side of my brain. I try to listen to it, how this plays to me as a reader….and then the logic and the left brain comes in at a later time when the editing process begins.”
Copy editor John Sweet at first jokingly complained that the carefully written prose of Edugyan required little editing. “I’m not doing anything!” he exclaimed, but later corrected himself: “There are things to do: chronology, family relations, anachronistic issues….” He confessed that as a young boy he used to draw up lists of characters in the books he read and then chart their relationships to each other. Employing this same technique with Washington Black helped him catch an inconsistency in the relationship between two characters in the manuscript.
The cozy discussion which had the atmosphere of a casual fireside chat between five old friends added another personality when it was discovered that Edugyan’s managing editor from HarperCollins, Noelle Zitzer, was in attendance! After being drawn into the conversation from the stage, Zitzer recounted her exhaustive investigation into the name of a popular liquor that appeared in Washington Black, thereby confirming the importance of research in the editorial process.
As it happened, research was the main topic of the Q&A portion of the evening. Questions from the audience focused on Edugyan’s research process: Did it stop when she started writing and did it involve travelling to the places described in Half-Blood Blues and Washington Black? Edugyan stressed that while she had not been to many of the locations mentioned in the books, she had done a great deal of research before starting the novels and continued to do so throughout the writing process. Patrick Crean joined the conversation, adding that “the research didn’t [and shouldn’t] show. It should feel naturally blended in.” Edugyan agreed, stating that while there is always a compulsion of “I learned it, I should put it in,” not everything will make it into the pages of the manuscript.
The editors agreed that showing each other their notes and getting the author to read through them is a crucial part of giving coherent feedback. Edugyan claimed that she has “never had a case when there’s been contradictory feedback. It just never happened to me…at least not yet.” She added, “Different editors will notice different things, and that is so helpful.”
The evening, with its intellectual discussions and lighthearted spirit, proved to be both enlightening and entertaining. One can only hope that Editors Toronto and the Creative Writing Program at UofT (now with Canadian Authors–Toronto on board as well) will turn this two-year trend of hosting Giller-Prize winners (last year’s program showcased the 2017 winner, Michael Redhill) into a permanent tradition.
Raya P. Morrison is a Toronto-based editor, writer, and tarot reader, specializing in short fiction, non-fiction, marketing, and magazines. She is the webmaster for the Editors Canada conference committee, and frequently volunteers for Editors Toronto, including assisting the programs chair in 2017–18. She is also the editor-in-chief of local literary journal Blood & Bourbon.
This article was copy edited by Amanda Clarke.