Editor for Life: Michael Mirolla, publisher and editor-in-chief, Guernica Editions

Interview conducted by Adrineh Der-Boghossian.

A career as an editor is often a solo adventure, especially if you’re a freelancer. So, we thought one way to better connect with fellow editors was to ask them the W5: who, what, where, when, and why. Read on for some thought-provoking, enlightening tidbits from those of us who choose to work with words to earn our keep.

Michael Mirolla

Please tell us a little about yourself, the kind of work you do (and where you live), and how long you’ve been an editor.

Right now, I live in Hamilton (on The Mountain, as they call it around here—the bottom end of the escarpment). Before that, I lived in Montreal, Mount Forest (with its “Happy & High” motto on the water tower), Toronto, and Oakville—with a teaching stint in Nigeria just for a bit of variety. My partner and I have run Guernica Editions for ten years, a Canadian literary publishing house where I serve as editor-in-chief, cook, and bottle washer. One of my tasks is to evaluate and then help edit any accepted manuscripts that come in. The great thing about editing manuscripts at a literary press is you get to work on different genres. We publish between 30 and 40 books a year and the final editing always comes through me. In some cases, the manuscripts are shipped out (a metaphor really, as they are sent electronically) to some freelance editors we have on call. They do the heavy lifting. By the time the manuscript comes to me, I’m mostly looking for consistency and formatting. In other cases, I take on the task of editing from start to finish. That includes checking the final PDF typeset version and even making sure the title and author name are spelled correctly!

I’ve been an editor, of one sort or another, since I returned from getting an MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia in 1971. My first editing job was with a Montreal tabloid newspaper empire which published, among other jewels, Midnight Globe. I then moved on to work on the desk at The Montreal Star and The Montreal Gazette. I started on what was called the “rim” (ergo “a rim pig”), editing wire copy, made my way to the news desk, where I edited the stories filed by city reporters, and finally ended up as assistant entertainment editor, making sure book reviews were grammatically correct and not overly vicious. In 1988, I gave up journalism, yellow or otherwise, to work freelance. Since then (and until my partner and I took over Guernica), I have done editing work on everything and for everyone, from Harlequin romance novels to Toyota websites.

Like all editors (to speak in huge generalities), I have my pet peeves, things that make that virtual pencil in my hand snap. Among the most prominent:

  1. The use of action words for dialogue attributions: “shrugged, snapped, laughed, sighed, struggled, stumbled…” I like: “says, said, asks, asked.”
  2. Followed closely by the use of adverbial descriptives after the attribution: “said suggestively, longingly, shrewdly, knowingly, artfully, fancifully, gleefully.” (As in: “I just joined the choir,” he laughed gleefully.)

Who: If you could edit one famous author, living or dead, who would it be?

At one time, I might have sacrificed my first-born for the opportunity to edit Kafka or Joyce. Now, I would have to choose between Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood. Any of Munro’s short stories, those mundane surfaces with all sorts of demons bubbling beneath; pre-speculative fiction Atwood (like Surfacing, for instance). I wouldn’t want to take on Atwood’s speculative fiction because as a writer of speculative fiction myself and someone who has been reading it since my Tom Swift days, I think that there is a lot of re-inventing the wheel when writers not all that familiar with classic speculative fiction take it on.

Final choice: I think it would be Atwood—loved the dead-end POV in Surfacing.

What: Do you have a favourite punctuation mark and/or a favourite word?

I’m partial to the colon family, full and semi. I like the fact that, despite the two being so close, they actually represent different approaches to writing. The colon presents a statement followed by a closely connected statement on the other side of the colon or a statement followed by a list. The semi-colon sits at the centre of two statements that could stand alone, are equal, and don’t necessarily rely on each other for clarity.

Favourite word: actually, it’s a prefix—“anti-”—as in “antidisestablishmentarianism” or “antimacassar.”

Where: If you could work anywhere in the world as an editor, where would that be?

Given that the internet and email and Dropbox, etc., allow one to work just about anywhere in the world, I would opt for Dublin, Ireland. When not editing, I would spend my time retracing Leopold Bloom’s day.

When: Was there ever a time in your life when you seriously questioned your career choice?

Always. I’m also a writer and that’s what a writer does. But I keep telling myself that I have been blessed by the fact I’ve been able to do what I liked and have never had to work from nine to five in a cubicle. It’s quite an achievement within the capitalist system.

Why: Why did you choose to become an editor? Or, should we ask: Why did editing choose you?

I started by editing my own poetry and short stories so I kind of fell into it. I wanted to make a good impression when sending out my material and thus became meticulous in the editing process. Later, when I started getting paid for editing, I enjoyed seeing a clean page. And to this day, when I’m reading a book or article, I find myself spotting errors—or complaining about the stultifying writing (are you listening, James Patterson?). In the end, writing and editing are part and parcel of who I am—not sure who I’d be without them.

And, of course, we just had to ask the inevitable how: How would you sum up your motto?

My motto? Never thought of that before. I would say, “Be passionate about language and learn to spell!”


Adrineh Der-Boghossian is the editor-in-chief of BoldFace.

This article was copy edited by Natalia Iwanek.

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