Interview conducted by Jennifer D. Foster.
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 Five Ws: 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.
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.
Like a cat, I’ve had multiple lives. I worked as a journalist for ten years, very nearly became a film studies academic, and now work full-time as an editor for the Toronto hybrid publisher Iguana Books. Our founder/owner/CEO Greg Ioannou calls me his poetry editor, and I do see the occasional poetry manuscript, but I mostly edit novels by independent authors, which means authors who either have been unable to break into traditional publishing or have decided that they prefer to self-publish. I’ve been doing this since May 2018.
Before working for Iguana, I ran my freelance business, edited a bit for newspapers (including the Whig-Standard in Kingston), edited scholarly papers by Iranian academics writing in English for a University of Toronto professor, and worked for a mining company editing regulatory documents. I also worked as a journalist, writing art and film columns for the Whig-Standard and the Globe and Mail’s Broadcast Week magazine, and, while doing my PhD, taught cinema studies courses at York University and the University of Toronto. I still run a little poetry editing business called Mighty Red Pen, which focuses on full-length collections of poetry by independent authors, but Iguana keeps me busy, so I have to be careful not to take on too many freelance projects. I live in the east end of Toronto, where we’re spoiled for green space and souvlaki.
Who: If you could edit one famous author, living or dead, who would it be?
This is going to sound like I’m throwing away an opportunity to edit Chaucer or somebody equally historic and mind-blowing, but I would choose to edit Connecticut-based poet David A. Epstein. He’s scantily published due to life choices and a total aversion to self-promotion, but (and) he’s a superb poet who has spent thirty years quietly honing his craft, and amassed a huge body of work that, if it’s ever published, will take a lot of people by surprise. It’s a dream of mine to have the time to help shape this trove into multiple manuscripts, and be a part of helping him find the readership that he richly deserves.
What: Do you have a favourite punctuation mark and/or a favourite word?
My husband (who is a newspaper editor) recently admitted to being lukewarm about the semicolon, and without thinking, I said I was surprised we were still married. Fortunately he has a good sense of humour and tweeted the exchange right away.
I think of the semicolon as the California stop of punctuation: it lets you slow down before you cruise through the intersection. As much as I love the em dash, there are times when it feels too…declarative. For a tight little transition between independent clauses, only the semicolon will do. I also love that the semicolon has been able to serve as a symbol of hope within the mental health community, indicating that someone has survived or opted against suicide.
My favourite word is probably lichen. What’s not to love? It’s a compound organism, neither plant nor animal, and it pulls nutrients out of the air. Wild. It’s also a strong, two-syllable word—li-chen—that carries within itself an echo of the elegant word liken.
Where: If you could work anywhere in the world as an editor, where would that be?
Right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m happy to be able to work on my couch, and grateful to be able to do my job from home. I’m passionate about the hybrid publishing model and what it can do for authors who don’t fit into traditional publishing, so I’m very happy working for Iguana Books. I do sometimes fantasize about taking my job with me to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where I have a family cottage with my sister. I could get used to editing in the morning, swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, editing until evening, then frying up some mahi or salmon and sleeping under the rotating fan…ahhh.
In terms of publishers, I wouldn’t say no to a job with one of the great poetry editors at Faber & Faber or with Alfred A. Knopf. I would also be happy editing for any of the really good small-to-mid-sized American poetry presses, including Alice James Books or Milkweed Editions.
When: Was there ever a time in your life when you seriously questioned your career choice?
All the time, before I came to editing. I worked as a journalist for ten years, and that was exciting for a while, but ultimately it was too fast-paced and also a little too shallow for me. I like and need to be able to mull things over, and I prefer deep dives to body surfing. I also came very close to getting a PhD in film studies, and worked in academe. I could have continued along that route, but I resisted finishing my PhD for years while caring for my daughter, who came into this world with a major health issue, and ultimately I realized that the thing I liked most about academe was working with students on their writing. Once I accepted this real and long-standing proclivity, the rest was easy. Doors started to open. I met you—the extraordinary editor and connector of people Jen Foster—and was invited onto the board of Editors Toronto as programs chair—a position I absolutely loved—and from there, I met Greg Ioannou, who has done more than anybody I know to foster community among editors in Canada and beyond. Greg eventually hired me to work at Iguana. I know I’ve finally landed correctly because I no longer agonize about whether I’ve made the right career choice. It feels right.
Why: Why did you choose to become an editor? Or, should we ask: Why did editing choose you?
I always loved working with words, and held other jobs that involved writing, researching, teaching, but ultimately the thing I liked best as an academic was…grading papers. If you ask any academic, they’ll tell you I’m lying. No one is supposed to like grading. Well, I did. I loved working with students to improve their thinking and writing. I could never cut corners. If I saw a way to make a sentence or an argument better, I would sit there and edit their papers. How it took me so long to figure out that I should be an editor I have no idea. I guess I’m a little slow. I also faced enormous family pressure to become an academic, so there was internal and external resistance to finding the career that now seems like an obvious fit.
And, of course, we just had to ask the inevitable how: How would you sum up your motto?
“Listen to your body. It never lies.” If I had been listening closely to what my body was telling me (that I loved working with student writing but disliked, for the most part, standing up and teaching), I probably would have found editing at least a decade earlier. My strongest advice to anyone starting out is: Don’t let anyone, least of all a parent, guide your career choices. For that, you have to listen to your gut.
Jennifer D. Foster is a Toronto-based freelance editor, writer, and mentor. Her company is Planet Word. Jennifer is a former co-chair, seminars chair, and seminars vice-chair of Editors Toronto, and a regular contributor to BoldFace.
This article was copy edited by Mindy Fichter.