My first book, a memoir about rape as well as the education of a writer, was somewhat ironically named Lucky. It is a word I’ve come to use a lot these days, but now there is little irony attached. Among other things, I have been lucky in my editors, Jane Rosenman and Asya Muchnick, women who roll up their sleeves and make work better.
I have never been shy about listening to the input of others and weighing it seriously. I grew up being grammatically corrected by my father and creatively challenged by my mother—throw in a little sibling rivalry with my Arabic scholar sister (god help me!)—and how words were used and/or thoughts were expressed was a constantly evolving and endlessly nuanced subject of discussion at the dinner table, in the car, or out in the backyard (our dog was named Webster, after the dictionary).
So when Sandro and Sandra Ferri of Europa Editions invited me out for drinks at the Tonga Room in San Francisco and asked, over a Tonga Itch, if I might consider editing a line of fiction for them, I had no choice but to say yes. I am lucky, after all, and my luck extends to having been published in Italy by Sandro and Sandra when other, larger presses passed on acquiring the rights to The Lovely Bones. I have also had the distinct pleasure of watching my maverick Italian publishers’ take on America and establish the thriving Europa Editions, helmed from New York by Kent Carroll.
The relationship with the words someone uses is more intimate and integrated than just a quick read and a blurb can ever be. This intimacy—the words on the page being sent back and forth from engaged editor to open author—is unique in my experience. At worst, if a writer disagrees, a comment from an editor can make him stand even stronger in his support of a sentence or paragraph. At best, the comment improves the work.
I said yes to Sandro and Sandra for many reasons. I love them. I was on my second Tonga Itch. It did not require me to leave my house, be interviewed by anyone, have my picture taken, or stand behind a podium in a wacky pants ensemble. I would also not have to wash my hair and/or leave the bed, and my able assistant, Karin Wessel, was in Rome, which meant I woke daily to her pithy and often obscene e-mails.
But there are really only two reasons why I followed through and have so far acquired four novels (three American debuts and one second novel from Zimbabwe). The first is that it felt like this could be an entirely honest and thorough approach to helping a handful of writers. I did all the reading myself without anyone winnowing it first. I did not consider anyone I knew personally. I took no salary. I said painful nos to friends of friends and to established authors. I edited the manuscripts rigorously when needed and engaged in conversations with the writers about their work alone. It was, in the end, only their work that mattered.
My second reason was to honor the profession (and I hope I did so) for which I have such great respect. I know that my teachers have made my work better. In a land of ego and credit hogging, we often forget that the creation of a book is a collective effort once the initial drafting is done. I have benefited over the years from the skills of countless editors—whether it was my mother telling me why I shouldn’t use four letter words in a sixth-grade sonnet—or my editor/agent Henry Dunow writing “huh, what?” next to a sentence I thought had the clarity of a ringing bell.
And so, to honor all my editors and in hopes of helping a few writers who so deserve to be read, I said yes to Sandro and Sandra Ferri, and Tonga Books was born. When people say publishing is a dying art, I don’t intend to sadly sigh or even tell them they’re mistaken. Instead, with all the feminine delicacy I possess, I plan to hit them over the head with Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing, Ian Holding’s Of Beasts and Beings, Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! and Thad Ziolkowski’s Wichita.
Take that, you naysayers! Publishing and editing are alive and well and coming at you. Viva, baby! Avanti!
Alice Sebold is the author of Lucky, The Lovely Bones, and The Almost Moon.