For Riverhead’s Sarah McGrath, 2013 was a banner year. The executive editor had four New York Times or national bestselling titles—The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan in January, Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings in April, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini in May, and The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani in June. McGrath’s hot run has continued in 2014 with the January release of Chang-rae Lee’s critically-acclaimed and bestselling On Such a Full Sea.
As the daughter of Charles McGrath, former New Yorker editor and one-time editor of the New York Times Book Review, McGrath grew up in a very “bookish” northern New Jersey household. In the seventh grade, she declared that she was going to major in English in college. “I always loved the way that I could disappear into a book,” recalled McGrath. “I couldn’t imagine a life where that wasn’t happening all the time.”
She made good on her preteen pronouncement, graduating from Harvard with a B.A. in English in 1996. She began an internship at Newsweek after graduation, which, in a way, helped steer McGrath toward a career in book publishing. “I was really unhappy,” she recalled. “It was very good to have a job that I didn’t like first, so that when I landed at Knopf as an editorial assistant, I was at a place where I knew I was doing the right thing.”
She joined Knopf in 1997, working under Jordan Pavlin and Jane Garrett, and less than a year later, was chosen to assist chairman and publisher Sonny Mehta. Her time with Mehta, said McGrath, gave her an essential education on what it takes to bring a book to fruition. “I learned as much by watching and listening as anything,” she noted. “Sonny, someone with such a big job and so much to do, actively included me in the editorial process.” Her brief stint at the imprint was formative in personal ways, as well—it was there she met her husband, Edward Kastenmeier, now v-p and executive editor at Vintage and Anchor. The two married in 2002.
Scribner’s Nan Graham, then editor-in-chief, hired McGrath as her associate editor in 1998. McGrath described Graham as a “crucial” mentor” who allowed her a “long leash” to acquire right off the bat. She inherited and edited George Howe Colt’s The Big House, a finalist for the 2003 National Book Award for nonfiction, and Kate Walbert’s Our Kind, a finalist for the fiction prize the following year.
“One of the most exciting things about this job [is] that you can find someone early,” said McGrath. Such was the case with Maile Meloy. As a freshman at Harvard, McGrath shared a creative writing class with Meloy, who workshopped a story called “Kite Whistler Aquamarine.” While at Scribner, McGrath got word that Meloy was shopping around her first collection. “Seven years later, I could tell you the plot of this story that has lived in my head this entire time,” said McGrath. She quickly picked up the phone to persuade Meloy’s agent, Amanda Urban at ICM, to give her an exclusive on the project. She bought the collection, Half in Love,which published in 2002 (and included “Kite Whistler Aquamarine”). Meloy followed her to Riverhead when McGrath was hired there as an executive editor in 2006.
When McGrath arrived at the Penguin imprint, the publisher had already released Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner, but had a second book, which had not yet been delivered, in the contractual pipeline. McGrath became Hosseini’s editor, working with the author on A Thousand Splendid Suns, released in 2007, and last year’s And the Mountains Echoed. “Khaled is the single best person on the planet,” said McGrath. “He’s so generous, he’s so humble, and he becomes more generous and humble the more reason he has to be less so.”
Hosseini’s global reach speaks to what McGrath, who also acquires nonfiction titles, sees as her purpose as an editor. “One of the reasons that I do this is to remind people why they like to read,” she said. “Working with Khaled, you know that everyone who reads one of his books is going to go back to the bookstore, and buy his other books.” McGrath credits Hosseini’s broad, international appeal with his powerful storytelling, but in terms of her acquisition sensibility, found it difficult to pin down what else defines a book worth buying.
“It’s hard to quantify,” she said. “I want that book that makes you forget what you’re doing. That can be because of the beauty of the sentences, or because of the propulsion of the plot, or the emotional effect it has on you. Hopefully, it’s all three of those things.”
Current title: Executive editor, v-p, at Riverhead
Higher education: B.A. in English from Harvard University
Book that got away: Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund (“I learned that just because you love it doesn’t mean you can have it.”)
Favorite books: Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley; Bel Canto by Ann Patchett; Atonement by Ian McEwan; and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.