Daniel Nayeri, publisher of Odd Dot, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, wrote an entire book on his daily train commute. He wrote another while waiting at a bus stop.
“I write in the nooks and crannies of my days, in a leather-bound journal, by hand,” says Nayeri, the author of several books for young readers, including the forthcoming Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story) (Levine Querido, Aug.), a fictionalized autobiography of his formative years as a refugee and then as an immigrant. “The pages are covered with arrows remixing the sentences, doodles, self-recriminating poems, and logistical notes about the plot. I transcribe those journals in the mornings before work and on Saturday mornings.”
Like several of his colleagues in the industry, Nayeri not only champions books for young readers in his day job but creates books for the very same audience when he is off the clock. Many editors and agents wear both hats, and PW talked with a few about their creative journeys, from balancing the demands of their professional and artistic lives to navigating publishing and personal relationships.
Mallory Kass, a senior editor at Scholastic who writes under the name Kass Morgan, says that when on deadline, she has gone weeks without going to the gym or grocery store—or even doing her laundry. “I once snuck out of a wedding to write for a half hour in the back seat of my rental car,” she says.
Kass is best known as the author of The 100 series; her new series, The Ravens, written with Danielle Page, debuts next January. “Yet every sacrifice has been worth it,” she says. “I still can’t believe I’m lucky enough to have two dream jobs. I get to work with dazzlingly talented authors and I have the privilege of sharing my own stories.”
Making a creative life
Nurturing an artistic side while being productive at the highest levels of one’s profession isn’t easy, as most interviewees attested to—especially in these times, when the Covid-19 pandemic has blurred the boundaries between work life and home life. Time is always a precious commodity.
“I’ve fallen into a solid routine where I work on client projects all week and try to squeeze in a little writing time here and there, but dedicate Fridays to my writing,” says Eric Smith, an agent with P.S. Literary, whose latest novel is Don’t Read the Comments (Inkyard). “It’s sort of like having any kind of job where you are trying to get that writing time in. You set it aside and you stay protective of it.”
Andrea Davis Pinkney, v-p and editor-at-large at Scholastic, whose forthcoming book is Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It (Little, Brown, Sept.), is an early riser. “I write from 4 to 6 a.m., exercise, then go to my day job, where I help other writers tell their stories,” she says. “As soon as I step into my office, the writer switch is turned off, and the publisher toggle is fully engaged.”
Other publishing professionals have less of a demarcation, at least on a day-to-day basis. John Cusick, an agent at Folio Jr., a division of Folio Literary Management, is author of How to Save the Universe Without Really Trying (Dimension Why #1 ) (HarperCollins, Sept.), the first installment in a middle grade duology. He has spent periods of time writing every morning, and others during which he has stopped writing for months—even years. “I used to write for two hours, five days a week, but that’s just no longer possible with my agenting workload,” he says. “These days, it’s more like an hour a day for three or four days a week, at best [when I’m on deadline]. I try to be flexible. It’s important to have a routine, but you can’t be too precious.”
Still, Nayeri says that his creative life is “fragile” and has to be defended. “It’s more fragile because the world is always enclosing around it with chores,” he says. “It’s the first thing I abandon when under stress. I don’t think I have a balance, and I admire my colleagues who do.”
Being an insider, being an outsider
Aside from the work-life challenges, being a publishing insider presents its own set of advantages and disadvantages.
Being in the know can hinder the artistic process, Kass says. “I’ve spent many years fine-tuning my ability to identify what’s not working in a manuscript, which is a hugely valuable skill when you’re evaluating submissions, helping an author revise, or revising your own manuscript, but it’s pretty detrimental to the drafting process. I’ll write a few pages, read them over, and feel deflated by the flat writing or dull characterization. In my head, I know I have to write a mediocre first draft before I can start polishing, but it’s difficult for me to turn off my editor brain and just let things flow.”
Andrew Arnold, editorial director of HarperAlley, author-illustrator and co-creator of the Adventures in Cartooning series from First Second Books, and author-illustrator of What’s the Matter, Marlo? (Roaring Brook, Jan. 2021), says, “There’s something to be said about knowing too much. I sometimes think knowing what’s working in the market—and, conversely, what’s not—causes me to overthink and second-guess an idea that I’d otherwise pursue.”
Navigating industry relationships can also be tricky. “It’s challenging to keep out of the way of colleagues who are making decisions about my story—decisions about selecting an artist and how to position it and whether or not to promote it,” says Grace Maccarone, executive editor at Holiday House and author of the Miss Lina’s Ballerinas series, among other books. “I think I’m pretty good at keeping my distance.”
Others tread lightly as well. “I’m aware of a power difference between agents and writers, so I try to be sensitive when approaching industry folks as a writer,” Cusick says. “I may be reaching out to another author for a blurb as John the Novelist, but I’m also conscious of the fact that that writer most likely knows I’m a literary agent, and might not feel comfortable giving me critical feedback. There are certain weird interpersonal dynamics you have to be aware of when wearing such different hats in the industry.”
On the other hand, publishing professionals have access to contacts and general book-making knowledge, both of which are often unavailable to other writers and illustrators. Arthur Levine, founder of Levine Querido and author of The Hanukkah Magic of Nate Gadol (Candlewick, Sept.), says his experience in the industry has given him a clearer sense of which editors share his taste in picture books, as well as which houses produce books that he consistently admires. “That helps in targeting the right editor,” he says.
Jonah Newman, assistant editor at Scholastic and author and illustrator of the graphic novel Out of Left Field (Little, Brown), says that his time spent in acquisitions meetings has helped him craft his pitches to appeal to editors and salespeople in informed ways. “Being in publishing has also made me an easier client for my agent and an easier author for my editor,” he adds. “They haven’t had to explain things to me in a way that they might have for another debut author.”
Debut authors and publishing professionals, however, are also alike in some ways: they receive criticism of their work with equal parts trepidation and enthusiasm. “I’ve been fortunate to have some really brilliant editors on my books, who really get me and my geeky stories,” Smith says of receiving editorial notes. “I know it’s an editor’s job to make your book better. No one is trying to change the story you’re trying to tell, they’re just trying to help you tell it better.”
Patrice Caldwell, editor of the short story collection A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope (Viking), appreciates receiving notes, which has been informed by her previous job as an editor. She is now an agent at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. “Giving and getting notes requires a lot of trust,” she says. “And I love the ways in which two people can build a fantastic working relationship via editing and revising a book together. I know the line between ‘I might not like this editorial note because I now have to rewrite like half this book but you’re right, it needs to be done’ and ‘This note isn’t reflective of the book I want this to be.’ ”
Some professionals, like Cusick, draw clear boundaries between their vocation and avocation. “My agenting always comes first,” he says. “I love to write, and it gratifies me as a person, but agenting is my vocation. When in doubt, I always put my clients’ books before my own.” Others say their creative lives influence their professional lives, and vice versa.
Nayeri emphatically states that writing and editing are two very different crafts; he thinks of the former as being like a gardener—“cultivating a seed, nurturing it, and watching it develop,” he says. Of the latter, he says: “I think of editing as being like a chef—assembling ingredients, putting them through a process, and serving them to others” (an apt metaphor, as Nayeri was a chef in a previous life). He loves both.
Caldwell says that her industry and creative lives are, to a degree, inseparable, and that her artistic career has enhanced her publishing professional career. “I think it’s the connections I’ve made as a writer that made me such a proactive editor who was super-aware of the state of the industry, as well as what makes me a great literary agent now,” she explains. “I’ve also always been able to empathize really well with writers I’ve worked with because I am one.”
Maccarone, too, notes that because she has experienced firsthand the “anxieties and frustrations of the publishing process from an author’s point of view,” she is a far more sensitive editor.
“Being a writer has definitely made me a better editor,” Pinkney says. “When I’m editing a book, and the author says they’re pulling their hair out, or their characters are keeping them awake at night, or they’re working through the troubling emotional aspects of a story, I’m like, ‘I hear you, honey. I’ve been there.’ ”
Pooja Makhijani is a writer and editor in New Jersey.