Like most high-powered literary editors at major trade publishers, Amber Qureshi, a senior editor at Free Press, earned an undergraduate degree in advanced mathematics, specifically a branch called Algebraic Topology. Of course, she followed that up with the obligatory graduate work in Econometrics—in Japan. She spent five years there, eventually landing a job at a translation house—Qureshi speaks French and Japanese in addition to English. After working with translation in Japan, Qureshi got the urge to work with words professionally and so decided to take the (for her) comparatively radical step—the Radcliffe Publishing Institute at Harvard, where Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon signed her up to be his assistant, launching her editorial career.
After her tenure at Knopf, which lasted from 2000 to 2003, she moved to Picador, where she acquired paperback originals and successful paperback reprints like the NBCC-winning anthology Voices from Chernobyl (which Qureshi says is one of the books she's proudest of) and novelist Samantha Hunt's debut, The Seas. In 2006, she joined Free Press as senior editor. “I was hired to bring literary books to a large audience,” says Qureshi, 34, who is responsible for buying 12 books of fiction, literary nonfiction and translation per year. Her preference is for writers with what she calls “strong, enlightening voices.” Examples include Aravind Adiga—whose The White Tiger, to which Qureshi acquired the U.S. rights, has just won the Man Booker prize—and Joshua Clark, whose Hurricane Katrina memoir Heart Like Water was an NBCC finalist. Qureshi feels that Free Press gives her a lot of freedom. Projects that might make other houses leery—like Scottish poet Robin Robertson's new translation of Euripides's Media or an anthology of made-up love letters called Four Letter Word—are among Qureshi's acquisitions. Right now, she's excited about a book by former Gawker editor Emily Gould, slated for publication in 2010.
All of which is to say that Qureshi is of course not your typical literary editor. She had dreadlocks when she started at Knopf, but was known around the office for being the first one in and the last one out. She biked to Random House's midtown office from Bushwick Brooklyn then, and now bikes from her Chelsea apartment (which she shares with her fiancé, the writer Anthony Swofford) to the S&S office at Rockefeller Center. “I think the mark of a good editor is curiosity,” says Qureshi, who also maintains her optimism about the uncertain state of publishing by believing that literary readers possess the same virtue: “This country is unbelievably big, but it's also curious.”
That's a refreshing attitude in what some characterize as a cynical era in publishing, when many editors feel pressure to consider the potential of an author's platform before his or her prose. “I still think that really good work can find an audience,” Qureshi says. She believes Free Press is an ideal place for an editor like herself, viewing the imprint as a small indie entity within Simon & Schuster, with what she calls “all the advantages of a small press and the distribution of a big house.” Those advantages include editorial independence and a willingness to take risks: “If I can make a case for a book,” Qureshi said, “they're open to anything.”
Which may be why Qureshi's background in math may be her strongest qualification as an editor after all. Though she's no longer wiling away the hours over theorems and proofs, it's those skills that help her to convince her bosses to take on risky books, and to skillfully shape them. “A proof,” said Qureshi, “is a narrative, a logical set of ideas.” Clearly Qureshi has a knack for logic, but also for a kind of illogic too: her career is proof that what might seem like a series of illogical steps can lead to great books.
To see a video of the interview with Amber Qureshi, go to www.publishersweekly.com