Becky Saletan, v-p and editorial director of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, is having a particularly good year. Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid, with whom she has worked with throughout his career, was shortlisted for the second time for the Man Booker Prize, for Exit West, a love story that touches on immigration. (The winner will be announced October 17.) Kamila Shamsie, also from Pakistan, made the Booker longlist for her first book with Saletan, Home Fire, a novel told in multiple voices.
The National Book Awards committee has been equally impressed with Saletan’s list. Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia was shortlisted for a National Book Award in nonfiction. Gessen has worked with Saletan for all but her first two books. And Lesley Nneka Arimah, who was born in the U.K. and grew up in Nigeria and the U.S., has just released her debut collection of short stories, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, which was one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honorees. (The collection also received a starred PW review.)
Saletan is one of the few trade editors to get her start in academic publishing—and on the production side of editorial, copyediting indexes and page proofs for Yale University Press. These awards serve as an affirmation of her decision to move into trade. That is, if she needed any affirmation other than her roster of writers, which includes Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ivan Doig, and Peter Matthiessen. She has worked with some of her authors since the 1980s and ’90s, after she left Yale in 1984 to go to Random House, initially as Jason Epstein’s assistant, and then to Simon & Schuster.
Long before the current push for diverse voices in publishing became fashionable, Saletan championed writers of different nationalities, ethnicities, and points of view. And so has Riverhead, which she joined as editorial director in 2009. “I just find a lot of these voices exciting because they aren’t reflecting back to me the dominant culture—the culture I already know from the inside out,” Saletan said. “They’re taking me somewhere else. And that’s true of both the fiction and nonfiction that I publish.”
For Saletan, finding new voices and ways of storytelling is what keeps publishing exciting. Of Arimah, she said: “Her stories are unusually structured. That’s the kind of thing that gets me excited as an editor. Is somebody doing something unexpected on the page? I’m bored as a reader if a book just seems to be telling me something I already know. I am a sucker for a beautiful sentence, but I really get excited when I feel like a book is taking me someplace I haven’t been before, if I can’t see around the corners and know what is coming next. And [Amirah, Gessen, Hamid, and Shamsie] have that.”
Surprisingly, given the number of award-winning fiction writers she publishes, Saletan generally edits more nonfiction than fiction. New nonfiction titles include Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing (Oct.) by physician Victoria Sweet and former U.S. Border Patrol agent Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Feb. 2018). “The things that excite me about fiction,” Saletan said, “are also the things that excite me about nonfiction: that sense of going to unexpected places—having some bearing on showing us the world, not being too hermetic—[and the] beauty of prose, the sense that the story is going to endure in some way.”
Saletan said that she was drawn to Gessen’s work because it was about more than just Putin, or Russia, or even the U.S. “I had the feeling she was writing about power and corruption in a way that transcends the headlines and the current moment, even if it speaks to them,” Saletan said. “That’s the thing I look for in nonfiction. And in fiction, similarly—like with Mohsin—I don’t just want a nicely told familiar story. I’m looking for something that bites a little deeper and disturbs a little more.”
When it comes to editing, Saletan described herself as a “both forest and trees” person. “I do broad-stroke edits, but a lot of editing is in the details.” She said she believes it clarifies what a problem is to show a writer one way to solve it, even if he or she ultimately chooses to solve it a different way.
As for this season’s many awards for her writers, Saletan posed a theory that has less to do with editorial acumen than a world in transition: “Maybe this has been such a rich year for the writers that I publish because the things they write about coincide more than they ever have with what we’re all thinking about in these crazy times.”
Current title: V-p and editorial director, Riverhead Books
Higher education: B.A. in English, Yale University
Recent favorite books: “The last things I was blown away by were The Sympathizer and John Freeman’s Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation.”