Any novelist would be lucky to have a good editor to work with on her book; Sophie Mackintosh had three. In summer 2017, a trio of acquiring editors in three countries, all assistants at the time, edited Mackintosh’s debut, The Water Cure. It was an unusual arrangement, but it paid off earlier this year when the feminist dystopian bildungsroman, which was released May 24 in the U.K. and will be published in the U.S. and Canada on January 8, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Hermione Thompson, an assistant editor at Hamish Hamilton in the U.K., discovered the book over a coffee with Harriet Moore at David Higham Associates, who represents Mackintosh, a Welsh writer, in the U.K. “Harriet mentioned that she had this author who was working on a brilliant debut about women who live alone by the water and men coming across the water to find them,” Thompson said. She was hooked, buying the book about a year later at an auction that brought seven publishers to the table. It was her first acquisition.
Immediately after the U.K. auction, Grainne Fox at Fletcher & Company, Mackintosh’s agent in the U.S. and Canada, began submitting The Water Cure in North America. That’s when Deborah Sun de la Cruz, an assistant editor at Penguin Canada, learned about the book that would become her first acquisition, as well. “By the time I got it, we sort of knew who the partners were,” Sun de la Cruz said. “So that really helped sway everyone at my publisher over, having such great partners on board.”
The third of those partners, in the U.S., was Doubleday, where it was the third acquisition by then–assistant editor Margo Shickmanter, a PW Star Watch 2018 honoree who was promoted to editor last month. Shickmanter had been keeping her eye on the book for a while. “I had actually snuck it from my scouts, I think before the auction finished in the U.K.,” she said. “And I was pestering Grainne on this side, because I had already read it and was like, ‘Am I on the list? Can you make sure that I’m on the list?’ ”
Shickmanter retained that level of excitement all the way through to the announcement, in July, that The Water Cure had been longlisted for the Booker. “Imagine if you took a young woman’s normal emotional and sexual coming-of-age, compressed it into the span of one week, threw in the first man she’s ever seen, removed the parents, put it under a magnifying glass, and set it on fire,” she said. “That’s The Water Cure. Sophie’s prose, line by line, reads like a reactive nuclear core of experience. Growing up and growing into your body as a woman is in some sense traumatic, no matter who or where you are, and the way that Sophie articulates that fear, both of the outside world and of yourself, of the fact that you might just be ‘too much,’ is addictively resonant and unique.”
The editing process itself, the trio said, was very collaborative, with all three editors working on each draft. “It was quite logistically complicated, actually,” Thompson said. “We would all read the draft and then kind of have an email conversation about the changes that we thought needed to be made. And then I would write a letter to Sophie summarizing what we all thought, everybody would feed in if there were bits where we wanted to express different possible options, and then we would do a track changes document as well, where each of us had a voice in marking up suggestions. And then we would pass it over to Sophie.”
Editing in such a manner, Shickmanter said, was a challenge, but having many hands helped speed it along. “We literally put our notes into the manuscript in track changes and then passed it onto the next person, through all three of us, each time,” she said. The three were under a particularly tight deadline for Hamish Hamilton, which initially planned on publishing the book in July 2018 before moving it up to the end of this past May to give it a better market placement. “We did four rounds of edits that way, in two months, which I think almost killed all of us and included lots of very tired last-minute emails,” Shickmanter added.
All three editors saw the book’s potential to be an indie sleeper hit, in part because of the timeliness of its subject. “I’m interested in these kinds of stories anyway,” Thompson said. “But I think we hit a moment when suddenly it felt like everybody was open to hearing stories about female rage and feminism and violence and gender in a way they hadn’t been before.”
Sun de La Cruz agreed, noting that, in general, the Canadian market is “really responsive to dystopian books.” In the U.S., Doubleday will do a first printing of 30,000 copies of the novel.
That said, all three were floored by the Booker nomination, and especially so when the Guardian, which was to announce the list on July 23, accidentally published its article on the longlists a day early before deleting the piece. For Shickmanter and Sun de la Cruz, whose friends alerted them to the leaked news, that meant keeping quiet all day at work while unable to stop thinking about the possibility that a book they acquired so early in their careers might take home one of the world’s biggest literary prizes.
Thompson, too, was caught completely off guard when the book’s publicist told her the news. “I thought I was going to pass out, I was so happy—and also completely surprised,” she said. “And, of course, I called Harriet and Sophie, and they had similar reactions. Sophie was physically screaming. She was at home also, with her boyfriend, and I think he was quite panicked, wondering what was wrong. It was absolutely lovely.”