Gabriel Urza's excellent debut novel, All That Followed, is set in a village in Spain's Basque region and centers on the murder of a local politician. Urza (named a Writer to Watch by PW) and his editor at Holt, Sarah Bowlin, talked about the editing process, and bringing this tense page-turner to life.
Sarah Bowlin: I don’t often get to sit down and probe an author on the, no doubt, miserable experience of revising a book with me, so this feels like a rare treat. One more chance for me to torture a writer I’m working with! Kidding. In all honesty, editing your book and working with you, Gabriel, has been nothing but a delight every step of the way. I was immediately transported by All That Followed. I actually read most of it on a plane to Vegas for a bachelorette party (I know) and I couldn’t stop reading… As you know, I lived in Spain for a bit and I spent several days in the Basque Country in college, so although I still have affection for that trip years ago, I didn’t have a truly in-depth understanding of the landscape. Yet I still felt like you put me right there, right in the thick of a small town simmering with secrets and political tension. Throughout the editing process, you were so open to my comments, but given your family’s Basque history, you were the expert.
Gabriel Urza: Well, I definitely didn’t go into our collaboration thinking that I was the expert—to the contrary, I was familiar with many of the authors that you’d worked with, and that I’d greatly admired, and so I knew I was in good hands from the start. Juan Gabriel Vasquez, for example, is an author who writes novels set abroad and often with unorthodox chronology. And after reading other books you’d edited, such as Kim Zupan’s The Ploughmen and Scott Cheshire’s High as the Horses’ Bridles—which are beautiful in such different ways, I felt comfortable letting go of the reins a bit.
And when we first talked on the phone about the book, you didn’t bullshit me about what needed to improve—you had a list of suggestions ready to go. In a way it’s tough to hear this sort of thing, but I also had this great since of relief, that you understood the book in the same way I did.
I also felt that you understood that the project of the book was primarily personal and character-driven (rather than political). It was important to me to keep the book apolitical (as much as possible), and so I was relieved when you didn’t push for more overt Basque politics.
SB: Well, all that makes me blush a bit. Did you get any advice from writer friends about what to expect? How did you feel going into the process?
GU: I was definitely apprehensive—not just about the changes that you might make, but also that I’d be able to make them. I think All That Followed has some of the indicators of a more genre-based, thriller sort of book than what I had in mind: political kidnapping, love affairs, foreign settings. So I was nervous that you’d want to take it more in this direction.
When your edits arrived I was less overwhelmed and more curious. A friend who had gone through the editing process before gave me some good advice: after you get edits, read them once and then just sit on them for a few days. Don’t work on making the changes immediately, and don’t instantly write back to your editor telling them why you disagree with them.
SB: What did you want to get out of the editorial process?
GU: I was primarily hoping to make the manuscript accessible to a wider audience than it was in the early drafts. When you first got it, I think the manuscript was a little inaccessible, a little too disjointed; part of me loved this sense of non-linearness, but I also knew that it’d be a barrier to having people read and enjoy the book.
I remember that, early on, you said, “have you considered putting dates at the beginning of some of the chapters to help establish chronology?” It was such a simple, elegant answer, and it instantly helped clarify the chronology.
SB: What was the most unexpected thing about working with an editor? Did the novel move in a direction that surprised you?
GU: I think I was most surprised that someone could understand the characters—or their potential—as well or better than I did. The character of Joni is a great example. Joni is an American ex-pat who has lived in the Basque Country for fifty years, and a central relationship in the story is his friendship with Mariana, the widow of a murdered Basque politician. When we first started working on the manuscript, I think this story line was a little stale.
I remember that we had a conversation about this, and I think the term “skeevy” came up. As in, I think you said, “have you thought about making Joni a little…skeevier?” And that was one of those moments when I thought, “Of course! He should be skeevier!” It helped out that relationship between Joni and Mariana in a huge way—and by “helped out,” I mean, “created conflict in a way that benefits story,” of course.
SB: Ha! I love it. I remember talking about that and it’s true that Joni needed to be creepier, but yeesh, is “skeevy” even a word? This editor cringes…
GU: So now I get to ask you all the questions I’ve been keeping to myself but wanting to ask over the last 18 months, right? I know that when I was working on early drafts of this book, I was worried that even if I wrote the book I had in mind, it wouldn’t reach a wide audience: it’s set in a little-represented region of the world with some pretty specific politics and culture, and it is a “mystery/thriller” where you find out who the killer is and what happened in the first chapter. Did you similarly worry about reaching a broad audience when the manuscript first came to you?
SB: I think some of my favorite recent books are set in far-flung places, often places I’ve never been—I’m thinking Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I think a great writer who gets ahold of a truly intriguing narrative will be able to captivate an audience because, ultimately, they’re showing us something about a bigger human experience. And the fun part of the job is when writer and editor both have very similar ideas for how a book can be at its best, and then we break down the problems and solutions together.
GU: I had a friend tell me once that he’d turned in an 800-page manuscript to his agent, and that she wrote him back and said, “It’s great, but you need to cut it down to 600 pages.” He worked on it for another exhausting six months, and when he finally turned the revision in, his agent said, “It’s great! Now cut another two hundred pages and we’re good to go.” The idea, of course, was that if you tell someone to cut their book in half they won’t even begin to know how to do it. Do you have a similar approach in editing?
SB: Great question! Revision, as you know, is a process, and you need to get from A to B sometimes before you can get from A to C. Asking a question about a scene that’s not working, often opens up another narrative possibility in another place. You just don’t know until you ask. It’s certainly about keeping the author sane in some way. Revision can be grueling and intense, and of course I want to be sensitive. I know I’m basically saying, “Hey good job, you wrote an awesome book. Now change these thirty things.” I try to adjust the process to what the writer might need. But there’s lots of give and take. Typically, I start out by asking questions. As the rounds move along, I might start to offer more solutions or suggestions than I would up front.
GU: As an editor, you seem to be OK with taking chances—either with subject matter, or with form. This seems, from the outside, like it must be tough for an editor to do. I’m thinking about how you would have described All That Followed, or Helen Phillips’s The Beautiful Bureaucrat (a beautifully unorthodox book), in a way that makes an editorial board say, “Yeah, sure, let’s do it!”
SB: I love “risky” writing and stories that are told in a way that feels different or fractured somehow, the way your book is. I’m really supported in my job but I do have to strategize and play my cards only when I really really really connect to something. I think Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is a good example of how books that are hard to pin down can have a long life with readers. They can get under people’s skin. That’s what I’m hoping for, at least.
One more question for you, Gabe: How does it feel to finally have the book out in the world?
GU: I think I have a mild case of post-partum depression, to be honest. It’s been really exciting, of course—it’s amazing to have people talk about your book, and to get some nice feedback. But it’s also a very vulnerable position. Here’s this thing that you’ve wanted and worked for (and that other people have worked for) over the last five years, and now what?
There was a part of me, I think, that seriously thought that after the publication date on August 4, I would never know sadness or anxiety again, you know? Not a large part, or a rational part, but still a very real part of me thought that.
But most often, it’s amazing just to be able to have this physical object that represents so much work. It’s rare that so much time and effort can be condensed down into an actual, tangible thing, no matter what your occupation, you know? And it’s been great to talk to people about the book as well—I’m pretty private during the writing process, so it’s great to actually be able to talk about the book and get people’s reactions.
What about you, Sarah? How do you feel about the book that’s out in the world now?
SB: I love it, and I am so proud of having had a hand in it. It’s always interesting to watch readers respond to a book, but the best part is the note or phone call I get when an author holds that first copy in their hand—that always makes me excited for all the things to come.