“I've been orphaned,” I said to myself as I hung up the telephone. I had published one novel, and my editor had called to tell me that he was leaving HarperCollins. An hour later, the phone rang again. It was my agent, Artie Pine. “You're going to get a call from Carolyn Marino. She's a big fan of yours. You're gonna like her.” That fan was my new editor. Over the next 12 years, Carolyn would guide me through 14 novels of suspense. The most recent is Last Call. The title now seems prophetic.

Amid all the big news at HarperCollins this month, something happened on a less public level: the announced retirement of an outstanding editor. Carolyn Marino had served the company brilliantly for 18 years. More importantly—at least from my perspective—she groomed her stable of authors the way editors supposedly don't anymore. Many she discovered as newbies. Others were household names. All are better writers today, thanks to Carolyn.

Carolyn is at least a foot shorter than my first editor at HarperCollins, and probably less than half his weight. She's thoughtful and soft-spoken. Her range of knowledge is astounding. (Can you, in the same breath, debate the legal niceties of bonding out a criminal defendant and then tell me when Prada shoes became generally available in the United States?) Her manners are impeccable. Thank-you notes are always handwritten—never e-mailed—and I've never heard her cuss. If you didn't know her, you might expect her to shush you at the library. You might even think the corporate world would eat her alive.

You'd be dead wrong.

“She's good,” Artie's son Richard had warned me. “And she'll bust your chops.”

She did, of course. Many times. But always politely.

Carolyn loves books. That may seem like an obvious and unnecessary thing to say about an editor. Carolyn's love is pure, however, and never cynical. Everything mattered—because everything could be made better. If it was time to start a new series, we talked about it. If my Russian mobster sounded too American, she'd tell me. If that scene with the python went a little too far, I'd hear about that, too. When Carolyn found a flaw in a manuscript, she truly couldn't wait to see how the author was going to fix it. If she didn't like the fix, we'd fix it again. Her gift was in knowing when it was just right, whether it was the plot, a character, a sentence or a word. Case in point: Intent to Kill. The first draft had my lead character take to the bottle after the tragic death of his wife. I thought I was creating the most engaging flawed protagonist since Paul Newman in The Verdict. “He's passed out drunk with his six-year-old daughter upstairs,” said Carolyn. “I don't like him.” He's now a lovable insomniac in the best father-daughter scenes I've ever written.

Sometimes Carolyn would tell me why a change was needed. Sometimes not. She just knew, even if she couldn't put it into words. That bothered me at first. I was a lawyer before I was a writer. Reasons were important. As a writer, however, you soon learn that only the weak and insecure feel a need to explain every editorial decision in terms of right and wrong or good and bad. The best editors aren't the ones who think their every hunch or impulse can be empirically justified. What you want is an editor who knows your body of work as well as you do, and who knows your audience even better than you do. Someone with the instinct and experience to predict what readers will want to read a year from now, and to recognize a character they'll still love 10 years down the road. A woman with the business sense to understand that even the best-written book doesn't jump off the shelf, and the wisdom to discern the difference between a really good book, and a really good book.

In Carolyn Marino, I knew a great editor. That's all an author needs to know.

Author Information
James Grippando is the author of 14 novels. HarperCollins will publish his next two, Born to Run and Intent to Kill, in 2009.