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Working with Andrea Martin on her debut book, Lady Parts

frontmatter-01_1If her friend and fellow comedian Steve Martin had his way, Andrea Martin’s debut book would have been called Perky Tits. “In the end,” she writes in the book’s prologue, “my beloved editor nixed the title … he was concerned that people would be offended by the word ‘perky.’”

Jim Gifford, non-fiction editorial director at HarperCollins Canada (and Martin’s “beloved editor”), confirms that Perky Tits was an early placeholder name for the manuscript that became Lady Parts. “But we wanted to make sure we got it into as many hands as possible,” he says. “We weren’t sure what retailer response would be or what readers would think [of the title].”

Released in September, Lady Parts was the first title to come out under Harper Avenue, HarperCollins Canada’s new high-end commercial-lit imprint.

“It’s hard to resist Andrea Martin, especially for Canadians,” says Iris Tupholme, HarperCollins Canada vice-president, publisher, and editor-in-chief, who initiated the imprint. “So many of us are mesmerized by her charm and wit, her vulnerability.”

Although Harper Avenue’s first season also features fiction by the likes of Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven) and U.K. author David Nicolls (Us), the inaugural lineup tilts strongly toward comedy, thanks to Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please, and Caitlin Moran’s debut novel How to Build a Girl. (This fall, HarperCollins Canada is also bringing the laughs with memoirs by Martin’s fellow SCTV colleague and good friend, Martin Short, and former Kids in the Hall member Bruce McCulloch.)

Lady Parts ostensibly sets the tone for Harper Avenue, touching on a range of subjects, from Martin’s years in the smoky SCTV writers’ room to the less amusing realities of aging. Gifford worked closely with the Toronto-based comedian for three years as she submitted stories about annoying airplane travels, snotty hair stylists, and painful gynecological visits. As Martin completed each essay, she would email it to Gifford, anxiously awaiting his editorial approval – and laughs.

“She’s used to having a chorus around her, and that instant reaction,” says Gifford. “Now, she was writing to her computer and dashing it off to me and waiting for my response. I’d provide feedback and tell her how hilarious it was because most often she was sending really funny material.”

There are challenges inherent to every manuscript, but Gifford faced one particularly daunting task in editing a well-known comedic personality: “How do you tell the funniest person you’ve ever met that she’s not funny enough?”

He says this wasn’t exactly the case, but there were times when he asked her to push the material further. “I got lucky in that Andrea has a very natural gift for telling the arc within the arc, so within these essays there’s a beginning, middle, and end,” he says. “It wasn’t so much me saying this isn’t funny, but it might have been me saying the story needs another ending or can you take it in another direction.”

The real challenge, Gifford recalls, was in developing the lineup, particularly because some essays deal with intimate subjects like Martin’s struggles with eating disorders and the deaths of her mother and a childhood friend.

“It was a matter of laying the stories out on a table and seeing how they fit together,” Gifford says. “What was key was developing the pacing. It’s impossible for someone to be on and funny all the time. There are some darker moments – it was a matter of solving where they would be.”

In the end, it was Martin who pushed for Lady Parts’ last round of edits. “I thought it was done,” says Gifford, “but Andrea took it back and rewrote to make it as funny and poignant as possible.