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Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize winners and their editors share memories of working together

As the Rogers’ Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize turns 20, former award recipients and their editors share a behind-the-scenes look at their winning collaborations

Emma Donoghue, author, and Iris Tupholme, editor
Room, 2010

Emma Donoghue and Iris Tupholme (photo: Tom Sandler)

Emma Donoghue and Iris Tupholme (photo: Tom Sandler)

ED: Iris has been the best possible person in my career in that she is really committed to the writer, not just the books one by one. Because I’m a bit between countries, I also have a London and a New York editor. I remember giving the third draft of my novel The Sealed Letter to Iris just before I gave birth and thinking, “Great timing, I’m all finished.” And then Iris and one of my other editors got together over oysters and they came up with a whole new way to make the book even better. I was furious and full of hormones in the early days of breastfeeding. But a month or two later when I calmed down and made the changes, I thought, “Oh, this is so much better. How smart of Iris to see this.” She’s had crucial interventions into all my books.

IT: It was a little unusual for there to be three editors working on Room. Each of us sent our notes to Emma directly. She was able to see everyone’s particular ideas, and quite often we weren’t in agreement. Emma told me that if something came up in every editor’s note, then she paid attention to it. But she also pays attention to the one-off or unusual idea or direction. I thought that was an apt description of the editorial process. It’s not necessarily true that she should do what everyone wants or says she should do, but more that she’s looking for the unusual idea that sparks her imagination.

Colin McAdam, author, and Nicole Winstanley, editor
A Beautiful Truth, 2013
CM: Editorially, Nicole swept away some of the book’s bleakness. I originally wanted to call it Black Bugs. I still do. She basically said, “There’s no way I’m going to sell a single fuckin’ copy if it’s called Black Bugs.” So I changed it to A Beautiful Truth.

For Christmas that year she gave me a leather-bound copy of the book. To me it was a way of saying, “It’s the book that matters.” It moved me.

Nicole is strong and unpretentious. She puts all kinds of imagination and energy into this very conservative business of publishing, and she is loved by authors and colleagues. She is a reader, she cares about books, she does her best to make her books known – that’s what makes a good editor. I’m lucky to have her.

NW: Working with Colin on A Beautiful Truth was an education, one that has very much stayed with me. He was clear at the outset that his intention with the novel was to respect what chimps really are rather than satirizing them or layering a human voice onto them, and so the challenge for him was to give voice to creatures who are like us in so many ways, but who don’t actually articulate their own experiences. To say that he accomplished that is a massive understatement. He gave Looee a voice that honoured him and made us recognize ourselves in him, recognize that humans are animals – and that has stayed with me. I see examples of wonderful ape-like behaviour every day now (especially at home with my two boys), and I find it beautiful and reassuring.

Barbara Berson, editor
Three Day Road, 2005
I don’t think anyone in publishing can predict success for a book they champion. That said, while Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road is in some regards classic historical fiction, I knew – we all did – from the moment we heard Niska’s irresistible narrative voice that we were in significantly new terrain. From the timbre of its prose to the ambition of its story, the novel represented a paradigm shift in how we as a nation told and understood our history, and it was written with great skill and intensity and beauty. We knew it was important, and so acquiring it was quite memorable for me.

Clearly it started something like a consciousness raising around First Nations history and rights in Canada, and aside from feeling privileged to have been a part of that, I’m heartened to know that a novel can wield such power.

Miriam Toews, author
All My Puny Sorrows, 2014

Louise Dennys and Miriam Toews with Erik Rutherford (photo: Tom Sandler)

Louise Dennys and Miriam Toews with Erik Rutherford (photo: Tom Sandler)

I loved working with Louise Dennys. She’s an artist of editing, a towering figure in the field. I had this short paragraph in the book that I thought was good; it was about my character Yoli seeing a cat get hit by a car and then watching as the cat dragged its battered, bleeding body to the other side of the street, and then just laid there and died. It’s horrific and it shakes Yoli to the core. Mostly Louise asked me to add things, to generate more backstory for my characters and things like that, but she suggested I get rid of this cat scene. Definitely a good call.

The editorial relationship is so important. The trust thing is huge. You’re laying your life on the line, almost. It’s so embarrassing how intimate the act of writing can be, how much it means to the writer, the words on the page. And it’s so humiliating and mortifying, too, to see your own crappy writing under the microscope, to have to talk about it, and hopefully fix it. A great editor, like Louise, understands that.

Helen Humphreys, author, and Phyllis Bruce, editor
afterimage, 2000
HH: Phyllis’s insights into the text were always terrific and I really welcomed her feedback. Afterimage was a while ago now, and so it’s hard to remember specifics, although I do remember that we struggled with the title, as neither of us could think of what to call the book right up until the last minute.

What makes Phyllis such a good editor is that, rather than telling you what to do, she encourages you to go deeper into what you already have done. So, instead of saying that lines of dialogue or details need to be changed on specific pages, she will say that a relationship isn’t working properly and needs to be looked at again. She always has the long game in mind.

PB: By the time I published afterimage, I had already edited and published Helen’s first two novels, Leaving Earth and The Lost Garden, and so we had a comfortable rhythm established.

Helen and I had a lot of discussions about the structure of the novel. I remember asking her to consider starting the story not at the beginning, but at some dramatic point later on, and she created that wonderful narrative wrap-around, set in italics, of the young boy with angel’s wings drifting to earth. I still get goosebumps when I read those passages.

Annabel Lyon, author, and Anne Collins, editor
The Golden Mean, 2009

Annabel Lyon and Anne Collins (photo: Tom Sandler)

Annabel Lyon and Anne Collins (photo: Tom Sandler)

AL: Anne was a rock. She understood what I was trying to do from the get-go, and didn’t push me in directions I didn’t want to go, even if they were the convention. Most historical novels feature a love story, for instance, but that didn’t interest me. My default position was to try anything she suggested before deciding whether it worked; that’s how much trust I developed in her judgment.

Also, getting to meet [Lt.-Gen.] Roméo Dallaire in her office was an amazing moment. I had worked with the idea of PTSD in an ancient context, and to meet Dallaire, one of my heroes and also one of her authors, was very moving.

AC: We were both so serious and focused about everything at the start: Annabel was new to my list, and we were feeling our way as to how to work with each other, and she was imagining the insides of Aristotle’s head, for heaven’s sake, which is a breathtaking risk to take. It took a while to figure out how witty and deliciously profane Annabel could be.

A contributing factor to our seriousness off the top was how focused we both had to be, because her two children were little and every hour of free time had to be put to very good use. I still marvel at how she pulled it off, though she did say that imagining Aristotle was a like a vacation compared to motherhood.

Lawrence Hill, author, and Iris Tupholme, editor
The Book of Negroes, 2007
LH: We’ve worked together for 20 years now. Iris is not an editor who is interested in getting into the nitty-gritty of line or word edits – she leaves that to other people who she happily hires. Iris likes to work on the general level and structure. Does this story hold together? Do I buy the beginning? Are there too many characters floating around? I love the way she works because she never tells me what to do; she just presents problems, and then talks about them in a way that motivates to go back to the drawing board and fix them. She is fearless. Writers really need an editor who isn’t afraid to mix it up or to challenge a writer to go back over and over. She is relentless. With The Book of Negroes, there were endless rewrites until she was happy and I was exhausted.

I sort of think of her as a sports coach; pushing you to get to a place where you never thought you could go.

IT: We have a process that works well for us in that Larry sends me drafts of the manuscripts as he’s ready to show them, and I come back to him with editorial notes. Then we get together, carve out half a day or a day, whatever it takes, to talk through every part of the novel: every character, every plotline, motivation, setting, theme. And we’ll circle back over ideas and explore them from different angles. It always starts with a written note that we use as a jumping-off point. Quite often those notes are discarded on the spot as we’re talking it through, but we’ll look to see why that idea occurred to me while I was reading. It’s a process that takes as long as it takes.