Every writer needs a trusted confidant, a first reader, someone who can look at their work and give valuable advice. When we asked acclaimed novelist and human rights activist Arnold Zable who that person was in his life, he nominated Text’s very own senior editor, Jane Pearson.
There’s no bond quite like that between author and editor. What’s the key to a long and productive working relationship? How are changes made within the manuscript? And how has coronavirus impacted authors and their newly released books? We spoke to Jane and Arnold to find out.
Arnold, what do you value from Jane as your first reader?
Jane has been the first reader and editor of my past four books, including, most recently, The Watermill. I prefer to complete a full draft before I send a manuscript in. After that first reading, we meet and discuss various aspects of the work. In Jane’s first reading of The Watermill, she made great suggestions about the structure of several stories. She also had the inspired idea of challenging me to weave two separate stories into one. It required a lot of work, but it is a far more powerful story now. Jane also has a keen sense of what is absent in a story, what gaps need to be filled. These are all suggestions. It is up to me to decide whether to take them up. There have been times when I’ve doubted the quality of my work, but Jane has always initially expressed what she loves about the manuscript, and then supported it, with a sharp eye, all the way through from that first reading to the finished product.
Jane, when did you first discover Arnold Zable’s writing?
Not long after I started at Text I worked with Arnold on his novel Sea of Many Returns. I’d read and loved Cafe Scheherazade some years before, and never imagined that I’d work with Arnold. Sea of Many Returns is set partly on the island of Ithaca, and Arnold’s deep connection with place comes through in his writing. I remember when I first read the manuscript, I felt I was walking those rocky island paths looking out at the Ionian Sea.
Arnold, which book has been your favourite to work with Jane on so far?
This is difficult to say. The four books we’ve done together have each been a separate journey and I can recall highlights from each. The Sea of Many Returns, as the first, set up the creative dynamic between us, and was my first experience of Jane’s affirmation and her critical advice and suggestions. The most recent book, The Watermill, has a special place because Jane saw the potential immediately. Her belief in it, and support of it, was crucial to producing a book which has received such a positive reception since its publication in March. To sum up what Jane does in general, and particularly in The Watermill – she helps me create the space in which the words, the crafted passages, and the story can all breathe. This space allows the reader to be carried along by the narrative. We come to that point where I can let go, and allow the book out into the world, where it will go on its own unpredictable journey.
Jane, as a senior editor, what do you think is vital for a healthy author/editor relationship?
Taking the time to let ideas form and settle and change. Frankness. Encouragement. Knowing when to push a little and when to step back. There’s a story in Arnold’s collection Violin Lessons that I felt wasn’t working when I first read the manuscript. We talked about it on a number of occasions and Arnold tested a couple of solutions. And then, just when I thought it should probably be dropped, he did something magical, and that story, ‘The Music Box’, remains one of my favourites.
Arnold, how can people provide better support to the writers in their lives?
There is no writer without a readership. It is an intimate relationship. The greatest pleasure for me over the years, since the publication of my first book, Jewels and Ashes in 1991, has been receiving feedback from readers, touching on what resonates with them, and what the story, or specific passages have evoked in them. I have also been lifted by my readers’ appreciation of the crafting. Now, in the strange world of the coronavirus, is a critical time for writers, especially those of us who, like me, have published books at a time when many bookstores are closed, sales have fallen, and live public events, festivals, book tours etc. have been cancelled. I am very moved by readers who have taken the trouble to tell me that they understand this, and have made an extra effort to order The Watermill and books by other authors, and to spread the word among their networks and friends.