July 31, 2015
Author and editor Caroline Zancan on doing both at the same time
by Josh Cohen
Writing a novel is hard work, especially when it’s your first. It can take years to write and rewrite, workshop and rework, have a crisis of confidence and keep going anyway, before you have a fully formed series of words you can call your book. And then you submit that to publishers, and if you’re lucky, you get to work with an editor, and you revise some more. Meanwhile, that editor is being run ragged by the production process as well, juggling piles of new submissions on top of multiple ongoing projects and the respective deadlines for their multiple moving parts, all of which feel too soon even though he or she was directly involved in setting them.
At the end, there is the book, which makes the grind worth it for all parties involved. Which is good, because on both sides of the relationship, folks are exhausted.
So how did Caroline Zancan manage to become an editor and a debut novelist at the same time?
When Zancan was an editorial assistant at Knopf, she decided that rather than quit to go to grad school, she would pursue an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, a low-residency program in which she participated using every minute of her vacation time. When she finished, she was an associate editor at Henry Holt. Local Girls began as a short story late in her time at Bennington, when she was already at Holt. In the time it took her to expand it into a novel, she was promoted to assistant editor, and by the time Riverhead released Local Girls this spring, she was an editor.
Even as a first-time author, she went into the publishing process with a pretty good idea of what to expect. Now that she’s been through it on both sides, Zancan has a depth of understanding to the writer-editor relationship that few in publishing can match.
I spoke to Zancan about her unique, two-pronged career path, when on earth she had time to write, and what her experience with Local Girls has taught her about the publishing industry and her place in it.
What motivated your decision to pursue your MFA while remaining in publishing?
I did a lot of writing as an undergrad—I was an English major with a creative writing emphasis—but it didn’t seem like a very practical way to make a living after graduation, so I moved to New York without a job or any leads in the hopes of finding a job in book publishing, which seemed like the next best thing. I lucked into an editorial assistant position at Knopf, which felt like the best entry level job in the business, partly because I was working for such amazing, gracious women, and partly because of the books they edited and the authors I got to work with. For a while that was enough—it felt like it scratched that writerly itch. But I think when you have that itch, it always comes back. And after a few years, once I felt really comfortable and settled in at my job, I started writing during my free time again. And once I had a few stories, I took a class in Brooklyn with the Sackett Street Writers program, to see if the deadlines and workshop forum helped, and it proved very productive, so I decided to commit more fully to my writing through an MFA program. It felt counterintuitive to leave New York City and publishing to become a writer, so I went through Bennington’s low residency program, and kept my job.
At what point did you consider yourself a writer in addition to an editor?
You know it’s funny, as I was actually writing Local Girls I didn’t feel like a professional writer, because I had no idea if anyone other than me was going to read it, or what would become of it. I wrote it because I wanted to know where the story was going—it captivated me, and that was enough. When I figured various plot twists out and had little aha moments, it was the best high ever, better than any drug. I had pipe dreams of publication one day, but it’s not like I had an agent or an editor waiting to read it. So it really wasn’t until very recently that I’ve felt like a “real” writer. There were moments after the book had sold to Riverhead when I was revising based on my editor’s notes when I was like “oh, man, I’m getting paid to write right now,” because I had gotten an on-signing advance, and that felt pretty great, but it still felt like a private, solitary act.
What was your process for writing Local Girls alongside your day job?
At first I was writing it as a short story for an MFA deadline, and I had already carved out time for my MFA work. But once it grew and I had the structure down and knew where the story was going, I was kind of never not writing it—it was a tornado. I would write it on the subway on the way to work, and scribble lines or ideas on cocktail napkins in bars, and hop out of bed to write something down when the lights were off. It was all I wanted to be doing and while it was exhausting, it was also energizing in a strange way, and the most active and engaged my brain has ever been, which I was grateful for even at the time.
Did your work as an editor influence your writing voice in general, or that of Local Girls specifically?
I think my day job was formative to writing the book in that the very best training an aspiring writer can have is to read as many great books as possible. The motto of Bennington’s program is “read a hundred books, write one” and I think that’s right. And as an editor your job is to read. I essentially get paid to read and interact with texts, which I feel so lucky and honored to get to do that I still pinch myself sometimes, even though I’ve been doing it for almost ten years now. It also means that I work in an industry that really respects and works in service to the art of storytelling, with people who love to talk about books, and how powerful and important they are. Which makes it easier to write, because that conviction that the written word still really matters is contagious.
What was your experience being on the author’s side of the publishing process?
I was shocked at how vulnerable-making it can be! I had assumed that once you had the legitimacy of a publisher and a book deal it was like “yeah, okay, I’ve arrived” but that really wasn’t the case. The first Amazon reader review I got was a one-star review from a woman who called it “worthless” and that definitely felt as bad as a really nice review in a national publication feels good, which I wasn’t anticipating. As an editor I’ve never taken negative readers’ reviews all that seriously. A lot of great books have taken some Amazon-reader heat—anyone is allowed to leave their two cents. The most rewarding part has been the strangers who have left nice comments either in response to professional reviews that live online or on Goodreads or Amazon. I think anyone who takes up the pursuit of writing does so at least in part because they’ve experienced firsthand how powerfully a book can interact with a life. There are so many books that have moved me or changed me as a person, as corny and over-the-top as that sounds, and I wanted to have that effect on someone else. And while professional reviews are important (and very satisfying when they’re good!) because they help brings readers’ attention to your book, and make them go out and get it, for me it really is all about that moment between a reader and a text.
And how has your authorial experience affected how you approach writers—specifically new ones—as an editor?
Well because of all the stuff I just mentioned above, it’s made me a bit of a mama bear! I fell protective of my writers. I know how scary it can be to share your story with the world, and I want to make it as comfortable and painless as possible. It feels personal to me in a way it maybe didn’t before.
What sort of responses did you get from your colleagues in publishing when you were writing your novel, and when it hit shelves?
I don’t think I told a single soul outside of my husband that I was working on the book until I started looking for an agent, and I didn’t tell my boss at work until the day my agent sent it out to editors. I knew there was a chance no one would buy it, and I didn’t want to have to tell anyone if it didn’tsell if that was the case. I think I didn’t want to let anybody down. But I also knew that if it did sell and my boss read it in Publishers Marketplace without me even mentioning that I was writing a novel it would be super weird! She was incredibly supportive when I told her. A few days later in the process, when I had calls with potential editors who were interested, she told me to take the day off to take the calls from home before I even asked her. In general the kindness and support from my colleagues and work friends has been overwhelming. Again, they’re people who care about books and want to see books thrive out in the world, which is really nice, and reinforces the decision I’ve made to work in this industry.
Do you see yourself now as a writer first or editor first, or are the two on equal footing for you?
I’ve definitely been in writer mode, with the book having just come out—I’ve done a handful of events and interviews and some friends of mine threw a really lovely book party, all of which has made me feel very authorial. But now that the book has been launched out into the world, I’m ready to sit back and let it take whatever course it’s going to, and return to the books I have to edit. And I’m back on the hunt for a really great novel to buy! In general, though, I don’t see either pursuit as mutually exclusive—I like to think I’m in the business of storytelling, of trying to find and tell interesting stories in the most effective and interesting way possible, and that approaching it from both sides at the same times makes me better at both pursuits.
Is writing a novel while working as an editor something you’d like to do again? Is it a lifestyle you’d recommend to someone else?
Absolutely! I’m not working on anything at the moment—I have some ideas that I need to let marinate—but once they’re ready I will definitely pursue them with as much rigor and passion as I can. And my editorial work keeps me interested and engaged in the meantime, and perhaps most importantly, keeps the lights on!
Josh Cohen is a contributing editor for MobyLives.