In our Three Questions for an Editor feature, Julie Grau, Senior Vice President, Publisher, Spiegel & Grau, opens a window into the editorial relationship between her and author Janelle Brown, with a focus on WATCH ME DISAPPEAR. Published July 11, this “spider’s web of a novel” draws readers in from page one. The disappearance of a
beautiful, charismatic mother, Billie, leaves her husband Jonathan and daughter Olive to piece together a maze of secrets and hidden truths. The author’s ability to probe the dynamics of intimate relationships will make you question the stories you tell yourself about the people you love, and, as you read this book, keep you guessing until the very last page. Now on to three questions for Julie and her responses.
What were some of your first impressions when reading the WATCH ME DISAPPEAR manuscript and how its characters, plotting and themes played out on the page?
I knew from her previous novels how smart and skillful Janelle is about sketching characters, particularly teenagers, and how good she is at shading and adding nuance as events unfold. From the start I had a real fondness for Olive, the introverted teenaged girl on the cusp of self-discovery. I didn’t particularly like Billie—she reminded me of someone I used to know—which is to say that she was so convincing, she evoked a visceral response in me. And Jonathan is kind of nebbishy and a mess when the novel opens, but then gathers strength and becomes more compelling. The novel runs on the premise of the unknowability of the people you hold close, which to me is deeply intriguing and propulsive.
[caption id="attachment_7113" align="alignright" width="211"] Janelle Brown[/caption]
How did you first discover Janelle and how has the editor/author process evolved from working on her first book to this new one?
Agent Susan Golomb submitted Janelle’s first novel, ALL WE EVER WANTED WAS EVERYTHING, to me in the early days of the imprint. I remember reading the novel the day it arrived, flat on the floor of my office (my back hurt) and marveling at Janelle’s amazing braided storyline and characters—so impressive for a first-time novelist. I knew she had a long career ahead of her—she was so good and assured. We have now worked together on three novels with two more (hooray!) on the horizon. We speak in a sort of editorial shorthand—Janelle is really great at taking notes and coming back with a second draft that is fresh, inventive, and surprising. By book four we’ll be approaching old married status, which makes me happy.
Who do you see as the primary reader/audience for this novel and what thoughts and discussions it may trigger?
WATCH ME DISAPPEARwas the book club read at the spring Random House Open House event and it provoked lively discussion. It drew comparisons to GONE GIRL and BIG LITTLE LIES. Pretty much everyone loved hating Billie and had no idea how the novel would end until the very last lines of the very last paragraph. The book club participants said they’d recommend it to friends who were parents—the question of whether Billie was a good mother or a horrible mother is ripe for debate.
Moving blow-by-blow from the campaign’s difficult birth through the bewildering terror of election night, Crown’s #1 New York Times bestseller SHATTERED by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes tells an unforgettable story both political and personal, that will change the way readers understand just what happened to America on November 8, 2016.
In our Three Questions for an Editor feature interview, Crown Senior Editor Kevin Doughten offers illuminating insights into the genesis, development and impact of this fascinating book.
When and how was SHATTERED born as a proposal, then a fully-envisioned book?
I had worked with Jon and Amie on their previous book, HRC, a biography of Hillary during her time as Secretary of State. After that book was a bestseller, the authors proposed a book in which they would follow the 2016 campaign. It was early in the campaign cycle at that point, probably late 2014, but given that they had such fantastic access to Hillaryland, we liked that idea immediately. Trump wasn’t even a blip on the horizon yet, but you had the sense from the first book that any campaign Hillary was involved in was likely to come with some drama. In the beginning we had a loose schedule of when the authors would deliver various chapters, but during the campaign I wanted to make sure they had room to report. Obviously the book wasn’t finished until after the election, and of course the result led to some re-envisioning, but since so much of the material had been reported and shaped as it was actually happening the real challenge in the end was finding the framework that made sense of it all. The election result actually helped with that since so much of what the authors were hearing from inside the campaign, even early on, suggested disarray.
The inside-the-campaign reporting by the authors is so detailed and incisive, they must have had mountains of material to work with. As their editor, how did you go about helping them make content decisions and shape the narrative?
It was important that the book not only document what happened during the campaign but also tell a fantastic story. Often we were evaluating whether a particular incident felt important enough to include—whether it was actually a strong building block in the story or just repetitive of a point that had already been made. Since I’d worked with the authors before, we already shared a mantra—get us in the room. Readers needed to see the campaign through the eyes of the people who lived it, in all its detail, and that meant working with sources to get the clearest understanding of what they heard, saw, and thought at the time. The goal was to create a book that said something important about why the election turned out as it did and also took the reader along for an exciting, thrilling, depressing/exhilarating ride.
Who do you see as the primary audience for SHATTERED and what do you feel are the most important takeaways for readers of the book?
I don’t know that the book has a primary audience, but rather a few. I think there were a lot of people who voted for Hillary who felt in the wake of the election that they still didn’t have a firm grasp on what happened, why she didn’t win. For those people I think the book offers an alternative narrative, or at least a complementary one, to the story that it was all James Comey, or all Russia. For Bernie fans, there’s justification here that their man had a better grasp of the electorate and ultimately didn’t quite get a fair shake from the party. And of course there are a lot of readers who just plain don’t like Hillary and will find validation here that she herself was a major contributor to her own loss. Beyond that, I think the most important takeaways are probably for the Democratic party. The authors contend that this was a winnable election, and without taking real stock of the unforced errors up and down the process it will be hard for Democrats to avoid déjà vu in 2018 and beyond.
This Three Question for an Editor series interview features Cindy Hwang, Vice President, Editorial Director, Berkley, who takes us inside her work with New York Times bestselling author Karen White, with a focus on Karen’s latest novel, THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT, which Berkley is publishing on Tuesday, April 11. Cindy began
her career as the assistant to Berkley’s Editor-in-Chief in 1994 and has been fortunate to work with some outstanding authors through the years, including Christine Feehan, Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick, Sylvia Day, Maya Banks, Nalini Singh and Karen White – who offers her personal comments about working with Cindy at the conclusion of this article.
As the editor of bestselling books by many authors, what do you find are characteristics that Karen White brings to the page that distinguishes her in the marketplace?
Karen has a very distinctive voice, and it’s a voice that stays with readers. I didn’t buy Karen’s debut novel when it was first submitted to me, but I certainly remembered it and her voice. And when years later I was sent Karen’s new novel by her agent for consideration, I immediately recognized Karen’s writing and remembered that first novel. I believe many readers have become loyal readers of Karen because of her voice. If I were blindfolded and only able to listen to my authors’ writings, I think I would have the easiest time identifying Karen’s by her words. There’s a certain lilt and flow to her sentences which really suit the southern setting of her novels.
How does Karen’s newest book, THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT, fit into the evolution of her writing career and what was your primary role throughout the editorial process?
I remember the first time Karen pitched me her idea for THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT, and I was excited because Karen wanted to set it close to her actual home in the Atlanta suburbs. But it was still very early in the process, and sometimes ideas don’t pan out. At that early stage, I always keep an open mind so Karen can use me as a sounding board to help develop her ideas. What we’ve discovered from working together is that Karen needs to let an idea percolate for a long time—and that she often struggles with writing synopses during the proposal stage. So now, when she’s ready to show me her idea when it’s developed enough, we skip the synopsis and go straight to the opening chapters. And this is what we did for THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT.
I knew from those first chapters that Karen had written something very special and already created some fabulous characters, so I was confident that Karen was on the right track. THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT has some of the key features that Karen likes to include in all her novels, mainly an exploration of women’s relationships, both familial and not, but the very contemporary setting and characters definitely marked a change from some of Karen’s previous novels which always had a strong historical element to the plots. There’s also one in THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT as well but it’s clearly the contemporary story that is the focus, not the historical one.
Who do you see as Karen’s most loyal readers and what about her books keeps them coming back for more stories, year after year?
[caption id="attachment_5774" align="alignright" width="200"] Karen White, photo by Claudio Marinesco[/caption]
We recently had an event in Charleston that brought readers around the country together to celebrate the publication of Karen’s latest novel, THE GUESTS ON SOUTH BATTERY, and what we discovered was that Karen’s readers are generational. There were so many mothers & daughters who came together to meet Karen as well as groups of friends and just plain families. And many traveled across the country for this event. Many of them had read Karen for years and loved not only the southern setting of her novels but her focus on women and their relationships, as well as the carefully crafted mysteries that often provide the framework within which she can explore those relationships.
Karen White on Cindy Hwang and Berkley:How would you describe your author/editor working relationship with Cindy and what have been the most important aspects of having Berkley as your book publishing home?
The one word that defines my working relationship with Cindy is trust. She trusts my instincts when choosing elements of my books (characters, setting, POV), and I trust her to give an honest evaluation on a finished manuscript. It’s the perfect author/editor relationship: Cindy never intrudes on the creative process, but is terrific at brainstorming ideas and has the brilliant ability to pinpoint what’s not working even when I can’t–and she’s always right!
I’ve been working with Cindy and Berkley for 23 books in 11 years. Every book I’ve ever written is now in print under the same logo. I love the continuity of having my backlist with the same publisher as my current titles, and the longevity means that my entire Berkley team (editorial, marketing, sales, art and publicity) all recognize what a “Karen White” book is even before my latest manuscript lands on Cindy’s desk. This understanding has meant a concentrated effort to brand me and my books so that the rest of the world knows, too.
In this “Three Questions for an Editor” Igloo feature, Amanda Cook, Vice President, Executive Editor, Crown, offers personal insights into her work with author Cathy O’Neil on her newly published book, WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION, subtitled “How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.”
Ms. O’Neil examines how some of the decisions that affect our lives—where we go to school, whether or not we get a car loan, how much we pay for health insurance—are being made not by humans, but by mathematical models. In theory, this should lead to greater fairness: Everyone is judged according to the same rules, and bias is eliminated. But as Ms. O’Neil reveals in this urgent and timely book, the opposite is true.
Before we present Ms. Cook’s “Three Questions” responses, here is a brief look at her background: She began her publishing career at Addison-Wesley in 1996, and went on to work at Basic Books and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt before joining Penguin Random House. Amanda specializes in idea-driven and narrative nonfiction and has worked with a wide range of journalists and scholars, including Erik Larson, Matthew Desmond, Natalie Angier, Deborah Blum, Steven Strogatz, Roland Fryer, Jo Marchant, and Michael Specter.
How did Cathy O’Neil first come to your attention and what were your first impressions of the WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION proposal?
I first heard about Cathy from her agent, Jay Mandel, a few months before the proposal was ready. I started reading her blog and immediately fell in love with her fearless voice and her mission: to expose the secret and disastrously unfair mathematical models that increasingly control our lives. I also learned her great backstory. After receiving a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, Cathy taught at Barnard, then went to Wall Street, eager to put her math skills to use predicting movements in the market. I think she was the only female quant at D.E. Shaw. But when she realized her hedge fund was betting against people’s retirement funds, she became deeply disillusioned. Math—her first love—was being used in a way she felt was immoral. Cathy left Wall Street and became a financial advisor to the Occupy Movement, leading their Alternative Banking Group, and then took a job as a data scientist for a New York start-up.
When the proposal arrived, I was even more intrigued. As a culture, we’d already started talking about inequality, but no one was looking at Big Data as a cause. I think we all tend to see math as objective, pure. Cathy certainly did. But as she learned first-hand, algorithms that score teachers, sort resumes, grant (or deny) loans, evaluate workers, and set parole are not static descriptions of reality. They change reality, by expanding or limiting the opportunities people have. And these models are opaque, unregulated, and unaccountable. As a mathematician deeply concerned with social justice, Cathy was the perfect person to put all the pieces together.
That “Big Data” and “mathematical models” shape so many important life decisions may be alarming to many. As her editor, in what ways did you work with Cathy to develop and present the most essential elements of the book?
Working with mathematicians is always fun—they’re comfortable with abstraction, so they tend to be good structural thinkers (though this is the first time I ever received an initial outline in the form of a spreadsheet!). Mostly what I helped Cathy do was widen the range of examples in the book. These “weapons of math destruction” are everywhere—in schools, in police departments, in hospitals, in workplaces—and we wanted readers to have a sense of that. Unfortunately, there has been very little reporting on this topic, precisely because the models are hidden, so finding stories of real people damaged by algorithms was a challenge.
Cathy tells the story of one excellent teacher who was fired after receiving a bad score on something called the Value-Added Model, which Cathy shows is no better at evaluating teachers than rolling a pair of dice. There’s another story about a college kid who went to Vanderbilt, and had almost perfect SAT scores. He had bipolar disorder but was managing it well, yet he kept getting turned down for minimum-wage jobs. Through a friend, he discovered he was being screened out by a computerized personality test, one that is now being used in 60-70% of workplaces around the country. The stories are out there and we’re going to be hearing more of them.
Who do you see as the primary audience for WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION and what are some of the key takeaways that may have the most significant impact on readers?
I think that people who read Paul Krugman, watch Rachel Maddow, and support Elizabeth Warren will love this book. But what Cathy writes about affects us all. E-scores are a great example. These are like credit scores, but they determine your creditworthiness using alternative data—things like your shopping habits, your age, your gender, your social networks, your zip code. Computers can churn through this data so quickly that some call centers even use e-scores to decide how long to make you wait for a customer service representative. If you live in a certain part of the city, or the algorithm doesn’t like who your friends are, you could be on hold for much longer.
In the case of e-scores, it means that a person with a bad score (because they live in a poor neighborhood, say) is less likely to get a loan, less likely to get a job when their score is used for hiring, which keeps them in the poor neighborhood, which in turn worsens their score. Cathy calls this a “death spiral.” It’s basically a new, digital form of redlining. We all need to be aware of it so that we can protect ourselves and advocate for change.
Meg Leder, Executive Editor, Penguin Books, takes us inside the world of adult coloring books, one of the hottest segments in publishing. She edits “The Queen of Coloring,”Johanna Basford, whose newest title, MAGICAL JUNGLE, is published by Penguin Books on August 9. Meg has brought her unique editorial skills to a diverse range of titles at Penguin since 2004. While at Perigee Books, she acquired such titles as Keri
Smith’s WRECK THIS JOURNAL,Tyler Knott Gregson’s CHASERS OF THE LIGHT: Poems From the Typewriter Series, and Lisa Currie’s ME, YOU, US.Now at Penguin Books, she continues to work with Keri Smith, as well as publishing Johanna Basford’s coloring books, among other titles. Meg’s editorial enthusiasm rings true in our Igloo interview with her.
In your view, what accounts for the adult coloring book craze and what separates Johanna Basford from the adult coloring book artist pack?
I think the adult coloring book crazy has taken hold for several reasons: (1) It’s a welcome respite from the world of computer screens. Coloring is a distinctly physical activity, and there’s something imminently relaxing about putting marker or colored pencil to paper, instead of spending time with screens. (2) It’s an inherently democratic hobby. All you need is a book and a coloring tool—you don’t need to spend a lot of money on supplies or time learning skills. (3) And I think it speaks to something a lot of us did when we were kids—weloved it then, so it makes sense we’d love it now, especially with the more intricate designs!
I think New York Magazine dubbed Johanna the “Queen of Coloring” for a number of reasons. She was one of the first people out there to invite adults into the coloring book realm. She’s got a marvelous artistic vision—she’s so exceptionally talented at creating intricate work that inspires colorists. And she’s also extremely generous, both as a person and as a creator. She’s said a number of times that she just starts the masterpieces, and her fans finish them. I think that generosity shows in her art and resonates with all her fans.
Watch Joanna Basford’s “Magical Jungle – An Inky Expedition & Coloring Book” video:How did you come to acquire and edit your first adult coloring book and how did the process compare with how you work with Johanna on her books?
When I was at Perigee, I acquired my first two coloring books at roughly the same time: OUTSIDE THE LINES by Souris Hong, and COLOR ME GIRL CRUSH by Mel Elliott. Rather than the fact that they were coloring books, what drew me to both of these was the subject matter (street art and Ryan Gosling, respectively!) and the fact that they expanded notions of creativity. And then, luckily, they both really benefitted from the adult coloring book craze timing-wise.
In the years since, the coloring book audience has become a lot more opinionated and sophisticated about what they want in a coloring book, so with Johanna’s titles, we’ve spent a lot of time with our amazing production team looking at paper weight, opacity, etc. When I worked on those first two books, I never imagined that several years down the line, I’d be spending as much time talking about the merits of white vs ivory paper as I do now. But we want to keep those colorists happy!
In addition to adult coloring books, what are a couple of the upcoming titles you are editing that are of most interest and what do you hope will distinguish them in the consumer marketplace?
I’m publishing a book called CARRY THIS BOOK from Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson this fall. It’s a marvelous illustrated book detailing the contents of real people’s and fictional characters’ bags. It’s one of the most wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful projects I’ve worked on since I started publishing, and I think readers will be really intrigued by this glimpse into the way Abbi’s mind and creative process work. Abbi’s a spectacularly creative and cool person, and it shows on the page.
I’m also really excited about two other books I have coming out this fall: TREE OF TREASURES: A Life in Ornaments and THE WASP THAT BRAINWASHED THE CATERPILLAR. The former is a gift book that explores the way ornaments tell the stories of our lives, and the latter looks at all the strange animals that evolution has created, including the antechinus, whose males have so much sex during their three-week mating session that runaway testosterone levels make them bleed internally, go blind, and drop dead! I love that my list at Penguin has room for such a wide spectrum of books, and my hope is that readers will enjoy reading them as much as I loved editing them.
In this book, Ms. Klebold chronicles for the first time her journey as a mother over the past sixteen years, trying to come to terms with the incomprehensible following the tragic events of April 20, 1999, when her son Dylan and his friend Eric Harris walked into Columbine High School in Colorado, killed twelve students and a teacher, and wounded twenty-four others before taking their own lives. In coming forward after so many years of silence, Ms. Klebold writes with unflinching honesty, telling her story as faithfully as possible in order to share the insights and understanding she has gained in the terrible crucible of Columbine to help other families recognize signs that a child may need help.
In this Three Questions for an Editor feature, Mr. Scholl opens a very personal window into the road to the publication of A MOTHER’S RECKONING.
What was involved in the acquisition of this book and key decisions about how to tell and structure this heart-breaking, tragic story?
I first heard of the book as the result of a lunch date with the agent, Laurie Bernstein, two years before the actual submission. Sue Klebold’s story, and message, sounded so unique, and so important, that I followed up periodically to express continued interest. Laurie gave me a heads up a week before she sent it out, and I alerted our publisher and the rest of our team that it was coming in, so that we would read and act quickly. The proposal came in the Thursday evening of BEA; I was expected at a reunion party, but I never made it – I was glued to my desk and my computer. The proposal, over 100 pages in length, was stunning — and pitch perfect in conveying Sue and her family’s experiences, and her ultimate message. And we made a pre-emptive bid for the book by noon the next day.
How would you describe the editor/author editorial process and what were some of the most challenging and rewarding points during the creation of A MOTHER’S RECKONING?
Sue had been teamed with a wonderful writer for the book, Laura Tucker. The proposal was so taut, so nuanced, and so well constructed that my real task as an editor with the manuscript was to ensure that we maintained the same high level of narrative pacing, detail, insight and candor that Sue and Laurie had originally achieved with the proposal. We did a good deal of back and forth to tighten the narrative, and made a few key decisions about structure and order, as well as about the level of detail Sue included in the book about the events at Columbine High School that morning, so that readers unfamiliar with the details of the tragedy would have a clearer picture of exactly what took place – and what Dylan, Sue’s son, and Eric Harris, did.
What do you and Ms. Klebold hope readers will derive most from reading and discussing this book?
I think that for Sue, this book has been a mission. She has spent every day of her life since the shootings trying to understand how the sweet young boy that she knew Dylan to be could have done what he did; why she was unable to see the signs beforehand; what she might have done differently to prevent the tragedy. The media wanted to paint Dylan as a monster. But the truth, she knew, was in some ways even more disturbing. He grew up in a loving, engaged home, had many friends, and although he was shy and perhaps spent too much time on his computer, he came across as a normal teenager, a boy who had just gone to senior prom and had been accepted to his first choice college. Her husband, Tom – they are now divorced – and her surviving son Bryon, were deeply opposed to her writing the book; it was just too painful a memory, and one I think they did not want to live through again. But Sue persevered because she felt that by telling her story, and the story of Dylan, she could reach out to parents and kids who were suffering emotionally or psychologically, and at risk, and in doing so potentially prevent a future Columbine from taking place, or prevent a child from hurting himself or herself, or someone else. Sue is donating the money she has received to charitable organizations, particularly those focused on mental health issues.