Being edited by a poet and other stories by André Alexis
Author Andre Alexis talks about when he learned that "just because a passage is 'well-written' doesn’t mean it belongs."
I’ve been edited—to lesser or greater extents—by Michael Redhill, Ellen Seligman, and Lynn Henry. The three experiences were, as you’d expect from three such different people, entirely distinct. Michael was first. He edited my collection, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa. At the time, Michael was principally a poet. What I remember of our editing sessions—and Michael was attentive and extremely helpful—was a great focus on language. The most significant change I remember is the excising of a page from the story “My Anabasis”. It was a nicely written page, we both agreed. It involved a truck driver and a mouse, I think, and I was attached to it because it was odd. We were both attached to it, but the passage was also too long. It took attention away from the flow of what was already a strange story and, though “well-written”, did not earn its place in the story. A good lesson. Maybe the best, most enduring lesson from any of the editors I’ve worked with: just because a passage is “well-written” doesn’t mean it belongs. (This is a lesson one learns from all one’s editors, but I learned it from Michael first, so I still hear his voice when I think of it. And just what does “well-written” mean, anyway? Different things for the writer and the reader, clearly.)
To this point in my life, the most important editorial relationship I’ve had is with Ellen Seligman. What made working on Childhood such an occasion is that I was working with an editor who had a conception of the book that was very close to my conception. When I got lost in words or sentences, Ellen was there to keep things on the “right” path, meaning the path we had, tacitly, agreed was best for the novel. I knew I could trust her not because of what she suggested cutting but because if what she suggested keeping. In other words, there were times when I would have cut passages that, on reconsideration, were important to the tone and meaning of the work. It isn’t that Ellen wrote anything, it’s that, at times, she understood what I had written as well as I did.
With Lynn Henry, the situation was more fraught. She was, towards the end of the editing, getting set to leave Anansi. So, naturally, she was distracted. However, that distraction didn’t translate as in attention. She genuinely liked the stories that began Beauty and Sadness, but though they were “good stories”, the order I had given them was crushing one of the stories. “Kawabata”—an homage to Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata—was originally the third piece in the collection. But placed between two longer and more vivid pieces, “Kawabata” kind of disappeared. We tried rewrites to make the story more “vivid” but, of course, it was meant to be a subtle piece. In the end, Lynn rearranged the pieces in both halves of the book, effectively creating a place for “Kawabata” as a kind of breath within the collection. I think I’ve been fortunate in all the editors I’ve worked with. This is something I don’t take for granted at all."