My advice to writers? Glue yourself to an editor who is also starting out

Maggie McKernan, who has edited all 10 of Michael Collins’s books, starting with The Meat Eaters in 1992, reflects on the relationship

Michael Collins, left, winner of the Kerry Ingredients Book of the Year Award 2000, in conversation with Pulitzer prizewinning author Michael Cunningham and playwright John B Keane in John B’s bar during Listowel Writers Week. Photograph: Frank Miller

Michael Collins, left, winner of the Kerry Ingredients Book of the Year Award 2000, in conversation with Pulitzer prizewinning author Michael Cunningham and playwright John B Keane in John B’s bar during Listowel Writers Week. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

I’m always hearing about the fickleness of publishers. Well, I can only speak for myself, but I don’t think that is down to the infidelity of the editor. I’ve been an editor, then a literary agent, then an editor again, and many of the writers I work with now I have been working with for what seems like centuries. It’s probably more like 20 years.

Another such companion is Michael Collins, the brilliant, mercurial Irish-American talent who flashes out a novel every three or four years, intriguing, annoying and illuminating his readers

In the case of the novelist Ben Okri, I have worked with him consistently since I edited The Famished Road in 1990, and I just signed off on the edit of his new story collection The Magic Lamp to be published this year by Head of Zeus. We are fellow travellers, he and I. Another such companion on the road is Michael Collins, the brilliant, mercurial Irish-American talent who flashes out a novel every three or four years, intriguing, annoying and illuminating his readers on both sides of the Atlantic. I edited his first book of stories, The Meat Eaters, when I worked at Jonathan Cape in 1992. His latest, The Death of All Things Seen, has just been published in paperback, again by Head of Zeus.

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I know many other editor/writer collaborations – if that’s not too big a claim to make forthe process – which have endured, despite the occasional skirmish, the occasional wandering off. It makes sense for a publishing house to hold onto its authors. Each new writer is an investment.

The two factors that make a writer stay with a publishing house are money and the editorial relationship. At its best I would call that relationship a friendship. It can be genuinely heartbreaking for a editor to lose a valued author, painful to leave them when you go to another publishing house, bitter to hear how well, or badly, they are doing without you. But times change, fashions change, publishing houses get eaten up by other publishing houses, editors move, get promoted. Fired. Rehired. It happens. Then the wheel turns and you’re back with your author again, if you are lucky.

Of all the trades that make up the publishing industry, the editor is probably the one who hangs about longest. Why would you ever want to be anything but an editor? What else could you do anyway? The editor is the constant. My advice to writers? It’s like Gertrude Stein’s to Hemingway – stick with your contemporaries. If you are starting out, glue yourself to an editor who is also starting out, they will make their name while they make yours, and vice versa. You can grow together. I’ve been through anguish – so have the writers I’ve worked with. But the world of books is a small one. That wheel turns, and here we are together again. It just feels right.

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