On editing, editors and the truth in fiction

A lot of writers cast editors as the bad guys, the kill-joys. Clods who stomp all over our brilliant linguistic trills. It’s always perplexed me because, in my writing life, editors are the unsung heroes.

I’ve weathered mismatches, sure, editors who saw themselves as sausage-makers. Who didn’t have the time, or the ear, or the knowledge of a topic that I might have wished. But through thirty years of having my sentences kneaded and tweezed, even when I haven’t initially agreed with an editor’s decision, I’ve always come to understand why it was made.

So now I’m that person, the one who views your words through an outsider’s lens and might suggest shaping them into something new. Because of my own backstory, I consider it a sacred role.

At Clyde Hill, I’m working with writers who are more knowledgeable about their topics than I could ever be. That’s the point – they’re the experts. My job is to help them share their expertise in a compelling way. Our authors are technology innovators and financiers. Scholars and musicians. Sports historians and philanthropists. They represent some of the most incisive, unusual minds at work today. But all the genius in the world won’t matter if no one else can follow along.

Despite the considerable credits and careers of Clyde Hill authors, when working with them I use lessons learned through being edited by the best in the business myself. At a weekly in the Bronx, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorialist Bernard L. Stein taught me the essential importance of the right word. Seven years with The New York Times brought home the power of clarity. At the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, editors allowed me to develop my voice. At the Seattle Times, they prodded all my hypotheses, challenged every assertion.

And from HarperCollins, I learned trust, after the editor who’d bought my memoir insisted that I tear up the opening and start it all over again. I was gut-punched. But she was right. That book is now a finalist for the Washington State Book Award.

Anyone who reads knows that books can change your life. Whether it’s an idea that hits at just the right moment, or merely something in the quality of language, the transfer of consciousness from writer to reader is a kind of alchemy. That’s what I’m chasing every time I sit down with an author. Or, for that matter, whenever I curl up on the couch with a book.

As a reader, I’ve been trying lately to push beyond my standard nonfiction diet. Novelists often say you can tell more truth through fiction, and after a career in journalism – pressed up hard against the limitations of fact – I’m beginning to see why. Here’s an example from my own summer reading that proves the point:

My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent.

This novel will be tough-going for those who use fiction as a pleasant escape from daily life. Because, pleasant it is not. But My Absolute Darling does open a window onto the sort of complex, father-daughter relationship that sometimes explodes into tabloid headlines. It goes a long way toward answering the question – why did she stay? – that nags inside even the most compassionate reader pondering those news stories.

Turtle Alveston is a 14-year-old girl who, while obviously bright, is pretty much a nothing at school. This is because she is being raised in isolation by her charismatic, utterly sadistic father, Martin, who rapes her, beats her and – in his demented way – loves her. He’s a narcissist and survivalist living in the mountains of Northern California, who has molded Turtle into a sharpshooter, confident despite his predations that she will never turn a gun on him.

Feminist essayist Roxane Gay has decried the violence in “Darling” as exploitative and unbelievable, complaining as well about the lack of interiority in Tallent’s teenage heroine. But Turtle’s stunted reactions are true to the emotional disconnect that so often accompanies prolonged abuse. And Martin, while monstrous, is miserably human. A tormented man who once dazzled friends with an intellect now warped, paranoid and diseased. A fascinating, if horrific, character.

The collision between the Alvestons’ private squalor and the lives of their wealthy Mendocino neighbors comes to a head in somewhat overwrought, movie-of-the-week fashion. But “Darling’s” portrait of survival amid that squalor made this novel among the most affecting stories – true or invented – I’ve read in years.

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