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Rebecca Saletan: Magic and Mechanics

The editorial director of Riverhead Books talks with Rachel Riederer about the intimacy of editing, hunkering down in the White House, and why book publishers remain essential in the digital age.

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Rebecca Saletan tells a story of attending a party in the Hamptons: when Peter Matthiessen enthused about an upcoming trip to study cranes and the book he planned to write about them, a “shall go nameless” agent responded “Cranes?! Who wants to write about cranes?” Matthiessen did, and the result was The Birds of Heaven, which Saletan published when she was editor in chief of North Point Press. The point of the anecdote isn’t that great birds make for great literature, but that passion does. Cranes aren’t teen vampires; they were never going to be the next big thing. But there’s no point trying to calculate what the next hot trend in publishing will be, Saletan says, instead you have to trust your instincts and go with what genuinely interests and excites you.

Eschewing trendiness doesn’t mean working in obscurity. Before joining Riverhead as Editorial Director, Saletan worked at Random House, Simon & Schuster, FSG, and Harcourt; she has acquired, edited, and championed fiction and nonfiction writers who have won or been finalists for Man Booker Prizes, Media for Liberty Awards, and National Book Awards. Saletan describes an editorial process that relies on establishing trust with an author, and on tinkering with prose the way a mechanic works on an engine: thinking about how each element makes the whole thing run. The process requires the same kind of work, she says, whether that writer is Claire Vaye Watkins or Hillary Clinton. Over a glass of wine near the Riverhead office in Manhattan, Saletan told me about working with these writers and others, and about the lessons she’s learned during her years in publishing.

— Rachel Riederer for Guernica

Guernica: How did you get started in publishing?

Rebecca Saletan: I’ve been in publishing for more than thirty years, shocking as that is. My first job was straight out of college, at Yale University Press, I was in school there. I think in college I discovered I really liked working on other people’s prose more than my own, and that I had some knack for seeing what a piece of writing needed.

Guernica: So you’ve been in publishing for thirty years—there’s all this anxiety now about the future of publishing. When you started out, did things feel different?

Rebecca Saletan: I started in the early ’80s, and people then were saying that publishing was going to hell, and I should’ve been there earlier when it was fun and thriving. That perspective has been kind of good; it gave me a grain-of-salt attitude. That said, I’d say that the past half-dozen years have been a more radical change. Even that, though, is hard to say, because I’m also reaching a stage in my own life where the new things seem more shocking and I’m more set in my ways. But I would say that publishing has changed more dramatically in the past few years than it had in a good block of time before that.

Guernica: I read something this week, an article saying that in the digital age publishers don’t need to exist because all they do is print and bind books.

Rebecca Saletan: I read that same thing. It was really obnoxious I thought.

Guernica: It reminded me of something I’d read of yours, where you talked about establishing really long-term relationships with writers, and I wonder if you could talk about what goes on inside of those relationships, the things that book publishers do that are not just printing and binding the books.

You get a feel for how the writer’s brain works, they get a feel for you: it’s like a marriage in some ways.

Rebecca Saletan: Even if you only end up publishing one book—and Riverhead’s style is much more to establish a relationship that’s going to go on for a long time—the experience still includes all these elements: thinking about structure, working on the prose, thinking about how to frame it so that it has a change of getting out there, getting bought, getting reviewed, getting paid attention to. I think about how hard we work, and we’re not even the production people. So that’s just for one book.

But with an ongoing relationship, the great thing is that once you’ve been down the process once with a writer, you know how they work. You get a feel for how their brain works, they get a feel for you: it’s like a marriage in some ways. And you’re thinking of ideas for them, you’re trying out ideas. It’s a much more fluid relationship, you’re maybe introducing them to people who can publish their short pieces. I’m lucky enough to work with a group of people who all work this way. So an author of mine might be totally in between books, not even knowing what the next book is going to be, and meanwhile my publicity people are helping them get in touch with magazines for the things they’re working on. It’s so overlapping and multifaceted.

Guernica: It’s great that you can advocate for your writers like that.

Rebecca Saletan: It is, but it’s not just philanthropy, it’s good for us too—we’re helping build an audience for the next project and the next.

Guernica: One of your authors is Masha Gessen, right? How did you get started working with her?

Rebecca Saletan: The first book she ended up selling to a major press was a book that Dial ended up getting, a book called Ester and Ruzya, a book about her two grandmothers who were on opposite sides politically, one was a censor for the state and one was a complete activist and dissident. I loved the proposal, and I think I bid on it but was outbid by Susan Kamil, so I didn’t get to publish that one. Then her next book was about genetics, it’s called Blood Matters, and as with all of Masha’s books it had an autobiographical thread but it was also about something bigger. She had discovered that she had one of the BRCA genetic defects that strongly predisposes Ashkenazi women to breast and ovarian cancer. And her mother had died of breast cancer, so it was a real issue, this unwelcome knowledge. What I loved about it was that she using memoir not to focus on herself, but as a way to bring a reader into this broader subject. I remember getting the manuscript, and I loved it. She knew how to zoom the lens out and zoom the lens back in; she knew how to keep you in suspense; she knew how to do characters, how to be in the sotoy without dominating the story, so many things. And we went from there.

It was with the Putin book that I felt like our own relationship really hit its groove. She’s fantastically talented and really fun to edit because she’s such a stylist, and she’s so interested in the world and has so many ideas. And we work really well together.

Guernica: You edit both fiction and nonfiction. Do those processes feel different to you?

Rebecca Saletan: Like most people, I read much more fiction than nonfiction, at least until I got out of college. Until then I had read nonfiction for classes, but I wouldn’t read it voluntarily I wasn’t very aware of it. And I think in college I read Orwell’s essays for the first time and went “Oh my God.” I mean not just narrative, but the combination of narrative and theme—I was blown away. That was kind of an awakening for me, about the glories of nonfiction and how creative and beautiful it could be, as well as important.

I started in nonfiction—but I still read fiction I still loved fiction—so when I did start doing fiction I brought the habits of a nonfiction editor.

And I think this is true for a lot of people who come up doing fiction and can’t quite see how to get started in nonfiction. For me, it was so much easier to get my a toehold in nonfiction, because I’d read an article and say, “I love that voice, what else might she do?” and I could write the fan letter and take it from there. So because I cut my teeth on nonfiction, either coming up with ideas or going after journalists, it just felt like it was easier to get in the mix, when an agent of good literary fiction might not have given me the time of day.

So I started in nonfiction—I but I still read fiction I still loved fiction—so when I did start doing fiction I brought the habits of a nonfiction editor. Since I mostly buy nonfiction on the basis of a proposal and not a full manuscript, I see it evolve. And because we don’t tend to regard nonfiction as sacred in the same way that we do fiction—though I actually do think it is sacred—it’s easier to be fearless. Journalists are used to having their prose pushed around, they don’t freak out about a structural change or a change in the words or whatever. So I developed the habit of being very roll-up-your-shirtsleeves as an editor. I just didn’t ever have this feeling that you couldn’t touch things. And it was fun, like instead of talking about the shape of an argument you could talk about the shape of a plot, and the arc of it and who was sympathetic and who wasn’t. It all still felt to me like things you can actually touch, you can really muck around in fiction.

Guernica: That’s so interesting. The conversation I often hear is the inverse of that: people talking about using fictional techniques and bringing them into nonfiction. But I love thinking of it this way, that yes, nonfiction has its own way of being and being worked with, and it can transfer also.

Rebecca Saletan: Mohsin Hamid, a fiction writer I’ve worked with a lot—I’m doing his first collection of nonfiction this winter, essays, really well crafted—when he writes fiction, he is always questioning the form. I love that about him. He doesn’t think that dialogue is everything or that you can’t summarize. All the givens are not necessarily given for him, and I love it that he breaks so many of the rules.

Guernica: That’s very cool, and I would imagine maybe sometimes a little nervous-making.

Rebecca Saletan: I mean he wrote his last novel in the form of a business self-help book, and there’s probably no one else I would have trusted to do that, but honestly when I read that I thought “Oh my God, he’s done it.” I don’t know why, but it doesn’t make me nervous. I remember talking once with a fiction editor who was working for the first time in nonfiction and she said it was really making her nervous, waiting for the book to come in chapter by chapter, she said “I don’t know how you guys do this.” But I like working on a book when it’s not all done yet and I get to see it evolve and I get to chime in while it’s in progress.

Guernica: You’ve also worked with Peter Matthiessen.

Rebecca Saletan: Well getting to publish Peter on this final novel was one of the very special things of my career, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. When I first came to New York I worked for Jason Epstein at Random House, and Jason was publishing Mailer and Doctorow and Vidal—it was a pretty star-studded list. And Matthiessen was the first of his name writers who I got to dive into. It was fabulous. One of the great things about Peter was that he didn’t treat me like I was some pipsqueak. He would take feedback; if he thought you were smart and had something to say he would listen to you.

He was working on a short story collection, and he sent me a story of his and said “I’ve been working on this story off and on for a couple of decades and it’s not working and do you want to look at it for me?” And I had one of those moments you sometimes have as an editor were you just have x-ray vision and I thought, “I know why this isn’t working, it’s a structural problem,” and I described it to him and he completely agreed. And that was the beginning. And I thought through the first half of what would eventually become Shadow Country, before I left Simon and Schuster, and then when I was at FSG he did a couple of one-off books for me, one on the Siberian tiger, and we continued to stay in touch.

So I knew about the Auschwitz book; it was something he had talked about off and on for a long time, first as nonfiction. And I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen next. Then his agent came to me. And working on it was just an incredibly sweet process. There was no mystery about what was happening, he was dying and he knew he was dying. And first of all, he was a famously indefatigable rewriter, and I thought maybe the illness would have taken some of that from him but no, he rewrote all the way through. It was a very rich experience.

Guernica: What an amazing person to get to work with early in your career.

Rebecca Saletan: It was, and the honor of not being condescended to and being taken seriously.

I can still get excited about a coming-of-age story set in New York if it’s the right one, if it’s well told, but its more likely that I’m going to get jazzed about being immersed in something that’s very different from what I know, but that nonetheless resonates.

Guernica: You also edited Hillary Clinton. How is it different to edit a political figure instead of a professional writer, someone who has this whole other public life?

Rebecca Saletan: I can’t say it wasn’t different, it was really different. First of all, Hillary really wrote that book. She had the legal pads to prove it. And like any author, she needed feedback, but with her there was more of a cast of thousands being involved in the process. So that was a little different, but you have to establish trust in the same way. I was lucky that I had previously worked with Bill Clinton’s mother, I had worked along with Alice Mayhew, the Editor in Chief of Simon & Schuster, we had worked together on his mother’s book, so I was a little bit known to the Clintons. I think the hardest thing is that for a public figure, especially for a political public figure, is that there are a lot of people advising about what can and can’t be said, and people wanting to get their own policy points included.

I really liked working with Hillary, she was incredibly hardworking, as reported; she wanted feedback, she wanted to get it right. I spent three-and-a-half weeks at the White House working intensely with her and her crew. And at the end of the day, its like that old saying, everyone has to put their pants on one leg at a time, and we had to do that work to get the book done. There was a lot of time pressure, and I made some lifelong friends in the process.

One of the things I really like about editing is that there’s a real intimacy when you’re working with a writer, and they can be a big deal or not. With editing we have this thing between us, that thing is the work itself, and you can both focus your attention on that thing.

My favorite compliment I ever got from a writer, from a longtime friend of mine who’s actually kind of prickly, he once said to me, “there’s this weird things you do, it’s like a mechanic, you’re the one who can say why its knocking under the hood.” And that is kind of how I see myself, as a technician in a way. Everything sort of needs that.

You want the feeling of magic at the end. But how do you achieve that?

Guernica: People often talk about writing as a mystical, magical thing, but there is this other way that is also very important and real but people don’t talk about as much—that many elements are very technical and concrete.

Rebecca Saletan: Right, you want the feeling of magic at the end. But how do you achieve that? There’s this kind of work behind those pyrotechnics.

Guernica: It sounds like you have edited a lot of science and nature books.

Rebecca Saletan: I have over time. I love the outdoors, and in a broader way, I’m interested in the fate of the planet, I mean who isn’t! I love books that take me places I’ve never been. I’m not the world’s most adventurous traveler—I keep thinking I’ll travel more than I do, maybe I still will—so I like books that will take me there, to other cultures, other places.

Guernica: Right, Riverhead has this very global vibe, is that what draws you to those books, the feeling of learning about a new place?

Rebecca Saletan: Yes, I mean, we always get great VIDA rankings, we’re always ranked as a very feminist publisher, and we have this real multi-culti list. The thing that I love about it is that it’s not by design. I’m not thinking about that so much—you guys at Guernica are like this too—I just get jazzed when I read something that’s not like what I’m used to. I mean, I can still get excited about a coming-of-age story set in New York if it’s the right one, if it’s well told, but its more likely that I’m going to get jazzed about being immersed in something that’s very different from what I know, but that nonetheless resonates.

Mohsin has this great thing that he says, about the intimacy of reading: that the writer is kind of in you when you’re reading, so its this incredibly intimate experience, and when that intimate invader is not just like you, it’s really exciting.

Guernica: Are you able to read books just for pleasure, to read books without thinking about them as an editor?

Rebecca Saletan: It’s an interesting question—when I have the time, when I make the time, I can absolutely do that. I love that experience, that freeing experience of just reading. And of course when I’m reading for work, at its very best its like that, and I have that feeling of reading without the brakes on. But I try—one of the reasons I belong to a book group is to make sure that I’m always reading something for pleasure—because it can be really hard to make time for it. I’ll think, “If I’m going to read I should just read all these submissions I haven’t read, I should work on something I’m behind on”—but that it isn’t the same.

Guernica: I read something you said in another interview about the role of narrative in nonfiction, and you said something I’ve never thought about: that we sometimes overvalue narrative in nonfiction. Can you talk about the other things you want to see in nonfiction, besides story?

Rebecca Saletan: I think about this a lot, it’s a bit of a hobbyhorse for me. We can get so carried away with the idea that story is everything that we can forget that people actually want ideas too. They may not want to be clobbered over the head with them, but I have a pretty deeply held belief (I mean there are exceptions, someone could have an amazing life, and write an amazing memoir, and then it’s a great story and that’s all that’s going on) but most of the time people read because they want to think about something more deeply and understand it in a new way. So I kind of like to have my cake and eat it too. Underneath a great story, there’s often something else—and I work with writers a lot to develop these kinds of structures—even when a book appears to be moving, chronologically, let’s say, on another level what’s happening is the deepening and thickening of an idea. And maybe that’s back to Orwell, because Orwell did both. It wasn’t just story, the idea piece of it is also so gorgeous, and that’s what gives it staying power. It’s fun to develop that and help writers think that through.

And it might be totally hidden, as a reader you might never be aware of that.

In 2012, we published this book by a doctor named Victoria Sweet called God’s Hotel about her time at San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, the last almshouse in the country, and the “attentive medicine” she practiced with her patients—the idea that the body should be seen as a garden to be tended, rather than a machine to be fixed. I’m working with her now on her next book, which is about “slow medicine.” On the surface, it’s following her journey through medicine, but on another level it’s developing these ideas about what medicine is. There’s this model that dates from the Middle Ages, through to the modern model. And that is going on all the way through the narrative, even though she never came out and said she was writing a book about health care.

Guernica: Right, learning has its own kind of tension in the same way that a story will. An unanswered question can pull you along with just as much force. The last thing I want to ask you is what advice or wisdom would you offer to younger editors or to people who are just starting out in publishing?

Rebecca Saletan: First of all I would make sure that the field really is for you. Make sure you’re OK with work that doesn’t really have boundaries and that your life isn’t going to be distinct from it. You have to stay with your passions, not to worry so much about trends—I mean yes, keep your eyes out there and be reading, but not in a calculating way trying to go after what you think is going to be hot, that’s never worked for me. You have to trust that the thing that’s going to make you special and different is going to have to come out of something organic in you, that it’s in you, your taste, your eye, what you have an affinity for. You can develop all the contacts, you can meet all the literary agents, but it never stops being those things that makes you distinctive. The most important thing is to trust that.

Rachel Riederer is the editor of Guernica Daily.

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