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Editing Ambition

RICK ARCHBOLD is one of Canada's top editors and a member of the steering committee of the book-editing division of the Banff Publishing Workshops. Last year, he won the Freelance Editors' Association of Canada's Tom Fairley Award, which annually honours the best freelance-editing job, for his work on Mulroney: The Politics of Ambition (Macfarlane Walter & Ross), by John Sawatsky. Archbold has edited many titles, and is the co-author of several others, including Audrey McLaughlin's forthcoming memoirs, A Woman's Place (Macfarlane Walter & Ross) - He was interviewed at his home in Toronto by Dennis Mills.

BiC: "A demanding but superb editor. "

Rick Archbold: Who said that?

BiC: John Sawatsky, In print.

Archbold: Well, isn't that nice. I guess one of the things editors do is ask every single question that pops into their heads about the manuscript at hand. And as I know from being on the other side, the questions that come back from an editor can be enormously irritating to an author, for two reasons: "Why didn't I think of that?" and "Oh, God, all this work I'm going to have to do to answer that."

I'm sure that that's part of what was going on for John. Also, he was under the gun in terms of schedule. Originally, the book was supposed to take Mulroney right up to Meech Lake, but in the spring we knew there was no way that was going to be possible. But then it became apparent that the right place to end it was his election, that really Mulroney's whole life is contained in that period leading up to becoming prime minister, which was like his reason for living, and that everything he's done as prime minister can be read in terms of what he did before. But, as far as me being a - what was the phrase he used?

BiC: "Demanding but superb."

Archbold: But it's John who is a demanding but superb author. One of the things that I always team from every book I work on -and that I relearned from editing this book - is that it really is important to remember exactly where the author is coming from. And the amount of stress and pressure that John was under meant that there were probably times when I asked questions and, if I had reflected, I would have realized, "There's no way he has time to answer that. Maybe it would be better if I just didn't ask it at all." And I think that it was actually an interesting learning experience for me in terms of knowing when to stop. That's one of the hardest things that editors have to learn. As a young editor you think, unless the manuscript is covered with my marks, I haven't done a good job.

BiC: Am I correct in understanding that you did not get, by a long shot, a completed manuscript at your first go?

Archbold: No, as often happens now, I was editing the book as John was writing it, and that's another reason why it was difficult to know how far to go, because John literally was handed the first chunk, with all my editorial comments, while he was still writing the last chunk.

BiC: Difficult to keep your mind on track...

Archbold: Well, he was pretty upset. He literally had to stop working for a while, you know, because it was so inappropriate. But it's a very strange feeling to edit a book that isn't all there yet. And having to imagine an end into existence. When I was starting to edit the first half of the book, all I had was a chapter outline for the second half. The outline changed a number of times after that. One of the suggestions that I made to John, based on only half the manuscript, and what I knew of what was to come, was that it fell into four parts. Which indeed it did. And the divisions worked very nicely in the book.

BiC: Had he envisaged something other than that? Radically different from that?

Archbold: I think that the basic order of chapters was always pretty much as he had envisaged it, and that my contribution was more to clarify the structure within chapters and within smaller groupings of chapters. "Maybe we need to deal with this first," I might say, or "We have to understand Mulroney's depression and alcoholism before we can get into his period at the Iron Ore Company of Canada." Or "The two things have to happen simultaneously rather than giving us a depression chapter and then an Iron Ore Company chapter. The reader gets confused because in one chapter he's depressed, and in the next chapter he's running around as this great corporate hotshot. How can he be both things at once?"

BiC: You've got to weave this stuff together.

Archbold: Yes. But the thing about this book, I think one of the reasons it turned out so well, was that it was so fundamentally sound. I mean, we all, as editors, have worked on books that began as fundamentally unsound. And in some ways, I suppose, the awards should go to those books, the ones where what you get is a manuscript that is so totally not yet there. One of the biggest editorial jobs I ever did was a memoir. The author had originally written the book as a series of thematic chapters about different periods in his life, you know, "Famous People I Have Known," "Prime Ministers I Have Dealt With," and so on. The first thing I did when I met with him was to say, "Rather than take a thematic approach, I'd like you to take a chronological approach." And he looked at me and said, "Great idea, Rick, prove it." And I literally went away with the manuscript and cut and pasted it into a chronological manuscript and roughed in transitions that were missing and said, "You need to fill in this and you need to fill in that." And he then ran with that, in a way that was marvellous. It actually became a very successful book. I often think of that as being, in some ways, the most satisfying editorial job I ever did, because I took something that was totally misconceived, reconceived it, guided the author into a revision of a totally different conception, and then saw him run with it. I saw the book flower. Each chapter that came back would be so much better than I ever dared hope. Which is a very rare experience, as we know. Usually you say, "Oh, well, he did half the things that I hoped he would."

BiC: Usually you wonder, "Did he read my notes at all?"

Archbold: Yes. So that gives you a sense of the process of editing Mulroney. We also did a lot of hands-on, line-by-line work, which John is very open to as long as it doesn't distort his meaning. My right shoulder was hurting at the end of this. What profession is there left where people sit for hours and hours and hours writing in pencil? I mean, we're like medieval scribes, for God's sake. There's no other profession in the world like it.

BiC: How did you learn to edit?

Archbold: The easy answer to that is that I teamed by reading books. From the time I was a little kid, I was one of those introverted kids who rushed home from elementary school on his bicycle so that he wouldn't get beaten up by the neighbourhood bullies, and then sat down and read until supper time. What you learn when you read very young just seeps into your pores. Good usage, good writing. And structure. Structure, which, to me, is the editor's most important tool. And balance. What fits where and what doesn't fit where. And also a sense of what you might call "decorum," which is what's appropriate, and what's inappropriate. So, all my childhood reading, it seems to me, was really my training as an editor. Followed by the fact that, unlike almost any other editor I know, I actually was an English major, and-therefore spent my university years analysing texts, often from a structural standpoint. How are they working structurally? Why is this happening when it happens, and so on. And that was my training in the sense of broad education.

More specifically, I was trained by Betty Jane Corson, who just happened to be the person who hired me when I was a salesman at Doubleday in the mid-1970s. She's done some amazing books and worked with some extraordinary writers, and she had an incredible intensity and attention to detail. Sol when I edited my first book, which was actually when I was still a salesman, she edited it after me. She went through it with me and said, "This is a good idea," "This is not a good idea," "We need to do more here." She looked over my shoulder for the first year or so. So, I really apprenticed to a fine, experienced editor. And that's rare. Because in-house today, there aren't that many fine, experienced editors who've stuck around long enough to be apprenticed to. And also the pressures of time, etc. in-house, I think, are so great. That's why we need things like the Banff publishing course.

BiC: What are your worst fears?

Archbold: My worst fear as an editor is that I will do harm. I think it was Philippa Campsie, who was formerly at Macmillan, who told me that her advice to editors was, "First, do no harm." Isn't that also the doctor's credo?

BiC: Sounds very close to what it ought to be.

Archbold: And I think that goes back to what I said at the beginning, that an editor can do too much as well as too little. You have to know when to stop. You have to he sensitive.

BiC: Recognize what works.

Archbold: What works. What the author is perhaps capable of or willing to do. You have to feel your way. So, my greatest fear is that I might wreck something or make a lot of unnecessary work for someone.

BiC: I was thinking also in terms of politics, or time, or costs. Do these constraints operate as fears for you or just realities?

Archbold: Do you mean house politics?

BC: Partly that, partly the politics of relationships between publishers and authors, authors and editors.

Archbold: Well, I'm always afraid that the author won't like my work. I mean, I'm a normal, insecure person and when I do something, I think, Oh, my God, they're gonna hate me for marking up their manuscript. But it's really important to me to establish, very early, a good relationship with the writer.

BiC: How do you go about that?

Archbold: If I'm going to be doing a lot of work, I usually talk to them about it at the beginning and I may even edit a chapter and say, "Okay, this is the kind of thing I'm going to be doing and how do you feel about this?" Because this may be heavy-duty stuff. Let's face it, none of us likes to be told that what we've done is not good enough. And that, in a way, is what an editor is doing. I'm a great believer in putting things down on paper; it's not enough to sit and talk about what you're going to do. I always lay it out on paper, "This is my plan for editing this book. This is what I would like to propose and I am then going to work it out on the manuscript and give it back to you." Rather than, a month and a half later, "Oh, this is what you've got to do." And I usually have a pretty clear idea of what needs to be done after even a single reading of a complete manuscript. I usually can sit down and map out the general strategy. Which is great, because sometimes you have to change your mind and sometimes the second time through what seemed to be a problem isn't such a problem, and so on. I think you can make some general judgements pretty easily.

BiC: Do you edit fiction?

Archbold: Yes, I do. But not often, as it is rarely allowed out of house, in my experience. I like editing non-fiction better, I think. Entering into the creative head space of a novelist, making the appropriate kinds of suggestions, that's much more difficult. What you have to be, with a novel, even more than with non-fiction, is just a really careful reader. "This is how this passage affected me, is this what you intended?" "I'm confused by the character of so-and-so on page 12, she seems so 'this way'; is that what you want?" You also get into structural matters with novels, and plot and so on. Plot development. And that's very tough, very tough to get into when you're dealing with a novel that has a plot. Editing what is called commercial fiction is different. It's more that you're moving things around, dealing with a formula and it's easier, I would say. But, as you know, nothing about editing is easy!


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