In this 5 On interview, Allyson Rudolph (@allysonrudolph) discusses some of her favorite experimental fiction, the day-to-day life of an associate editor at a publishing house, common problems she sees in fiction and nonfiction, her commitment to increased diversity in media and the arts, and more.
Allyson Rudolph is associate editor at The Overlook Press, where she acquires an eclectic mix of fiction and nonfiction. Before joining Overlook, she worked at Grand Central Publishing, Hyperion, and various academic and association presses in Washington, DC.
5 on Writing
CHRIS JANE: You co-founded, with Meredith Haggerty, the League of Assistant Editors Tumblr to help connect young (but not new) agents and editors. As a (twenty-nine? thirty?)-year-old associate editor at a traditional publishing house, you already have a long history of working as an editor. What fueled your passion for editing or the publishing business in general? When you were in high school, were you an avid reader, or were you more interested in working on the yearbook or the school newspaper (for example)?
ALLYSON RUDOLPH: Twenty-nine! For now.
I didn’t notice until after I got into publishing that I’ve been editing—or at least working with writers and readers on their writing and reading—for most of my life. In elementary school I was a reading buddy for English language learners. I was on the newspaper in middle school and became the managing editor of my high school newspaper as a sophomore. (There were no juniors and seniors at my school at the time—long story—so that’s not as impressive as it sounds.) I line-edited my peers in that position and learned a lot about how to tell someone, sensitively, that their modifiers are dangling. In college I was a paid writing tutor at my school’s award-winning writers’ center; some of my frequent “clients” from that center still send me work they want feedback on, and one sent me flowers when I graduated, which is just the nicest feeling.
I loved working with students whose high schools hadn’t prepared them well for college-level writing—I watched one kid’s grades go from Cs to As after we had a big “what’s a thesis statement” conversation. No one had taken the time to tell him that college essays revolve around a set of structural (and cultural) expectations, and it seemed insane that I’d be the person to help him unlock that, but I was. What a privilege, right?
I was also an annoyingly avid reader. I was not the most social kid (see above, on dangling modifiers) and my favorite childhood activities were reading and daydreaming on the swing set in the backyard. And I was raised by two great, diverse readers who kept me in books and who were able to guide me to appropriate adult reading when I’d bled the kids’ and YA sections of my library dry.
Despite all that, it never once occurred to me, until I was already working in publishing, that I could or should pursue editing as a career. I was never curious about how the books I loved were made until I found myself, quite unintentionally, working in the industry. But, like, not on books anyone read voluntarily. And not as an editor. It took years and years before I began acquiring and editing books that will appear in bookstores.
Among the manuscripts you’ve edited, what kind of work do most of them need? Is there a popular problem area for writers?
This is such a good question!
So, first: to a large extent, I get to pick what I’m working on. Most of the writing I work with is already very, very good—or at least I think it is—or I wouldn’t be editing it. There are certain problems I know I am not good at editing, and so I tend not to pursue projects that have, for example, clunky dialogue. Or clunky sentence-level writing, in general, for fiction.
There are a number of things, though, especially in fiction, that I find myself commenting on over and over. Unearned emotion is a big pet peeve for me—if your main character is going to have a breakdown, or agonize over something for years, or change the whole course of her life because of some Thing that happened to her, that Thing needs to have the same weight as the concomitant breakdown/agony/life-change. Or, the character needs to be written so the reader believes she would react in an outsized way.
I also comment a lot on pacing, in fiction. I feel strongly that my role as a fiction editor isn’t to tell writers that they’re right or wrong. I’m more like a professional reader, with fiction—my goal is to share my reactions to the book I’m reading, as I’m reacting. When action is starting to drag, I’ll note that. If things seem to be moving extra fast, I’ll note that. Sometimes I have ideas about how to edit things to address my concerns, sometimes I’m just saying “this feels weird to me.”
With nonfiction, I’m obsessive about logic and argument structure. I think nonfiction writers are often inclined to jam everything they know or have found, every quote, every tidbit, onto their pages. I spend a lot of ink asking, “Is this point doing work for you? Is it pulling its weight? What is it contributing to the argument you’re making?” If it’s not germane, I want it gone.
I’m also a tyrant about pronouns and specificity in nonfiction. If you are using a pronoun, I need to know right away what it refers to. Don’t make me guess. On any given page of a nonfiction edit, I’ve usually circled a handful of pronouns and written “Who?” or “What?”
Your bio lists experimental fiction as one of your interests. Do you mean reading it or writing it, and what author would you immediately point to if someone new to reading experimental fiction wanted a good example of it?
That said, my favorite thing to do with experimental fiction is play with it. There’s something interactive about writers who are really out there—I find myself wanting to get my hands dirty with their work, somehow. I found a copy of Padget Powell’s The Interrogative Mood in my office when I first started my current job; it’s a novel written entirely in questions. I loved it. I was also struggling with Tinder, the online dating app, when I was reading it. I started asking men on Tinder questions from The Interrogative Mood, and then it became a whole project with rules (no skipping questions, even if they’re uncomfortable, etc.) and I started posting screenshots of the answers to Tumblr. I haven’t done it for a few months, but the results were a lot gentler? sweeter? happier? than I was expecting. I thought I was going to create an archive of assholes, and actually I got a snapshot of something very different. It turns out if you ask people thoughtful and unexpected questions, you often get thoughtful and unexpected responses.
Other faves: The Sugar Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner is one of the oddest novels I’ve ever read, but there’s a genius logic to it that made me swoony. I’d like to stage that, somehow. And Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes is bananas. I like when absurd things can still give you huge feelings, and House of Holes is the kind of book that inspires huge—well, read it alone, maybe.
Last year, the League of Assistant Editors’ Tumblr page recommended a link to a Reddit conversation that began with this prompt: “Tell me why you love your favorite book. Tell me about the plot, characters, writing style, themes.” I’m bouncing that prompt to you.
I have different reading needs at different times—it’s sort of funny to me that my website bio says I’m interested in experimental fiction, for example, because I’ve been in a reading funk lately and don’t think I’d have the brainpower, right now, to engage with something like The Interrogative Mood.
But there are books I go back to over and over for comfort. The Time Traveler’s Wife is one—I read it if I’m feeling numb and want to remember how to cry. When I first read it, I loved the way Niffenegger takes a historically genre concept (time travel) and makes it feel utterly plausible but allows the mechanics of time travel to stay mysterious—because the mechanics aren’t the point. The point is: this story about a thing that we all know can’t happen can still tell us a lot about things like love and loss, joy and despair—which not only do happen, they make us human.
I also love Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, which I read for the first time when I was maybe ten, and reread a lot. It’s comfort food—spunky, compassionate, brave heroine on a magical journey of self-actualization (although really she becomes her mother) with boarding school and ogres and stuff. I’m always proud of Ella’s choices, while I’m reading; even as an adult, I feel a lot of tenderness for this character who’s been with me for so long.
And then there’s Harry Potter. I’ll just leave that there.
You are forced to choose between the two: great writing/so-so storytelling or great storytelling/so-so writing. Please answer as (a) a hobby reader, and (b) an associate editor.
The former, every time. As an editor, I find so-so storytelling easier to fix than so-so writing. I see big shapes more clearly than small ones. As a reader, so-so writing tends to distract me from even the best story.
5 on Publishing
How did you get involved with Bindercon, and what have you personally witnessed (or heard through reliable colleagues) in your time in publishing that exemplifies a need for a conference whose goal is to “increase the diversity of voices in the media and literary arts by empowering women and gender non-conforming writers”?
In the conversations I’ve read on gender in publishing and media, I’ve seen arguments on the side of “[people who aren’t cis males] need to be more assertive,” and I’ve also seen, “People simply don’t take [people who aren’t cis males] seriously.” Does it seem to be more one than the other, or are both true?
I’ve always been involved with human rights and social justice activism, and I’ve felt strongly about the importance of diversity since I was small. In seventh grade, my middle school had kids from seventy-two countries and a lot of socioeconomic backgrounds; in eighth grade, my family moved to a much more homogeneous town, and I recall feeling distinctly unsettled by all the blondes at my new school. I’ve also been staunchly feminist for as long as I can remember, so the mission of the Binders appealed to me.
A journalist friend with similar views invited me into the Facebook group shortly after it launched, and then when Leigh Stein and Lux Alptraum decided to organize a conference, I expressed interest in helping out. They needed someone to help coordinate programming, I’d done that type of work before, and voilà! I was programming co-chair for the first NYC conference last year, but stepped back my involvement after that. Shit got busy!
Publishing critically needs diverse voices—non-cis males, non-white anyone, people from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of life experiences. Even with the rise of self-publishing, traditional publishing has this enormous power to determine what stories are available to readers—and to market the heck out of those stories, and promote them—and, as we all know from Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility.
There are plenty of publications and presses that do a great job of lifting up potentially marginalized voices, and I know diversity is a key initiative at a lot of presses. At the same time, when I look around the industry, my own field of vision is full of people who are a lot like me—white, privileged liberal arts grads. That strikes me as a problem. (One I am absolutely benefiting from, to be clear.)
I don’t think anyone needs to be more assertive. Many, many people are speaking up, loudly, about what they want and need from the publishing industry. Binders are speaking up about needing non-cis male voices. I see #weneeddiversebooks and #blacklivesmatter everywhere. Very smart writers are writing very smart things about diversity in publishing and media, and they’re not, like, hidden. (Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates are two prominent cultural critics who come to mind for me right away.)
I try to listen, especially to the people who are challenging me or who are telling me I’m part of the problem. I try to boost voices and call out institutional impediments to change. I hope I can be an ally.
What’s a typical workday like for you? Are you in an office full-time or do you work from home? Do you spend a lot of time talking to the author of whatever manuscript you’re editing at the moment? How many manuscripts are you likely to be working on at once? Etc.
I work full time, in an office. I usually get to my desk around 7:30 and take advantage of two hours of relative quiet to edit manuscripts, write editorial letters, or do other focused work. When folks start to trickle into the office a little after 9:00, I turn on my computer and start in on emails—the vast majority of my day involves email. Lots of logistical questions, lots of getting X thing to Y person or asking person A to do thing B.
I write a lot—for every book I work on there’s internal descriptive copy, catalog copy, galley copy, jacket copy, and then I typically write a variety of letters about each book that I can send to potential blurbers, or to booksellers, or to media outlets. I look at covers and jackets and page proofs, and send those things out to copyeditors and proofreaders. I send many things to authors for approval.
There’s a lot of project management and staying on top of deadlines I’ve given people. I work on about forty-five books a year, so there’s a lot to keep track of. Those aren’t all books that need to be edited—I’ve been able to stick to editing one manuscript at a time, for the most part.
I don’t do much editorial work during office hours—if I’m talking to an author during the day it’s usually about some logistical publishing concern. The actual work of editing gets done in that early morning block, and I don’t typically have lengthy verbal conversations about edits; I prefer to write long, long letters that I send to authors with their printed manuscripts, which I’ve usually marked up with green or purple pen.
Reading and evaluating submissions from writers and agents happens on my commute and in the evenings or on weekends.
How much freedom do you have in choosing projects, and how do projects come to you?
I like to see projects from people I know personally—either agents whose taste I trust or unagented writers I know in real life. But I see a lot of manuscripts from a lot of people, usually agents who have seen my deals on trade websites, or who’ve heard about my taste from colleagues in their own offices, or who are looking for someone to submit to at my publishing company and found my email address online. (That’s most of the time, I think—I’m not so accomplished that folks are pounding my door down because of my own work, yet.)
I have more power to say no to things than to say yes—if I like a book, I need other people at the office to like it, too, and then I need them to see the business case for signing the author up. I work for a very small press, though, so I have fewer colleagues to convince than my colleagues at bigger companies do.
I also work on a lot of inherited projects—books that were signed by an editor who no longer works at the company, or books in a series from franchise authors. I didn’t pick those projects, but I usually like ’em all the same.
What happens if you recommend change X, and the author says, “Absolutely not”? If something is artistically important to the author—whether a character does or does not kiss another character, say—but the editor thinks it’s equally important to change that thing, how afraid does the author have to be that the publisher will drop the book?
This happens so, so rarely!
I take edits to my own writing extremely poorly. I’m still pissed off about a sentence I had to change in an essay I wrote years ago for an online magazine. So I’m always pleasantly surprised to find that real writers seem to be amenable to changing their own work.
This is perhaps a rosy view, but I find that authors, editors, and agents tend to be on the same team. I’ve had great luck—on most of my projects so far, everyone wants a successful publication and everyone respects and trusts each other’s vision, so editing feels collaborative instead of confrontational.
Also, with fiction, the book is usually complete by the time I see it. If there’s something huge that I don’t like, I’m either unlikely to pursue the book at all, or will have a conversation with the author and agent about that particular edit before anyone signs anything.
It’s rare to drop a book—I’ve seen it happen twice, and never with fiction. Nonfiction is a slightly dicier proposition: those books are typically signed up based on a proposal, not a full-length manuscript, and so it’s possible (although not common) that the finished product will bear very little resemblance to the book the editor was expecting. If a heavy round of editing doesn’t solve the problem, then maybe the publisher will consider cancelling.
When I worked as a collection agent, the overall mood of the place was straight-up business: Git ’er done (there were bonuses to make). When I was a cab driver, the mood of the cab stand was the sort of apathy you see in people who are either high or incredibly hungover—often because people were either high or hungover. At the newspaper, it was a blend of high energy, cynicism, and frustration, for what are probably obvious reasons. What’s the mood at a publishing house in the 2010s?
Oh, gosh. I’m sure it depends on the publishing house.
The number one thing I find in a publishing house, though, is a genuine love of books, of reading, of readers. Publishing people take a lot of pride in their work, and they tend to be very connected to the writers and readers who support this whole ecosystem. There’s a lot of love for indie bookstores, libraries, librarians, and online reading communities. The Twitter accounts of publishing houses talk to each other on Twitter and make extremely nerdy inside jokes about obscure writers, etc. It’s pretty awesome, actually, to be surrounded by people who spend their days talking about what people are reading.
Morale can get low when we feel like these things we love are threatened—when Amazon behaves like a bully, or when bookstores close and library funding is cut—and there’s certainly plenty of business talk and strategy. But the foundation of every house I’ve worked for: book people who love books.
Thank you, Allyson.