by Melissa Sue Sorrells '05
In 1984, fresh out of college with a B.A. in English Literature from William Smith, Jennifer Brehl '83, then an editorial assistant with Doubleday, made notes in the margins of one of Issac Asimov's manuscripts.
"I didn't know any better," she says. "At first, he thought it was hysterical that I'd taken that liberty, but he found my comments helpful, and we became fast friends. From that point on, we worked together. I edited all of his Doubleday books until his death in 1992."
More than 25 years later, Brehl, now the senior vice president and director of editorial development for two of HarperCollins' imprints, William Morrow and Eos, has turned an honest mistake into an impressive career in book publishing. Her list includes many well-known science fiction and fantasy authors, among them Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Christopher Moore, Neal Stephenson, Terry Pratchett and, of course, Asimov.
"I've been fortunate to work on some great science fiction and fantasy novels, but I also edit main stream fiction, historical fiction and non-fiction," she says. "Many editors specialize in just one area, but I tend to be wide-ranging. I like to work on books that I'd like to read."
What does a book editor do?
My job is not glamorous, and I don't sit around reading all day. It's like anyone else's job - lots of meetings, lots of papers on my desk. It's not for someone who wants to be a writer. An editor's job is to help the author communicate effectively. A good book editor is like a midwife, helping a story to be born. Terry Pratchett once asked me, "Why do you do this? What's in it for the editor?" I think part of it is being in on a secret. We get to read things before anyone else, and that's powerful for a book lover.
What makes a good book?
Good storytelling, strong voice, unique style. Times change, but people still come to books for the same things they always have: they want to be engaged, intellectually and emotionally.
What's the biggest change you've ever encouraged an author to make to his or her book?
Once, I read a manuscript where the heroine was killed on the last page. I read it and thought, "You can't do this to the reader! We've made too much of an emotional investment!" In the end, the author made the character's fate ambiguous. In the author's mind, of course, the character was dead, but a lot of readers commented that they found the ending hopeful. Conversely, I've recommended authors kill off characters that are slowing down the story. We do whatever it takes to make the story work.
Who is your favorite author to read?
It's impossible for me to name a favorite! One of my favorites is Paulette Jiles. Her most recent book, The Color of Lightning is incredibly powerful. Right now I am reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. It's told in three voices, and it's remarkable. But I also love to read and work with authors like Beth Gutcheon, Jeffrey Ford, John Crowley and Joyce Maynard. Each of them has a unique perspective, a unique way of presenting ideas through fiction.
What's your take on pop literature and new forms of technology, like the Kindle or the iPhone?
I am all for pop literature. The new James Patterson, the new Dan Brown, these books get people into book stores. Hopefully, while they're there, they'll see something else they like, too. I feel the same way about e-books. It's just another way of delivering our product, of making it easier for people to take in ideas. How could you not be in favor of that?
How did your HWS education impact the work you're doing today?
I loved the academic experience at HWS. I was exposed to a lot of good literature, new ideas and new ways of thinking, and my professors, especially Professor Emeritus of History Robert Huff, challenged me to look beyond the obvious. Professor Huff also nurtured my interest in feminist history, which still informs my work on historical and feminist fiction.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I'm working on Terry Pratchett's next book (Unseen Academicals due this fall), Sheri Tepper's next novel (The Waters Rising, due in 2010) and Joe Hill's new novel (Horns, due in 2010).
What are you reading
Marc Resnick '96
St. Martin's Press
I recently finished reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I thought was excellent. It's more than a thriller?it deals with the issue of violence against women while never being preachy. It starts out a little slow but stick with it-the payoff is worth it.
Sarah Shumway '01
Senior Editor, HarperCollins
Other than manuscripts for work, it's pretty slim pickings for pleasure reading. I recently pulled out The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger for a second read on a train ride. That intense love story was a great escape.
Richard Morris '92
Literary Agent, Janklow & Nesbit Associates
Author, Bye Bye Baby
I just finished Tracy Kidder's new book, Strength in What Remains, which tells the story of a man who narrowly survives genocide and, against all odds, fulfills his dreams. It's a powerful story and a remarkable book.