The following interview was conducted over email with Malcolm Sutton, the fiction editor at BookThug, a literary publisher in Toronto, Ontario.
BookThug is committed to an ongoing conversation about the possibilities of what literature is, or could be.
For more information on BookThug, visit their website: bookthug.ca.
What is your main criteria for selecting work? With BookThug’s vision to “advance the tradition of experimental literature,” what do you look for in a piece of poetry or fiction?
Experimental is a tricky word that I don’t often use anymore. I like ‘advancing a tradition’ because it recognizes that writing happens in a historical context. Advancing a tradition means having historical awareness, knowing that modernism happened and postmodernism happened and we are in another era now, one that I’m not sure has a name, but that is reactive just like other periods in the past. So in a work of fiction I look for an awareness of what’s going on contemporarily, and a desire to be part of that discourse. A lot of things are happening right now, all over the world; a lot people have a lot to react against.
With that in mind, I look for a certain energy. A manuscript doesn’t need to be super polished when I read it, but I have to see that it moves, that it has a real forward momentum. Without energy there is not much I can do with a manuscript. It needs to be intelligent and propulsive and aware of the present.
With that same vision, if you were to receive a piece that made an impression and was very traditional with little experimentation (or none), how would you approach it (approach rejection, or finding methods to make it fit)?
Experimental for me goes beyond formal experimentation. I think that a work that is formally traditional often supports ideologies that I’m not excited about working with. I imagine that many bestselling literary writers in North America are upholders of fairly status quo, perhaps neoliberal positions (as some have suggested), whether they know it or not. So work might be traditional in part because it supports the prevailing ideology of the day (not that formally experimental novels are exempt from this). It’s likely that I would reject such a novel and say that it didn’t fit with our publishing vision.
How would you describe your process when it comes to editing?
In my first reads of the manuscript I look for larger things. I look for places where momentum drops off in the narrative and try to understand why it falters. I try to determine the themes and understand how they transform from beginning to end, whether they are fully realized. In a sense, I read the book in the way that somebody studying it at university would: to understand what is being conveyed, to understand how it might be critically read by someone.
In other passes I consider flow within paragraphs and from paragraph to paragraph, then finally line edits.
How much do you engage with the author? Are there distinct steps? Or is it a more flexible process?
We are constantly in dialogue. The suggestions that I make are often not prescriptive – I want to leave things open to the writer, because the writer knows the book better than anyone. I say, something needs to happen here to make this other thing happen, and the author works on what that something is. But sometimes I’m more prescriptive. I might say, you need a transitional line here, something like “blah blah blah” and the author works with the suggestion, putting it into the right voicing of the book.
What has been your greatest challenge as an editor?
It has been very challenging getting submissions by women and people of colour. It might sound crazy, but about 75% of our fiction submissions are from guys. When I started work as the editor I wanted to be publishing 50% women and 50% men, from a diversity of backgrounds. This has been really difficult, but it has made me proactive in seeking out diverse writers.
Has there been a memorable experience with an author?
One memorable moment happened soon after we accepted Jess Taylor’s book. I ran into her on the street. We didn’t know each other, but I recognized her face from a Google Image Search. I said, hey, your Jess Taylor, I’m your editor. Or something like that.
Thanks to Hazel Millar for making this interview possible.