The Abseiling Aunty: A Conversation with Ashleigh Young

Fits & StartsI like to read and review New Zealand poetry, and because I live in Wellington quite a few of these collections come from Victoria University Press. When Ashleigh Young began working as their editor, I began to notice her careful hand on the collections. I asked Ashleigh a few questions about being an editor.

Sarah Jane Barnett: I was watching the show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and Jerry Seinfeld asked Barack Obama, ‘If politics was a sport, what sport would it be?’ So, if editing was a sport, what sport would it be?

Ashleigh Young: I was about to say cricket – long bouts of brooding interrupted by sudden bouts of high-speed action and head-clutching – but you can say that about almost anything. About life. I wonder if maybe editing is a bit like tenpin bowling. Every bit of editorial interference is a small act of violence, essentially trying to knock things down – but there’s this attempt at elegance, at the graceful flourish. And then there’s the stubborn beauty of the pins that remain standing. Also, tenpin bowling is the sport of grudging office team-building that ends up being quite fun.

Just contradicting myself, though, I think there’s something intrinsically un-sporty about editing. The writer and the editor shouldn’t feel like they’re adversaries grappling for ultimate power. No one should be spraying champagne around if they ‘win’. They can do that at the book launch.

SJB: When I’m reviewing a collection of poetry I try to differentiate between my taste and poetic craft. The hardest to review are collections which are beautifully crafted, but are not the type of poetry I’m drawn to. Do you have a similar experience when editing? As in, how do you balance your own taste with what the writer is trying to achieve, or more so, with the vision of the publisher? How do you argue for a change that a writer may not want?

AY: I do have that experience sometimes. But even with a book that I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out, when I’m spending time with it I always discover something I like or admire or find funny. Editing is great for pushing you past your first impressions and limbering you up, testing your flexibility, as a reader.

As for how I’ll argue for an unwanted change, it depends what sort of change it is. If it’s a matter of style, like a decision to use macrons for te reo Māori or to spell out numbers one to ten, I’m not going to back down unless there’s a good reason for departing from an agreed rule (and, to be fair, in poetry there often is). But if the change is more a matter of content, such as rewriting a line because I think it’s too sentimental, that’s not something I can baldly insist on, no matter how much I’d like to. I can state my case once or twice, but if the writer doesn’t want it, you’re doing them a disservice by carrying on arguing. It’s the writer’s prerogative to not take your advice. There’s this phrase that comes up in publishing: ‘Sometimes you need to save an author from themselves.’ But you can’t every time. Who says they want saving, anyway? It’s a bit like giving someone advice on their dance routine. ‘Don’t do those jazz hands yet! It’s too soon! Do them at the end!’ Some writers will give you a withering look and do their jazz hands more energetically. I’ve had this experience when being edited myself.

As for the vision of the publisher, well. The publishing company I work for is interested, above all, in making vital contributions to people’s reading lives. That makes it easy for me because I want that too, and so does the writer. But I have been on jobs where I’ve had to compromise a writer’s work to meet a publisher’s or client’s demands, and that’s quite tough. Carol Fisher Saller, who wrote The Subversive Copy Editor and who runs a great blog with the same name, talks about ‘the most productive order of an editor’s loyalties’, and she believes that the writer should sit very close to the top of the list, and the publisher close to the bottom. Both of them are working together in the service of the reader, who sits at the very top. This might get me into trouble but I think that’s about right.

VUP Collections
Two VUP collections that Ashleigh’s edited.

SJB: I was having a conversation the other day about the difference between detail thinkers and big picture thinkers. I can imagine that line editing needs someone who can focus on detail, but the feel of a book must require big picture thinking. Can you talk to that idea?

AY: Technically this is the difference between substantive (or structural) editing, and copyediting. The substantive work is your big picture: which poems to keep and which to leave out, whether to have sections or no sections, whether the story (if a story is consciously being told) is coherent, and so on. And at the most basic level it’s what the book is ‘about’: its preoccupations and discoveries, its emotional register, its recurring images and characters, how the poems speak to one another. I see a lot of poetry collections where there’s no need for me to interfere greatly at that level, because the writer has already done a lot of deep thinking (… or unconscious thinking). Having said that, another collection might start out as a daunting morass that needs to be coaxed into a shape, and that’s a process of suggestion and refinement.

With both editing and writing poetry, the hard graft tends to happen inside the detail – I guess because that’s where the poetry is. As well as getting the mathematics of the work in place (spelling, spacing, quotations from other sources, etc.), I interrogate the language. The guiding question is always simply: is the language working hard? Other questions come from that. Could this image be sharper; is this abstraction too cryptic; is this adjective earning its keep; is this first line throat-clearing? A few days ago Bill Manhire tweeted this micro-poem:

The Weeping Poet

can’t see
the page
for the seepage

Sometimes the editor’s job is to get in there and clean up the seepage.

SJB: Writers often have funny routines to get themselves into the process of writing such as laying out snacks on the table, or making tea in a particular mug. Do you have routines to prepare yourself for editing? I suppose what I’m wondering is how does the emotional work of editing compare to that of writing?

AY: Getting my brain to wake up is my challenge. It’s like trying to get a cat off my lap – I just don’t want to disturb it. I was reading Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Michel de Montaigne recently, How To Live, and it was interesting how he perceived himself as sluggish, lax and forgetful at times. ‘I am nearly always in place, like heavy and inert bodies.’ I related strongly. I need a lot of exercise to wake my brain up before I settle in to work. After that, I need a lot of tea. Then I’m ready.

Editing tends to use different emotional muscles to those of writing. I get intensely caught up in other writers’ work, and I want the best for each and every one of them, but this feels different from living with my own stuff. It’s a bit like the difference between an aunty who abseils in and makes a fuss of everyone and then, satisfied, abseils out – and an actual parent, who, on top of the joy of creating something from nothing, gets all the sleeplessness and the vomit and the anxiety about the future.

Jerry, who often features on Ashleigh's Twitter feed.
Jerry, who often features on Ashleigh’s Twitter feed.

SJB: What already published work do you wish you’d been able to edit?

AY: This is tough! Honestly, I’ve never come across a book where I’ve thought I wish I could’ve got my hands on this. When I’m reading a book I’m just reading. There are certain authors I would love to work with, though. I would love to be one of their first readers, and to exchange emails with them and meet them for coffee and become their friends and be invited to their parties. I would’ve loved to work with Frederick Seidel on Ooga-Booga.

As well as being an editor Ashleigh also writes poetry and essays, and co-teaches science writing at the IIML. Her first book was Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012) and she has a collection of essays, Can You Tolerate This? forthcoming in 2016. She also writes beautiful essay-like posts about ‘memory, mental health, cycling, and inconsequential things’ on her blog You can read a great interview with Ashleigh as part of the What Do People Do All Day? series.

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