ill Bialosky is a notable author and poet. She has earned praise from such publications as The New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker for her novels The Life Room and House Under Snow, as well as, herpoetry collections Subterranean and The End of Desire. She is also a longtime editor at W.W. Norton, an employee-owned publishing house that has built its solid reputation on the quality and longevity of its books.
Ms. Bialosky has edited many authors’ books, including those by Manil Suri, Nicole Krauss, Mary Roach and Adrienne Rich. She was gracious enough to answer some of our questions about her career as an author and editor, the kind of books W.W. Norton looks for and what writers can do to make it in the world of publishing.
WOW: How long have you been an editor at W. W. Norton? What do you feel is the most difficult part of your job?
JILL: I've been an editor at Norton closing in on two decades. The most difficult part of being an editor is juggling various responsibilities for my books at all their different phases. As an editor, I’m involved with all the phases of publication including acquisitions, editing, jacket consultation, developing a marketing and publicity program, scheduling, etc. An editor has to switch gears constantly. It’s difficult at times but often immensely rewarding and engaging.
WOW: It sounds as if you’re required to wear many hats, but ultimately, you enjoy your job. How closely do you work with your authors?
JILL: I work with my authors closely, though it is an individual process. Some authors require more editorial input and line editing than other authors. I see the relationship as a partnership, and I try and work closely with an author to realize and facilitate his or her ambition for a particular work. Some editors have been known to boast about "rewriting" an author's book. I would never attempt to do that. The book is ultimately the author's book. I see the editor's role as being a very close intuitive reader. We look for the heartbeat and massage it.
WOW: That’s a very interesting take on it and one that many aspiring authors would be glad to hear. What is W.W. Norton looking for in new authors?
JILL: As an editor, I'm looking for books that make me see the world in a way I haven't before. Emily Dickinson referred to the experience of reading a good poem as having the ability to take the top of your head off. I like to be blown away.
I like strong voices in fiction and poetry and work that take risks. I was recently rereading T.S. Eliot, and there is a wonderful line in Four Quartets that has stayed with me: "humankind cannot bear very much reality." In a way, that sentence explains what I'm looking for. Work that ruthlessly insists on reflecting the world back to the reader. To sum it up more simply: books of outstanding quality and books that last.
WOW: What does W. W. Norton consider to be a "successful" book?
JILL: A book that endures. Our motto is to publish books that live. We strive to publish books that will be read and loved for many years to come.
“As an editor, I'm looking for books that make me see the world in a way I haven't before.”
WOW: Writers who want longevity in the literary arena often don’t know where to begin as far as getting published. What do you wish aspiring authors most knew about the publishing business?
JILL: That writing is a personal act but publishing is a partnership.
WOW: Your house seems invested in maintaining a partnership with its authors. What suggestions do you make to your writers in terms of marketing?
JILL: We work closely with our authors in terms of marketing. We always ask authors for their own ideas. The process begins when we ask an author to fill out an author questionnaire. This gives us an idea of where the author lives or has lived, personal contacts, places he or she has read before, published, written for, etc. We are looking to target markets where we feel the book will find an audience. We like to bring authors in to meet with publicity and marketing, and that is how the process begins. We welcome authors who are proactive. Of course, we have our own ideas as well and, again, it's a partnership.
WOW: For the authors out there who aren’t afraid to be proactive and sell themselves, what's the best way for authors to approach W. W. Norton?
JILL: We invite authors to get to know our list by looking on our website and our online catalog. Most fiction and nonfiction projects come to the trade department through agents or through personal contacts with other authors or through direct solicitation. Our website will direct authors about how to approach the house.
WOW: Do you feel new authors should be willing to aggressively market their work, whether with a small press or a large one?
JILL: As W. W. Norton is neither the largest of the large houses, nor by any means a small house, I guess I’m well positioned to address this. There are no hard-and-fast rules here. Some authors are more media effective then others. We try to access and develop a program that works for each author depending on his or her particular strengths.
WOW: You have quite impressive credentials as an author and poet yourself. How does that background factor into what you read for pleasure?
JILL: When I read for pleasure, I'm either trying to catch up on classic works that I've missed or want to reread or try to keep up with current contemporary work. For the last few years, I've been re-reading the novels by Henry James and Jane Austen. What a pleasure it has been. I have a young son and I've been re-reading some of the books on his school syllabus with him. The Odyssey, Of Mice and Men, The Diary of Anne Frank. It's been wonderful to see those books through his eyes. I also like to read books by contemporary authors, like Philip Roth, J. M. Coetzee, Anita Brookner and to follow new voices. I read literary online publications and literary magazines with an eye toward discovery.
“Inspiration is a word that I'm uncomfortable with as a writer. I write about things that obsess me and interest me.”
WOW: In between the classics and contemporary works, where do you find inspiration for your fiction and poetry?
JILL: Inspiration is a word that I'm uncomfortable with as a writer. I write about things that obsess me and interest me. When you start a novel you have to make sure there is plenty in a character or situation you want to explore; otherwise it won't keep you interested. In my new novel, The Life Room, I became obsessed with the idea of passion versus responsibility and about the illusive nature of selfhood and art. And in my new book of poems called Intruder coming out this fall, I found myself interested in exploring the relationship between the imagination and the ordinary world. I've never lacked inspiration. The challenge has always been harnessing my interests and passions.
WOW: It’s always wonderful when you have more ideas than you know what to do with. Since you're a writer and editor, how easily can you shut off your inner editor when writing?
JILL: Shutting off my inner editor when writing fiction has been a challenge. I wrote out the entire first draft of my last novel, The Life Room in notebooks to avoid editing until I had a first draft. I kept them in a container in the refrigerator to my son's chagrin, until I'd finally finished and transferred the notebook pages onto a disk. I remembered reading about how Toni Morrison lost a manuscript in a house fire and that has always haunted me. The minute my work is on a computer I begin editing, and editing, and editing! I can't stop.
WOW: That’s a true editor speaking! Jill, thanks so much for chatting with us today, and I’m sure our aspiring authors will want to check out www.wwnorton.com
DEL SANDEEN is a freelance writer based in Northeast Florida. She writes on a variety of topics, including parenting, health, beauty, fitness, fashion, and knitting. Her work has appeared in the parenting anthology The Kid Turned Out Fine (Adams Media 2006). She also writes fiction and her short story "unlocking mother" was featured in Her Circle (Winter 2007). The first chapter of her debut novel is currently being considered by a literary agent. When she's not writing or reading, she's spending time with her husband, three children, and assorted pets.
Del’s article, How To Get a Literary Agent, was featured in WOW! Women On Writing’s November issue.
You can read more about her at her website: https://www.delsandeen.com