The Godfather: Peter Corris on editors
In a writing career of more than 40 years I’ve had dealings with dozens, perhaps scores, of publishers’ editors. Some have been excellent, some good, some just all right and a few terrible.
I can’t remember much about the editors of the handful of academic books I produced. My impression is that they were mainly concerned with the accuracy of footnotes and indexes rather than the quality of the writing.
I first encountered serious and helpful editing from Carl Harrison-Ford, who edited my history of boxing, published as Lords of the Ring in 1980. This was my first attempt at non-academic history and I struggled with the material. At one point I had the idea of changing to a fictional approach. I had only the slightest of credentials as a fiction writer at the time and Carl, wisely, talked me out of this. He also encouraged me to adopt a thematic rather than a chronological approach and this resolved many problems. I remain proud of the book, which continues to be cited, and grateful to Carl.
When it came to fiction I was lucky in having Jean as a first reader and copy-editor to civilise the raw product. The editor for the first Cliff Hardy novel The Dying Trade (1980) at McGraw hill smoothed away a Melburnian’s ignorance of Sydney and I feel sure contributed to the book’s success in that way. To my shame I’ve forgotten her name and did not credit her, an omission I’ve tried to rectify in subsequent books with other editors.
I struck trouble with an editor in one of my early historical novels. She clearly disliked the story, the characters and the style and her editorial work was dismissive. We battled. The book didn’t sell, so perhaps she was right, but she became a successful writer herself later and our meetings subsequently on panels and at gatherings were amicable.
Not so with another female editor. I’ve forgotten the book involved but again, she was unsympathetic. I remember that she wrote in the margin beside a passage in which I described the abilities of a character, ‘What an all-rounder!’ I took exception to the comment and her whole editorial manner and insisted that another editor be assigned, the only time I’ve done this. I later heard her described as ‘the rudest person I’ve ever known’, a judgment I endorsed.
The Journal of Fletcher Christian (2005) was a tricky book to compose. It was a fictional account purporting to be Christian’s work and was proceded by a narrative explaining how the supposed manuscript had come into my hands. Meredith Curnow and Roberta Ivers at Random House showed great, almost embarrassing, faith in the book and worked long and hard to conquer its difficulties. I made sure to acknowledge them for helping me to produce what I think was one of my best books.
No editor has done more to ensure that my Cliff Hardy books appear in as finished a form as possible than Jo Jarrah, working for Allen & Unwin. Jo has edited more of the series and caused me more annoyance and gratitude than anyone else. She has received the manuscript after I’ve dealt with Jean’s copy-edit and the publisher’s reader’s report and has never failed to find flaws – inconsistencies, mistakes of time and place, stylistic awkwardness. More importantly, she has sometimes seemed to understand Hardy’s character better than I have myself. She once pulled me up short with the comment that ‘Cliff has lost his mojo’. That required a serious reappraisal and I’ve kept it firmly in mind ever since.