Meet the editor

‘To bring you stuff you like to read, whoever you are:’ Karthika VK on the book editor's role

An exclusive interview with the editor-publisher who was almost synonymous with HarperCollins India for ten years.

It was not a day that either Karthika VK or others at HarperCollins India had envisaged. But November 19 was Karthika’s last day of work at the publishing company she spent 10 years at, helping build it as the country’s premier publisher of serious fiction and non-fiction. Excerpts from an interview on the art, science and business of publishing in India:

What does the role of a commissioning editor entail?

It entails, I suppose...reading proposals and ideas people send you and thinking about them and saying, “Okay, I think there’s a book here and this is the right person to write this book” and then to go out and encourage them to come up with a first draft, either like a skeletal proposal, working out the chapter break-up and so on...or to just say, “You need to go in and write that book, I think there is a space in the market for it.”

And then, once they have given you a first draft, to be able to look at it and read it and comment on it and to say...I think this works to this extent...and these are the things that don’t work. If it’s a novel you might say, “This character needs a lot more work, to be fleshed out” or “This character is not persuasive” or “This plotline is a bit weak, but if you could fix it in this way, it would work better”. So it’s actually about giving feedback to the writer.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that there are two kinds of writers. There’s one kind of writer whom you can give feedback to and they’ll go away and fix the problem. Like you can say to someone, “I think there’s a problem with this character. She’s not very likeable. And your novel will get to be read only if someone likes that character enough to stay with him or her for 300 pages.” And you can say why they’re not likeable, you can say, “At this point for instance, she says this, and that’s really not such a nice thing,” or about this other thing she does, “That’s not someone you would trust,” and so on. And that writer will go away and say, “Okay. I get what you’re saying,” and come back with a rewritten character.

Then there’s the other kind of writer who’ll say, “Okay, you know, I don’t know how to fix that. I understand what you’re saying...why don’t you try it yourself because I’m not sure how I can…” So then you would go away and actually rewrite it and give it back to them. And they would tweak it or change it to their liking. So being an editor, I think, means being able to see who can do what. If someone is the kind of writer who can fix a problem, then to be able to give that kind of feedback…and if they are not the sort who can fix it, to say, “Okay, these are the problems I have identified. Now I’m going to take my pen to it...or keyboard...and I’m going to help recreate this”. Both need to be done.

And what do you think makes a good editor?
Empathy. I think empathy is the most important thing. If you are going to edit a text, you have to be able to get into that person’s head a little. You have to be able to imagine that the pen is actually in their hand when it’s in yours, and write like them. And unless you empathise with both, where that author is coming from and what they’re trying to say and do in that book, and empathise with the characters who are trying to get to that goal through that narrative, I don’t think you can do it.

You have to try and be like them in some ways in order to try and edit them, to make a book the best version of itself, which is what you set out to do as an editor. Which means if you’re editing a particular kind of work, or a certain kind of writer today, and that requires a certain mood and tone and then tomorrow you get something or someone else entirely different, you have to be able to get into their skin as well. So, in a sense I think…is there a word for (something) beyond schizophrenia? I think every editor needs to be multi-phrenic or frenetic or whatever because you can’t be one person and edit multiple texts. You have to be able to be many. Does that make sense?

Sort of? (Laughs a little.)

Yeah, sort of.
Okay, so I mean if I’m editing Sania [Mirza] today, then I’m trying to visualise myself in the world of tennis and the pressures and stress of that and all the things…that the celebrity/sportsperson goes through…and then I can try and find the right word for that sentence where she’s trying to say something. But if I’m editing a novel or an autobiography of someone who is working their way up the corporate ladder, then I’d better know the jargon of corporate life and understand those pressures in order to find the right word for a sentence in that book.

Does that just come with experience?
I think a lot of it is learning on the job, yes. I absolutely think so. I think I must have been a disastrous editor on my first book. I didn’t, for instance, know the difference between an en dash and an em dash, or exactly how the semicolon should be used. I would just use them intuitively, instinctively. But it’s important to first learn the dotting of the ‘i’s and the crossing of the ‘t’s, and then gradually learn to find your way around a manuscript and to know the limits always, to know that this is the writer’s work that you can intervene in or work with to this extent but beyond that you have to let it be.

Also, how much you can push someone to do. If there is a certain kind of writer who writes a certain kind of fiction for instance, you can’t make them write another kind of book altogether. You can’t say, “Oh you write so beautifully! Why don’t you write a crime novel instead of a relationship-centric novel?’ Maybe they don’t want to do it, maybe they can’t do it. So there’s no point trying to play god. You can just play...I don’t know, what’s the word for it…someone who assists god in the daily tasks and the surgeries of the day. That’s what it is. (Laughs.)

That’s quite a task, by the way.
It’s a great task to have. Imagine being up close to god every day. Writers are amazing people to work with.

Karthika VK with poet Vijay Sheshadri
Karthika VK with poet Vijay Sheshadri

Do you think it’s important for an editor to fall in love with the work?
Not necessarily. It is great when you do and you really want that book to work and believe in it, etc.…but you may not fall in love with the writing per se, maybe you fall in love with the idea of it, fall in love with the marketability of it, or with the writer who you think is really appropriate and saleable.

It could be any aspect of it that you believe in, it needn’t necessarily be one thing...which is the content alone...and I’m gradually discovering that. I used to be a bit of a snob earlier I think. (Laughs a little.) I used to think all that mattered was that it had to be great writing, but that isn’t true, because there is no one kind of great writing. There is no one kind of ideal writer or reader or text.

Yeah, it’s all subjective.
Yeah! There are many kinds of readers looking for many kinds of trips in life and your job as a publisher is to say, ‘I’ll bring you stuff that you might like to read, whoever you are’. There’s no place for complacency or snobbery or any of those things. You just have to…spread yourself out a lot more than that.

And what kind of relationship do you have with your authors?
As many kinds of relationships as there are authors, I think. Some of them can get intensely personal and you can become lifelong friends and loyalists. There are other people who will feel they have been short-changed because you don’t have enough time for them. There are yet others with whom you have just-for-the-moment relationships where you work on the book and once the book is done and out there, you both move on to other things. Which means they might move to another publisher as well and you might not get to work with them again.

There are always difficulties in those relationships because while you’re in it, you’re completely invested and you feel like they are bonded with you and you are bonded with them…and then the money might be better the next time around somewhere else and they might just walk away. So you have to come to terms with that as well and say, while you’re emotionally invested in people, you also have to be able to be detached enough to let them go. It’s not easy the first few times but after a while you learn to be…to combine that emotional stuff with the fairly detached…

It is like a break-up?
Yeah, it is like a break-up, except that you can be friends with them still. Because if you were sincere about your liking that writer and the book when you worked with them, I don’t see how that can suddenly change because they’re now published by someone else. You still want to read them, would still like to with work with them. There’s no point in suddenly saying, oh they’re with someone else, so now they’ve suddenly ceased to be your favourite writer…you don’t. You’ve got to be smart enough to know that’s stupid and you might as well continue the relationship except that you are now just a friend and not editor or publisher.

That sounds so much like being in a relationship...
No! Because when you’re in a relationship, even after you’ve moved on, you might find it hard to see them with someone else.

Do you think that’s the case sometimes?
(Lowers her voice.) Nooo…it’s okayyy…you’re hurt for just a little bit but then you get up and walk off because…Okay, so if you have to compare this, when you leave a relationship, you’re also bereft, right? You don’t have anybody else to walk in and occupy that space, but as an editor I have ten others who will call me and say, “Hey, you’re fine! Don’t worry about it, you lost a writer but you still have us…Now don’t make us feel bad by saying we don’t matter”, and they do that all the time, writers, when they hear about something that’s not going right for you, they’re the first ones who’ll call and empathise and say, “We know it’s hard for you”. It’s like having multiple lovers all the time. One break-up you can live with because the others are still there with you. (Laughs a little.)

Is there a book out there that you regret not having published?
Oh, so many!

Can you name one?
I mean, I would have loved to have published Anuja’s [Chauhan] last book, which was a sequel to a book we published, Those Pricey Thakur Girls...that was one. Ummm….there are other writers whom we have published but who have moved on to other publishers. There’s Tabish Khair, whose new book came out with Penguin…There’s Anees Salim whose next books have moved on to another publisher. There’s Susan Mridula Koshy, there are writers like that whom I have loved working with and have great regard for and...yes, I miss them and working with them. Umm…but of course, if I had to choose a book that I would love to have published, it’s probably something as completely impossible as Midnight’sChildren. That would be something else

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie

And is Salman Rushdie the author that you’d like to work with?
I’m not so sure about that...(Smiles widely.).

So on the one hand you have Midnight’s Children, but then you’ll also have to deal with Rushdie…
(Laughs a little) I mean, I actually asked him this question. He had come to India for the India Today conclave, and the one question I managed to ask him was this, “How much editing do you take?”, like I need to know! He was very good about it, he answered saying that he used to be much more resistant to editing in the beginning and then he used an instance of some material that he had actually taken out of Midnight’s Children because his editor had suggested it, and he said that in the end that worked well.

And he told me something I keep in my head every time I edit. He said, “If you lose something in the text and when you read it again, you don’t miss it, then it didn’t need to be there in the first place,” or something to that effect. So I keep...I hold that thought when I’m editing and I say, if I lose this sentence here or if I lose that paragraph there, is there something that I’m taking away from the book, from the writer? If it’s not adding to the experience of the reading, then maybe it’s all right to lose it.

Read the entire interview here.

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