On a breezy Sunday evening, the usually peaceful Sea View Room at the NCPA in Mumbai was a noisy place with many people vying for last-minute seats for David Ebershoff’s workshop on “The First Page” at the Tata Literature Live festival. The person in charge drew the line at 30. The room shrunk with every entrant.
Dressed in a casual blue shirt and grey trousers, bright with energy and a sunny smile, Ebershoff was amazingly candid and accessible for someone whose books have been turned into award-winning films and translated into 25 languages. Maybe his sunny side comes from his Californian childhood, or perhaps from escaping New York’s trying winter to Mumbai’s welcoming one on his maiden visit, which he was much excited about. Or perhaps he just loves teaching.
The readings he had were mostly the works of his students at Columbia University and of authors he has published. Two hours flew by in discussions on what a first page must constitute, important decisions, the tone – followed by writing and incisive critiquing. The high level of interactivity led to a WhatsApp group – of participants who wanted to linger in the space he created. But most unforgettable was his powerful opening with an anecdote about an editor who decided the fate of manuscripts just by looking at the first page. Ebershoff spoke to Scroll.in about editing, writing, and, most importantly, where to start.
Who was this editor you mentioned in the anecdote? Tell us the whole story.
When I was an intern with Random House, this editor told me she would ask her assistant for the first pages of manuscripts, look at them and ask for next ten pages of the ones she liked, and finally, based on those, manuscripts to take home to read. I was shocked. It felt cruel. It took me a while to reconcile with the method. Yet, she was a very successful editor, who had published some of the best writers. I never followed suit, but took back a lesson – a book has to start speaking right away.
What selection style did you adopt?
In some ways, agents prepared me in advance – email or call to tell me about the book. Over time, I got to know their inclinations (and they, mine), so I knew what to expect if something was coming from a particular agent. Other than that, I kept it simple. I tried reading manuscripts like a reader rather than an editor. I felt my job was to figure out what the book was and how well the author was achieving their goal. If goals weren’t being achieved, I would see how I could help. But I never turned a book into something the author didn’t want it to be.
Methods often evolve. Did yours change after you spent more years editing?
Later, I was often looking for things that were new. New to me. As I read so much, I thought, if something is new for me, it would be new for others as well. I also began exploring things I hadn’t done. For example, I typically published fiction, history and biography, but with Shirin Ebadi’s (the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Prize) books that were memoirs, I was expanding. The more books I edited, the more successful they became, the more books I received. I had to start prioritising, but remained conscious of retaining a wide-eyed approach.
Did you have to reject many?
Yes, all the time, and it was the hardest part of the job – saying no to writers. Sometimes I turned down books because they weren’t right for me – their subjects were out of my areas of expertise or interest. I would deal with those quickly – call the agent and redirect them to a more suitable editor. I would also avoid books similar to what I already had under contract.
If I encountered a manuscript that wasn’t working, I would try to figure out why and explain that to the agent. In some cases, if the author was willing to do the work of significant revisions, I would make an offer. It’s more difficult with fiction, which is more subjective. Our responses to fiction are very personal and often about our own psyches and outlooks, and not merely the quality of the book.
Wasn’t there pressure to speed up, meet targets? Your method and that of the editor you earlier mentioned are on different sides of the spectrum. What’s the more common practice?
Frankly, I’m not sure whether she always, actually did that. That kind of editor is an extreme. She doesn’t represent the industry and the first page won’t determine your fate. It’s not so much about the first page as the fact that it’s an introduction to the book. When people sent me manuscripts saying – “’Keep going till Chapter 3, the story picks up there” or “Skip this, start there” – I’d wonder, then why not begin there? With the language or character that’s most welcoming? Often in a bookstore, readers open books, read the first page and put them down. Why? That’s a question to ask.
Of course, the industry has pressures of deadlines and financial goals, but I was fortunate to work for Gina Centrello, President of the Random House Publishing Group, who always believed that the best version of the book will find the most success. If a book needed one more edit, she urged us to make the manuscript as strong as possible. For instance, I had signed a contract with a historian working on America’s role in the war in Vietnam. The original contract was for 3-4 years, but the author took 12 years to complete the book. Every year or so, we had to renew the contract to get an extension, and every time, Gina signed off on it without hesitation. She understood that this was an important historian working on an important subject and sometimes the best books take more time than planned. The book won a Pulitzer Prize for history. She had made a smart publishing decision and it also worked in author’s favour. Sometimes it’s most rewarding to stand for books you believe in.
When I read a book I loved, I became very passionate about it, almost evangelical. This was the case with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which is highly unconventional in style and structure. When I read it, I knew it was a masterpiece and I wouldn’t stop talking about it until it found proper recognition. The book went on to become a Booker Prize finalist, a big budget movie and a bestseller.
The same thing happened with Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son – I was certain of its power and originality. I told everyone I could about it and the book won the Pulitzer Prize.
Your own books have been turned into films. The Danish Girl won an Oscar and The 19th Wife became a television movie. Are you more visually oriented? Do you have an eye for such books?
No one has ever asked me that...Yes, I do respond to visual writing. Maybe that lends itself to screen adaptation. Often the books I love have multiple meanings, they could attract multiple audiences and so adapt well on screen. But I have never written a book with that intention; it’s out of the publisher’s control. Luckily my books immediately got optioned by producers and they saw the films through. Often, that won’t happen. The second book went to screen quickly, but the first one took 15 years. My producer kept trying.
As for the eye, what has been most helpful in my career is always being able to ascertain what a book is about. I never struggled to form an opinion and trusted it. Even if others said, “I don’t think it’s that great,” or a book I published got a bad review, my opinion didn’t waver. You have to know your thoughts, otherwise you’ll easily get confused or caught-up in chasing trends.
When writing your novels’ first pages did you feel lucky to be armed with your insights from publishing or inhibited by pressure?
I was quite junior when I completed The Danish Girl (in 2000), so no industry knowledge got applied to it. It was how I would usually do a first page – clearly setting the terms and tone of the story. It was a very interior page, interior story. It underwent several revisions, but still remained what I had imagined in my first draft.
With The 19th Wife, which came out in 2008, I felt people had expectations about the kind of writer I was. So I wanted to try something different, better, more complicated. Halfway through the story, I arrived at the first page, which opens with a murder, and set myself the challenge of transcending it through the course of the book. The book is really about faith and religion. I wanted to see if I could pull it off. It’s also a genre I’d never attempted.
Where do most new writers falter?
Everything I was reading was coming through agents, who usually work with authors on amateurish or first-time mistakes, so those weren’t coming to me. But I would say [where most people falter is] voice. Often, something about it felt forced, unnatural, lifeless...especially in non-fiction writing. That’s tough to fix. But I believe any writer, who has managed to get that far can write; sometimes they just haven’t chosen a voice that’s their own or one that reads authentically. A voice that sounds natural can carry the reader along quite far.
Any tips for new writers?
Ponder over how you’re beginning, why there, and how else you can do it. Keep the reader guessing with the first page and still give them what they want. Write the book you want to read, or would love to recommend. It might not exist. But your passion and its meaning to you will resonate with readers. Not every reader, but the kind that shares your passions.
But remember, the inverse may not be true – if you write thinking what others want to read, it’s possible no one will want to read it. Arrive at an appropriate voice and language. Finally, pick up your favourite books, read the front page and see what it achieves, the questions it answers. You’ll be intrigued.