This week we bring you one more in our series of Q & As with the faculty of the 2011 Agents Conference. Today we’re featuring Beena Kamlani, an editor at Viking Penguin. Meet Beena and other amazing editors and agents at the Agents Conference, taking place June 10-12.
The deadline for online registration is Monday, June 6, so don’t forget to register today!
1. How did you get started in publishing?
When I moved to NYC, I wanted to work in publishing but knew next to nobody in the industry. So I called the American Association of Publishers and asked to speak to Greg Gore, then head of the AAP, and he very kindly agreed. I met him in his office and we talked about books, and publishing, and what editors and publishers actually do. After about 45 minutes, he wrote down the names of some people who he thought might be helpful to me. One of them was the then head of Oxford University Press. I went to see him the very next day and was offered a job as editorial trainee there.
2. What’s the average number of submissions you receive in a month?
I usually commission books—like Gods and Soldiers, an anthology of contemporary African literature.
3. If you could give writers one small piece of advice about the world of publishing, what would it be?
Hand in your best effort, and only after you’re satisfied with it. Don’t waste the editor’s input on an unruly early draft. Use the editor for the final draft, when a fresh eye will make a valuable difference. In general, people do get tired of looking at the same thing over and over again. So turn your manuscript in when you know it’s pretty much finished.
4. What was your first acquisition?
See number 2.
5. What do you love most about your job?
The fact that I’m always learning something knew. Each book is a small universe, and could be about something I don’t know very much about. In some ways, that’s an advantage to the writers, because if an editor gets what the author is trying to do, then it’s more than likely that general readers out there, the ones the book is trying to reach, will get it too. If you’re a specialist, you’re reading for other specialist readers. So that’s the first really fun part—the learning. Then it’s the actual editing. But this is what I’ll be speaking about at the conference so won’t go into it here.
6. What is something that you often see beginning writers doing wrong?
Writers often underestimate the reader. They’ll over-explain, try to make things really clear. In fiction, this tendency, far from clarifying things for the reader, makes the book boring. Readers don’t want to be told much– whatever you don’t know is automatically suspenseful. The reader wants to be surprised. Once suspense is killed, the average reader will see little point in going on. There’s a very fine line between giving information on the basis of the need to know, and burdening the reader with too much of it. Getting it right is a matter of skill.
7. Are you a writer yourself? And if so, what do you write?
I’m a fiction writer. I’ve published many short stories, and have just finished a novel. I’m now editing it and want to follow my own advice about not turning in an unruly draft.
8. What is a little known fact about yourself?
That one of my favorite hobbies was surfing. I hardly ever got it right, and was often thrown off and in the water before I’d experienced even the slightest thrill of it, but it never stopped me from trying. Once in a blue moon, my timing would be just right, and I’d go flying back to the shore. Those rare moments, those were worth all the effort.
9. What book are you reading right now?
Kalooki Nights by Howard Jacobson.
10. If you could have a beer or coffee with a literary luminary living or dead, who would it be and why?
Gustave Flaubert. I’ve read his novels, of course, and have taught Madame Bovary in my editing class at NYU for nearly eighteen years now, but his letters really enchanted, no, riveted me. He comes across as passionate, contentious, funny, cosmopolitan, and incredibly interesting. I’d want his take on everything, from literature to politics, food, relationships, space exploration, global warming, the deification of popes, royal weddings—everything!
11. Beer or coffee?