w_750_h_465 / w_1500_h_835
Robert Lacey on editing Hilary Mantel’s <i>The Mirror and the Light</i>

Robert Lacey on editing Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light

By Gabrielle Johnson |

whitefox spoke to Robert Lacey, former Senior Editor at HarperCollins, about his extensive career in publishing and what it is like to work on bestselling books such as Hilary Mantel’s latest in her Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

Tell us a little about your career in publishing. What have been the highlights?

I started out at Chatto & Windus in 1987, under the formidable Carmen Callil. Authors whose books I worked on there included Michael Holroyd, David Kynaston, Amos Oz and Marina Warner, as well as new editions of Virginia Woolf’s letters, diaries and novels. After about four years I moved to HarperCollins, where by great good fortune the first book I edited was Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, which went on to sell thirteen million copies worldwide and to win the British Book of the Year Award. Over the years that followed I did books by, among many others, Bill Bryson, William Dalrymple, Alan Garner, Martin Gilbert, Ben Goldacre, Max Hastings, Richard Holmes (both of them), Ben Macintyre, Hilary Mantel, Andrew Marr, Jeremy Paxman, Jon Snow and Francis Wheen, as well as three prime ministers, two party leaders, and other political figures as diverse as Jeffrey Archer and Peter Mandelson. Naturally I had some favourites among them – and one or two unfavourites, but this isn’t the time or the place . . .

‘I always felt that one of the most useful things an editor could do, particularly for non-fiction, was to serve as a sympathetic, attentive, interested but non-expert reader, who was coming to the subject reasonably fresh.’

How has the industry changed since your first role, and how do you see it developing in the next five to ten years?

This will make me sound about a hundred, but when I started out, much of London publishing looked more or less the way I imagine it did at the time of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Chatto’s offices, in a rambling Georgian house in Bedford Square, were surrounded by other publishers –­ conglomeration, and the subsequent exodus to far-flung outposts like Vauxhall Bridge Road and Fulham Palace Road, had yet to arrive, although they were imminent. As for the work itself, not only was there no Internet, there was virtually none of the technology we now take for granted – I remember the wonder with which Chatto’s first fax machine was greeted. But while many things have changed beyond recognition, others remain exactly as they’ve always been: it’s an industry full of talented, hard-working people, who want above all to bring books they love to as wide an audience as possible. I feel very lucky to have worked in it for over thirty years.

w_750 / w_1500

Can you offer some insight into the way you work with writers editorially? How has the process changed over the years?

With very few exceptions, I never tended to do much research before starting work on a book. I always felt that one of the most useful things an editor could do, particularly for non-fiction, was to serve as a sympathetic, attentive, interested but non-expert reader, who was coming to the subject reasonably fresh. What I always enjoyed most was sitting down with the author and going through their typescript page by page, but in recent years that didn’t happen nearly as often as it once did –more and more, I found I didn’t even meet the author, and all communication was conducted by email. So while I willingly embraced all the advances in technology that made my job much easier, they inevitably made some aspects of it more impersonal.

‘There’s one particular phrase in The Mirror and the Light that struck me as anachronistic, and that I queried more than once, but that Hilary – mischievously, I think – chose to keep.’

You’ve recently finished working with Hilary Mantel on The Mirror and the LightCan you tell us what that experience was like?

One of the great pleasures and privileges for an editor is working on a book by an exceptionally gifted author. In cases like that the editor’s job can shrink significantly – to checking that the dates and small historical details are absolutely right (although in the case of someone like Hilary Mantel you can be pretty confident that they will be), and looking out for small repetitions, inconsistencies and possible anachronisms. This can lead you in interesting and unexpected directions. Was ‘pothole’ used in its current sense in the sixteenth century, for example? (It wasn’t.) Were turnips commonly eaten in England at that time? And if so, by the poor or by the rich? There’s one particular phrase in The Mirror and the Light that struck me as anachronistic, and that I queried more than once, but that Hilary – mischievously, I think – chose to keep. So look out for that one. Incidentally, I found it a near-infallible rule that the very best writers were extremely receptive to editorial suggestions. They may not necessarily have ended up acting on them, but they were always interested to hear them.

What are the pros and cons of working on both fiction and non-fiction, and which do you prefer?

The majority of the books I worked on were non-fiction, so I always enjoyed doing the occasional novel – it felt like a bit of a holiday. There tended to be less fact-checking (although of course there was still a certain amount), and it was a relief to be spared the laborious and time-consuming, though necessary, apparatus of endnotes, bibliographies, indexes and so on. One thing I particularly enjoyed about editing novels was working on dialogue. Would that character really use that word? Was that expression in use at that time? And – most often of all – does that sentence sound like something a real human being might ever conceivably utter?

‘Incidentally, I found it a near-infallible rule that the very best writers were extremely receptive to editorial suggestions.’

How does the work you do in the office (or remotely) plug into the rest of the team publishing a book? How has this changed throughout your career?

I suppose I can now say that I’ve always felt it was the authors I really worked for, rather than my actual employers, the publishers. Even so, as anyone who’s ever worked in publishing will confirm, it takes a host of people, doing a host of very different jobs, to make a book happen. And not just in the obvious ways: a really good production manager, say, can make all the difference. So I did feel that something was lost when (for entirely understandable financial reasons) publishers started cutting corners in certain areas. Imposing a one-size-fits-all text design on every book, for example, rather than designing each one individually.

Finally, what do you plan to do now you have retired from HarperCollins?

I don’t know – ask me again in six months’ time. Or whenever normal life resumes post-coronavirus.

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

—————————————————————————-

The whitefox Publishing Glossary 

All the publishing terminology you need to know. Click here to subscribe to the whitefox newsletter, The Frontlist and get your free copy.

—————————————————————————-

Chat to us today!

To talk to us about your book project, fill out the form below. We offer advice on next steps and can discuss the best range of services to support you. Or call us on +44(0)20 8638 0536.

Fill out our form