We spoke to Sally Brampton, author of Shoot the Damn Dog and former Editor-in-Chief of ELLE Magazine about her books and her long and illustrious career in magazine publishing and journalism.
1. Before turning to book-writing full-time, you held several editorial roles within the magazine industry, including fashion editor at the Observer and editor-in-chief at Elle Magazine. Would you ever consider applying the editorial expertise gleaned from these years to book editing?
Yes, I have always used every ounce of editorial expertise I have gleaned over the years, both as an editor and a journalist. As well as working within fashion, both as an editor and a journalist, over the years (forty!) I have written general features for pretty much every national newspaper and major magazine.
As the editor-in-chief of ELLE, I had final say over every part of the magazine and proof read all the copy from contributors, including writers such as Jeanette Winterson, Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill, among many others. In that way, you must be sensitive to each writer’s unique voice and respect their particular tone and sentence construction. In that way, I learnt a great deal from excellent writers.
As a journalist, you must communicate quite complex ideas in a very lucid and concise way, which is an extremely useful discipline when it comes to writing both fiction and non-fiction. There is nothing worse than an over-written book, over-complicated sentences or being bludgeoned over the head with endless adjectives. It’s the fastest way of losing the attention of your readers because it confuses and complicates the narrative.
As a journalist, you must be prepared for often extremely harsh criticism and editing and not take it personally or react in an overly sensitive way. I believe that all writers, either journalists or authors, are too close to their work to be entirely objective, so I always listen very carefully to comments about my work and never take it personally. Constructive criticism is extremely helpful and I believe that every editor wants to make a book better, not worse, and that we, as writers, are helped by their suggestions.
2. You have an extensive journalism portfolio, including a column in Psychologies and an 8 year stint as an agony aunt for the Times. How does your relationship with the editor of your books differ from those of your magazine editors, or from your relationship with the journalists you worked with as an editor?
There is no great difference between working for an editor of fiction, newspapers or magazines, except that book editors are infinitely gentler!! I love them – but if you have worked as a journalist, turning out 2,000 words in a day for publication the next day, newspaper editors simply don’t have time to massage egos, and if you don’t hit a deadline, there’s going to be a blank page in a national newspaper. Features are often cut because a big news story comes in that morning so those 2,000 words you have written so carefully might be reduced to 500 overnight. If you take that to heart, and start complaining – then you’re a lousy journalist, and probably won’t get much future work because you’ll get a reputation as a prima donna. Books have a far longer lead-time so there is a great deal of time for discussion as well as the luxury of having the time to deliberate over suggestions and ideas with an editor. Which is why I love them! I’ve also had the privilege of working with excellent book editors.
3. You treat a good deal of personal subject matter in your writing, do you feel that either non-fiction or fiction serves these purposes better than the other?
They both serve their purposes in different ways. In fiction, you can start with a single, personal experience and weave it into a broad narrative, bring in other characters, each with their own experiences, and explore the larger and more complex arenas of emotion.
In non-fiction, you must always consider the truth – and the absolute truth. You must be rigorously honest and take full responsibility for your behaviour and emotions, however brutal they might seem to a reader, and not whitewash your own character to make yourself sound more saintly. Readers have an instinct for the truth. They can spot dishonesty immediately.
4. What are the most important qualities in a good editor?
Respecting the unique voice of every writer and not trying to impose their ideas or tone on a book. If I chose one word it would be, respect.
5. What is the biggest lesson you have learned from your career trajectory?
Listen and learn!!!!