Christy Ottaviano Talks with Roger

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After twelve years as publisher of Christy Ottaviano Books at Macmillan, Christy has moved the imprint over to Hachette/Little, Brown. What does she have in store?

RS: As a publisher, you’re looking at everything at once, but your authors have been living with their own one book for maybe a year or more. I think it behooves both editors and book reviewers to remember how enormously important that work has to be to the author in order for it to get done. They become raging egomaniacs, but I don’t see any other way around it. If you don’t have that belief in yourself and what you’re doing, and the ability to absorb yourself in it, you won’t get any work done.

Christy Ottaviano: Indeed — you know this as an editor. I believe in the evolution of a book. The picture book I’m working on today is in its sixth layout pass. And before it was in design, it went through a rigorous editorial and art direction metamorphosis. Every stage is important — you’re looking at each stage with different eyes and looking out for different things. You definitely want the author and artist all-in each step of the way.

RS: Here they’ve been in relative isolation (pre-COVID or during COVID) and created this manuscript, and now it’s going to become one in your workload of thirty or forty. And then it’s going to join a universe of five thousand new children’s books published that year. How do you help your authors over that conceptual leap?

CO: That their book is one of many?

RS: Yes, both to you and to the world.

CO: That’s a great question. In terms of the rest of the world, creators know the reality of how many books get published every year, so I try to bring some sensibility about the market we’re publishing into and where I think their book fits within that market. I love developing house authors and helping to create publishing programs for them, so I am always thinking about their next book. I take a real interest in getting to know my authors — This person has a particular interest in art history. How could we bring that out in a new project? I love that sense of connecting with an author and helping them shape their ideas with the market in mind — we have to be strategists in that respect, so the books work and you can continue publishing together. I started working with Ben Guterson when I was at Macmillan — I published his debut trilogy the Winterhouse series. From the start, it was clear to me that he was a gifted storyteller and a real word lover. He enjoyed playing with language, so I encouraged him to build on that interest. The Winterhouse books are full of word ladders and word puzzles that are incorporated into the mystery itself. It was a side interest of Ben’s that he was excited to explore. This language element has now become part of his brand. Ben’s new novel The Einsteins of Vista Point (Winter ’22) incorporates word puzzles and even Morse code into the mystery. In this way, I’m always hoping to tap into interests of my authors that they may not have considered relevant to their stories.

RS: You’re making me think of something your first boss, Brenda Bowen, said to me years and years ago. It scared the hell out of me: “It’s a manuscript until I say it’s a book.”

CO: Haha — I love that and it’s very Brenda. What Brenda means, I think, is that as an editor you can definitely sense when a project is just about done — it’s something you feel inside. I’m a huge music enthusiast and recently watched a documentary on Arif Mardin who was a producer and arranger at Atlantic Records for forty years and then at Manhattan Records. He worked with a spectrum of songwriters and musicians: Chaka Khan, Norah Jones, Hall and Oates, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Willie Nelson, the Bee Gees, Diana Ross — and he achieved success with all of them. In the documentary he was asked: “How do you bring out the best in all of these different artists?” And he replied simply: “I follow the artist. I find what they’re good at and I try to bring that out and make it shine.” I really loved his way of looking at his role in the artistic process and feel like that’s what I try to do. I never edit my authors in the same way. I have different styles with everyone I work with based on their own styles and needs. I’m sort of freeform that way in terms of how to get the best work out of a creator.

RS: Do you find it hard to say no? What do you do when you have someone following their heart, etc., and you think: either this isn’t very good, or I’m not going to be able to sell it? How do you handle that?

CO: If it’s an author I’ve already worked with, I’m up-front about a project not being viable for the market if I didn’t feel it would work. There are also times, though, when I’m in love with something and I know there will be challenges at the acquisition meeting. I think all editors would agree that if you believe in something, you want to fight for it. But you have to be selective with those projects. To answer your question, I often feel like I’m not really saying “No.” I’m saying, “This isn’t quite working, but what about A, B, or C?”

RS: Turning the project in a different direction somehow.

CO: Exactly.

RS: Can you draw a line from what kid-Christy liked to read to what adult-Christy likes to publish?

CO: Absolutely. I was a voracious reader as a kid. I’m the third of four children, so I inherited all of my older siblings’ books. I grew up on Golden Books: Mary Blair, Tibor Gergely, JP Miller, Eloise Wilkin, Gustaf Tenggren, Margaret Wise Brown, Garth Williams, the Provensens, Lilian Obligado; and of course Virginia Lee Burton, Margaret Bloy Graham, Ezra Jack Keats, and Richard Scarry — I have such admiration for these creators, because I read their books over and over, and without even recognizing it, learned so much from them about storytelling and art. The magic of those books played a role in the types of books that I have been drawn to acquire and edit. Books that speak to young people, reflect the diversity of the world, and that foster inquisitive minds. When I first started working at Henry Holt, Donna Bray, who was an assistant editor at the time, took me out to lunch and we bonded over our love of Ruth Chew’s books. And of course there is Beverly Cleary — her work left an indelible mark on me. I remember packing my summer camp trunk with more Cleary books than clothes. It sounds so corny but I continue to try to find the inspiration that comes when you’re transported elsewhere while having an immersive reading experience.

RS: Don’t you find, as a reading adult, how hard we try to get back to that childhood absorption in a book? There are so many other things calling to your brain. But as a kid, you would open a book and, boom, there you’d be in the world.

CO: Right. As an editor, you’ve read a novel twenty times or more while it’s evolving. But the thrill has never gone away for me; that feeling when you finish reading something that you’ve helped to shape — and you’re still incredibly moved by it as if it’s the first time you’re reading it. That’s hugely satisfying. On the other hand, what I find sometimes when I’m reading books for pleasure is that it’s hard to put down the pencil — I rattle off thoughts like: this feels repetitive, or why is the type so small, or what a shame that the photos bleed through the paper. That’s when I wish I could have a little more separation from my work life, but it’s hard to turn off the editing.

RS: That’s definitely an occupational hazard for both of us. I’m reading the new Hillary Clinton thriller that she wrote with Louise Penny. I’m trying to enjoy it — it’s propulsive. But the names of the bad guys are all like: Bill Brown, Joe Smith. And I can’t keep anybody straight.

CO: That seems like such an easy fix, right? It’s the small things in the end, but when they jump out at you, you want to say: “Come on, couldn’t you have done one more editing round?” But the truth is that you just don’t know what transpired in the editing process to make that judgment call. I understand that all too well.

RS: What do you have coming up?

CO: The Chosen One: A First Generation Ivy-League Odyssey by Morris Award finalist Echo Brown and Augusta Savage: The Shape of a Sculptor’s Life by National Book Award finalist Marilyn Nelson, with an afterword by Tammi Lawson, curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture — these are on our Winter ’22 list. Both of these books will inspire timely, important discussions. Editor Jessica Anderson works with Echo Brown, whose latest blend of memoir and light fantasy explores the first-generation college student experience in YA fiction. I found it fascinating to work with Marilyn and learn about Augusta Savage. She was an artist whose desire to create could not be suppressed — she was driven to make art at every stage of her life, despite extremely difficult circumstances. While she was once a luminary force of the Harlem Renaissance, she became a hidden figure. But in the hands of Marilyn Nelson, Augusta Savage is a hidden figure no more. Echo Brown and Marilyn Nelson’s books speak to recurring themes and sensibilities on our list: women’s history, literary voices, and innovating across genres.

RS: In the interest of reader service I have to ask: what types of projects are you’re looking for as an editor?

CO: I’m most interested in picture books and middle-grade fiction and nonfiction. I’ve been editing more nonfiction over the last five years and loving the challenge. Jessica Anderson is looking more specifically for young adult. I’m especially drawn to women’s history and publish picture-book biographies on important female subjects, as well as character-driven fiction, curriculum-focused titles, and those that explore the diversity of our world. On the middle-grade front, I am partial to mysteries with a literary thread. That being said, the writing has to speak to me; the storytelling has to be strong and inventive. Still, I could get a manuscript tomorrow that I am eager to publish that doesn’t check off any of the boxes I just noted — it’s all in the telling.

RS: I think some people believe that if someone just told them what to do, they’d create a great book. But that’s not going to work. If we said, “Christy wants a middle-grade novel with a UFO in it and a mystery…” But you can’t write to order.

CO: If I’m editing someone whom I’ve worked with before and I’m already confident in their skills, I might suggest an idea, especially if it’s nonfiction. But mostly I love being inspired by a new project because of the quality of the writing. Additionally, one of the best things about being an editor is that the job allows you to be a dilettante. You can discover something you knew very little about. That is a wonderful thing, to always be learning. I’m endlessly talking with my direct team Jessica Anderson and Leyla Erkan, as well as my LBYR colleagues, about how to make something work within the market. How can we get this to be viable for the house? That, to me, is exciting, because it requires more thought, more challenge in bringing all the parts together.

RS: Do you like working in an office, or would you rather work at home?

CO: I love the blend. For years I worked three days in the office and two at home. I always felt this was the perfect balance, especially when you’re doing thoughtful editing work that you need to spend a lot of time and focus on. During the pandemic I have been working almost exclusively from home and am eager to return to the office a few days a week when HBG reopens. How do you feel about it? Did you like the office? Do you prefer home?

RS: Like you, actual editing and book reading I like to do at home. But there’s so much we miss not being in the office. Martha Parravano could come into my office with a galley and say, “Could you take a look at this?” and I’d say, “Oh, I’ve already read that; skip it.” And boom, you’re done. And you’ve increased the joint professional knowledge of the two people in the conversation. But you try to reproduce that electronically — Martha would write and say, “Could you look at this PDF?” and then I have to go look at the PDF. It becomes laborious, and not as prone to the kind of creative diversion you can get in an actual conversation.

CO: I couldn’t agree more. There’s no question that in-person or on the phone allows for such a natural give-and-take. How often have you been with one of your editors, or a writer you’re working with, and all of a sudden, something you’ve said sparks an idea, and then you’re firing ideas back and forth, and ten minutes later, a story idea emerges? That process, to me, is irreplaceable.

RS: It’s the best part of the job.

CO: During the early part of the pandemic, we were all overwhelmed, and everyone was trying to figure out how to have meetings online. A lot of author phone calls were pushed to the side. Now I’m trying to get back to those calls because they can be germinating. There’s a natural process to the conversation, as opposed to what you said earlier regarding email which doesn’t come close to that natural conversational flow that would happen with interjections and derailments. All of that, to me, is part of the process. Everything just crystallizes when you can have that phone call or in-person back-and-forth.

RS: I remember when I was working with Betsy Hearne at the Bulletin, and I was having trouble with one review or another, and she’d say, “Well, tell me what you think of the book.” I’d start talking, and in the talking, and in Betsy’s questions and her contributions to the conversation, all would become clear. It was like letting the idea out into the air with another person listening would sort of free me from whatever problem I was having in the actual writing itself. It gave me new oxygen.

CO: Definitely. It gave you time to pause and process what Betsy was saying in response to your comment. It’s like you were editing each other.

RS: That’s what I love the most about this kind of work. It’s not the actual editing itself; it’s the dialogue I have with the person I’m editing, on paper, as well as with that person and my colleagues, about the same review or article.

CO: At the end of the day, if you polled a group of editors, I bet they would all agree with you. I don’t think you can do this work and not love every aspect of the editorial process, of watching something grow — something that starts out as a tiny seed and blossoms into a tree. That process of nurturing each stage is transformative. It’s hard work, but there’s nothing quite like seeing a story flourish.


Sponsored by

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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