On Meeting Mary
by Jessie Cole
I first met my editor, Mary Rennie, through the HarperCollins Varuna Manuscript Development Award in 2009. This award involved staying at Varuna, the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains, for ten days to work one-on-one with an editor from HarperCollins. I live in Northern NSW, in a tiny rural town, and though I had been to Varuna twice before, I had never met an editor.
The manuscript I submitted was an autobiographical novel entitled Blood Mandala: A Biography of a Family (yet to be published). A set of stories based on events in my family—it was a traumatic read. Before I arrived at Varuna, Mary sent me an email containing ‘notes’ on the manuscript which were—to be frank—unsettling. Points about certain ‘characters’ that didn’t quite work. Parts of the storyline that needed shoring up. A list of issues we might address during our time together. Even though I couldn’t argue with the truth of Mary’s assertions, I was disturbed by her insights. It felt to me like she was offering a critique of my family, of my life. My alarm bells were ringing.
There were five writers chosen for the award, and each of us had been selected by an assigned editor. On the evening of my arrival at Varuna we all assembled around the lounge room fireplace for the introductions. What followed was a sort of literary speed dating—we writers were shuffled from one editor to another making feeble small talk. A somewhat excruciating situation. When I got to Mary, she asked a few quick questions about the text. She was direct in a way I hadn’t quite expected and I was caught off guard. I wanted to talk to her about trauma, about how in working with me on this novel she was traversing the terrain of my difficult past. I don’t remember the words I spoke, but Mary watched me carefully. ‘Let’s not talk about the book now,’ she said abruptly. ‘We’ll save that for tomorrow. What’s a less loaded topic? The weather?’ To which I had nothing at all to say.
At this point I began to feel a little panicky. How was I going to work on this manuscript without talking about my life? It seemed to me an impossible task—separating the fact from the fiction, viewing this unwieldy novel as something apart from me, strong enough for an editor’s sharp scrutiny. After dinner I called my mother. ‘I don’t know if this is going to work,’ I said. ‘I just don’t know if I can do it.’ But I was there, and so was Mary, and there was ten days left to go.
What I didn’t know then—having had little experience with writers and no experience with editors—is that by-and-large they are a shy bunch. I am often awkward with those I don’t know, and the same could probably be said for most of those present that night. Literary speed dating was not a comfortable way to begin, but holed up in our little private room in the days that followed—chatting about the text—turned out to be a revelation.
Contrary to my initial impressions, Mary was a gentle and compassionate listener. Attuned to my dilemma around the fictionalisation of real life, she trod carefully through the process of reworking that first text. I sat at the desk and she sat on a chair in the corner, and as we went through her notes—issue by issue—I could feel my confidence grow. Ten days in a room with just one person—talking about a manuscript—is perhaps an unusual intimacy for a writer at work. In truth, it’s hard to recall a time or place where I have felt more heard. And that’s the thing about editing—there is something in the process reminiscent of therapy. Even a fiction writer exposes their strange and often unconscious leanings or desires, and the way an editor interacts with that exposure can do much to shape the final text. In the words of Karl Ove Knausgard—‘the literature is still about to become, is in a state of flux, even though its form already exists‘. It’s a precarious situation. Trust is the integral ingredient in such an intimate exchange.
I’ve been lucky in my journey to publication, but one of the biggest blessings has been meeting Mary. After spending that ten days at Varuna she went on to edit my first published novel—Darkness on the Edge of Town, and the latest one too—Deeper Water (out in August). Through this process the trust we built has evolved, and, despite the fact that we live more than 1000 kilometres apart and rarely see each other from year to year, we have developed an unusual kind of closeness. In that small room at Varuna, all those years ago, Mary waded into the heart of my trauma, looked me in the eye and listened to me speak, and in her own way she told me—there is something in this sorrow, something beautiful and deep, and there are those of us out there who truly want to hear it.
First published on The Writers’ Bloc, 16th of June 2014.