In conversation with

Kishani Widyaratna

Editorial Director at 4th Estate

Introduction

Introduction

Literary editing is a challenge. It’s not just the checking of grammar (that’s a whole other job in itself), but to be in dialogue with the author, push their work towards where they want to get to and ultimately help communicate their story.

The role of the editor, as Kishani Widyaratna puts it is to “cut out all the noise.” This is a sentiment we can get behind.

Kishani caught our attentions when we watched her interview Sally Rooney for The London Review Of Books. The duo’s conversation was sharp and insightful – no doubt a result of Kishani’s experience as an editor at Picador, The White Review, and now as the newly appointed Editorial Director at 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins.

We spoke to Kishani about what makes a great editor (accepting that sometimes you will be wrong), what she looks for in a story (to be compelled and roused), and the authors we should be looking out for (Raven Leilani, to name one).

 

Question and Answer

What were the stories and books you were enjoying growing up, and how has your enjoyment of storytelling changed over the years (especially considering your job)?

As a child I would read whatever I could get my hands on at the library or school. This was a mixture of children’s classics such as Roald Dahl, Little Women, Charlotte’s Web, The Hobbit, and then popular series like Goosebumps, Sweet Valley High and the Babysitters Club, and then also the Reader’s Digest books I could get at my aunt’s house. As a teenager my reading became consciously autodidactic and sometimes pretentious, so veered around through writers like Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Irvine Welsh, Jean Rhys, Salinger, Dostoevsky, Camus and Sartre. At university my intellectual and political world opened up and I first read writers who became quite formative for me such as Toni Morrison, Jamaica Kincaid, Lydia Davis, Frantz Fanon, bell hooks, Gayatri Spivak and Stuart Hall. I also discovered theory and psychoanalysis for the first time and would go to talks of people like Judith Butler, Mark Fisher, Sara Ahmed and even the cartoonish Zizek (although I hate to admit it now). Reading broadly across subjects and styles, the way I had when I was growing up, was something I only found my way back to when I started working in publishing and I am grateful for that. The other thing that’s changed with this job is that I read a vast amount of contemporary writing whether that be fiction, non-fiction or poetry so I feel more engaged with what is happening in writing today than at any other time in my life.

Kishani Widyaratna

What is your biggest challenge as an editor?

My biggest challenge as an editor is to stay open and independent. Publishing is quite an insular, old-fashioned industry and there’s also a lot of conservatism and received thinking about what works or doesn’t work, what people want to read and what’s considered ‘good’ or ‘important’, and a lot of that is unfavourable towards writers from underrepresented backgrounds or writers who are doing something ground-breaking. The challenge for me as an editor is to not let the consensus colour the writing and ideas I respond to, or my capacity to be as creative, bold, open and supportive as possible in the editorial relationship with my authors. The challenge is to cut out all the noise.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given about editing or being a great editor?

The best advice I have been given is to see it as a dialogue with the author. This starts with a conversation with the author about what it is that they’re trying to achieve and what their intentions are and trying to follow that thinking through the work. To my mind, an editor’s job is not so much to impose their view but to help a writer to gain enough distance to be able to question different aspects of the text whether that be plot, characterisation, atmosphere, language or the reader’s experience and then to help them get to where they are trying to get to. Another good piece of advice is that sometimes as an editor you will be wrong! My responsibility is to give honest feedback to the writer and it’s up them to decide if they agree, and sometimes the editor is wrong. It’s a very important thing to remember.

What do you first look for in a story?

Personally, I just want to be captivated by it and this can be by the voice, by a striking writing style, surprising or beautiful use of language or perhaps the narrative is particularly unexpected, affecting or funny, or perhaps the story feels especially true or authentic. I am not looking for a singular thing in the work, but more a desired response to be roused in me as the reader which is that I am truly compelled by the work and excited by it.

“The challenge for me as an editor is to not let the consensus colour the writing and ideas I respond to, or my capacity to be as creative, bold, open and supportive as possible in the editorial relationship with my authors. The challenge is to basically cut out all the noise.”

What would you say to someone who has an idea for a story but finds it hard to start the writing process?

Firstly, I think it’s important for a writer to understand how they work best and to know the conditions that are conducive to them producing their best work, whether that be a good time of day or a clear desk or the right kind of music or if they actually work best in their beds. Then I would suggest it’s important to start putting words down no matter what. Don’t get hung up on the beginning if that doesn’t come to you, try to put down a scene from the middle of the story or a description of one of the characters or an exchange in dialogue. The crucial thing is to put words on the page and afterwards you can add to or revise them.

How would you like to see publishing shift and grow over the next few years?

I would like to see publishing address the issues most crucial to its future, which to me are diversity, greater supporter for independent publishers and highstreet bookshops, and improving the environmental impact of the industry. All three are urgent but if I might limit myself to speaking about the first here, I would like to see a shift away from publishing being an elitist club to one with better accessibility and inclusion for workers and authors from all backgrounds regardless of race, class, gender identity or sexuality. Publishers have been very keen to sign up a handful of new authors and to roll out unconscious bias training but resistant to making any structural changes when it comes to commissioning editors or management, and that to me is telling about where the real power lies.

We absolutely loved your talk with Sally Rooney for the London Review of Books back in 2019. What makes for a compelling interview?

That’s very kind, thank you. I am by no means an expert on interviews but I think if you really appreciate someone’s work and their craft, and are interested in them and what they have to say that should lead to interesting questions, receptive listening and an engaged and fluid conversation. There is also a kind of chemistry that makes for a good interview and that is harder to put your finger on but when it’s there it is a joy to watch.

Have there been any new authors you’ve read recently who you think are redefining a genre, a movement, or who will really get into the hearts of readers?

In terms of authors that I have edited, for me Raven Leilani is doing something radical and thrilling in fiction. I fell for her debut novel Luster within the first few pages because her writing is exceptional and so sharp, but also because she has such vision as a writer. In Luster, Raven is redefining the portrayal of the young artist in literature through writing the story of Edie, a young Black woman who desperately wants to be a painter but hasn’t had the material circumstances that would allow her to flourish creatively, and then comes about them in a very modern and unexpected way. Patricia Lockwood is another writer I greatly admire and I loved her debut novel No One is Talking About This. It’s absurd, hilarious, incredibly clever and deeply affecting – in form and storytelling, it feels genuinely new. This is a great year for fiction with many terrific debut novels that readers should feel excited about including Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, Assembly by Natasha Brown, Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan and Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett. In non-fiction, I think The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye will be a landmark work in the discussion of transgender rights in the UK and I’m also looking forward to The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan who is an essential thinker.

What do you think is the power of a great piece of writing?

A great piece of writing in any form can do so much, it can move you in a profound way and change the way you think about an issue or an experience. It can help you understand yourself better. It might feel like a cliché or might be saccharine to say that a truly great piece of writing can have the power to leave you feeling changed by the experience of reading it but I know that I personally have had that so while it is incredibly rare, it’s out there. As an editor, it’s something I hope to come across.

Kishani's Storylist

Books

  1. The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam
  2. The Autobiography Of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid
  3. A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson
  4. In The Wake: On Blackness And Being by Christina Sharpe
  5. Collected Essays by Lydia Davis

Magazines

  1. The White Review
  2. The Stinging Fly
  3. The New Yorker
  4. Aperture
  5. Huck

Newsletters

  1. Class Notes by Jon McGregor
  2. Utopian Drivel by Huw Lemmy
  3. By Way Of No Way by Momtaza Mehri

Podcasts

  1. Literary Friction
  2. The New Yorker Fiction Podcast
  3. Backlisted
  4. Bow Down

Websites

  1. Novara Media
  2. gal-dem
  3. London Review Of Books Blog
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