The relationship between an author and his or her editor and/or publisher is a special one. When picking up a book off the shelf we often don’t think about the countless hours the two spend together, making revisions and debating about the novel’s inner world. One such relationship is especially fascinating around here, that of Salman Rushdie and his longtime Canadian editor and publisher Louise Dennys. When Salman Rushdie’s new book, The Golden House, came out in September we couldn’t resist having a chat with Louise to see what it’s like editing and publishing one of the most controversial writers in the world.
Louise is Executive Publisher and Executive Vice-President of Penguin Random House Canada, but also a “hands-on writer’s editor,” working directly with many of Canada’s most renowned writers, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Yann Martel. Some particularly interesting facts about Louise are that she started her own publishing house at age 25 (amazing, right?), is the founding publisher of the Canadian arm of Knopf and Vintage, is a past president of PEN Canada, and is a recipient of the Order of Canada for her contribution to Canadian culture.
Copyright Joy Von Tiedemann
You’ve edited Salman’s books for many years. When did the two of you first meet?
We’ve known each other for over 30 years. I met Salman on a march through Toronto in 1983, protesting a threatened US cruise missile test over Canada. He was in Toronto at the International Author’s Festival to promote his novel Shame. I had read and passionately loved Midnight’s Children, so I was thrilled to unexpectedly find myself wandering along with him through downtown Toronto. We talked books. The march crawled through the city. And I’m afraid we shamelessly abandoned it for drink and more talk. I had just begun my own small publishing house, Lester & Orpen Dennys, and I geared up my courage to ask this dazzling, charismatic young writer if he would, one day, consider allowing me to publish him in Canada. Being Salman, a man with a prodigious memory, he did not forget. Today we agree that protest marches can be very good things.
From left to right: Ric Young, Salman Rushdie, Louise Dennys, and Michael Ondaatje. Copyright 1992 Jean-Marc Desrochers Photography. Courtesy of PEN Canada.
How has your editor-writer relationship evolved over the years?
Through a loving friendship.
The relationship between an editor and a writer is of a different nature from that between a publisher and the writer. It’s a joy to me that I am both an editor and a publisher. The publisher in me is galvanized by helping to ensure the book with which I am involved will reach its widest possible audience. The editorial relationship grows more slowly, deepening over time, a “vegetable love,” to quote the poet Marvel, made up of the deepest respect, a careful attunement to the writer’s intentions, ambitions and fierce hopes for the work on hand, and some skill as a committed but tough-minded “personal reader” staying usefully (one hopes) alongside the writer in achieving those hard goals. The relationship evolves through the text and through conversation. It’s the writer’s prerogative to choose (or not) to listen to that conversation. So I think one of my happiest moments was when Salman recently did me the greatest honour I could imagine: flying up from New York to present the Ivy Award to me (for contribution to writing and publishing), and publicly noting that he did indeed pay attention.
Was the process of editing this book different from editing his previous works?
Each of his books is different. Each book requires a different measure of understanding. Salman is simply so very very smart. But this book is something quite new for Salman, which kept me up on my toes too. He wrote The Golden House at an unusual pace, and the vitality of it is reflected in the style of the book at every turn. The captivating story is pulled from the headlines of American politics over the last decade, revealing the bones behind the changing face of America as Obama makes way for Trump; the dissolution behind the financial greed, the terrorism, the confusions and wildness of our time. Our sense of being propelled through the story is there in the language which is, through almost all the novel, different in tone from his other books. It’s our contemporary world we’re reading about, and this novel is more direct, easy to read, very hard to put down. He enjoyed taking on a new style, and the book reflects his enjoyment—it’s hugely fun and entertaining as well as memorably astute. You have to sprint as an editor to keep up, but it’s worth every step.
What’s one thing that you know about Salman that might surprise his readers?
His novels and essays are so multifaceted—all of Salman is in them. But in case anyone has missed it: he’s a sweetheart. A man with a very big, generous heart and a great giggle.
The writing in The Golden House is particularly captivating. What’s one of your favourite lines from the book?
“There is only the whirling movement of life.”