Innovators in Lit #14: Jenna Johnson

Cover art for We the Animals by Justin Torre and The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Jenna Johnson is Senior Editor for HMH hardcovers and Editorial Manager for Mariner paperbacks. Among her books are We the AnimalsPigeon EnglishThe Vanishing Act of Esme LennoxThe End of Mr. Y, Man Asia Prize winner Three Sisters, and the James Beard winner Save the Deli. Among her authors are Steve Earle, Tim O’Brien, Kent Meyers, Tony D’Souza, Maggie O’Farrell, Scarlett Thomas, Faïza Guène, Young-ha Kim, and Gina Ochsner. Curious to know how an editor like Jenna makes the magic happen, I thought her a perfect fit for Innovators in Literature. Ever wonder what an average day for a Senior Editor at a major house looks like? Or what helps a book get that elusive, ephemeral thing we call buzz? Read on for Jenna’s terrific insights into the publishing world, her most thrilling moments at HMH, what’s in the pipeline, and why we need a machine to slow down time.

Laura: How did you first come to editing?

Jenna Johnson: My family would tell you that I started young, rewriting the endings to many of my storybooks. But my introduction to the profession came during college, when I worked as an intern for the wonderful literary agent Stuart Krichevsky. Before and after that, I had spent time in advertising and public relations, but I continued to be drawn to publishing in large part because of the passion, energy, and intelligence I had witnessed during that internship. When the opportunity to work at a house came along—as an editorial assistant to Jane Isay, then editor-in-chief at Harcourt—I bought a last-minute ticket back to New York for an interview and kept my fingers crossed the whole way. I had been truly fortunate in my work experience up to that point, landing with mentors who were both generous and brilliant. And from reading lots and lots of literary biographies, books of letters, and literary memoirs, I knew how important it was to find the kind of person and place that would give me the chance to grow. Jane and Andrea Schulz (who came to Harcourt as a senior editor within a week or so of my arrival as an assistant) ended up being even better than the already excellent mentors I had known. They gave me enough and a variety of work to challenge me and allowed me to edit manuscripts fairly early on in my assistantship—books ranging from astronaut memoirs to Civil War histories to debut novels. I had a real apprenticeship, a fact for which I remain grateful every day.

Laura: What attracted you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt?

JJ: HMH is a wonderful hybrid. We are a medium-sized publisher made from two smaller houses with long histories and prestigious backlists. We are able to publish big commercial successes as well as take chances on harder, quirkier, sometimes smaller books. I was drawn to Harcourt by its history, by its backlist—Woolf and Faulkner and O’Connor and Eco and Grass!—but also by a sense of its mission, the feeling that it is important to publish serious, literary books and reach out to the broadest possible readership. Lots of houses are doing this, of course—big and small—but the size of HMH and the kind of person who is drawn to working there is still immensely appealing. It’s a house filled with zealous readers who, at the end of the day, still want more than anything to talk about the books themselves and who have a sense of themselves as stewards for the books and their authors.

Laura: What does an average day in the HMH offices look like for you?

JJ: Look like? A tornado! Seriously, it’s like any office where there are standing meetings on any given day, but there are also a lot of impromptu office discussions—from brainstorming subtitles to working out author schedules to hashing out the merits of potential acquisitions. It’s an incredibly collaborative environment. I’d say we spend most of our “office time” working on the publishing process for upcoming books. I probably spend a third of my day talking about potential projects. And the rest—the editing, the reading of submissions, the industry development and nurturing relationships, and a lot more—happens outside the office.

Laura: I’m really enjoying Justin Torres’s We the Animals. Many reviewers, in addition to offering up glowing praise, have commented on the novel’s length (144 pages). On a related note, I’m currently teaching a course in International Fiction, and the majority of the novels we’re reading are well under 200 pages. So two questions. First, were there any particular considerations that went into editing such a slim novel? Second, do you see this interest in a novel’s size as being something of an American preoccupation?

JJ: There was a lot of discussion about the length of We the Animals, from acquisition through and past publication. You are right that a lot of people have commented on how short it is, some questioning whether or not we are even allowed to call it a novel. My responsibility as an editor lies in helping the author make sure the book achieves its particular goals—that the story and its effect are as intended, that the characters come alive, that we are taken somewhere, changed somehow. In We the Animals, Justin was bringing us the joys and heartbreaks of family in a focused, powerful form; it may be short, but it is packed to bursting. To me, it has the breadth and depth of a novel; it takes up the space of a novel in a reader’s mind and heart. So it’s a novel. There are, of course, plenty of examples of other short novels; length is irrelevant to whether a book can consume and challenge us in a big way. So to answer your question, the book’s length did not create any special considerations; just as with any work of fiction, we talked about spaces that need to be filled, themes that might need to be drawn out, moments that might need to be expanded or altered. Obviously we price a short book lower than a long one, but length doesn’t indicate how big or valuable a book will feel to a reader, nor how much time the author has spent creating it.

I’m not sure I know enough to answer the second part of your question. All I can say is that I look at a lot of international fiction and have read novels from other countries that were as short as 90 pages and as long as 1000. Novels of varying length are certainly getting published around the world. The Little Prince is only 96 pages; it’s considered both a children’s book and an adult book, and while I’ve never heard it discussed as a novel (or not), it contains an extraordinary amount of food for thought and offers a richness of experience that has inspired millions and millions of devoted fans as well as a graphic novel, a pop-up book, numerous guides, films, and a number of television series. It seems that all cultures spend some time talking about what qualifies as art and the varying forms that art takes, but that this conversation is part of what keeps the work fresh and interesting.

I was just talking to a writer the other day who said that he wished all books were 200 pages or fewer, not because he doesn’t love to read big stories, but because there’s a challenge to fitting a big story into a small space and then to consuming a work that is so packed into itself. I still love a sprawling epic, too, like many readers, and there’s a steady stream of books in that tradition, thankfully! But I can see the value for both reader and writer in focusing a piece of literature into its tightest space. Poetry has certainly benefited from periods where this kind of compression was celebrated. Why not fiction? The question, for me, is the same for every title. How is this work best served? What does this book want to be?

Laura: I’m a total book cover nerd, so I have to ask: What factors go into selecting a cover? As an editor, how involved are you with the design?

JJ: Editors are the starting point and hub for much of the publishing process, including getting the book designers started on covers. We have some really brilliant designers at HMH, and I feel very lucky when I put books into their hands, knowing that they are enthusiastic readers as well as real artists. We talk about the book’s tone and subject, wanting the cover to be true to the book and author first and foremost, but we’re always also thinking about how to signal to readers that this is a book for them. We want to make sure the covers are interesting, that they’re innovative where that is part of the book’s goals and identity, and that they will be visible and intriguing to the audience. So much of this is grounded in and grows organically out of the designer’s knowledge and experience, but some of it also comes from the book’s whole team of advisers. We usually see a variety of designs and narrow down options and directions from there; I’m continually amazed by how many good covers might have existed for any given book!

Laura: For authors, it can be daunting to figure out how to help your book gather steam. What do you think helps a book get that elusive, ephemeral thing we call buzz?

JJ: One of the most intriguing and beautiful things about books is how such a solitary activity is really rooted in and generative of communities. Buzz is about recognizing and participating in those communities. Readers, be they authors or members of book clubs or editors or marketing managers or publicists or sales reps or booksellers or librarians or just about anyone, love to talk about books they love. Authors can best create buzz for their books by looking for opportunities to talk about books and creating a connection with readers, as well as creating a sense of where they, themselves, as authors and as readers, fit into a broader literary context. The more interaction, the more context, the more material and information there is out in the world to help us talk about a given book and for readers to discover it in a variety of ways. Writing and reading are intensely personal, taste is intensely personal, but when readers have a sense of who you are and what you like, they are ever more likely to respond to you and your work and to become advocates for it.

Laura: What’s been one of your most exciting moments or experiences with HMH?

JJ: I was hired just after Harcourt published Life of Pi and just before it published Odd Girl Out, both of which were big bestsellers after being found and championed by their talented, dedicated editors. It’s incredibly exciting to watch a house come together around books like these—house favorites, sometimes long-shots, that seem to garner their momentum as much from collective positive thinking as smart, hard-work publishing. This is part of what made We the Animals such a special book; every single person at HMH was behind it, talking about it with sincere passion and ensuring that it reached its deserved readership.

I loved, though, watching the same thing happen when we re-launched our Mariner edition of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. From the age of twelve, I had been a huge fan of O’Brien’s work, and part of the thrill of working at a publisher with such a large, literary backlist is that you are able to work on books that you already have a relationship with, books that shaped you as a reader and as a person; you have the chance to give back to them in some way by helping in their continued publication. In 2010, we re-launched The Things They Carried in paperback and in a twentieth-anniversary hardcover edition. We built a huge publicity and marketing campaign in celebration that brought the book back to the forefront of the nation’s conversation about war, a topic of particular relevance at the time. We saw O’Brien read and participate in a Q&A with a DC-area high school class, an event that was webcast live across the country to other schools. Making great books and keeping them in the spotlight, showing how they remain relevant, is one of the great joys of this work, and I am extremely proud to be part of that effort.

Laura: Is there anything in the pipeline you’re especially excited about?

JJ: So many things! Really and truly. I’ll restrict myself to mentioning books that are coming out within the next twelve months, in an effort to keep the list short and memorable. This February we’re publishing an historical novel called Accidents of Providence by Stacia Brown that is completely captivating, incredibly well-researched, and examines the lives of everyday women in seventeenth-century England, including how their bodies were subject to law (a topic of perennial discussion, especially in the wake of Mississippi’s initiative 26). In May we have Jennifer Miller’s debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, which is a big, enthralling prep school novel that reminds us how deeply adolescence marks us all. In August there’s a marvelous collection of magical, fantastical short stories by UK writer Lucy Wood, Diving Belles, that brings Cornish folklore into the contemporary everyday. And come next November we’ll have the immense pleasure of publishing Carlene Bauer’s Frances and Bernard, a literary love story set in mid-twentieth-century New York, written in letters, with characters inspired by Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. It’s completely charming, funny, and just the right amount of heartbreaking. 2012 is going to be a very exciting year!

Laura: What are some other publishers or literary entities you find inspiring?

JJ: There are a great many people at publishers small and large who are so creative and savvy and dedicated, but I’ll just choose one press for your purposes here and that’s the New York Review of Books. It’s a brilliant marriage of curating, packaging, and reinvigorating wonderful books. Again, it is so exciting when we are able to bring new readers to older books, to help the books maintain their relevance, to nurture that marvelous feeling of discovery for young readers finding stories that speak to them across decades and even centuries. NYRB does this as well as anyone can. I’d love to own every book they publish. Instead I seem to just keep buying them for other people, but it’s a true pleasure every time.

Laura: What do you wish existed in publishing that hasn’t been invented yet?

JJ: I’d like a machine to slow time down—not to make more of it, necessarily, in which case we would probably just fill it up with more of everything, but to give us a chance to make the process last longer, to give us more of an opportunity to savor the luxury and good fortune we have of being involved in this occasionally fraught, often challenging, but always rewarding and inspiring piece of the world. I’d also really like better ways to remind non-readers how much books have to offer, but new opportunities on that front are coming up all the time.

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