28 August 2007

Juliet Ulman on Christopher Barzak

Bantam Senior Editor Juliet Ulman acquired Christopher Barzak's One for Sorrow and shepherded it into print.

I really have the wonderful Mumpsimus himself to thank for bringing us together. Matt and I met in person for the first time at the World Fantasy Convention in Madison, Wisconsin, and we were sitting around one night, probably resting from a bout of giggling, talking about short story authors we admired and who I'd been following. I was wishing aloud that some of my favorites had a book in them, and exclaimed in frustration, "Christopher Barzak! Now why hasn't he written a novel!?" To which Matt calmly replied, "But he has." A few minutes later, we'd established that Chris had written a novel, Matt had seen it, and Matt would pass on word that I wanted to take a look. When I got back from the convention, the manuscript was waiting for me.

Reading One for Sorrow for the first time is an experience I will never forget. I couldn't stop myself from describing the sensation to people for months afterwards, even as I realized that, at best, I was coming off as a bit odd. I remember turning page after page, a horrible storm of butterflies building in my stomach with each sentence. As I read, I felt a little lightheaded and sick. I can tell you exactly what it felt like. It felt like when you're in the throes of a tremendous crush, a crush so overwhelming that instead of feeling a little happy and silly in that person's presence, instead you feel so nervous and overtaken with that fluttery adrenalized crush feeling that it's debilitating. That is what it felt like.

As far as the book, I knew we were a match. But what about the author?

I had some editorial concerns, and I wanted to make sure that Chris and I were on the same page as far as what direction to take the book -- so we struck up a correspondence. Before we'd even negotiated the deal, we exchanged several (long!) emails back and forth while he was still in Japan, talking about the book and what we wanted for it, and also just getting to know each other and how our minds worked. We learned we both have a big love for Miyazaki, and especially My Neighbor Totoro; that we both come from very small, rural towns (his in the Midwest, mine in the Northeast) and carry them with us; and that we both believed in the same emotional heart of the book and wanted to travel on the same path. We brainstormed about how to get there, each of us tossing out ideas until typically, we'd figure out what the common core of all of our suggestions were, and find the right way to get to where we were going. It was immediate and exciting, this fizzing creative electricity. If the book and I were a match, it soon became clear to me that I'd gotten very lucky in that Chris and I had a real meeting of minds. No one but Chris could have written that book, and, for me at least, no working partnership but this one would have been quite as instinctive or fluid.

Revising One for Sorrow was a tremendously cooperative, collaborative process, and terrifically rich and rewarding for me as an editor. For some people, this kind of back-and-forth brainstorming and discussion would be done over the phone -- for us, it was the modern equivalent of letters flying back and forth, emails and emails and emails exploring our instinctive responses to the narrative, and our feelings about where it should go. This, truly, is why editors get out of bed in the morning. I really loved every minute of it, the debates, the burbling of ideas, the bright nova of light when someone hit upon something true. Chris is a thoughtful, intuitive writer, and through working on the book together, I think we learned more about each other than we could possibly have done any other way. In the end, I came to this with an electrifying crush on a beautiful, heartbreaking manuscript, and walked away with a rich, creative kinship that will stay with me even longer.

For which I will always, and happily, be in the debt of the Mumpsimus.

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