Written by Frances Peck; copy edited by Meagan Kus
John Eerkes-Medrano is a freelance editor based in Victoria. A winner of the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence and a former vice-president of EAC, he also taught for many years in Simon Fraser University’s book editing immersion workshop.
John talks to EAC-BC member Frances Peck about editing narrative non-fiction, working with talented authors, and some of the quirkier experiences from his long and rich career.
John, you and I have been in this business a long time. How many years have you been editing?
I started as a technical editor for Carswell, a law book publisher in Toronto, in 1972, so this is my 43rd year as an editor.
Wow! That’s quite a stretch. If you look back, what’s changed most about your work as an editor? What’s changed least?
What’s changed most is the technology—the tools we use to edit and the forms the media have taken. I started editing with pencil on paper. I used a manual typewriter and worked for a publishing company that had its own hot-metal printing plant, even bound its own books. When the firm got its first mainframe computer, some people vacated their offices to make room for it! The refinement of computers and the arrival of the Internet, email, and social media have been great for editors, especially freelancers, making communication quick and easy.
The downside of this emphasis on immediacy is the pressure to multitask, to respond instantly to every message, and to do everything quickly. There’s a danger of not being given enough time to reflect before making decisions, editorial or otherwise.
What hasn’t changed is the concern to produce the best possible text, given the time and budget available. I’m lucky to have clients who share that goal.
You’ve edited widely, but you’ve come to specialize in substantive edits of narrative non-fiction. How did that happen?
I was a late bloomer. When I started freelancing in 1980, I took on all sorts of work, from copy editing law books to working on textbooks, corporate and government reports, newsletters, children’s books, and trade fiction. I also edited some trade non-fiction, and found I was most interested in working on books intended for a curious and intelligent public. When I moved to Victoria from Toronto 20 years ago, I needed a new client base—this was before email—and was fortunate to find regular work with Douglas & McIntyre, Greystone Books, and Sono Nis Press. Once the editors there got used to my copy editing, they gave me more substantive editing. And I began to see that I enjoyed dealing with forests as well as trees.
I also became more interested—and more confident and competent—in helping narrative non-fiction writers revise their work in response to their publishers’ desires and demands. I’m no writer, but I began to see that I wasn’t too bad a critic. I could suggest substantive fixes that authors would accept to produce a better book.
All that said, I don’t think I’d have been able to thrive as a freelancer, especially on Vancouver Island, without the bread-and-butter work of copy editing one law journal, for 33 years now, and another for the past 10 years.
You’ve won the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence, not once but twice, and the list of award-nominated books you’ve edited is as long as some bureaucratic reports! But there must be the occasional job that’s gone off the rails. Any you’d care to share?
Fortunately, I haven’t been plagued by jobs like that, but one project sticks in my mind. One author was very, very unhappy with my substantive editing, deciding it had killed her “voice”—a month after she had approved and accepted all my edits and paid a fee larger than the one I’d suggested. Now she was going to undo most of the edits, one by one. I could only throw up my hands and ask, “So what were you paying for?”
You’ve worked with some eminent writers, people like J.L. Granatstein, Myrna Kostash, and Timothy Taylor. Are you ever intimidated by the authors you edit?
Often. I’m in awe of many of the writers I work with, and not only the well-known ones. Sometimes a first-time author just takes my breath away. But I’m no good to them if I remain intimidated. These writers come to me, or they’re sent to me, for an honest assessment of their work and for thorough editing, and I owe them that. They’re almost always willing to accept editorial suggestions offered diplomatically and in good faith.
There’s something editors and writers across Canada wonder about, and maybe you can clear it up. Why do so few men become editors?
Oh, this is a minefield! I really don’t know why most editors are women. Perhaps it’s a legacy from a time when copy editing was seen as a secretarial task and not a fit occupation for a man. Some might say women are more nurturing and detail-oriented—essential qualities for an editor. But I’ve worked with men who meet these criteria in spades.
On the other hand, I remember getting at least one freelance job because of my gender. One male author, who was a big money-maker and intimidating, used to visit his publisher’s offices regularly, making the female in-house editors feel bullied because they were women and younger than he was. The managing editor gave it to me straight: “You’re a man, you’re six foot two—bigger than him—and you’re older than the editors here. Also, if you take the job, he won’t be barging in here anymore!” I took the bait—the money was good and the book worth working on—and fortunately the author and I got on well. Everyone was happy. This was decades ago, and it might be handled differently today.
Do you feel like you’re in a minority, being a male editor?
Strangely, I’ve never felt like part of a minority, although I know I’m among the, what, 10 percent of editors who are male? Professionally, I’ve always been surrounded by women. I was trained by a female editor (in the days when publishers trained their editors), mentored by female editors, and copy edited by many others. Usually, I just feel I’m working with people who value good editing as much as I do. Now that you’ve raised the question, I’m wondering what other male editors think!
Now a few quick questions, just for fun. What’s the strangest thing you’ve done as an editor?
Not the strangest, but the most rewarding: I’ve recently edited some books on Arctic exploration, and to prepare myself I’ve visited communities in Arctic Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. These jaunts have opened up a wonderful new world to me—and have even made me a more knowledgeable editor!
The weirdest topic you’ve had to research?
A man once contacted me, saying he’d been conscripted into Adolf Hitler’s SS near the end of World War II, at age 17 (“the best time of my life,” he recalled), and that his aunt had been one of the Führer’s mistresses. Would I care to see his memoir? His story sounded so bizarre that I spent a couple of days in libraries and on Google checking out his (and his aunt’s) background. I was quite surprised to discover that, if his story wasn’t true, it certainly was plausible. Eventually the project fizzled, which is probably a good thing…
The most memorable thank you from an author?
Authors have been generous in thanking me, and I have to guard against swelled-head syndrome. I was really surprised by Roy Miki. We first met to discuss the possibility of my editing his book Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice. The subject was close to his heart and had occupied a large part of his life. Once the editing was done, I felt we had an excellent book, and I think Roy agreed, because he gave me a wonderful acknowledgement. But when I asked him to sign my copy of the book at the launch, he went one step further and inscribed a short, beautiful poem to me on the title page. Coming from a poet who’d just won the Governor General’s Award, and concerning a book that had become close to my heart as well, the poem was inspiring. I felt very honoured.
What’s your number-one tip for newer editors?
May I offer two? First, many editors, especially copy editors, are perfectionists and can be very hard on themselves, and their authors, when someone makes a mistake. Learn to accept, even expect, the occasional imperfection as evidence that we’re still human.
Now, for freelancers especially, although specialization is useful for your reputation, try not to get stuck. There’s much to learn from people who know the many things you don’t. Chances are you won’t meet these people or edit in those areas if you’re too narrowly focused.
In my case, although I’m not a pacifist, at one time I’d have said that I’d prefer not to edit books about military matters. But in one five-year span I worked with five very different soldier–authors, ranging in rank from general to private. Editing their books not only gave me a deeper understanding of global conflicts, but also introduced me to some extraordinary individuals. What stood out in their writing was their essential humanity and fundamental decency. That has stayed with me.
Frances Peck, a partner with West Coast Editorial Associates, has been an EAC member and volunteer for nearly 20 years.
Meagan Kus is a freelance copy editor and proofreader with an 18-year background in arts administration.
Images provided by John Eerkes-Medrano.