Remembering Editor Ellen Seligman at the Vancouver Writers Fest 2016

Written by Nancy Tinari; copy edited by Maggie Clark

The Vancouver Writers FestOn the evening of October 18, 2016, three of Canada’s top writers spoke at the Vancouver Writers Fest to give a moving depiction of the late Ellen Seligman. Seligman, an editor with McClelland & Stewart for almost four decades, was esteemed for her work with many of Canada’s best-known writers, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Jane Urquhart.

The panel discussion was moderated by Jared Bland; the writers taking part were Michael Helm, Steven Price, and Madeleine Thien. Seligman edited Helm’s and Price’s most recently published books (After James and By Gaslight, respectively) during the final year of her life, and she had previously edited Thien’s book Dogs at the Perimeter. These writers’ anecdotes about Seligman revealed an editor who, even in the face of mortal illness, remained unparalleled in her insights, devotion to her writers, and dedication to her work.

As I listened to the panellists talking about Seligman (whom they always referred to as “Ellen”), I was struck by two things: first, the immensity of Seligman’s contributions to her writers’ books—her insights, her thoroughness, and the time she gave to the work—and second, her ability to form what these writers called an “intimate relationship” with them. Price said his wife jokingly referred to Seligman as his girlfriend.

Bland started the discussion by asking each writer how they began their writer-editor relationship with Seligman.

Helm related how he had sent Seligman his manuscript for In the Place of Last Things. Seligman soon sent back a reply that began with “heaps of praise,” but then moved on to give him pages of comments about how the book could improve. He was astonished by her memory for so many details of the book after one reading and her mention of reading the book by flashlight during a power failure.

Price was amazed by what he called the “richness” of Seligman’s response to an initial reading of his first book. He said that although several editors had expressed interest, he knew he wanted to work with Seligman after he received a three-page letter from her. He was astonished by the way she immediately “grappled” with the book’s flaws.

Thien’s relationship with Seligman began in 1999, when she was a 24-year-old beginning writer. She sent Seligman a draft of a short story collection. For about six months, Seligman phoned Thien occasionally to offer encouragement. Eventually, Seligman told Thien that McClelland & Stewart would publish her short stories and novels when she was ready, and the two began their collaboration.

All three writers made it evident that editorial greatness comes from a combination of talent and relentless hard work. Seligman was famous for having regular long phone calls with her writers—sometimes for up to six hours at a time!

Thien related how Seligman would occasionally eat lunch while in the middle of a multi-hour call. Sometimes, said Thien, while she was trying to come up with a better sentence to satisfy Seligman, her cat would walk on the phone and “hang up” on her editor, and she’d have to call Seligman back.

Price also had many long phone calls with Seligman during the 13-month period they worked together on By Gaslight. Yet the two never met (more on that below).

As an editor and a reader, I was curious to know just how did Seligman contribute? What made her writers feel she had made their books so much better than they would have been without her?

Thien said that Seligman had an “amazing gift, a miraculous thing,” which she described as “an instinctive sense of where a ‘disconnect’ or a ‘fault line’ happens in a novel.” She said that Seligman often asked a seemingly simple question, but when Thien tried to answer it, she would discover “multiple layers of complexity” in a novel that she hadn’t even known were there.

Price described his work with Seligman as “a conversation between me, Ellen, and the book” and said that many people misunderstand what editors do. He said she called attention to anything that didn’t convince her. She never told him what to do—just pointed him to what Thien called “fault lines”—but working with her was intense. Often, making a change in one chapter of the book would result in having to make changes in earlier chapters that had already been edited. He said this detailed reworking, over and over, would “make you want to tear your hair out,” yet Seligman’s attentiveness was also “the greatest compliment a writer could get.”

Helm, too, mentioned Seligman’s attentiveness and perceptiveness. Speaking slowly, trying to find the right words, Helm said this quality of Seligman’s was “almost a moral thing.”

Perhaps what Helm was trying to get at was the idea of a person whose work is an integral part of their being; it is part of their moral fibre. This is surely an essential part of greatness, and it is the mark of any artist who gives their all to their art.

Comparing Carol Shields and Ellen Seligman

As a relevant aside, I would like to mention the late Carol Shields, one of Canada’s great fiction writers. Last week I was at a Canadian Authors Vancouver event where Shields’ daughter Anne Giardini was speaking about editing the recently published Startle and Illuminate, a compilation of Shields’ advice for writers. Giardini and her son Nicholas got their material from the many documents Shields left, including hundreds of letters. Shields had a lifelong habit of writing long letters every day to help her friends, her children, and aspiring writers.

Giardini made it clear that Shields, like Seligman, showed incredible devotion to the art of writing, and a similar generosity in sharing her insight and encouragement. Like Seligman, Shields didn’t stop working even in the face of approaching death. Her final book, Unless, was written after a round of treatment gave her a three-month reprieve.

The total dedication to their work that both Shields and Seligman exemplified helps to explain the excellence of the books they wrote and edited. It also explains the emotional attachment to Seligman that the Writers Fest panel members described.

The writer-editor relationship

Seligman’s ability to build close relationships with her writers was surely a key component of the enormous effort both author and editor were willing to give in order to produce an outstanding book. One of the questions Bland had for the panellists was whether they ever felt they disappointed Seligman, who was such a perfectionist. Thien replied that she knew Seligman loved her and believed in her, and that Seligman would give criticism gently by saying “This is not working yet”—always expressing confidence that Thien would eventually get it right. Helm mentioned how protective Seligman was of her writers, always maintaining integrity, loyalty, and caring.

But it was Price who delivered what was, to me, the most moving story of the evening. After working with Seligman for many months on By Gaslight, via phone calls and endless pencil-marked drafts of his chapters couriered from Toronto to Victoria, he was finally going to meet her on a four-day trip to Toronto. A restaurant dinner had already been arranged by his agent. Then, at the last minute, he got a message from his agent saying that Seligman had a bad cold and wouldn’t be able to attend.

Price said that at the time, he was extremely disappointed. He knew nothing of her illness. He didn’t think it was reasonable that she couldn’t manage to meet him. Now, he understands. He said his only regret is that he wishes he had known then why she seemed so indifferent.

After Price’s story, the theatre was quiet. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was close to tears.

As Bland said, Seligman was a private person who told few people about her illness. She let her editing work speak for her to the end.

For more information on Ellen Seligman’s career and the authors she worked with, see this tribute in the “Globe and Mail.”

Nancy Tinari is a former Olympic runner who enjoys reading, editing, and reviewing books, as well as writing about fitness and psychology.

Maggie Clark is a post-secondary student whose goal in life is to work as a professional editor. On her way to achieving that goal, she has recently graduated from Royal Roads University’s Bachelor of Arts in Professional Communication program. Her next step is to learn and graduate from the Editing Certificate program at SFU.

Image by Bryan Hughes

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