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‘My friends were my books’

  • Published at 06:05 pm November 10th, 2018
Photo: Mahmud Hossain Opu// Dhaka Tribune

In this interview, Courtney Hodell talks about her foundation and her career as an editor

Courtney Hodell is the director of writers’ programs at the Whiting Foundation, based in Brooklyn, New York. As an editor, she has worke with writers such as William Finnegan, Mary Karr, Amitav Ghosh, Rachel Cusk, the Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, and many others. In this interview, she talks about her foundation and her career as an editor. 

Tell us about your experience at Dhaka Lit Fest. 

It’s a wonderful festival. It’s intimate. It’s small enough to meet and talk to everyone and participate in the panels. But it’s also ambitious at the same time with the ideas, with the bravery of the topics and the willingness of people to engage with them. And the hospitality is tremendous. 

Could you talk about the Whiting Foundation?

For forty years, the Whiting Foundation has been supporting superb talent in literature and scholarship. We are supporting people at the beginning at their career because we think it’s very easy to recognise someone once they’ve gotten a lot of awards or their books have been a bestseller. It’s more difficult work to find someone before they become someone known and they might still be developing their talents, building their voice, or their work might be a little bit raw. So we like to support them at that moment so they have the time and space to be as ambitious as possible. 

What made you want to become an editor and how do you see your career as an editor over the years?

It’s the most wonderful job in the world. I was a very shy and lonely kid. I just read all the time, so my friends were my books. But it never occurred to me that you could make a living by reading books. And that’s what I do. I feel very lucky. I just came to it almost by accident. I think what makes a good editor is someone who’s just willing to ask questions. You’re not an authority. You’re not saying this is the right way to do things and you’ve done it the wrong way. All you ask is why or what else, or give me more, I don’t understand what’s happening here. And you have to have humility in yourself to do that. If you’re humble and curious, the writer can meet you in the middle and you can both make a better book together. 

As an editor, what do you look for in a good manuscript?

I look to be surprised, beguiled, entranced and shaken a little bit in some way. I want to feel a physical response. If I read a book that I really love, my heart starts pounding.

Which are the few books you have read and wished you had edited them? 

There are many. Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son. I think he has the most capacious imagination, and he's very interesting on the page and makes us learn something about ourselves we didn't know otherwise.

How can writers writing in English from this part of the world connect more with literary agents and editors?

The first thing is: work on your craft and make your book the best it can possibly be. Then I always encourage writers in America to figure out who represents the writers that you love. Just go to a bookshop and open any book that you adore and see who is thanked in the acknowledgment section, who is the literary agent. Then go and look online and see what else the agent has represented. If you like a number of their books there might be an affinity there; and there might be someone you can reach out to. But take your time and when you do reach out, do so in such a way that they know you are reaching out to them for a reason and you are not just sending an email out to thousand agents. You are saying: "I am reading out to you because I like the work that you do and this the work I do," and keep it short.