An Interview with Rebecca Lee
By Emily De Vogele
We talked to experienced editor and recently turned author, Rebecca Lee, about her upcoming debut How Words Get Good, and her thoughts on editing and writing a book.
What was the jump like from editor to author?
I wasn’t sure at first if I could be an author, but when I started working on the proposal I was immediately hooked, and I really enjoyed writing HWGG. It was quite strange working in publishing and writing a book about publishing whilst going through the publishing process (it was very meta) – but it gave me even more appreciation for the authors I work with and how much work goes into their books. The one thing I hope people will take away from the book is that publishing is a collective endeavour.
You walk the line between informing and entertaining very well in this book, how important was it to you to keep this fun to read, as well as informative?
I’m not sure that it was important so much as inevitable. I don’t think I can write in any other way. Not that I’m a comic genius, but I think slightly flippant is my natural tone of voice (and remember, I’ve spent twenty years at Penguin, where Allen Lane famously declared he wanted a “dignified but flippant” logo for his spines). And I really did want to make it a fun read: after all, publishing is fun, and I wanted to reflect that. It’s full of stories, and people, that are absurd, interesting, or downright bizarre – and that’s what I wanted to celebrate along with lifting the lid on how it all works.
Your love for footnotes was apparent throughout your book, which footnote ornament is your favourite?
They all have brilliant origin stories, and I do love the idea of the duelling daggers. But my favourite is the asterisk: Palaeoarchaeologists have discovered that over 30,000 years and the whole of Europe, just thirty-two signs appeared again and again at rock sites across Europe. One of these signs was the asterisk – the “little star.” It’s incredible to think that we’ve been using this notation as a way of emphasis for so long, and of course it tells us something about how people viewed the night sky, as well. I like to think of the glow of a star illuminating something that was truly important, or that needed further emphasis.
What does the future of editing look like to you?
In need of defending, and I hope that HWGG is part of that. How we treat words is under attack from commercial pressures on one side, and digitization on the other: the idea that we can just run words through a software programme and be done with the human element is a pernicious one. As a writer, how you treat your words is how you pay tribute to your readers.
You dedicate a large section of your book to grammar and punctuation, what are some of your biggest pet peeves in editing?
I’m not a very prescriptive grammarian. There are a lot of people out there who are, and while my grammar and punctuation are generally pretty good, I do get things wrong – we can all get in a tangle with grammar, and I think all of us know that feeling of a word that is your nemesis and that you just can’t spell. Saying that, my current pet peeve is people who write that they are “reigning” something in. Is there never just a tiny voice in the back of their minds that looks at “reigning” and thinks…hmmm… is that really what I mean here? And I would love authors to have to know the difference between a hyphen, an en rule and an em rule before they start writing!
Clearly a lot of research went into your book, which chapter was your favourite to research and write?
Researching HWGG was my absolute favourite part of the entire experience. Like Richard Feynman, I’m a firm believer that anything is interesting once you go into it deeply enough. And I was fortunate that my research also meant I could go and have brilliant fun conversations with all the supporting cast of people that get Words Good. It’s hard to pick one, although the indexing chapter is a particular favourite: not only do indexes (and indexers) generally have the best jokes, but indexes are also a distilled version of a book – a word world in microcosm.
First words of books are referenced a lot throughout, which book beginning is your favourite?
Probably the first line of Catch-22, one of my favourite books. It begins: “It was love at first sight,” which is just the right length (six words, so economical!) and contains exactly the right level of intrigue. Who wouldn’t want to keep going? Especially once you get to the next line: “The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him” – which sets up so many questions. Those six words also recur throughout the book, too, echoing back and forwards as we read. Genius.