THE EDITOR, by Steven Rowley, hits bookshelves in April 2019. It’s Steven’s sophomore book and tells the story of James Smale, an author in New York in the 1990s, who lands Jackie Kennedy Onassis as his editor. Jackie pushes James to give his book a proper ending, but to do that, he’ll have to resolve some real-life family conflicts.
It’s a beautiful book that gives us a fictional glimpse into Jackie’s everyday struggle to “fit in” as a book editor long after her First Lady position, and following James on his journey to meet his deadline is both humorous and heartfelt. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy and can’t wait to see how great THE EDITOR does when it hits shelves. It’s already been optioned for a movie!
While in New York preparing for the book’s launch, Steven took some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for me.
I’m always intrigued when writers put real historical characters into fictional settings. So tell me why Jackie?
THE EDITOR was inspired by my having written a deeply personal autobiographical novel (LILY AND THE OCTOPUS) and having it debut with a bigger splash than I had ever imagined. I was motivated to explore the accompanying emotions through another story – this time highly fictional – about a young writer whose small family novel suddenly becomes a big deal and balloons out of his control. For that I needed a catalyst. Years ago I had started another project, a play, about Jacqueline Onassis’s time in publishing, but I could never quite find the proper narrative for it. But it got me thinking, if Jackie Onassis was your editor, wouldn’t that suddenly make your book a good deal? And that’s when I decided to merge the two projects.
How much research, and what types of research, did you do to prepare writing about her?
I did a lot of research to make Jackie an authentic character. From the outset, I didn’t want to just use her, or trade on her name – she had to be a well-rounded character and have real narrative purpose. Ironically, her third act in publishing (which I think is the most interesting time in her life) is the least well documented. She was done with the spotlight, kept her head down and went to work. There are two great books (William Kuhn’s Reading Jackie and Greg Lawrence’s Jackie as Editor) about her career, so I started there. She only ever gave one interview during her career, to Publisher’s Weekly. Beyond that, I could read a few of the books she was working on around the time the book takes place to get a sense of her tastes, her interests, and what her mindset was at the time.
You mention in the book the Kennedy’s still-born children, one which died just weeks before the assassination, which I knew nothing about before reading your book. What’s the most interesting thing you learned about Jackie that you didn’t know before?
That’s certainly one of them. Her complicated relationship with her parents is another. But I found time and time again that the most interesting things about Jackie were the things that were not common knowledge. And a few things we can only speculate. But I do honestly believe that having a professional career, office life, the little things that can seem like drudgery to us sometimes, was the time she felt most free.
In the book, you do an amazing job of showing us how much Jackie tried to live a normal productive life as a book editor despite everyone only seeing her as the First Lady, including James even though he eventually moves past that. How did your own point of view of her change while you were writing the book?
The book opens in early 1992; by then she had been working for well over a decade and had amassed an impressive editorial list. So working life to her was very normal. I needed to view her through the lens of an outsider (the narrator, James) in order to introduce the reader to her professional life. My book is a novel and not intended to be a definitive portrait of her time in publishing, and so some of my characterization of her is speculation. In the run-up to publication, my publisher (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) reached out to people who worked with her, or had come in contact with her during her career. It’s been remarkable to hear these stories, and learn how enormously well-liked and respected she was. I’m not sure my point of view was changed as much as it was confirmed.
There’s a beautiful passage in the book where James and Daniel are watching the Clinton inauguration and James thinks about how an administration is judged by whether or not it fulfills the promise of its start and that a book should be judged in a similar way. What do you expect readers to take away from your book?
That while there are mine fields in telling the truth about those we love, that honesty with family members can eventually foster closeness, lead to healing and, when needed, forgiveness. I also love the idea Jackie puts forth regarding the difference between curing and healing. That idea felt fresh to me when I first encountered it, and I hope that it might lead to thoughtful discussion.
Tell me about your writing process. Are you a morning or evening writer? Long hand or computer? Note taker? Strict schedule?
I do not have a strict schedule, other than I try to write every day – even if it’s just to jot down some notes or flesh out an idea from a previous day’s work. Morning is a good time to work; the brain is rested and the day will throw every excuse at you not to work. So if you have something accomplished before the day intercedes – that’s a good feeling.
James and Jackie build a somewhat personal relationship despite their roles as author and editor. What’s the relationship like between you and your own editor or editors?
I’ve been fortunate in my career to work with a string of incredibly talented women as editors. So there is something true in my experience about thinking of editors as mothers or sorts. I think a really great editor can open your eyes to something that’s right in front of you, recognize what you are doing and help lift you across the finish line. My editor at Putnam, Sally Kim, has been a tremendous partner in tying together all the emotional threads in this book.
James struggles with writing the ending of his book because of a strained relationship with his mother which drives the main conflict in the novel. What struggles did you face while writing The Editor?
While inspired by the events of publishing my first book, The Editor is very much a novel. And while it’s not really historical fiction, it is a period piece. Doing research was new for me, as was stripping away a 2018 sensibility and placing the novel, the language, its politics, the cultural references fully in the early 1990s. That sometimes felt like work, but it was also strangely freeing. It was nice to visit, and felt like a less angry time. There were wounds, yes, but they could also be healed. Today the whole country feels fractured.
I felt like you were very honest in portraying James and Daniel as gay characters and other gay readers will appreciate that. As a gay author yourself, are there other gay writers or any gay literature that you admire?
I bristle when people don’t think my books are gay books. It’s usually meant as a compliment, that my books explore universal themes. But being gay informs everything about me, my writing, my politics, the empathy I have for others, my sense of humor, my pop cultural references. My being gay is reflected on every single page in the book.
There are so many queer writers whose books have moved me this past year: Christopher Castellani, Andrew Sean Greer, John Boyne, Michael Cunningham, Patrick Ness, Garrard Conley, Grant Ginder, Alexander Chee, Alison Bechdel, James Baldwin, Patricia Highsmith, Andrew Holleran, Christopher Isherwood… I could go on and on and on. There’s incredible queer YA writers, memoirists, short story writers, playwrights – you name it. I wish I had more reading time!
As a writer, what inspires you?
A perfectly crafted sentence.
The book has already been optioned for film. Who would you like to see play Jackie and James?
Casting Jackie has been a fun parlor game among my friends. I have a first choice for sure, but I’m going to keep that to myself for the moment in the hopes that I can make it come true.But what’s exciting to me as a lover of movies – there’s two great roles in this film for women who are sixty. And there is so much great talent that is under served.
You are writing the screenplay. What’s that process like and how is it different from writing a book?
The book is told in the first person, so in one sense it’s very internal. Getting the story out of James’s head and into action and dialogue is one challenge. Another is making the writing process – an inherently solitary one – interesting for the viewer.
I’m hard at work on my third book. I’m also an Executive Producer on the LILY AND THE OCTOPUS film in development at Amazon Studios and that’s been fun to help shepherd through the development process.
Any advice for other writers?
Don’t compare yourselves to other writers and don’t try to imitate them. Find your own voice and develop it. And rejection is part of the process. Brush yourself off and keep at it. My first book, LILY AND THE OCTOPUS, was the third manuscript I’d written. I have two that collect dust on a shelf; they were an education, and I love them too for their own reasons – even if no one ever reads them.
Thank you, Steven, for your time and best of luck with the book!