The Editor Explores Mother/Son Relationships
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Steven Rowley
Penguin Random House
I can’t lie. I was drawn to Steven Rowley’s novel THE EDITOR for the chance to spend time, even fictionally, with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I wanted to know that she had landed in the right job as a book editor and was enjoying her later years largely, though never completely, out of the spotlight. While I came for Jackie, I stayed for the story of James Smale, a young gay writer, who with Jackie’s help, tackles the challenges of his soon to be published novel and works through his complicated relationship with his mother. Rowley talked to Authorlink about his inspiration for THE EDITOR and how he worked to make it a meaningful exploration of the mother/son relationship.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Were there degrees, jobs, workshops, writing groups, classes, or mentors helped you in your writing?
ROWLEY: I studied film theory and criticism at Emerson College in Boston, where I learned critical writing and was first published in film journals. That led to a short career in journalism before turning my focus to more creative writing. There, I am more self-taught. I read a lot, and have belonged to different writers groups where I read and offer feedback in exchange for other writers offering feedback on my work. I find that to be invaluable.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. He knew he had to get the man off the mountain. Where did the premise for THE EDITOR come from?
ROWLEY: 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 big deal? And that’s when I decided to merge the two projects.
AUTHORLINK: What authors and novels influenced your writing of THE EDITOR? Were there other novels that featured prominent people in a fictional guise that you looked to for guidance?
ROWLEY: Absolutely. This year I was inspired by Christopher Castellani’s LEADING MEN which had both Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote as characters. But there’s a long list of books that employ real life characters in fiction that I looked to from George Saunders’ LINCOLN IN THE BARDO to Michael Cunningham’s THE HOURS to E.L. Doctorow’s RAGTIME.
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to write this book?
ROWLEY: It took me fifteen months to write a first draft, including research. From there it took another year to tinker before I felt it was ready to submit to publishers.
AUTHORLINK: The book offers a fictional portrait of Jackie O. How did you navigate the choices about what to fictionalize and why?
ROWLEY: 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. But I can do all the research in the world and still part of my portrait is going to be writerly creation. But I always tried to ground my interpretation in the facts.
AUTHORLINK: What were the risks and/or rewards of having a character based on a real person?
ROWLEY: I’d say in this case it was high risk/high reward. The challenge is choosing to write about someone as well-known as, say, Jackie O. is that everyone is going to come to the book with some notion of who they think she was. And I had to thread the needle of those expectations carefully so as not to turn people away, while introducing them to character I had crafted through my research and interpretation. One thing my incredible editor at Putnam, Sally Kim, pushed me on was — why Jackie. Why not another well-known editor? Why not a fiction character? And when that’s answered in the book, there’s a certain magic that I find to be the real reward.
AUTHORLINK: At its heart, the book is about mother/son relationships. Why did you want to take that on?
ROWLEY: There are many more books about mothers and daughters than there are about mothers and sons. (Nathan Hill’s THE NIX is a recent, notable exception.) And the relationship between mothers and gay sons is a whole added dynamic. But it came from wanting to find someone who would be difficult to disguise when writing autobiographical fiction. In my first novel, I could change the names of the characters to protect those they were based on. But it’s hard to disguise ‘mom.’
AUTHORLINK: The word is that editors are tired of books about writers. Do you think this is true? If so, what made this book different?
ROWLEY: As a writer, I don’t subscribe to hard and fast rules; for every rule, there’s a creative way to break it. But I had to leave my first publisher in order to do this book and I think part of the hesitation on their part was that it was a book about a writer and — to a degree — publishing. But here’s the secret: it’s not really about either of those things. It’s about relationships, and how we’re affected by the truths we tell the world about ourselves and our loved ones. The rest is just backdrop.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for the book.
ROWLEY: 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, what was on her desk and what her mindset was at the time. And I had a very supportive publisher that reached out on my behalf to many of Mrs. Onassis’s former colleagues, many of whom were generous with their memories.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing THE EDITOR and how did you overcome them?
ROWLEY: The family stuff came easy. I have a family. It’s not this family. But they were easy to imagine. Getting Jackie just right was the real challenge, and not letting her overtake the narrative. The challenge when you do a lot of research is not to become too enchanted with it, especially when it’s about someone as dynamic as Jackie. She’s a supporting character, and it would be very easy to let her scenes bloat with every detail I would have loved to include! I had to kill many proverbial darlings. But if they weren’t serving the story or the emotional narrative, out they came.
AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice writers?
ROWLEY: Write. That’s it. As cliché as it is, you have to show up to do the work. Make writing a part of your day, your week, your life. Other than that, find YOUR voice and never try to imitate someone else’s. Your rhythm, your style of prose, your humor, your truth, your point-of-view. That’s what you have to offer. And don’t chase trends. Write the story you want to write and make it irresistible.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
ROWLEY: I just finished the screenplay for THE EDITOR, and I have a new novel coming out summer 2020! More details soon. People can follow me on Instagram and Twitter @mrstevenrowley for news on these projects and more.
About the Author: Steven Rowley is the bestselling author of Lily and the Octopus and The Editor. His work has been published in nineteen languages. He has worked as a freelance writer, newspaper columnist and screenwriter. Originally from Portland, Maine, he is a graduate of Emerson College. He currently resides in Los Angeles.