Saturday, November 8, 2008
GumboWriters Interview with Razorbill Editor: Lexa Hillyer -- Part 1
GumboWriters had an opportunity to talk with one of Razorbill's most successful, smart and spunky YA editors, Lexa Hillyer. Here's what she had to say:
* Jeff Rivera: How did you get your start as an editor? Why become an editor instead of say, a fighter pilot or computer engineer?
Lexa Hillyer: You know, I was an English major like most of us. I thought I might want to be an agent, and interned at a very small literary agency. But then I got offered a job at my first publishing interview—at HarperCollins Children’s Books, working for Abby McAden, Meg Cabot’s editor. About a year and a half ago I came over to Razorbill. At first I hadn’t thought about pursuing YA, but I quickly fell in love with it.
The teen years are in some ways the most heightened—the excitement, the newness of each experience, the total devastation over every little thing. It makes for amazing material. I also think the demand to entertain is very high (probably more so than with adult books), and I love the challenge of making each book as structurally and conceptually impactful as it can be. With so many other forms of media there to distract the teen audience, you have to work hard to make a YA book that demands to be read. This means the editor’s job is very involved, and that’s the real thing we’re in it for—to dissect a story (whether fictional or non-fictional), play with it, help it grow into the best version of itself. So yeah, I do it because I love it.
I think the same goes for pilots and engineers. And um, I don’t even have a drivers license so I’m not looking to become a fighter pilot anytime soon. I’m actually decent at math (I think it helps with editing—how many chapters per act? How many pages per chapter? This is all very important in my opinion.) But I guess I’m not good with…large machines…Haha.
Oh, and the big reason I do what I do: books are important. Reading is important. Engaging teens in stories is constructive and powerful and awesome. But I’m not moralistic about it. Because the last thing a teen wants is a book telling her what to do or how to feel. Everyone else in their lives is already doing that. And, ya know, I wouldn’t want that either.
This answer rambly enough? Moving on!
* Jeff Rivera: What are some of the exciting books you've acquired that you're most proud of?
Lexa Hillyer: I’m proud of all of my books, of course. I have a number of exciting projects coming out in ’09. First there’s Beautiful Americans by Lucy Silag. Lucy comes from literary legacy and her prose is wonderful, but she’s also got a terrific sense of the sensational angst of being a teen. Her book follows three girls and one boy on a study-abroad program in Paris , and all the no-good they get up to there. It’s full of crazy drama (characters throwing things off of balconies in a jealous rage, keeping dangerous secrets from one another, giddy field trips and mortifying betrayals)…but it’s also very sincere, very real. Exactly the sort of thing I’d have loved to read as a teen (and now.) Then there’s Taken by Storm, a novel that made me cry even on the fourth and fifth reads. It’s about a Mormon girl falling for a forbidden boy. She wants to save him from all the tragedies he’s endured—but will she be able to save herself? Ah! Plus the author, Angela Morrison, is one of the most poetic, lyrical writers I’ve ever worked with. It’s rare when literally every sentence of a book is fully-realized, but I feel that way about Taken by Storm. Zoey Dean’s Talent series was loads of fun to work on—the basic premise is “Entourage” but with 12-year-old girls. The books are adorable (book 2, Almost Famous, pubs next week!)
I have a range of sad romances to hilarious high school romps, from dark and seductive older teen fare to creepy exciting paranormal. I’m very excited about a horror book I’m working on, set at a boarding school in the woods. Watch out for the reflections in the lake… Then there’s Stacey Jay’s awesomely-fun zombie books. You Are So Undead to Me comes out in the spring and I’m already working on the sequel, Undead Much. Also a deliciously dark story (title not decided yet, but it’s kind of based on Macbeth.) It’s about how twisted fate can be, when one girl’s prank goes horribly awry and someone ends up dead. But much of this is still in the works and I don’t want to give too much away!
(I should say, in the past I’ve had so much fun editing sweet teen romances. I also loved working with authors like Maureen Johnson, whose prose is incredibly rich, quirky, and has many depths. I also edited Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford, about a cynical, sarcastic funny-guy who wakes up New Year’s Day in a psych ward with slashes on his wrists and a serious case of denial. I was overjoyed to help out on Rachel Vail’s Lucky just before I left Harper. She’s a master of subtlety and the tiny nuances that define adolescence.)
* Jeff Rivera: When you receive a submission what about it really grabs you and excites you to the point that you'd like to acquire it?
Lexa Hillyer: Of course it’s different for each book. On a basic level I look for a quality of writing that does not feel generic. What everyone says is true: make the first page awesome and the first chapter hook me, otherwise, it’s over. I look straightaway for a voice that feels like a real person—someone I might know and like, someone who has qualities a teen can identify with—rather than a postured narrator who sounds fake or put-on or has an older tone (jaded, nostalgic, preachy, any trait that you only really start to have after your teen years) that might alienate younger readers. There are a million things that make up good writing and every writer has her own strength, so I want to know that strength right off the bat—are you great at moody, atmospheric scene-setting, or utterly convincing characters, surprising quirkiness, hilarious dry wit, gripping action or suspense? I want to see the special traits on the very first page, and then I’ll read the second page, etc. If I love the tone, the writing, the premise and some of the characters, that is often enough for me to go on, and I’ll get a second reader. If that reader agrees with my assessment and I can convince that reader that I have a good plan for the book, then I may make an offer, assuming the author is willing to work on every element that isn’t yet serving the potential of the book.
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