Sunday, November 9, 2008

RichWriters Interview with Grand Central Editor, Selina McLemore



Selina McLemore, editor at Grand Central publishing was kind enough to have made the time in her increasingly busy schedule to share with RichWriters her insights into publishing and advice for aspiring writers.  She is known to be one of the most innovative and talented Latina  editors working in the industry today.


A Hispanic Heritage Moment …





Jeff Rivera:                              So Selina, what is your official title?


Selina McLemore:                        I am an editor at Grand Central Publishing.


Jeff Rivera:                              Okay, great. And you have been with the company for how long?


Selina McLemore:                    I have been with the company about little over a year, about a year and a half.


Jeff Rivera:                              Like how did this all begin? How did you become an editor?


Selina McLemore:                    How I became an editor…I started with a couple internships in college. I had a magazine internship and then a book publishing internship and graduated, moved out here, and started working at Harlequin in romance, moved over to Avon which is part of HarperCollins. I have spent a few years there, then went back to a different division of Harlequin and worked for MIRA books and Red Dress Ink, doing general women fiction. Then I came over here last March (07) to Grand Central, specifically with an interest in Latino fiction and non-fiction.


Jeff Rivera:                              And now you are doing a kind of a mixed of multicultural not just the Latino line?


Selina McLemore:                    Here, I mostly focus on our Latino program, but it is not a line or an imprint like other companies have done in that it isn't separate. All of the books are published on the Grand Central list. I also publish some romance and some general women's fiction, but the bulk of my list is devoted books that are culturally relevant. That is how I describe them. I look for books that are by Latinos and give glimpses into Latino culture. In the past, I have done a little of everything. I have done some African American fiction in the past too as well. So I have always had an interest in multicultural fiction.


Jeff Rivera:                              Okay. What is the difference between women's fiction and chick lit?


Selina McLemore:                    Well, women's fiction is a very, very broad category.  For a while, chick lit was an easy way to describe a certain subset of women's fiction. Typically, the books were geared to younger women, single women, urban women. These stories have always been around, but when Bridgett Jones came out and everyone got very excited about it, these types of books were in greater demand. And suddenly we had this label that we could apply to the book. It was a great marketing tool. We had a way, a language to describe books so you could tell someone, "Well, you liked Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, you might like this one, too." So it was always just a sort of subset in women's fiction and now people tend to shy away from the term ""chick lit" because it became so popular that it sort of lost its power, but the books are still out there. The stories are still out there as they always have been. It is just the language describing them that has changed.


Jeff Rivera:                              So what is the language that describes now that the chick lit is sort of a bad word to use?


Selina McLemore:                    Well, I would not say it is necessarily a bad word. I still read it. I know a lot of people still read it, and I still publish books that you could describe that way; you could apply that tag if you wanted. But you are right that we tend to just go back to the words we used before we have that handy tool. We talk about the books in terms of our characters and our plots and the quality of the writing, the way you would describe any other general fiction novel that you might be publishing.


Jeff Rivera:                              So if I am a writer and I am interested in writing maybe women's fiction or what not, what type of books really do you find attractive that you personally would like to acquire?


Selina McLemore:                    I personally am very attracted to…everyone always says "the big idea, strong writing," and that is universally true. I personally am very attracted to characters. I have to bond with the characters. I have to be really captivated by the characters. I want to know them. I want to feel like they are real people who I miss when they are gone. Any character that can exhibit those traits and draw all those kinds of feelings out of me, those are books that I really come to. And then yes, I do like big, big commercial novels, too. Books that have a really, really strong high concept hooks—that's something everybody wants.


Jeff Rivera:                              As far as if someone comes to you and they have really great characters and maybe they are pretty good storyteller and the writing is okay, would you still consider acquiring them?


Selina McLemore:                    It depends on how "okay" that writing is. Certainly, if the writing is not perfect but it seems like it has the potential, then yes we will still acquire them. Writing is a skill and things can be learned to perfect it. I think every writer has the goal of improving her skills with every book. Certainly, we are willing to work with authors, especially new authors. They often need help editorially, but when they have these great characters and these great ideas, we are happy to work with them.


Jeff Rivera:                              How much of an editorial editor are you?


Selina McLemore:                    My authors would probably say I am a very heavy editor, but I do not believe in rewriting books. I do not think that is my job-- to go in and be your book doctor and rewrite your lines, because they are your words. They are not my words. I am not a writer. But I am very intense, especially in the early draft stages of the novels and proposals. I will load the manuscript pages with all sorts of questions and queries and suggestions and pretty much pick a part any loose thread I can, because that is what I think my job is, to rip your book apart so that no one else can. So that you write it and fix it and we can bounce ideas off one another. I like to spend time talking to my authors after I read their books, for them to tell me what their goal is, so that I can figure out, "Okay. How do I help them get there? This is their objective. How do I help them achieve it?" Instead of just telling them, "Well, this is what I think it should be," It needs to be more of a collaboration.


Jeff Rivera:                              As far as like…actually, I was going to ask you something else. If was to ask you that question, what type of books would you like to see more of or like what do you wish the agents and/or writers would send you more of?


Selina McLemore:                    Well, it is such a big question. I want the big high concept books with intricate plots and well-developed characters. I am seeing a lot of variety and I like that. I am seeing some book club, tear jerking kind of novels, some funnier novels, some that are thrillers. I personally do not see a lot of historical fiction and I do enjoy it, so I would not mind seeing more of that. I am sure I will now get nothing but historical fiction. Next, time I will have an entirely different answer.


                                                It is such a very hard question to answer because it is so broad. If it is great, I want to see it. Sometimes it is easier to say the kind of things that I do not want to see, just because it is so few. I do not publish poetry, for example. I have gotten poetry submissions before and I just returned them because I do not know anything about it and I do not publish it. I do not publish Christian fiction. We have other imprints in the company that do, but I personally do not know anything about that market. Children's is the same thing. I love reading children's and YA novels but I do not acquire them personally. So those kinds of things do not make sense to send to me.


Jeff Rivera:                              I see. What about, not children, but what about young adult?


Selina McLemore:                    Like I said, I like to read it. It's a not so secret pleasure of mine now, but I do not publish it. Little Brown publishes YA and children's, so I do not acquire that for Grand Central.


Jeff Rivera:                              Okay. What happens as far as the process, you find a really great book that you think, "Yes, this is definitely something that I would like to acquire," then what happens in your process internally?


Selina McLemore:                    Well, internally… so I will read it, I love it, I usually share it with some other editors to get some other opinions and see how they feel about it, bring it up in editorial meeting. You get your reads, do all the financial stuff, you see what makes sense, how can we best publish this book and then you go make the offer.


Jeff Rivera:                              And as far as let me go back to one question that we discussed before about high concept like give me some maybe recent examples of types of books that you would acquired because you love the high concept.


Selina McLemore:                    I am sorry. You cut out a little bit. You want examples of books that I have acquired that are high concepts?


Jeff Rivera:                              Yes. If someone does not know what a high concept book is, give me some examples of books that you have seen in the marketplace maybe recently that you would ever acquire or maybe you did acquire.


Selina McLemore:                    Okay. Yes. That is tricky. Everyone always wants to know what high concept is and it is a little hard to describe. It is a kind of "I know it when I see it" sort of thing or "I know it when I read it." So I will give you an example of a book that we have coming out that I absolutely adore it. It is called The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters and it will publish in October. The author is Lorraine López. She is an award winning short story author. This is her first novel and it is beautiful. We are looking at four sisters over the course of 20 years of their life. It starts out, they are very young. They are children. They have already lost their mother before the book begins and they are about to lose this elderly housekeeper who raised them. She is like a grandmother to them, but they really do not know anything about her. They are little children so they are not terribly concerned by this. She is just there. She is a present. She has always told them…she has the sort of magical air about her especially in their child eyes, and she always told them, "When I pass away, I am going to give you all special magical gifts." She does pass away and they all sort of convince themselves that they, in fact, have magical powers.


                                                Over the course of the novel, you come to learn that no, of course, they do not actually have magical powers, and the characters also realize this as they grow up. But the early childhood belief shapes the adults they have become, and they reach a point where they want to now know, "Well, who was this woman that shaped us but we know nothing about?," and so they begin to track down her history to find out a little bit of their own history that they were never aware of.


                                                So that idea of this huge hidden identity and this magical gift and this epic family saga, that is a high concept idea, it is something you do not see everyday. You see a lot of books about sisters, but nothing that treats it in the same way.


                                                Another one that I have coming out next summer is called The Disappearance of Irene Dos Santos by Margaret Mascarenhas. She has been publishing internationally but this will be the first time she will publish here in the States. Fifteen year ago a teenage girl, Irene, goes missing in the Venezuelan jungle. No one really knows what happened—is she dead, kidnapped, hiding--because the last person who saw her, her best friend Lily, has blocked all memory of this event.


                                                The book begins when Lily, about to give birth to her first child, is describing a vision—or perhaps, she thinks, it was a dream, or a ghost—she had of Irene. Suddenly she slips and falls. She is in danger of losing the baby so she is put on bed rest. Her family and friends gather around her to entertain her and to pray for her. They all begin to tell stories and through their stories, you but you begin to unravel the mystery and find out what actually happened to Irene.


                                                There are so many layers to this book. There is a lot of politics. There is a lot of religion. There is a wonderful family story. It is a very, very intricately layered book and I love it. But that is the big high concept idea. So it is hard to describe and I understand why writers have a hard time looking at their book and knowing, "Well, is this high concept or not?" But you will know it when you have it.


Jeff Rivera:                              Right. But let me ask you this, when you have acquired a book and contracts have been signed and everything is rocking and rolling, what makes a writer from hell like you, "Oh my God! He is calling again," or whenever like what things have you experienced or heard has happened in the past that really is a kind of a no-no for maybe a writer-editor relationship?


Selina McLemore:                    This is actually an interesting question. I think there is nothing so insurmountable really. But I guess some of the biggest battles that I have personally encountered are with authors who just do not want to revise. This is something I am pretty careful about before I sign a new author. I talk to them very extensively before about revisions to make sure that they have an openness and willingness to revise their work, because very few books come in without needing any kind of revision. I have never had one that does not need anything.


                                                An author can certainly be too close to a project that they cannot just let go, and that is fine. That is their choice.  But it is not an author I am going to work with if that is the case. As a writer, if you do not believe you need an editor, then that is not a relationship that will work for me because the idea is that we can help each other. I can help you make your book even better, and so if you think it is perfect as is, I am not the editor for you.


I think something similar can happen with art. People imagine something in their head and then it is not the cover they see. As the author, you spend so much time with a book and I can understand wanting to have total control of it because it is your baby, but you have to be willing to let go of certain things and trust your publisher.


I guess in general, just flexibility, to accept that things will change from your initial draft and initial concept and you've just got to roll with it.


Jeff Rivera:                              Now, what kind of author do once the book is out it is on the bookshelf then what? What can they do to really make…because I think a lot of authors believe that once they have the books, they signed the deal and everything, their job is pretty much done. First of all, is that so, and if not, what they can do to really make the book really take to the next level?


Selina McLemore:                    Well, I think it is always great for authors to be involved in their own promotions. So I think authors should have websites. I think they should keep their websites up-to-date, with what appearances they are going to have, etc. Every book is different and the publisher's strategy for every book is different. So it is just a matter of really staying engaged with your editor whoever that might be and talking to them about what they need, what you can do together. I do not think there is any blanket rule for the best thing to do. I think it is a conversation you have to have individually with your editor.


Jeff Rivera:                              Thank you so much for your time, Selina. You are such a powerful example of what a Latina can do in this business and anyone really who focuses on being the very best at what they do first.