Today Ellen Seligman, storied editor and publisher of McClelland & Stewart, passed away. Ellen worked with some of the most celebrated writers in Canadian literature, including Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Anne Michaels, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, and Jane Urquhart.
Ellen was truly one of the greats. I never had the experience of working directly with her (we were in different divisions and imprints), and for years was intimidated by her formidable presence. But when I finally worked up the nerve to make eye contact, I found she was smiling at me. From that point, Ellen usually had a smile or a kind word for me. I also appreciated those moments when we could commiserate over bureaucracy or a broken printer. When I was promoted to editor at Penguin Random House Canada, she sent me a lovely note of congratulations, which was an unexpected mark of encouragement that I treasure. I admired her poise and the way she commanded a room, whether making an editorial presentation at launch or asking a question that perhaps others in the crowded boardroom were thinking but were hesitant to raise. And she had impeccable style.
Thank you, Ellen, for encouraging us to fully inhabit books, as writers, readers, and editors.
I think that as an editor—to be a really good editor—you first of all have to be a really good listener. I don’t mean to the person. I mean to what you’re reading. You have to listen to what you’re reading…. You have to listen to what the book is telling you, and not impose your own ideas on it. And I think what makes a good relationship is that you’re able to have that dialogue with the author. That you’re able to say something about the manuscript that actually strikes a chord with them and [shows] that you’re both speaking the same language. In the world, it doesn’t always happen. But I think it can happen, if you listen carefully enough, and if you’re a penetrating enough reader.