Car­ol Kauf­man spoke with Altie Karp­er, the 73rd Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards Men­tor­ship win­ner, on her sto­ried career. They dis­cussed the edi­tors who shaped her, the appren­tice­ship nature of the busi­ness, and some of the writ­ers she had the joy of work­ing with.

Car­ol Kauf­man: It’s not an over­state­ment to say that you’ve worked with some of the great­est Jew­ish writ­ers of our life­time; it also hap­pens to be an amaz­ing­ly diverse group: Aharon Apple­feld, Rab­bi Jonathan Sacks, Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt, Rab­bi Joseph Telushkin, Elie Wiesel, and Avi­vah Got­tlieb Zorn­berg, among many oth­ers. Dif­fer­ent sub­jects, gen­res, styles of work­ing … How did you approach edit­ing these gift­ed, dis­tinc­tive authors? Was it ever intimidating?

Altie Karp­er: Thank you. It was an hon­or and a priv­i­lege to work with and to pub­lish these incred­i­bly gift­ed and impor­tant writ­ers. Every author is indeed unique, works in their own way, and has dif­fer­ent edi­to­r­i­al needs. The first thing an edi­tor has to do is fig­ure out what the work­ing rela­tion­ship with this par­tic­u­lar author is going to be and what type of edi­to­r­i­al work will be required. Some man­u­scripts may need line-by-line edi­to­r­i­al com­ments and/​or sug­ges­tions. Oth­ers may need chap­ter-by-chap­ter sug­ges­tions that are not quite as detailed, or (for non­fic­tion) sug­ges­tions for how much needs to be explained to read­ers who don’t know as much about the sub­ject as the author does. Some man­u­scripts don’t need very much, if any, edi­to­r­i­al work at all. But that’s rare. Yes, it cer­tain­ly was intim­i­dat­ing at first, but when I saw how recep­tive my authors were to the work I was doing and how appre­cia­tive they were, that gave me the con­fi­dence I need­ed to pro­ceed. How­ev­er (and this is a big how­ev­er), an edi­tor must nev­er lose sight of the fact that you are work­ing on the author’s man­u­script. It’s not your man­u­script; your job is only to pro­vide respect­ful sug­ges­tions that may help to make a book that is already very good per­haps a bit better. 

CK: You worked at sev­er­al dif­fer­ent pub­lish­ing hous­es, includ­ing Viking and Green­wil­low, before land­ing at Schock­en in 1989. Please share a few sto­ries from along that journey.

AK: I’ve been extra­or­di­nar­i­ly lucky in the pub­lish­ing hous­es I worked at. The edi­to­r­i­al team at The Viking Press dur­ing my years there includ­ed my boss, Elis­a­beth Sifton, as well as Alan Williams, Cor­lies (“Cork”) Smith, and Mal­colm Cow­ley – four of the most bril­liant edi­tors of their time. I just kept my eyes and ears open and – for the most part – my mouth shut. I was deter­mined to learn as much as I could by observ­ing how these edi­tors worked their edi­to­r­i­al mag­ic. You nev­er knew who you’d run into walk­ing down the hall: Arthur Miller, Irv­ing Howe, Peter Matthiessen, Stephen King, Jim­my Bres­lin, Nadine Gordimer, Bruce Chatwin, William Kennedy; it was a mag­i­cal place. The team at Green­wil­low (a children’s book imprint) con­sist­ed of my boss, pub­lish­er Susan Hirschman, as well as edi­tor Eliz­a­beth (“Lib­by”) Shub and art direc­tor Ava Weiss. Each was absolute­ly ter­rif­ic at what she did, and I learned a great deal from all of them. Our Green­wil­low authors includ­ed Kevin Henkes, Peter Sis, Robin McKin­ley, Jack Pre­lut­sky, Don Crews, and Ann Jonas. I was — and con­tin­ue to be — in awe of all of them. We didn’t pub­lish Rumer God­den or Astrid Lind­gren, but they were friends of Susan, and when each of them showed up at the office for tea, I thought I was going to faint. When I arrived at Ran­dom House, to work at the Schock­en and Pan­theon imprints, my good for­tune con­tin­ued. André Schiffrin hired me, but I spent most of my thir­ty-five years there work­ing for Son­ny Mehta and work­ing with Bob Got­tlieb. How I got to be that lucky, I still can’t fig­ure out.

The first thing an edi­tor has to do is fig­ure out what the work­ing rela­tion­ship with this par­tic­u­lar author is going to be and what type of edi­to­r­i­al work will be required.

CK: Mazal tov on being the 73rd Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards Men­tor­ship win­ner! What’s the role of men­tor­ing in the pub­lish­ing indus­try? What makes a good men­tor? Please share some inter­est­ing expe­ri­ences you’ve had as both men­tor, and mentee. 

AK: Thank you! It’s an incred­i­ble hon­or! One of the things I love most about pub­lish­ing is that it remains an appren­tice­ship pro­fes­sion. Before there were med­ical schools and law schools, you learned how to be a doc­tor or a lawyer by work­ing for one. This is still true for pub­lish­ing. You can take cours­es in line edit­ing, but that will not make you an edi­tor. You learn how to be an edi­tor by work­ing for an edi­tor as their assis­tant — i.e., doing all the scut work — and watch­ing what your edi­tor does, day after day. That’s how any edi­tor worth their salt has done it – includ­ing Elis­a­beth, Susan, André, Son­ny, and Bob. And that’s how I did it. I don’t know that I would describe these peo­ple as men­tors” in the clas­sic def­i­n­i­tion of the term. It was more like, Okay, kid, watch me and see how it’s done. After a while I’ll let you have a try at it, and we’ll see if you’ve got the right stuff.” My great men­tor was actu­al­ly the late Dan Frank. He was an edi­to­r­i­al col­league at Viking and, years lat­er, at Schock­en and Pan­theon. He was the one I went to if I need­ed advice or help in solv­ing a prob­lem, or if I just need­ed some­one to talk to when I was feel­ing low. He was always there for me, unfail­ing­ly kind and gen­er­ous and sup­port­ive. He was that way with every­one in our depart­ment – an extra­or­di­nary per­son. I tried to be the same way with my younger col­leagues, and I loved that they felt they could come to me with their prob­lems the same way that I used to go to Dan with mine.

CK: Do you see edit­ing as a kind of mentoring?

AK: Edi­tors are what­ev­er their authors need them to be. In addi­tion to wield­ing the red pen­cil on the author’s man­u­script, an edi­tor can be required to be the author’s ther­a­pist, par­ent fig­ure, banker, old­er sib­ling fig­ure, cheer­leader, con­fes­sor, drink­ing bud­dy, jail­er, exec­u­tive chef — in oth­er words, what­ev­er it takes to get that man­u­script out of the author. John Stein­beck famous­ly said about his edi­tor, the leg­endary Pas­cal Covi­ci, Pat Covi­ci was more than my friend, he was my editor.”

CK: For the last ques­tion, kind­ly put on your men­tor­ing hat. How should some­one pre­pare for a career in pub­lish­ing? What will help them land that first job and then move up?

AK: Go to the best col­lege you can get into/​afford, major in Eng­lish and/​or com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture, and immerse your­self in the best books of all time and of all gen­res. That’s the only way you’re going to learn what good writ­ing sounds like. Do what­ev­er you can to get an under­grad­u­ate sum­mer intern­ship – prefer­ably at a pub­lish­ing house, but a lit­er­ary agency will do as well. If you’re not get­ting that entry-lev­el job at the house you’ve always dreamed of work­ing at, just take what­ev­er edi­to­r­i­al assis­tant posi­tion you are offered (even at a lit­er­ary agency), stay there for a while, and then try to lat­er­al­ly move to where you want to be, work­ing for the best edi­tor you can find. With a lit­tle luck and a great deal of hard work and per­sis­tence, you’ll get there. 

Car­ol is the exec­u­tive edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She joined the JBC as the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World in 2003, short­ly after her son’s bar mitz­vah. Before hav­ing a fam­i­ly she held posi­tions as an edi­tor and copy­writer and is the author of two books on ten­nis and oth­er rac­quet sports. She is a native New York­er and a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia with a BA and MA in English.