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Episode LVI: "Stories that leave you somehow both expanded as a human being and a little wrecked"

Published 4/6/16
In this installment, I speak with Jenna Johnson. Topics include her path to Executive Editor, the good old (pre-internet) days, when art finally meets commerce, the cross-medium risk-taking correlation, what keeps her coming back & more.

Today I’m with Jenna Johnson, Executive Editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, where she’s been since 2002. She’s edited some wonderful books, including We the Animals, The Turner House and The End of Mr. Y, which, strictly by coincidence, is in view on my bookshelf just past the right edge of my laptop. Let’s start easy: how’d you get into the industry, and what sort of path does one take to end up as Executive Editor?

I can see MR. Y from where I sit, too!

As for how I ended up in the industry: Like more than a few of my peers, it started with a failed stint at graduate school. I had worked in advertising and public relations and enjoyed one wonderful internship at a literary agency, but then had the grad school bug and set off to cure it. After only a year and a half away I was certain I wanted to be in books and had to get back to New York. A friend of mine wanted to move from a position as an editorial assistant in the adult trade group at Harcourt to the children's group. She was pained at the idea of leaving her excellent supervisor, then editor-in-chief Jane Isay. I suggested that if she replaced herself with someone she could trust, she might just feel ok leaving. Et voilà! I was very lucky that I came to Jane with a personal recommendation. She hired me around the same time she hired Andrea Schulz, so I ended up working for both of them and I couldn't have been luckier when it came to mentors. 

As for the path to executive editor—I'm one of those rare cases where I have come up entirely at a single house. Though I've seen changes at this company throughout my time here, I have been extremely fortunate in that I always had colleagues and supervisors who helped me to grow in place. And of course change always offers opportunity, too. For me the key was being ready to volunteer for anything that came along and to look for aspects of the business that weren't being covered substantially already and to which I had an affinity. For example, I ended up with Scarlett Thomas because Andrea knew I had worked in advertising and her first book, POPCO, was about a young woman working at a toy company whose skills at cryptography come in handy when it becomes clear the company isn't working for the ultimate good. That personal connection—having been on the inside of the world of marketing and selling everything and anything—definitely helped me see an audience for that book and gave me real confidence and a unique way of pitching it to the house. 

Working through one house is certainly a unique vantage point. To understand the changes the industry has undergone with a firm footing throughout—not many can lay claim to that. So much of the talk of the shifting landscape in this series has been abstract, so I'd like to ask in what tangible ways has your day-to-day changed since you started, up until today (of course accounting for the increase in responsibility and role).

I don't want to sound like Grandma Crankypants (TM), so I'll just say once that so much of what feels different now vs. then—and it's only been fourteen years, which is the blink of an eye in the book world!—is traceable back to the marvelous terror that is the Internet. When I started at Harcourt, no one had access to their email at home. Imagine! Everything spins out from that big change—insert the standard story about the coffee-stained manuscript that circulated a dozen times before selling. For good or for ill, we're all moving faster, reading faster, reading more, in touch with more people on a given day. The competition for attention we face as bookmakers and sellers (and readers ourselves) is also rooted in that epochal moment. It feels to me an increasingly serious cultural imperative—to get people reading and to keep them reading. As New Yorkers we often read subway behavior like tea leaves. I remember coming to the office with anecdotes of early eReader adoptions—I can still remember most of the detail of the first layperson I saw reading on a Sony device on the bus, actually. I spend most of my commutes looking for cell phone book readers amid the candy crush fanatics. It can really energize you some days, fill you with a renewed sense of purpose. Maybe that's more abstract than you wanted. Here are the tangible ways: more email, fewer paper manuscripts, longer hours(ish), easier access to new and exciting voices, less editing on the printed page more editing in track changes (yay for the trees!), more editing across media, comprehensive publishing campaigns across a broad range of media and readerships, etc.

Readers: please respect that trademark on Grandma Crankypants. You would think, given how book people talk, that if someone reads, they're doing it on the subway. I'm now going to tag onto that 'new and exciting voices' mention and go in the direction of fiction. It's common (I've found) for people to exaggerate the landscape of fiction in one of two ways: i) what is being produced could not have been made even ten years ago, ii) fiction is what it has always been. Have you seen tangible trend switches, in genre, sure, but in the actual texture of the writing?

I can't agree with either of those grand statements, but maybe that's your design. There have always been really exciting things happening in the writing world—fiction and nonfiction and poetry—and then, sure, some more conventional work to keep us all happily entertained by the fire and still in business and our nightstands dust-free. In the past few years we have had a delightful resurgence in the success of writing that takes a chance formalistically or in terms of subject. I emphasize the success part here because these kinds of books are always happening in our culture—always being written and always being published—though to greater or lesser attention or impact. The interesting part—the rare part, maybe—is when, as your series title suggests, art meets commerce and commerce says "how ya doin'?"

Ha. Yes it's wonderful when commerce returns art's calls. Desperation isn't a good look on her/him (very careful to be gender nonspecific here). What do you owe that to, the success of more artful, chance-taking lit? Great marketing? A willingness on the part of the public? The experiments taking place in other mediums (such as TV), carrying over in the collective consciousness?

Certainly we should see a correlation between increased sophistication in television and a willingness to take risks on books—whether that risk-taking is happening at the consumer-level or the producer-level. Great storytelling inspires across the board—a rising tide lifting all boats, as they say. I think we are as ever but more than ever in a cultural conversation and that the more each conversant raises the bar for his or her contribution, the better we all have to perform. This is true of marketing, too. Thinking about how word-of-mouth has changed over the past twenty years is a good way to encapsulate this—it's still fundamentally one person recommending a book or show or movie or restaurant or travel destination to another. But it happens faster, it often happens in public, and it is then quickly and easily multiplied. The speed with which the market is testing us is intense and that can make you more focused on feedback and traction analysis but it can also kind of liberate you from it. The mettle of the story is being tested—its freshness, its quality, its beauty, its staying power. And that's the same question we've always had at the core of our project.

By 'our project', I hope you mean either book-making or art-making in general, because that's a wonderfully flip (in a great way) manner of looking at it. Thinking of all these processes evolving in tandem, parallel and sometimes touching but not always, is surreal to think about it, and the operator of my mental projector thanks you. Let's come down to earth with a tangible realization of that: on a daily basis, how has your collaboration with the marketing departments changed since you first started?

I love a project! And I like to think of us all in this together. As for daily marketing interaction, I'd say that not much has changed for me. Our group has always been really interactive and collaborative and down in the trenches together. We're all throwing our ideas in the mix and working to tailor campaigns that are ideal for a given book or author. So the interaction hasn't changed as much as the mix of what we can do and how specifically we can tailor our plans to a publication. We can and must be more nimble and speedy in our efforts. Certainly the author's role in this has changed a fair bit, practically speaking, since the early 2000s. There are a lot more opportunities for direct outreach between readers and authors and with it comes the pressure and potential benefit of that kind of visibility and accessibility. This is something that comes easily for some authors not at all for others; I take real pride in the fact that HMH feels a responsibility to support all of our authors in these choices and that we are designing each publication to an author's particular talents and a book's particular audience. 

Here's a present from our guerilla marketing campaign for PopCo, all those years ago:

That is great! And that's a good sell as any (that you tailor your approach to the author, I mean). I could go down marketing road all day (and have—for weeks even!), but I think we've got time for just a couple more questions. So let's make this personal. What do you read that reignites the passion, and what do you see over the horizon that keeps you excited to come into work?

I am a sucker for voice, for language that explodes off the page or seduces you into the book, and for stories that leave you somehow both expanded as a human being and a little wrecked. I am continually in awe of the millions of stories out in the world and the passion with which writers and readers come to them. That magic connection turned interconnection—that making of a new world by the creation of a book, then recasting that world through the reading of that book, then making a community around talking about that book—it's perpetually reinvigorating. How excited we all still feel not just when we read something extraordinary and get to talk about it, but then —best of all!—we discover that there are other people who are just as moved and changed and thrilled by it. All that does keep a lady coming back to her desk. 

If you want something specific, I'll give you SPILL SIMMER FALTER WITHER, a novel we just published earlier this month and which came with plenty of praise from its native Ireland. And sure, you could assume people will come to it because a dog figures prominently in the book and on the cover, but what's really magical about this book and about the broadly positive reception of it lies in the way it makes the invisible visible. It centers on the kind of man most of us ignore and might not even notice to ignore, but by the end of this book you hold his spirit close and come away with fresh, more widely, intentionally open eyes.

Well that was just inspiring Jenna—thank you. (And I'll look forward to reading SPILL SIMMER.) I'll lead you out with this final one (and finally, an easy one): What can we expect from your list for the end of 2016 and 2017?

SO MANY EXCITING BOOKS! Take a deep breath!! In order of appearance: two collections of poetry, one from a brilliant master you'll know (TO THE LEFT OF TIME by Thomas Lux) and the other a debut collection that makes an ecstatic argument for joy (RAMSHACKLE ODE by Keith Leonard); a debut novel that follows a young woman out of grief in Philadelphia into the wild, tough commercial fishing industry of Alaska (THE ALASKAN LAUNDRY by Brendan Jones); a brilliant blend of psychology and practical advice centered on the science around decision-making (HOW WOMEN DECIDE by Therese Huston); a mesmerizing second novel by Alexis Smith, which I'm lately describing as a post-dystopian in that it offers a vision for how we might conjure miracles from the madness we've brought to this earth (MARROW ISLAND by Alexis Smith); a witty travel adventure into Arabic and the Arab world (ALL STRANGERS ARE KIN by Zora O'Neill); a second and magical novel by the acclaimed Gina Ochsner centered in post-Soviet Latvia and on a boy with enormous ears (THE HIDDEN LETTERS OF VELTA B.); a groundbreaking, provocative new novel from our beloved house author Peter Ho Davies, recasting the history of the Chinese immigrant in America (THE FORTUNES); Amy Stewart's much-anticipated follow up to GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, featuring the further adventures of the Kopp Sisters (LADY COP MAKES TROUBLE); a Very Serious examination of Very Meaningful mistakes in common language by the incomparable Daniel Menaker (THE AFRICAN SVELTE). That takes us to the end of 2016 and I won't delve into 2017 for the sake of your readers—except to say there will be some wildness upending expectations of the Western and a zippy but searing feminist take of pop culture that will raise all kinds of new alarm bells.

This has all been wonderful. Thanks so much for your time, Jenna, and your words.