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Helen Moffett on Editing Lauren Beukes: It’s Mostly Air Traffic Control

Lauren Beukes and Helen Moffett

Helen Moffett was Lauren Beukes’ “plus one” at the recent University of Johannesburg Prize ceremony in Johannesburg, and said a few words about the relationship between an editor and an author.

Moffett has been Beukes’ editor since her first novel, Moxyland, and recalled how she was interviewed for the job when Beukes was “just another hungry, determined, extraordinarily talented young writer, determined to make her way in the world”.

MoxylandZoo City (SA edition)The Shining GirlsBroken Monsters

Despite it being showered with accolades overseas, the UJ Prize is The Shining Girls’ first South African award. But before she made her acceptance speech, Beukes handed the platform over to her editor.

“The last time I was wearing this dress,” Beukes began, “was at the Clarke Awards in 2011 [Beukes won for Zoo City – ed]. My brother shoved me at the stage without a speech, because I was so convinced I wasn’t going to win I had put it away, and I remembered to thank everyone … except my editor, Helen Moffett. So I’ve brought her along as my date tonight and she wants to say a few brief words.

“Not too long!” Beukes warned her editor, who replied wryly: “That’s usually what I say to you …”

Read Moffett’s speech:

* * * * *

“I’m going to say a few brief words about the relationship between an editor and an author. You see the words on the page, and the final product is polished, whereas what has actually happened behind the scenes – all sorts of things have happened behind the scenes.

“There’s no brief of what constitutes editing, especially of high-quality fiction – around the world, I’ve discovered, not just in South Africa. It is mostly about relationships. I have the best job in the world, because I get to work not only as a freelance editor, working with a specific author or a specific publisher, I get to work with authors over and over again. Lauren and I have been together since Moxyland, when she was just another hungry, determined, extraordinarily talented young writer, determined to make her way in the world, and she wanted to work with me. She interviewed me! And I went with her all the way through Moxyland, then Zoo City, then they tried to separate us for The Shining Girls, when she went big and international. (That didn’t work so well.)

“I’m working with an author of extraordinary talent and work ethic. Lauren does multiple drafts of everything she writes. I’m not talking about three or four. I think Shining Girls went to about … there were 18 different versions. And a lot of what I do is air traffic control, because technology simply allows for layers and bits and pieces of books to be disassembled or reassembled. But I’m lucky enough in my career now that I get to pick my authors, and I’m extraordinary lucky in that I can take talent for granted. All of my authors are talented. But when I say ‘this doesn’t work. Try A, B or C’, most of my authors in those circumstances will plump for A, B or C. Lauren goes for D. She does something fresh, she does something new. And she knocks it out of the park. It is an absolute pleasure to work with her.

“As a radical feminist, and a recovering feminist academic – I get more radical every time I read news headlines, especially in recent times – I’m very grateful to Craig MacKenzie and the prize judges’ insight into how the novel treats violence against women, because there have been some very facile readings.

“The subtext of The Shining Girls is the potential of every women who meets a violent death, especially in this country, not at the hands of that rare phenomenon a serial killer, but at the hands of a neighbour, a husband, a boyfriend, a stepfather. The Shining Girls is, in a way, a testimony to the potential that we lose when we allow a violent culture in which men can squander women’s lives. So I’m grateful to Lauren, also, for writing books that are so entertaining, so unusual, so novel, so very different, and yet there’s this real meat and bone to them.”

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    October 29th, 2014 @09:28 #

    Oh wow! As you can see, I spoke off the cuff, and I'm grateful to Jen for taking the time and trouble to transcribe my words. It was a wonderful event, and it was so nice of Lauren to take me with her.

  • Jennifer
    October 29th, 2014 @11:19 #

    Pleasure Helen! Some gems there ;)


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