#83: A Sneak Peek at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with Little, Brown & Co. executive editor Vanessa Mobley, by Liz Mathews
August 19, 2016
Think about the last time someone told you she (or he) works in publishing. Did you immediately assume that person was an editor? Well, for this interview we were able to snag a few moments of an honest-to-goodness editor’s time. Meet Vanessa Mobley, an executive editor with Little, Brown and Company. If you want to catch her eye, she admits that she’s pretty much looking for two things (see the second question below). And if you want to get an idea of the caliber of writers she works with, well, she’s got a few bestsellers and major prize winners under her belt.
Vanessa will be joining us on Sunday, September 11, for the How We Spot the Next Generation of Great Writers panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ conference. What better place to be to try to get spotted, yourself?
Why did you choose to become an editor?
I tried out a number of jobs before I became an editor (I worked as a fundraiser for The Nation, the ACLU of Southern California and the Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles) but the one constant in my life has been my deep interest in reading to better understand the world. I think this is why I became an editor working in nonfiction.
What does a book have to do for you to want to work on it?
A book has to signal clearly and profoundly on two fronts: the author’s knowledge of her subject, and the author’s point of view on that subject. If a book has both of those elements, is written with precision but also a searching intelligence and imagination, and is also about a subject for which I have some interest/curiosity/knowledge, then I will be interested. For this reason, I try to stay interested in a broad array of subjects, admittedly a pretty easy thing to do.
When you work on a book, how do you know when your work (and the author’s work) is done? Have you and an author had differing views on that?
Knowing when to stop editing has to be one of the hardest—if not the hardest—parts of the job. In some ways, editors are the guardians of the book in its most ideal form. Our job is to hold a standard in our minds and find ways to help the books we edit reach that place. When you as an editor are working very hard and closely with an author, sometimes it is easy to fall victim to mission creep: you can take a book from point A to point R and not realize that you should have gone all the way to point Z. I try to always maintain perspective on how far an author has come without forgetting how far she still has to go. Getting a grip on your own standards, and putting in the work required to maintain and even advance them, is a part of being an editor and in some ways the most interesting part.
In reflecting on your experiences working with debut authors and their books, is there anything you wish first-time authors would already know or expect before you begin a relationship with them?
There is so much riding on a first book—it really is a terrifying leap into the dark. So preparation is the best policy—whether that is dogged reporting, long and hard thinking or just a very clear sense of what you want to do and how you want to do it. But if I could give any prospective author advice it would be: read a lot. Figure out how the authors who you love perform the tricks that make you love them. And, as much as this is possible, find a way to reproduce that magic yourself, not in an imitative way but in an inspired and generous way. Devote yourself to the highest form of entertainment, which I consider to be the creation of worlds vast and beautiful enough to get lost in.
Liz Mathews is a former publishing veteran recovering from her years in New York by living in Minnesota and working in content strategy and behavior design.
Vanessa Mobley is an executive editor at Little, Brown. Among the books she is proud to have edited are Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial, Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and Kate Bolick’s Spinster. Her authors at Little, Brown include Jancee Dunn, Kate Fagan, Wesley Lowery, Jim Newton, Jonathan Taplin and Adam Weymouth. She lives in New York City with her family.