On taking stock and allowing dreams to evolve

Sue Carter at Quill & Quire commissioned me to write a personal essay about my decision to leave my job. This piece ran on the Quill & Quire site today and was picked up by Publishers Weekly.

Personal Essay: Penguin Random House editor Amanda Lewis on leaving her dream job

In my eight years as an editor and managing editor with the Knopf Random Canada Publishing Group at Penguin Random House Canada, I was frequently asked (usually by one of the 55 editorial interns I hired and supervised), “How did you get into publishing?”

The “how” was always easy to answer; it’s the “why” we don’t ask often enough, the why that keeps us doing the work. When I gave notice that I would be leaving my job at the end of September, I expected to hear “why?” a lot more often than I have. Perhaps it’s because my friends and colleagues think they already know the answer, having sussed it from clues; perhaps it’s because the reasons behind the decision are not as important as having made the decision itself; or perhaps because “why?,” especially when asked in the context of a departure, is less valued than “how?”

So, how? Well, I will be leaving, I hope, with a certain amount of grace. I will be stepping into this new life without intentionally leaving anyone behind; for the most part, I will continue to act as editor for books I have acquired, and I will be a regular freelancer for the KRC group and other PRHC imprints. I leave knowing that I have prepared my way with numerous editing and project management contracts.

I will move on knowing that I have had the best possible mentorship in Canadian publishing, having worked directly with Anne Collins, Louise Dennys, Lynn Henry, and all my bright and wonderful colleagues across divisions.

The response I usually give our interns’ “how?” is “the old-fashioned way,” a course that is seldom followed these days with such directness. I came into publishing after graduate studies in literature, volunteer and paid gigs with book and literacy organizations, an immersion in publishing at Simon Fraser University, and an editorial internship at Knopf Canada, where I happily stayed on. Though I am alarmed that I am “still in Toronto” after eight years (what was supposed to be a mere three months) I am head-over-heels grateful for having been swept up in the fold these many years.

I will never forget long nights at the office with Charlie Foran and Louise as we put the finishing touches on Mordecai: The Life and Times (or, for that matter, biking cherished family photos between the office and the homes of the Richlers, as I dared not trust the courier). Or helping Edmund Metatawabin share his truth of surviving residential school in Up Ghost River. Or the time I all but lived with Anna and Jane McGarrigle in Montreal for a week, charged by Anne to “return with a final manuscript,” which would become Mountain City Girls: The McGarrigle Family Album.

My experiences haven’t been limited to non-fiction, of course. I still get a chill thinking about the first time I read Liz Harmer’s debut novel, The Amateurs, and very quickly signing her up for a two-book deal. Or the delight (and initial bewilderment, until my skills in Yiddish strengthened) I had when reading Gary Barwin’s Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted novel, Yiddish for Pirates. Or how Alix Hawley’s All True Not a Lie in It knocked me down one Friday night such that my reader’s report to my publishers essentially consisted of one word: “Yes.”

And naturally, the time I biked to the Ritz-Carlton after learning over Twitter (thanks, Jared Bland) that Us Conductors by Sean Michaels had won the Giller Prize. I think I was wearing fleece pants that night, but I did slap on some red lipstick, because in my eight years as an in-house editor I’ve learned how to “clean up” really quickly when hearing an otherwise-unannounced author coming down the hall.

It has been an immense privilege and honour to work at PRHC. My relationships there have bled into many parts of my life, most notably the creation (with Janet Joy Wilson) of the Reading Line, an annual reading festival that perfectly blends my love of books and bikes. I could go on and on about the wonderful books I have worked on, but the books speak for themselves (at least they do with a little coaxing from us). I feel immensely grateful to have worked a dream job – my dream job, and the dream job of many – in which I literally help others realize their dreams.

But dreams have the slippery ability to morph over time, and can sometimes wriggle away the more we grasp them – in our first waking moments, in a career, in a life. Now I am, as Patti Smith remarked in M Train when she and her husband discovered they were pregnant and ceased their travels to head home to Detroit, “trading one set of dreams for another.”

Increasingly, I longed for the ability to shape my own future and development, to live and work according to my ideals, to shape my hours and the space in which I work. I am a wanderer at heart (daughter of a ship captain, what can I say), so though I will be based in Toronto, this freelance life will have me roaming not only to my beloved West Coast, but to other locations still to be determined.

My love of editing and project management has not diminished over the years, and I want to share these passions with a variety of clients, from all industries, who are committed to creating positive social change. Since we know that some of the most profound changes can simply come from a story well told, I am not limiting this work to non-fiction or even just books: exhibits, films, novels … all will be on the table.

I do feel a certain amount of loss in leaving – who wouldn’t? I work with some of the top literary talent in Canada and abroad. I have one of a handful of in-house editorial jobs still available in this country. Many mornings I woke at three o’clock thinking, “Am I an absolute fool for leaving?”

But at a certain point I found myself taking the measure of my life, as a substantive editor would a manuscript: what’s missing, what is there too much of, where do connections need to be made, where is this going?

I would say that the majority of people I’ve told have been supportive, though some are a little incredulous. The response I have heard most often is “What a brave and bold move.” And while I appreciate the sentiment and confidence it bestows, I have to wonder: is it brave? When everything is pointing you in a certain direction, is it brave to take that initial step forward? I am not sure if it’s brave or not, but like many decisions, it’s agonizing until you commit, and then … it’s just walking, hopefully with a little grace in your step.

 

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