The Portfolio: Efemia Chela

Many people don’t view editing as a creative job. Instead they regard it as being technical and rigid — the publisher’s merciless hired hand. That’s not the case. I’m not a schoolteacher with a rod, teaching your words proper deportment.

My favourite work is developmental editing for novels, where a lot of what I do is learning — learning what the writer wants to say, what the characters want to reveal, how the narrative wants to unfold. And deciding whether going against these desires enriches the overall book for the reader or holds it back. It can often be a collaborative process between the writer and me, even though at the end I’m invisible, the ghost in the spine.

The mind is just another belly; it has to be fed. I can’t survive on red pen and unpaid invoices alone. So I read about 60 to 70 books a year and quite diversely. This also ties in nicely with my work as a literary critic for The Johannesburg Review of Books. I have a running series there where I’m reading a book from every African country. You’d be surprised how many countries only have one book or one author translated into English and a couple with none at all.

Reading is invaluable for an editor. It’s the best way to see the range of styles, imagined worlds and thought experiments and how the industry, writers and readers evolve too. I also research how “star” editors (or translators), like Toni Morrison, Simon Prosser and Robert Gottlieb have worked, out of curiosity and sometimes jealousy. It’s like a remote support group, reading about other editors’ creative processes.

Like most people, my work is done behind my screen and I meet most people in emails. But, if the writer is nearby, it’s useful to meet at least once in a space where none of us have any power to discuss manuscript issues. Offices have too many heavy bits of stationery that can be thrown in a heated moment; restaurants are too noisy. A bench next to Zoo Lake is perfect. I meet writers there because a walk can iron a lot of things out and at the end we can both look out over the water.


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