Interview with Hawthorne Books Editor Adam O’Connor Rodriguez

We recently got the chance to talk with Adam O’Connor Rodriguez, who currently teaches the copyediting class in PSU’s graduate program in book publishing. An industry insider, he’s worked for Portland-based Hawthorne Books since 2007 and is now their senior editor. Among other titles, he edited Frank Meeink’s Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, James Bernard Frost’s A Very Minor Prophet, and three of Scott Nadelson’s story collections. He is currently at work on David Shields’s anthology Life is Short – Art is Shorter, due for publication in May 2015.
Besides his work as Hawthorne’s in-house editor, Adam has been freelancing as developmental editor for many years and has served as editor for various literary journals. He is also fiction editor for the Burnside Review. His own fiction, poetry, and interviews appear in a variety of venues. Hailing from West Michigan, Adam received his MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University.
We enjoyed chatting with Adam about his substantial experience and his work philosophies immensely and are glad to share some of it with you here.
 
Adam, thank you so much taking the time to talk to us. First off, we’re curious to hear what a typical workday looks like for you.
Since I’m mostly a freelancer and work multiple gigs at once, it’s hard to break down what a typical workday looks like for me. I sleep less than most anyone I’ve ever met, two to four hours a night, so I keep odd hours—sometimes I work from 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., sometimes day hours, sometimes eighteen hours straight if there’s a deadline, and other times my workday consists of checking my email when I get up and deciding there’s nothing I need to handle that day. That scenario’s very rare, but the point is that freelance work is inconsistent.
 
You’re currently working on two forthcoming titles for Hawthorne Books. How did you get involved with the press?
After I received my MFA and got married, my wife and I ranked our top ten cities we wanted to live in after graduation. Portland was high on our lists. If we’d have moved to New York, I had a line on a job as an associate editor at a major house, a really intriguing prospect with a magazine in North Carolina, and other opportunities too. But we decided place was more important than career, so I applied for every somewhat publishing-related job in Portland for about eight months.
<p>I’d just heard of Hawthorne because Clown Girl by Monica Drake was making some waves, and they were looking to hire an assistant production manager to help with office tasks. I figured with my diverse publishing skill set, I could become valuable to the company in many ways. I’d worked in restaurants and factories for a decade before I went to college, so I wasn’t worried about starting at a low-level job and working hard. Before we moved to Portland, I interviewed with Rhonda Hughes, publisher of Hawthorne, and she was one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. We hit it off instantly. I worked in the office for a while at first, but it quickly became obvious I should be editing books, so I’ve been working for Hawthorne on that end since 2008.
 
After almost a decade here, do you think Portland is treating its editors well? How would you estimate job prospects in the city?
There’s a lot of passion for books and for making books in this town, but it’s hard to make a living working only for Portland-based companies as an editor. Difficult but not impossible. There simply aren’t many living-wage editorial jobs here, and even fewer in-house editorial positions.
 
You’ve described yourself in class as a project-oriented editor who cares about the final product—and knowing that you had a part in it—more than the journey. With that in mind, what would your dream editing project be?
My dream project might be something like Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead, which I edited years ago for Hawthorne. The first draft, the one we bought, was very, very rough. It read like an academic paper. Through many, many rounds of edits, the very receptive and intelligent author and I collaborated to smooth it into a compelling piece of narrative nonfiction that mattered. I feel like my perfect project would always be something like that: helping guide something rough and likely unpublishable, but with a great heart, into art that matters.
 
Do you prefer working freelance or as in-house editor, and what are some advantages of both arrangements?
I would probably prefer working as an in-house editor, but on my terms. A hybrid would be ideal. Advantages of freelance work are obvious: I get to set my own hours, work as much or as little as I want (generally; deadlines permitting) and accept or reject projects based on any arbitrary standards I set. The main disadvantage is probably less obvious: I’m at work all the time. Every minute I’m doing anything other than working is a minute I’m not earning money. To say that I “bring my work home with me” is a silly understatement. I’m always distracted, always under deadline, rarely relaxed. The advantages of working in-house are the advantages of any job: you work a certain number of hours on a certain number of projects and get paid an agreed-upon amount for your time. There’s little homework from most in-house jobs.
 
Thinking about your work as a whole, can you name three principles you follow that illustrate your philosophy as an editor?
All editors have thousands of microprinciples on which we rely, but if I had to distill it, it might be something like: editing is art, not science; kindness and compassion; and first, respect the author’s intentions.
 
What’s one of the most common misconceptions about what it means to be an editor?
That I give a shit if someone makes an error when speaking or writing informal prose like emails. I’m about the least formal person I know, and I use more slang, profanity, and bad grammar in speech and in informal written communication than most people. Despite that, even people I’ve known for twenty years sometimes think I’m going to correct their grammar—when I wouldn’t even think about it. The other misconception people have is that editing is simple “proofreading.” Editing is such a huge range of job titles that saying you’re an editor could mean you do such a range of things at work that it requires further explanation—do you acquire books? Work with authors? Compare text against originals? Manage schedules and check freelancers’ work? Decide which books your company publishes? Each of those tasks are in some editor’s job description.
 
A major part of an editor’s work involves dealing with clients on a more or less regular basis. In your work, what kind of author-editor relationship do you strive for, and what do you do to help foster it?
I want authors to think I’m someone who respects them entirely but that I [also] know my shit, because I do. I want them to think I read their work with the utmost respect and care and [that] any advice I give them comes from concern for the finished product’s quality. I want them to feel they’re collaborating with me, but they’re always in charge—if there’s an argument over a decision I make in a manuscript, I want authors to feel like they’ve already won that argument. I’ll state my case with conviction, but if I can’t be persuasive, the author is automatically right. I’ve never worked with a writer who I haven’t argued with about something, but I’ve never worked with one who wouldn’t have a drink with me today. That’s what I’m looking for. I arrive at that relationship by being honest about myself as an editor and a person—my flaws and strengths—and hoping that encourages the same from an author. It does.
 
You’ve been working in a variety of editorial positions for quite some time. What’s the best piece of advice you ever received that’s helped you in your profession?
When Sam Ligon, a brilliant editor, told me that I was already “there” as a top-level editor, I just needed to have a lighter hand and let the author’s voice carry the work instead of trying to take ownership of the manuscript, it changed my perception entirely. Mastering editing is about learning good judgment, not memorizing arbitrary rules. Less red on the manuscript—but the right red—is a hallmark of a good editor.
Certainly the biggest mistake editors who are just starting out make is overediting. I know I used to think that the more red pen on the page, the better the edit. That’s not at all true.
 
You taught the class on copyediting this term, which is just coming to an end. Has this experience revealed anything for you? That is, has teaching the class made you think in new ways about your work as an editor?
Teaching the copyediting class has revealed my own weaknesses as a copyeditor. While my on-page skills are high-level, I’ve learned I rely heavily on good judgment and instinct and less so on formal training. While teaching this class, I’ve learned that I need to push hard to learn and relearn fundamentals, because most of the editing processes and protocols I’ve invented over the years through trial and error, error, error have already been refined. Book learning is no substitute for experience in any arena, but it can be and almost certainly is a shortcut to sharpening skills.
I’ve also learned that the publishing program at PSU deserves its great reputation. Of the sixteen students in my class, I’d hire five or six tomorrow if I had need for a copyeditor. And every student has shown potential to be a very good copyeditor with continued development; I wouldn’t be lying if I recommended any of them for any job.
 

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