By Beth Kephart
In 2009, a debut novel called Book of Clouds was reviewed in the pages of the New York Times. The book had been written by Chloe Aridjis, a young woman born in New York, raised in the Netherlands and Mexico City, and educated at Oxford. It was set in Berlin, where the skies are, indeed, riddled by cloudscapes and where the atmosphere is dense, the architecture coruscated. Mysterious, layered, breathtaking, rare, the novel felt like a book translated, a gift from overseas.
The book’s editor was Lauren Wein — a graduate of Cornell University, a student of Hebrew and Italian — who took her first trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair as a 23-year-old assistant in the rights department at Grove/Atlantic. It was part of Wein’s job back then, she said in a recent interview, to interest international publishers in the Grove/Atlantic list. It had not occurred to her that the relationships “could not or should not be reciprocal.”
Wein’s first acquisition was Love Life by the Israeli writer Zeruya Shalev, a book that would become a phenomenon in Israel and Germany but sell modestly here in the US. Soon, Wein would be working with acclaimed international writers such as Sofi Oksanen (Purge), Sasa Stanisic (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone), Marcelo Figueras (Kamchatka), Julia Franck (The Blindness of the Heart), and Sayed Kashua (Dancing Arabs/Let it be Morning). She found that she was drawn to stories that “illuminate corners of the world — interior and exterior — that would remain dark for us if not for these brave and brilliant dispatches.”
At the same time, Wein was championing such award-winning and commercially successful domestic titles as Vida by Patricia Engel, How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely, Winkie by Clifford Chase, and Broken For You by Stephanie Kallos. Like many of her favorite books out in the world, all of these force a deeper look at life, “some sort of confrontation.”
This past October, Lauren Wein was named a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, following fifteen years at Grove/Atlantic. One of the big draws of HMH, says Wein, is “its world-class translation list, shaped in part by the extraordinary Drenka Willen,” with a line-up of new books by, just to name a few, Amos Oz, Umberto Eco, and Jose Saramago.
“It’s dizzying to think about contributing in some small way,” says Wein. “But I’m also excited to expand into more mainstream fiction — big-hearted love stories, sweeping family dramas — as well as some narrative nonfiction. I have a tremendous feeling of possibility here.” No matter what, says Wein, she will continue to take on books that she believes in — books that keep her interested, passionate, dedicated to the only career she has ever had. She will, as well, continue to believe that there will always be room for quality and for books “that are not obvious.”
“Every book is a leap of faith,” she says. “It’s like having a child — trusting that the world is worthy of receiving what is most precious to you. Success, to me, is when the world returns your faith. Failure is when the world acts indifferent.”
A story Wein tells about debut novel Shards by Ismet Prcic, underscores her point. The editorial process was long and intense, and as it always does, it took place in a vacuum. When the book was released by Grove/Atlantic in October 2011, it might have been overlooked, might not have found its audience — that can and does happen to many works of art — but in this case the New York Times Book Review noticed and assigned the book to the widely respected novelist, Dana Spiotta. Spiotta’s praise was unstinting.
“That feels like success,” Wein says. “That is redemption, faith rewarded. I suppose seeing such a book on the bestseller list would be even more gratifying, not only because this author could use the royalties, but because it would mean that the message is getting out. Stories like this one, and stories like The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht — a young writer championed by a young agent and a young editor — give us all hope.”
“I suppose,” Wein concludes, “that there is something of the evangelist in all editors, no matter how unassuming, self-deprecating, or socially awkward we might be. The truth is, when we fight for something, we really believe we’re right, and we want to convert as many people as we possibly can.”
Beth Kephart is the author, most recently, of You Are My Only. Her 14th book, Small Damages, is due out from Philomel next July. Please visit her blog, http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/
DISCUSS: Have Editors Become Bankers?