On Editing as Midwifery: An Interview with Martha Sharpe

I have known Martha Sharpe for a little over four years. In that time, she has been my mentor, my collaborator, and perhaps more famously, the first person who published my novel.

I have known Martha Sharpe for a little over four years. In that time, she has been my mentor, my collaborator, and perhaps more famously, the first person who published my novel. Though she is too shy to say, Martha has played an indispensable role in shaping North American publishing, with her acquisitions including early titles by Sheila Heti, Iain Reid, and Michael Winter.

On a recent weekend evening, I went to the Flying Books store on College Street near closing time. She left the doors open after hours so that our conversation was broken up by customers coming in and Martha saying, “Is there anything I can help you find?”

We sit perched behind the cash desk and open a bottle of what Martha calls “bad launch party wine.” Taking on a sheen of formality, we talk about her illustrious history in publishing, sensitivity as an editor, and Flying Books’s success. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Marlowe Granados: I’m not even very familiar with your publishing background. I can recall some details, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the entire story.

Martha Sharpe: I first started as an editorial assistant at a large Canadian-owned company called Stoddart, and that place owned Anansi Press. At that point, they had nobody there working full-time on the list. I was immediately drawn to the potential there, and I was reading unsolicited manuscripts for both Stoddart and Anansi. I was recommending manuscripts to the editorial board that I thought could be possible fits and the first one I recommended was called Like This by Leo McKay Jr., and unbelievably, it got shortlisted for the Giller Prize.

Marlowe Granados: Did that help your career?

Martha Sharpe: That happened within the first year I was there, and it was an interesting time. When I joined it was 1993. I was just amazed at how down publishing was on itself. To think of itself as ancient and a dying industry, that “young people don’t read books.” Yet here I was, a young person reading books. At that point, they thought CD-ROMS were going to destroy publishing and I just thought, “No, I really can’t see it.”

There weren’t a lot of people my age at that company, and it was the luck of being at a place with a storied background, owned by a larger company that was somewhat stable and had distribution. It was this perfect confluence of circumstances for me to develop my own little spot, with very low expectations.

They gave me quite a lot of autonomy after the Giller shortlist, which was this hilarious and out-of-the-blue thing. It was really learning the craft of editing from the people around me at Stoddart and the editorial advisory group who would write these amazing in-depth reports on the manuscripts that I was finding. I couldn’t have asked for a better coming up while I was there. I was able to publish Sheila Heti and her first two books, Michael Winter, Mark Anthony Jarman.

All I did was work and drink. Which seems very glamorous, but I was probably drinking cheap, launch party white wine all the time. Some things don’t change.

MG: Then you moved to New York for a while to freelance, and moved back to Canada to accept a job as editorial director at Simon & Schuster Canada. Is there a difference between the books you acquired for publishers and the ones you acquire for Flying Books?

MS: I do get offered a wide array of things and I’m building this list very slowly and very carefully. I’m shaping what it is as I go with each acquisition and in some ways, yes, I would have acquired Happy Hour for Simon & Schuster. I would have acquired Good Girl and City in Flames. Obviously, what I would acquire travels with me.

Now that I’m doing it on my own, the Flying Books list has kind of surprised me. Your book surprised me because it made me set the tone a little bit because—an author who submitted a manuscript said it really well—they said it combined seriousness and play. It suits where I’m at in my life now. I took everything very seriously in my twenties and my thirties. Now I think we can have a sense of humour and still be intellectual.

MG: I think there’s hesitancy in mainstream publishing anyways, people don’t want to publish things that require a little bit more digging, in terms of what the hook is.

MS: It’s a business based on comparisons. There’s always the comparison of the moment. And it changes, you know, at one point everything was being compared to My Brilliant Friend, before that everything was being compared to Gone Girl. Everything has to be compared to something that’s really successful. There’s a comfort in reading something that’s similar to something that you’ve read before and there’s a certain kind of reader that says, “Okay, this is my thing, I want it exactly like this.”

MG: Almost like picking out a perfume.

MS: I’m not that kind of reader. I want something that makes you ask, “What! How!” I have a hunger for that. It doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be crazy experimental. When I read your manuscript, I hadn’t seen anybody approach that age with the same kind of affection and seriousness at the same time, and it was just fun and funny.

Then with Good Girl, I hadn’t seen anybody really bring out the humour in sex, and how sex and dating are just ridiculous and hilarious and such good comedy material. When I read the City in Flames manuscript I devoured it, and then it changed over the course of working on it with Tomas. But there was something that I was just like, “Oh, yes, he’s doing something, he’s helping show connection and loneliness at the same time.” And I hadn’t really seen anybody do that successfully through writing before, tap into a feeling that I’ve had.

MG: You and I were working together so much, I felt like we were really DIY at the very beginning. I feel like people don’t really get that.

MS: It must have felt weird for you because there was a good chunk of time that there was no physical place—no office or store.

MG: Oh, I don’t think I cared about that. I think it was more like I really didn’t understand a lot of things about publishing. With Happy Hour there was a very particular combination of things that made it work. I guess for me, after having had the manuscript done for so long, I didn’t feel like there was an urgency. I was like, “Let’s just try it out, give it to Martha and see what happens.” We’ll give it our best shot. I had no real expectations about what would happen. Let’s just get it out of this drawer and dust it off.

MS: I remember you hadn’t read it in a good year and a half to two years. Which was great, because you didn’t have the feeling of being too attached to it.

MG: I think our approach to editing was rare because of that. What has your experience been editing authors and the delicacy of that (me excluded)?

MS: It’s evolved for me over time. I think coming out of grad school I had such an academic mindset. When I started working with writers, I felt like I as the editor, and they as the author, were working on the text as a text, removed from both of us, so we could be objective about making it the best it could be. I started learning quickly about the attachment that authors have. It’s like, “Oh no Martha, you’re criticizing my baby, you’re telling me what’s wrong with my baby,” as if it was an actual infant. In academia, you're never working directly with the artist. It’s all text, text, text, words, ideas, very removed from any personal relationship.

I could trace back and watch myself transforming from that very academic mindset to “you can't just treat it as a text.” For a writer like you, Marlowe, you were so removed from it, because it had been years since you’d written it. You had been through the phases of nobody having acquired it until quite a lot later. You’d had your Hard Knocks already, and then it was probably like, “Wow, how weird that a publisher wants to take this on.”

MG: Yes, that is exactly how I felt, how weird.

MS: Most writers that you’re working with have more recently finished the work so it’s a lot closer to them. It feels very personal.

I was working on a nonfiction book that was more of a memoir manuscript, and I realized I had a big idea for a structural edit. And then I thought, “Oh, I better try a few pages and run it by the writer before I just proceed.” And that’s something I never would have done at the very, very beginning of working as an editor.

I’m always telling writers to take it to the state where you cannot imagine changing another word. And then every word might change after I get done with it, but you have to feel you’re convinced by it and can advocate for it.

I’ve seen a lot of authors make the mistake of “Dear publisher/editor, I have taken this manuscript as far as I can for now. I’d really like some editorial input.” And I'm always like, “No, it’s not done yet. The baby’s got to stay inside that womb for a little while longer.” I'm a midwife. I can’t be there for the conception or even the building of the kidneys or an eyelash. I’m always telling writers to take it to the state where you cannot imagine changing another word. And then every word might change after I get done with it, but you have to feel you’re convinced by it and can advocate for it. We can have conversations about how it could be its best version, but we can’t do that until it’s done.

MG: You’re more there for the polish.

MS: I’m the reader’s closest advocate. I’m like the closest reader that the text will probably ever have. I’m reading it with that rule in mind.

About the authors

Marlowe Granados is a writer and filmmaker. She is the author of Happy Hour, a novel the New York Times called “confident, charismatic and alive to the pleasure of observation.” Her recently launched Substack, "From the Desk of Marlowe Granados,” features her advice column, essays, and more.

Martha Sharpe is an editor, publisher, and bookseller at Flying Books in Toronto. Her previous positions include Publisher at House of Anansi Press and Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster Canada, where she worked with authors such as Sheila Heti, Iain Reid, Rawi Hage, Ken Babstock, Thomas King, Laila Lalami, Eimear McBride, Lisa Moore, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Michael Redhill, Michael Winter, and more.