Interviews with Industry Leaders: Brandon VanOver

Brandon VanOver,
Managing Editor, Random House


Tell us a little about your role at Random House and how you got there?

I worked in New York at the literary agency Curtis Brown for several years, initially as a switchboard jockey before becoming an assistant to the legendary and formidable children’s book agent Marilyn E. Marlow. Under her tutelage I learned how to craft an email by drafting it twenty times before it was acceptable. I learned that a love of books isn’t incompatible with the ends of commerce. (Much like sneaking out the window to marry your high school sweetheart after your parents said you couldn’t ‘live off love’.) I was taught that it’s ‘draperies’ and not ‘drapes’, and ‘never be the last one to leave a party’, despite the fact that I always seem to be. Most of all, I was taught how to believe in a manuscript before it was in any kind of shape to make it across a publisher’s desk or into an acquisitions meeting.

Brandon VanOver Managing Editor, Random House

Brandon VanOver
Managing Editor, Random House

I moved to Sydney and read a few YA manuscripts for Eva Mills at Random House between my hours labouring for a plumber and a caterer while my application for residency was on a slow rotisserie spit somewhere in Washington, DC. An opening eventually came up as the editorial assistant at Random House, and I was able to get that rare and crucial foot in the door. What I loved the most about being an aspiring agent was working closely with authors, nurturing those first hunches and editing fairly raw manuscripts – which, in addition to being a crap salesman, really confirmed that I should be an editor and not an agent.

‘Maintaining the tea and milk supply’ was in my job description as editorial assistant, but it never came to that. The only way to learn how to edit is to edit, and I was given every opportunity to develop that skill and get a nose for what is substance and what is chaff. I fed off working around the editors, hearing their case studies and cautionary tales. I got a buzz watching the publishers pitch and hone their books. And eventually I was able to work with some fantastic authors of my own. For the past five years I’ve been the managing editor – allocating projects to the editors and guiding books through a busy publishing program every year, managing plant costs, negotiating terms with suppliers, representing editorial concerns at various meetings, steering us into digital formats (often capsizing on exposed reef in the process) – but I still spend the majority of my time editing.

Could you tell us the process of what happens after a first draft lands on your desk?

The first step is usually to produce a structural report on a submitted draft, assessing the overall strengths and weaknesses of the work – its tone, characterisation, narrative flow, the way plot lines interrelate. Sometimes an author might take the story down several wrong paths before finding their intended one; this diversion can result in pages of loose material that needs to be revised, pared back or cut completely. Whether in books or film, we’ve all had that moment when we’ve asked ourselves: Was that really necessary? Does that character justify his or her existence? What am I really being told? Where’s the resolution? What’s the point? An author might fall in love with an idea or character that, while having some merit, fails to pull its weight or advance the story. The book might actually begin fifty pages in, or end fifty pages early. At this point I’m not really worried about commas or syntax. Once the essential elements are in place, then I can begin the process of revising on a paragraph-by-paragraph, sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word level. Hopefully you hit the bedrock of clarity, the articulation of an idea that isn’t lost in its own artistry, or cleverness, or self-awareness. That’s the point where the editor becomes just a reader and gets lost in a story, just like you’re reading it for the first time. Sounds idealistic, but so am I.

 What do you see as the main priorities in your role?

My main priority is to help an author see their story more clearly and, once the story is known, then figuring out the best way to tell it, in the best structure and clearest language possible (which isn’t always ultra-concise or easily accessible – all due respect, Cult of Hemingway). I’m not afraid of confronting or complicated ideas, as long as they serve a purpose. The Good Book tells us that ‘we see through a glass darkly’, and most of our problems as people come from a blindness to the confounding circumstances and events we often find ourselves and others in. The greatest stories, the finest uses of language, help us poke and prod and scratch our way out of seemingly impossible situations. If what we find is good and uplifting, great. If what we find is crap, then we will know the true amplitude of its crappiness. It’s my job to ask the right questions to hopefully steer a story to the best conclusion, to help find the right word, understanding the whole time that I am not the author, that I’m privileged to be Tonto.

 What do you look for in a great story?

For me, a great story is true to the rules it has set out for itself. Whatever the narrative mechanisms the author puts into place may be, it must hum along so you can hear its humming, the flywheel spinning, the tumblers falling into place. No matter how off-beat or bizarre it might be, it’s important that the story is consistent, believable and whole within itself.

I also think that great stories tackle the great issues of being a human, the classic ones – love and death, loss and gain, family and solitude, fear and triumph. You can read the oldest books in civilisation, like Gilgamesh, written over four thousand years ago, but you still find characters who are immensely relatable, entirely human and dealing with the same stuff you deal with – in the case of Gilgamesh, an intimate friendship, tragic loss and the question of immortality.

 What stories make your heart sing?

I like stories of weakness turned to strength, of finding moments of truth and revelation among the doubt and humiliations of life. I like literal and metaphorical quests, and stories that tell us we’re all in this s**t together. I’ve always hated seeing people’s dignity taken away from them, so I like seeing stories where that dignity is restored, with the help of a community or through an individual’s own determination and bravery. No matter how conventional people appear to be, we are all seriously strange and wonderfully flawed, and I like stories that are as bizarre as life is. I like fierce, original writing. I like stories of man confronting nature and journeys in the natural world. And I like candlelit dinners and long walks on the beach.  

 Do you have any editorial rules you work by for preparing a great edit?

I think it’s important to have an initial read-through without taking notes or marking up a manuscript, just to get the overall feel and shape of the story. And then I like to map it out, almost forensically, on a sketch pad. This gives me a visual picture of the story, the characters, the themes, the plot movements. It’s hard for different parts of your brain to fire at the same time (at least for me!) so the pure immersion into a story, turning off the more clinically editorial parts of the brain, gives you an initial gut feeling about what’s working and what’s not. Then you can read more with the head and have a more intellectual response.

You wouldn’t know it if you saw my desk, but I do like my physical surroundings to be organised and uncluttered. And, especially for the initial reading of a manuscript, I like to give it my complete, undivided attention, which requires blocking out time in a busy day.

 What tips would you have for writers preparing to deliver their manuscripts?

 Don’t feel like you need to have all the answers upfront. Never having written anything longer than an 8,000-word essay on Whitman’s ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’, I can’t truly know the labour involved in writing a full-length work (the mental stamina needed, the rigor, the depth of imagination, the cycle of belief and doubt, etc.) But I do know what it feels like to be lost in your own mind and then having the company of a person you trust to make you feel a little less crazy and little more validated. As an author it’s probably in your nature to want to craft and refine and spit-polish (burn, recant, resurrect), but I would also suggest that a good editor is really the most useful early on in the process, when you’re looking down a few different paths in the labyrinth, unsure which one to take. Good publishers often fill this role too. Sometimes I find that the real chemistry between an author and editor doesn’t start firing until the manuscript is too far down its path and the to-print date is looming. That’s when people are tempted to settle.

And likewise, when you think you’ve bedded down an idea, take a break then come back and think of ways to push it further, ways to re-examine it or find alternative paths. You might conclude that your original idea is the best, but nine times out of ten you’ll borrow fragments, accents, shades from these discarded ideas to make that original one hum. 

And for the final word…over to you.

The plastic bag scene in American Beauty, when Ricky Fitts says, ‘Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in’ is the kind of line that everyone kind of loved when they first saw the movie. Then everyone found it corny and overly earnest. Now it sounds almost laughable and naïve given it was pre-millennium, pre-9/11 and pre-all-the-horrible-rest-that-followed. But it’s the perfect sentiment to me given my experience in publishing, as an editor and as a reader and a person who loves watching authors perform these amazingly creative acts. I think as long as we continue to be moved by the world in its horrible entirety, and actively seek out experiences that suffocate us with beauty (what the Buddhists call the ‘joyful participation in the sorrows of man’), we are fuller human beings. We’re four-dimensional, hell, maybe even more.