The Life of a Book: An interview with editor Brant Rumble, Part 1
We’re going deep inside the making of a book, with interviews from Penguin Random House employees in editorial, marketing, sales, and more. If you’ve ever wondered about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making your favorite books, this is the series for you.
Q: How would you describe this book to someone who’s never read Chuck?
A: Imagine you’re about to meet up at a bar (or any other kind of location where you can relax and enjoy yourself) with several of your best friends. You’re going to discuss both important and completely unimportant subjects. You’re going to play some songs on the jukebox, which might lead you to ponder the career of Gerry Rafferty. You’re going to casually watch whatever games are on. You’ll argue, you’ll laugh—both with and at each other—and you might be surprised by a good friend’s revelation or news. And, unless someone loses a tooth or a credit card, you’ll have a good time, living in a world where not all times are good.
Reading Chuck is the literary equivalent of that night out. There’s part of me that hesitates to characterize his work in that way because I fear it implies, to some people, a lack of quality, which is not what I’m trying to convey at all. In fact, if that’s what you think it implies, then maybe you need some new best friends.
This book, specifically, asks—in every which way—what we, as individuals and as a society, might be wrong about. We look back in history and it’s obvious to us that people have always been wrong about major facts or issues at any given time, yet it’s difficult to apply that same scrutiny to the present. Chuck tries. He looks at art, science, politics, sports, dreaming, the fabric of reality, and just about everything else. He consults experts in each field, and he draws some fascinating conclusions about how we think about what we know, or don’t know.
Q: What would surprise a layman about the editing and publishing process?
A: People who are unfamiliar with the publishing industry probably don’t realize the extent to which editors are involved in a book at every step from signing it up to editing it (they probably can guess about that part) to publishing it to finding ways to promote it years later. Editors depend on countless colleagues in production, design, sales, publicity, marketing, rights, and legal—not to mention booksellers and media and partners outside of the publishing house—but an editor is generally involved throughout the entire process. An editor is the author’s primary connection to the publishing house. Maybe a layman knows all of this. Sometimes that guy is smarter than we think.
Q: What do you look for when you acquire a book? How does that apply to But What if We’re Wrong?
A: It’s relatively simple: I look for books I love to read. Of course, I have particular interests in music, pop culture, sports, counterculture, and quirky/weird/wild subjects, so most of the books I look for relate to one or more of those realms, but I also love a writer who can pull me into a subject I was never expecting to want to read about. That takes a distinct voice and command of language, and usually some sense of levity, which can range from subtle to outlandish.
As for Chuck, I’ve been working with him since the beginning of his literary career, which was essentially the beginning of my career as an editor. In 1999, I was a novice editor, but I’d been trained to look for writers and books, applying the aforementioned principles, and I’m extremely fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time to start working with Chuck. The way in which he typifies the kind of writer I enjoy reading cannot be overstated.
Q: What’s the first thing you do after acquiring a book? How do you start the editing process? How do you collaborate with Chuck? How has it changed since his first book?
A: Usually, in the process of acquiring a book, an editor has had some kind of conversation with the author. So, the first step is usually an extension of that conversation, and just getting to know each other a little bit. If the writer is in New York, I take him or her to lunch. We talk about logistics of the project and the general approach the writer is going to take with the book.
With Chuck, this is the eighth book we’ve worked on together, and we know each other well. We’re pals who’ve watched approximately fifty college football games while sitting in the same room. But I still take him to lunch sometimes. We usually have three big conversations about a given book—one before he starts writing, one after he’s been writing for a while, and one before he delivers the first complete draft. Then we have lots of little conversations and email exchanges until the book is ready to go to the printer. That hasn’t changed a lot over the years.
Check back soon for Part 2., in which Rumble describes his favorite parts of the editorial process and the most striking chapters of But What If We’re Wrong?.
Read the first post in this series here.