By Tristan Koster
A lot of us have dreams of writing a bestseller or that groundbreaking article, but very little of that ever comes to light without the work of accomplished editors and publishers. For more than forty years Mary Schendlinger has been editing and publishing literary works. She’s also a writer who specializes in comics and creative nonfiction, much of which has been published in the literary magazine that she co-founded: Geist.
In addition Mary is the author of Prepare to be Amazed: The Geniuses of Modern Magic, Power Parenting Your Teenager, The Little Greenish-Brown Book of Slugs and many articles, comics and reviews. She has edited books for Douglas & McIntyre, Greystone Books, Raincoast Books, Heritage House, Calypso Books, and Arsenal Pulp Press, and has worked as the editorial/production assistant and promotions manager in-house at Talonbooks and Harbour Publishing. She teaches both at UBC and SFU.
In an email correspondence she described her career as “not a very commercially successful one” but Mary has been able to support herself and her family and her path reflects the kind of career that many of us could only dream of.
What got you started writing?
I don’t know because I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I was just one of those kids who was always writing stories. There are some comics that I made; I thought they were just little pictures with words on them. Many years later I found out they were comics. I didn’t know they were comics at the time, first of all because I was little, and second because my dad disapproved of comics so we didn’t have any around. It’s probably why I like them so much. My dad was a great guy but he disapproved. Later I did other things, to make a living, and I had kids. But the writing was always there.
What made you decide to pursue writing as a career?
Probably when I was about ten or eleven, which is the age when a lot of kids discover comics. They were on the rack at the drug store on the corner so they were around even though my dad – he didn’t censor anything we read but he thought they were junk. This was not too many years after Frederick Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent and that was the start of the Comics Code Authority and all the publishers got together and started censoring themselves rather than have him do it. But I had friends who had comics and I had a cousin who had comics so I could go read comics at their houses. And one thing I discovered around that age was MAD Magazine, and that was the heyday of MAD magazine – we’re talking the late 50s, early 60s. That was a big inspiration for me. I loved MAD; I sent work to them trying to get them to publish it.
Did they ever publish you?
No, but I did get some great rejection letters from them such as “Of the 4,268 pieces of work that we rejected last year yours was one of them.”
How did you support your writing in the early stages of your career?
Well first of all when I was in school I was writing in classes but I was keeping journals from when I was about eight or nine. I was always writing stuff down. In high school I got involved in the yearbook and the paper. I look back now and think, “Yeah, that’s good.” You should know how to write in a lot of different ways, for a lot of different audiences. I finally took a writing course in the second year of university; my boyfriend and his roommate were writers. And everyone wrote in long hand, so I typed my story and I typed all of their stories for them at my part time secretarial job.
Did you have any kind of formal writing education like the one you teach in?
I didn’t, and I don’t even know that those things were available. It was a different culture. It wasn’t sort of understood that you would go to school to get that time to write and to get that attention to writing. I don’t remember ever thinking that, or anyone I knew thinking that. You took writing courses to get a better understanding of the form but for our generation it was much more important to be reading everything so we were taking a lot of literature courses. Maybe it was just the people I hung around but writing courses didn’t have the prominence that they have now. And certainly there weren’t as many courses and workshops.
How did you get involved with the founding of Geist Magazine?
Pulp Press, which is now Arsenal Pulp Press, was this sort of bad boy lefty political publisher in the old days – they even had government spies watching them. They were reviled in parliament so it was quite a success at the time. One thing they did was this thing called “three cent pulp” — just one sheet of paper folded with really tiny type with poems and articles and crazy little rants and the odd comic – and it actually did just sell for three cents. When I met [the founder of Pulp Press] Steve Osborne in 1988, he had been thinking about a bigger magazine with the same kind of spirit. We had both been in publishing a long time, we knew who was doing what, we knew who the writers were, who we would want to work with and we knew the realities of publishing. What finally got it off the ground – we had been talking to a lot of people and it was all pretty theoretical – was when this friend of mine from Toronto came to stay with us. Her name is Jane Springer. She was a co-founder of the original Freelance Editors’ Association which went on to become the Editors’ Association so she was a bit of a rabble rouser herself. We were telling her about the magazine, and Steve always got really excited and he would tell everybody about it, only this time Jane pulled out her cheque book and said, “How much is a subscription?” And Steve said: “Twelve Dollars!” He just made it up but she wrote us a cheque for twelve dollars. I think the first issue came out about six months after that. Once you have a subscriber you owe them a magazine, so we had to do it.
What do you think made Geist successful?
It caught on because there wasn’t anything like it and as the years went by anything that was like it started to slow down and fall away because things got harder financially into the 90’s. The first issue was just a self-covered newsprint saddle-stitched thing, and when you look at it now you can see that the editorial presence is still there even with the new issues with colour and a lot more sophisticated design and all the new things that have become possible. But it was on our minds and we were planning Geist for a long time before someone pulled out their cheque book.
What makes a piece “publishable” for a magazine like Geist?
Every magazine has its own requirements and its own tastes. Geist doesn’t publish actual journalism like The Walrus, we do what you might call “creative nonfiction” but we want the nonfiction to have a point of view. We are also a literary magazine; we like new ideas or new ideas about thinking about something. That being said we don’t like ornate writing. One of our marketing candles over the years has been: “Can a magazine be smart, funny and Canadian?” So the Canadian aspect is really important and the magazine has a sense of humour too and that’s also really important. So that’s my potted version of what we like. If I could write that up really well and put it on the contributor’s guidelines that would be good.
When writers submit to the magazine, do you look at the contests and other publications on their cover letter?
We do. But it’s a “writerly” culture at Geist, and we treat writers well. When we started Geist Steve and I didn’t take any pay but we did pay our contributors from the get-go. We were committed to taking good care of writers and we know the writers we want to work with. We have worked with most of them before and we obviously have a particular interest in them but I think near-every issue of Geist – we’re working on eighty eight now – has had something in it by someone who’s publishing for the first time. So short answer, because we’re careful with writers and because we are polite to writers we will not let someone with a very good reputation in Canada, who’s earned her wings etc, etc, sit around for 90 days waiting to hear from us on a manuscript. We’ll write that person sooner than someone who’s written us a little earlier who’s just getting started. Apart from that the work just has to really stand out and we find stuff all the time. There’s always something that comes in from a new writer that blows us away. We do a lot of active acquisitions too. You can’t go to a party without Steve hearing someone tell a story and saying: “That’s a great story, you should write that up for Geist magazine.”
How does one go about getting editorial work?
An editor now without a publishing sense isn’t going to get very far. Editors are no longer people who only have to work with text and don’t have to think about images or multimedia or the web. That’s just not the case now. So the way I got started is not the way that people get started now. People take courses; the Editors’ Association of Canada has a certification program. There’s some controversy as to whether that’s good or not but it’s true that some people hanging out their shingle as editors are not good editors. But the real way that trade book publishers hire editors now is by being referred to someone who knows. People call me now to ask, “Do you know anybody who’s good? Who’s low maintenance? Who’s going to work with the author and I’m not going to have to go and clean up? Who’s going to treat it as a book and not take three years to do it and not cost me a fortune? Do you know anybody like that?” So you want to hang out with other editors and you want to get known.
What is the freelancing market like for editors?
There’s much more of it now than there used to be. In-house editors are fewer and farther between. It’s more economical for publishers to hire freelancers and in-house people have been getting laid off for about the last ten years. Between that and the explosion in the self-publishing movement, the future of it is you’re going to be working more for individuals.
How are you usually getting paid as an editor?
That’s kind of all over the map too. Professional associations are great not only for hanging around picking hints about good clients and bad clients, good jobs and bad jobs. But [the Editors’ Association] does have some standards for pay. There are rates that they think editors should strive for, for proof reading, for copy editing, for stylistic and structural editing. But in real life what happens is clients ask you what you charge per hour, but what they really want to know is: “How much is this going to cost to get this done?” So the smart editor is going to figure out a contract price and get good at estimating. As you do jobs you start to get better at figuring out how long it will take you to do the next job. Try to figure out what a job is really going to cost you to do and put on your percentage and your overhead and go from there.
For writers, when should they bring their stuff to an editor?
Every new, or old, writer has to decide that for themselves. Caroline Adderson talks about the way she uses editors, which is a good way to think about it. She works with Patrick Crean and she’s followed him from one publishing house to another and she waits until she’s really hit the wall on a piece of writing and really doesn’t know what to do next. She doesn’t invoke her editor – whom she really likes and who’s given good advice over the years and who is completely reliable – until she really can’t go any further with it because he’s only going to read it for the first time once. And that fresh coming to it, the first read is where the emotional impact of the thing will be clear, but there’s a lot of steps along the way to that. If you’re hanging around with other writers and other people in the arts you’re going to get some of that editorial already, and the professional editor is the most use in a publishing context.
What has been your favourite accomplishment?
Current projects are always the favourite ones, that’s just always the way it goes. The one that comes to mind, the one that’s my most favourite when I think of how happy I am with it when I look back at it—because most stuff I look back and all I can see is how much better I could do it now, and this one still works—is called My Dinner with Julia. It’s a two pager that I did for Geist when Julia, my granddaughter, was little. It’s kind of a take on My Dinner with André. Julia and I are in a Japanese restaurant eating sushi and I’m talking to her about life and politics and giving her grandmotherly advice in a kind of crazed hippy way. That one stands out for me still.
What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
Which career? All of them? I’ll tell you this much: I never have time to write. The trick for me is getting those hours that you’ve got to have to rub together and wander around your place with nobody around and stare out the window and figure something out, and get stuck and then walk for three miles and then finally come back and think that you might finally be able to figure out what to do. There’s so much time that’s needed to do writing well and it’s very hard for me to get that. I’ll say that: In order to be a good writer you need a lot of time.
Tristan Koster is a playwright and writer for Discorder magazine in Vancouver as well as a student in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. He lives in Vancouver.