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'The New Yorker''s Deborah Treisman reflects on the editing process

Posted by Alex Pearlman  December 14, 2011 06:01 PM

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the new yorker.jpgBy Tamar Zmora

"This is almost an emotionally pornographic evening for me," said Hilton Als, theatre critic for The New Yorker. His colleagues and he rarely discuss their work beyond the editing process back-and-forth between writer and editor, so to host a conversation with the magazine’s fiction editor Deborah Treisman and fellow writer Aleksander “Sasha” Hemon -- part of Wellesley College's Newhouse Center for Humanities’ lecture series -- was a real treat.

In conversation, the modest Treisman -- “the black sheep” of a family of academics and scientists, she said -- deflects attention to her writers and underscores their achievements. That humility reflects her editorial outlook as well: "[The] best sign of an editor is to be completely egoless,” she said. “Not trying to impose oneself on the piece -- trying to hear the voice and make that voice louder."

Still, she has had quite the career herself. Treisman began her post-college career as an editor at The Threepenny Review, then earned an internship at Harper's Bazaar. At 23, Treisman became the editor of Grand Street, a now-defunct quarterly literary magazine, but after an introduction to Bill Buford, she joined The New Yorker as a deputy fiction editor. When Buford left to pursue his writing career, Treisman took his place.

New Yorker editors together sift through about 200 unsolicited manuscripts each week, looking for certain characteristics that make a piece a good candidate for a spot in the magazine. In non-fiction works, Treisman said it's about "finding the brilliance" and being confident that the information is factual; in fiction, "voice is most important," she said. "[It's] more about the ear than the brain."

"The [editing] conversation with Deborah has a lot to do with making me less ashamed of putting myself out there," said Als. "There's a great deal of shame that goes into writing. As Joan Didion noted, there's so much evidence of being humiliated, which is to say, published."

It’s also about developing a rapport with each other. “I trust her as a reader,” said Hemon of Treisman. “She knows how I think.”

But it wasn’t always that way. "He sent me to my dictionary a few times. [Hemon] used words native speakers wouldn't think to use,” Treisman said. “[For example,] he said he was 'shrimping,' instead of using 'crawling up in a fetal position.' He learned the vocabulary and also abused it."

Born in Sarajevo, The Lazarus Project author came to the U.S. as a tourist in 1992 and decided to stay after war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “You write in the language you live in,” Hemon said, so he gave himself five years to publish a story in English. After only three, his work appeared in Northwestern University’s TriQuarterly literary magazine; from then on, Hemon tasted, chewed, and appraised words.

"You carry your language around,” Hemon said. “I see myself as living in two places simultaneously: I adopted Chicago as my hometown [and] applied my original structures of my hometown [in Sarajevo]. Language is a homeland, but then you can have more than one."

Als takes a different approach to writing; for him, it's imperative to enter the individual's head. To Als, the intrigue arises from "find[ing] the marginality of this person," he said. "I'm interested in internal life: How does someone survive not being part of the status quo? [It's about the] emotional connection first, then I write."

Digesting the evening and the writers' advice into one curt sentence, Treisman succinctly said, "Language is a problem and a gift."

Photo by karen horton (Flickr)

About Tamar -- I'm a recent Wellesley College grad with a degree in English and studio art. I grew up in the Midwest and briefly lived in Europe and the Middle East. My name is often mistaken for Tamara from "Sister, Sister." I love exploring coffee shops and am almost always highly caffeinated. I am very interested in films, the arts, theatre, painting, photography -- you name it -- '90s TV shows, and music.

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