Previously in my craft conversation series: Ada Limón, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Crystal Hana Kim and R. O. Kwon, Lydia Kiesling, Bryan Washington
When I met Megha Majumdar, author of the New York Times best seller A Burning, in the fall of 2016, she was an assistant editor at Catapult Books. We frequently discussed and worked together on stories and essays she commissioned for Catapult magazine while I was its editor in chief, and I learned much about editing and storytelling from observing how sensitively and joyfully she engaged with her authors’ work.
Majumdar eventually rose to editor in chief of Catapult Books—a role she stepped down from on May 31, in order to focus on writing and teaching. Though it was a difficult decision for her, she is eager to see what she can do now that she will be able to “bring [her] full energy” to her writing projects. Last month, we chatted about her editorial work and her transition to full-time writing, the kinds of stories she hopes to see more of, her own creative process, and what authors—especially first-time authors—should know about publishing.
Nicole Chung: How did you get your start as a writer and an editor?
Megha Majumdar: I was in school for anthropology, and what I loved about it was going out into the world and doing fieldwork: listening to people, trying to understand their perspectives. I didn’t love the theory part of it so much. And so I started thinking, Well, where can I have this intelligent, rigorous engagement with other people’s stories that feels more public? Publishing felt like a good place to do that, to keep learning and keep reading in this inviting public space.
In the manner of lots of writers, I was always writing, but A Burning made me serious about it. When I came upon the question for the novel, I thought, Okay, I have to stop playing and tinkering and really write this in a disciplined way. The question that I had was: How do people chase big dreams and live with joy and humor in a time of crisis when the rise of the right wing is undeniable?
Chung: You wrote that book while working full-time as an editor. What was your writing process like then?
Majumdar: I would go to a coffee shop before work and write for an hour, and I would also write on the weekends. It took me about four years to write the book. It felt very slow, but it was a really exciting project to have, because it was so private and I never really talked about it—it was a project I cared so much about, but no one else cared if I finished or abandoned it, and that felt very freeing.
Chung: If anything, demands on your time have only grown since A Burning was published to great acclaim. And then you were promoted to editor in chief of Catapult Books!
Majumdar: Editing is so consuming, as you know, and you do a lot of the work nights and weekends. I find slivers of time—a half hour at a time to write. Sometimes it’s very helpful just to read the pages I have and be in touch with that world and the characters. I’m always thinking about it, about plot points, about directions to take, and then I sit down and write it up when I do have time.
Chung: You recently announced that you’re stepping down as EIC of Catapult to focus on writing.
Majumdar: Yes. It was a very hard decision to leave my role at Catapult. I wish there were enough hours in the day to do both. I feel it’s the right time to see what I can do and what can happen if I bring my full energy to writing. It feels like the right time to center writing, which I never have done—I’ve always squeezed it in at the edges of the day, and it has often been pushed out by other obligations. I am in the middle of a project that I am obsessed with, and I want to see what I can achieve with it if I really give it everything that it deserves.
Chung: I’m so excited for you, and am definitely here if you want another early reader!
In your editorial work, I remember that you always wanted to hear from more writers from marginalized backgrounds, writing about their joy and their weird obsessions, not just their pain. What are your thoughts about publishing, now that the intense editorial work is kind of in your rearview mirror? What would you still like to see in terms of where the industry goes, and how it supports writers?
Majumdar: Whenever I look at books that are about one person’s obsession or curiosity—if it’s a book about volcanoes or hurricanes or black holes—the authors are very often white. I would love to see more writers of marginalized identities be given the support and freedom to chase those subjects, to write about travel or food or oceans.
One of the things I feel very proud of is that at Catapult magazine, when you were editor in chief, we published Sabrina Imbler. Sabrina’s book of essays comes out later this year—How Far the Light Reaches—and in it, they bring their gaze upon sea creatures. We need more space for this kind of book, where the writer’s perspective, wisdom, experiences, questions are all very much brought to bear on a subject they’re interested in. Catapult is publishing a book by Noé Álvarez, his second book—we published his first, Spirit Run, as well—and this next book is about the accordion. There is such an important place for joy, and learning music, making music—the enchantment of that—in this book. I would love to see more books like that.
Chung: You’ve done so much for your authors at Catapult. What do you think writers, especially debut writers, should know when pitching their books to a press? The process can be so mystifying.
Majumdar: It can be very opaque. I’m tempted to share a production timeline, because I think having a sense of what happens to your book after you sell it can be so helpful. You sell your book, and then all these different processes start. The contract has to get done, and nuts and bolts have to be figured out between your publisher and your agent. Then you turn to edits with your editor—big-picture edits, structural edits, then line edits. You might have several rounds of edits, depending on the place your book is in. And then there’s a whole long process of production—right now it’s summer 2022, and we are working on books that will be published in 2024, so we’re talking about very long timelines.
You can think of production as three concurrent processes. One is producing the interior of the book: copy editing; proofreading; the manuscript is designed and typeset, and you see that several times. The second is creating the exterior: There’s a process for the jacket, for the cover art, for the descriptive copy, for the blurbs. And then there’s publicity and marketing—apart from creating the object of the book, part of the work a publisher does is to set up the writer, pitch them to media, make critics and booksellers aware of their book, and all of this happens several months in advance. There are so many people working on the book, and the author may not have contact with all of them.
When we are done with text edits and that kind of intimate, familiar part of the process, I always try to have a call with the author to go over the production timeline: Here’s what happens next, here’s when you can expect certain things to happen, here’s when galleys will land. That can help you understand that the months ahead are not blank; they are filled with activities, though they may not always need the author’s direct involvement. Knowing there’s a whole team working on the book, knowing what is happening when, can feel very reassuring.
Chung: I appreciate you walking readers through all of that, because I remember feeling totally shocked by production deadlines with my first book. It was an October book, and I was thinking, Okay, I have until roughly August before I have to do anything, right? By August I’d already been to two conferences, and was doing interviews every week. I felt very grateful for the attention and the hard work everyone was doing to launch my book, but it all started far earlier than I was expecting.
Majumdar: I think authors often don’t know all of the processes. As an editor, I would always want my authors to feel that they have continued ownership of their book. That is one thing I learned from editors like Pat Strachan and Jonathan Lee: The author comes first. It is their book, it’s going to have their name on it, they are going to take questions about it and hand it to people as this object which has their heart and spirit in it. The author’s opinions and feelings about the packaging, how we are describing the book, how we are pitching it to others—all of that is integral to protecting the content and integrity of the book. Authors should always know what’s happening with their books. If you don’t, it’s worth checking in—though I say this sheepishly, knowing that editors’ inboxes are always overflowing.
Chung: I’m curious what, if anything, you learned about yourself, and your writing, through your own debut experience.
Majumdar: It was really invigorating to see that I could come to my work from a place of being very demanding, kind of challenging the work to be more complex and more intricate and hold more, and that felt exhilarating and joyful. Another thing I learned is that I had the discipline to work on this for such a long time, and in a very solitary space.
Chung: Yes, we had worked together for years, and I had no idea you’d written an entire novel until the deal was announced!
Majumdar: I think so many writers do this! So many write very quietly. Every book is an instrument of communication, and so it often feels like you want to have a certain reverence for that instrument and you don’t want to talk about it, or let people into it in other ways, you know? The thing you want to tell them about the book is the book. It’s quite beautiful to have that silent, solitary project, which is alive and thrumming and vibrant within you. One thing I would always tell myself on the hard days is that half a novel is not a novel, so either I finish it or I have nothing.
Chung: With this shift in your writing life—now that it’s going to be this full-time project for you—what are some things you’d love to be able to do or try?
Majumdar: I’m excited to hold my novel more fully within my mind. I feel like I’ve been forced to engage with slivers, with one scene or element or story line at a time. I want to see what I can do when I can hold the whole fictional world in my head. What then becomes visible? So much of writing, for me at least, is kind of lowering yourself into this world and looking around and things slowly become visible—you know, light falls on this and light falls on that, and you’re able to see what is around you. Spending just 45 minutes a day writing, I was learning to see one thing at a time. I hope that now I can look around and see the full world, the texture of it, the gentleness of things and the slyness of things, the humor and the beauty and the unexpected elements.
I’ll also say that I’m teaching at Columbia this fall, and I’m very excited to have that time to be with students and their work. One of the things about book editing is that you can feel a little distance from writers who are just starting out. I’m excited to be closer to people whose work I can engage directly and it’s not about editing it or creating a product, but serving their vision as new writers and helping them inhabit their own writer selves more fully. It’ll be a different way of coming at the part of editorial work that has been most gratifying and beautiful for me.
Chung: I love that. Your future students are very lucky.
I noticed that Loyalty Books ended our recent event with this question, and I love it, so I’m stealing it. What is something that is bringing you joy right now?
Majumdar: I grew up in a big city, Kolkata, and maybe because it’s such a different landscape here in Brooklyn, there are all of these trees and flowers blooming that are new to me. I don’t know their names, and I didn’t grow up seeing them, but I feel that I am newly attentive to them. Seeing all of these beautiful flowers and trees and learning their names and knowing that I’ve read those names in books but never knew what they looked like, and here they are in front of me—it’s a moment of being present in the world, as somebody who is alive in this moment, and I find joy in that.