This is the fourth in a series of interviews with our amazing 2K9 editors. Please read on for an in depth interview with Cheryl Renee Herbsman’s editor, Joy Peskin.
Joy Peskin is an executive editor at Viking Children’s Books. She edits everything from picture books to edgy young adult. In addition to editing, she teaches writing classes for both adults and teens and runs a writing workshop for homeless youth.
What was your journey to becoming an editor?
JP: A high school history teacher asked me if I’d like to participate in editing the yearbook, and I said yes. I have no idea why he singled me out for this—it certainly had nothing to do with my ability in his class, as history was never my best subject. I tried several extracurricular activities at Framingham North High School, but co-editing the yearbook was the only one that I actually enjoyed. And I was not horrible at it, or at least not as horrible as I was at one of my other extracurriculars, softball. I only made the team because everyone who tried out that year made it, and the coach only ever put me in if we were losing by 40 points or more. I am not exaggerating. In college, I edited various sections of the Vassar newspaper, called the Miscellany News. I was also not horrible at that, and while I wrote a few articles here and there—my favorite assignment was the weekly crime report, although I don’t think a crime more dramatic than a stolen bike was ever reported—I found that I liked editing better than writing. After college, I went to the Radcliffe Publishing Course (now the Columbia Publishing Course), and through that program, I got my first job as the publisher’s assistant at a small educational publisher called Course Crafters, located in Newburyport, Massachusetts. When I decided to move to New York six months later, I got a second job through RPC—editorial assistant at Puffin Books, the paperback imprint at Penguin. I left four years later as a full editor to take a job at Scholastic, where I stayed for two and a half years. Then about five and a half years ago, I was lucky enough to land my dream job at Viking Children’s Books. I started as a senior editor and I am now an executive editor.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
JP: There are lots of things about my job that I enjoy, but probably my favorite thing to do is the actual hands-on editing. Before I start editing a manuscript, I read it quickly first without making any marks. I want to get a sense of the flow of the story, and I make mental notes about sections or characters that may benefit from some revision. Then I read the manuscript again very slowly. As I go, I mark anything that occurs to me—questions for the author, comments about parts I like and parts that I think might need work, and multiple smiley faces and positive comments to indicate which parts I like. Telling an author what I think is working in the story is just as important as telling her what I think is not working. Once I’m done marking line notes, I go back through the manuscript and write the editorial letter. When I’m doing this, the hours tend to slip by and I feel like I’m completely connected to the work, to the process of helping the author make her book better. It’s my job to communicate my opinion as clearly and supportively as possible, and I guess I just enjoy that challenge and that process.
Tell us about Viking Children’s Books. What is unique/interesting/in the works for you?
JP: Viking Children’s Books is one of the imprints of Penguin Young Readers Group, which is part of Penguin Group (USA). Regina Hayes is Viking’s publisher, and she is the reason I wanted to work here. Regina is that extremely rare boss who is equally skilled at her craft—editing—and at managing people. She brings out the best in all of us, and her impeccable taste and instinct have guided our list for over 25 years. Here at Viking, under Regina’s leadership, we publish books that are both literary and that we hope will sell. Sarah Dessen and Laurie Halse Anderson are some of our brightest YA stars and Anna Dewdney (of Llama Llama Red Pajama fame) is my current favorite picture book author/illustrator on our list. I’m grateful to now be editing Laurie Halse Anderson, whose latest book WINTERGIRLS came out on March 19. We have three more books coming from Laurie in the next several years. Edgy YA is probably my favorite type of book to edit, but I definitely like to edit uplifting, romantic stories, too, as long as they are smart, clever, and multi-leveled. BREATHING, by Cheryl Renée Herbsman, is the perfect example of this type of book. On one level, it’s a completely enjoyable romance with a charming southern beach setting. But on another level, I think it’s a personal story for Cheryl because she met her husband when she was a teenager, so she can write authentically about teenage love. She knows it’s not always just a fleeting thing when two young people fall in love. I think readers will respond to that—I know I did. BREATHING is also a story about learning to be independent before you can be part of a couple. I think that’s a powerful message for teenage girls—and boys.
What are your editorial sensibilities? When do you say to yourself, Wow! This is a book I really need to acquire?
JP: I usually know right off that I’m going to love something. Sometimes it starts with the author. I’ve acquired books by authors who have taken classes with me at Mediabistro, and as I’ve gotten to know the person, I’ve felt like, “This is someone I really want to work with. I like her attitude, I like how she responds to the other students, I like how she responds to me, and—of course—I like her story.” Sometimes it starts with the concept. Like I knew I wanted to read AFTER (a book I edited by Amy Efaw) because I’m very interested in why a teenage girl would leave her baby in a dumpster. So I was already inclined to like the manuscript, and the fact that the writing was as amazing as it was sealed the deal. It can be hard when I like but don’t love a book. For better or for worse, I’m a very sincere person. I can’t act excited about a book if I’m not truly excited about it. So there are some books I turn down that are completely fine, that are certainly very decent books, but that for whatever reason just don’t move me. When that happens, I hope the book will find a home with an editor who does truly love it, because that person will surely do a better job with it than I would.
One question on everyone’s mind – the economy. How do you see the long term effect on publishing in general, your house in specific?
JP: I’m grateful that Penguin has been doing well and with any luck, we will continue to do well. Penguin has always been a well-managed, conservative house. I’ve often said to aspiring authors that you don’t want an agent who will go after the highest advance—you want one that will go after a reasonable advance. I’m definitely not an expert on why some houses are doing well and some are suffering right now, but I would guess that some of those houses that were paying exorbitant advances that never earned out might be struggling more. In the long term, I’m sure publishing will recover, as will other businesses. And I honestly think some belt-tightening is a good thing. Editors shouldn’t acquire books that don’t truly deserve to be published. Houses shouldn’t pay advances that have no chance of earning out in a reasonable time period.
If you weren’t an editor, what would you be?
JP: I run a writing workshop for homeless youth and I love working with at-risk kids, so if I weren’t an editor, I would probably do that kind of thing full-time.