An Interview with Dial Editorial Director, Kathy Dawson

I’m so happy to have a guest visiting the blog today, Kathy Dawson.  Kathy is VP, Editorial Director for Fiction at Dial Books for Young Readers / Penguin, and the projects that she’s worked on over the years are some of my absolute favorites: Getting Near to Baby by Audrey Couloumbis, Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going, Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer, Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko, Graceling & Fire by Kristen Cashore, and Chime by Franny Billingsley. 

Some years ago, when I was the Director of Library Marketing at Penguin, I was considering a move into editorial.  So, briefly I wore two hats there, and in addition to my duties in marketing, I acquired some projects.  At the time, Kathy was also at Penguin, and she was my go-to adviser on all things editorial.  She was then, and is now, one of the smartest and most passionate people I know in this business.  I love the way she thinks about books.  Many thanks to Kathy for answering these questions!

This question is a three-part-er on your book history: Was there one book that started it all for you -- inspired a love of reading in you?  Is there a book that changed your life?  Is there a book that you turn to again and again?

I’m one of four siblings, and my mom read to us every night which no doubt inspired my love of books and reading. Also, my younger sister Jen is legally blind (she can see but not well enough to drive), and my mother created several one-of-a-kind books for her. I remember one about Herman the mouse with the too-long tail and one about an elf who was hiding at the back of the book (Mom attached jingly bells that you could hear ringing with every page turn—they were the bells on the elf’s slippers). Using felt, faux leather, die-cuts (& bells!), my mom gave my sister a tactile, auditory experience of reading. My mom also made us plush versions of her book characters with lots of clothes. Platt & Munk actually came out to our house to meet with her and offered to publish them, but they wanted her to make changes that she didn’t agree with. The irony of my current job duties is not lost on me.  

We kids went to the pediatrician twice a week for allergy shots, and I read the books in the office there over and over. One favorite, because I could never remember the ending and there was so much tension in it, was The Man Who Lost His Head by Claire Hutchet Bishop—which now that I’m an adult, I’m convinced is about a hangover.

I loved The Pokey Little Puppy; The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley; illus by Barbara Cooney; Corduroy and Beady Bear (Beady!) by Don Freeman; Winnie the Pooh; Frog and Toad; Little Bear. And in middle-grade—which was my most magical reading era—I loved Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, A Girl Called Al by Constance Green, Judy Blume (everything), the Jenny and the Cat Club books by Esther Holden Averill, One-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor. My mom took us to the bookstore and the library often, and I ended up reading a ton of Newbery and Newbery honor books. I read Island of the Blue Dolphins over and over; and I read Animal Family by Randall Jarrell over and over.  Child of the Holocaust by Jack Kuper made a huge impression on me as a kid. One book I obsessed over made me sob every time I read it: J. T. by Jane Wagner, about a boy who finds an old, one-eyed, badly hurt alley cat (who looks suspiciously like my current cat, Buzz).    

Did you always know that you wanted to be a children’s book editor?  Can you tell us about how it evolved? 

I knew that no matter what my job was, I’d work with words. I loved reading, I wrote as a kid all the way up to my post-college years, and I have always been in awe at what some writers can do with language. After college, I had informational interviews with a magazine editor and a freelance writer, and interviewed with headhunters who specialized in publishing. But it wasn’t until Patti Gauch’s daughter (who went to graduate school with my boyfriend at the time) gave her mom my resume that my fate was sealed. Patti passed my resume on to the managing editor at G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers (Margaret Frith was the publisher then), and I interviewed for a job as the assistant to the managing editor. Until then, it had never occurred to me that I could work with children’s books as much as I loved them. A job in which I’d be nestled within the children’s editorial group but still able to see all the working parts of the publishing house was a dream come true. From there, I became an assistant editor, managing editor, and finally an editor in my own right.

Jobs often look one way from the outside, but live another way, on the inside.  What are the parts of your job that you least expected? 

You know, it’s really hard to remember. I know that in my early years, before I became an editor, I thought there were only two kinds of editors: the introverted ones who worked quietly at their desks and did the most intense, smartest editing and the outgoing ones who were more natural performers, able to “sell” their books to everyone within the house and outside the house. I agonized over which kind of editor I’d be. My natural state was introverted and I dreaded the public aspects of being an editor, but I knew that the extroverts were getting a heck of a lot of attention for their books. In the end, thank goodness, it turns out that it’s easy to “sell” the books I edit because I love them and feel protective of them and want to help them march forth proudly into the world. And by now, I realize that there are so many different types of editors—there’s no one right way to be.

What do you like best/least about being a children's book editor?  

The answer to both is the editing itself. I love it best and love it least at the same time. I imagine that many writers would say the same about writing. It takes so much out of you, and there’s usually a point with each book where I think to myself “OMG, I have no idea how to help this author; why aren’t I a smarter person,” and it’s hard to juggle the editing with everything else, and yet when I’m in the flow of editing, when I have a flash of inspiration about something that might help an author, and when I read a revision that just shines with the author’s heart and talent, it’s the best feeling in the world.

In your opinion, what makes a good editor?

Short answer: A good editor can tell an author what’s actually made it onto the page and can do it honestly, clearly and without judgment, leaving it up to the author to decide how to proceed. I think the world of the authors with whom I work, but I also try to remind myself that I’m not in the business of making friends—I’m in the business of giving honest, useful feedback, even if it’s feedback an author might not want to hear.

Longer answer: There are tons of different kinds of editors in the world. Plenty for every kind of writer. It’s a special, intimate connection between a writer and an editor, and it feels differently for everyone. Some editors write long editorial letters. Some only do phone calls. Some have a great eye but don’t spend a lot of time editing. Some are like stand-up comedians. Each one possesses certain traits that make her good.  But we’re all different. 

I’m the kind of editor who believes there’s an underneath layer to everything in life – there are the things people know and admit about themselves, and there are the things they don’t talk about, or won’t admit or actually can’t see about themselves—and to me, the best fiction explores and captures that layer in some masterful way. Even picture books. Books can capture the magic of a tiny moment or the thrill of another world—but those things only ring true when an author is brave enough to go to that deep, sometimes dark, place where truth lies. That’s the only place to find all those rich, honest, raw details that make a passage of writing feel universal. That mining process is amazing, rewarding, and fascinating to me, and I hope that means I will never edit a book about which a reader will say, “So what?” after finishing.  As a child (and now), I read books to find my place in the world, and so the kind of books I want to edit are the ones that present the world in the truest way possible—whether the book is a comedy or fantasy or sci-fi or romance.

Editors have the great skill to read something that they can see needs work, while seeing what the manuscript can become. How do you do this -- how do you intuit the story lying inside what’s on the page?

It all comes from the author’s own words. The writers who can tap into that place I mention above just end up putting things on the page that are powerful and real. That’s what I look for. The things that make my heart beat faster, that make me gasp, or tear up.  And it doesn’t even matter if the author realizes what they’ve got on the page. If I can see those flashes of brilliance and insight that are expressed in a totally unique way, even if the text itself is pretty raw, then I can start to see what the manuscript can become. Genre doesn’t matter—the type of character doesn’t matter—as long as it’s true.
I usually find my way through the characters as well, although these days, it’s sometimes the plot that carries me away just as strongly.

We hear a lot about “voice.”  How can writers create a unique voice?

By visiting “the deep place where truth lies” mentioned above. The other way is by listening. In other words, voice comes from within and it comes from without. I don’t imagine you can write a strong voice without being able to hear both your own voice and the musicality of lots of other people’s voices.

What’s the best advice you have for novelists who are just starting out? 

Be brave. Especially when it comes to your own crap—it’s guaranteed to be interesting to readers as long as you are honest. Be utterly fascinated by your own material, and if you aren’t, write something else. Read, of course, and know why you love what you love reading. And just write. Writing is a full body experience, it’s not just in your head. You’ll want to walk the paths your characters walk, spend time talking to them, see the things they see. 

Would you tell us about some of your favorite upcoming titles? 

Sure! Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage is coming May 10th. This is a hilarious Southern middle-grade murder mystery starring Miss Moses LoBeau and her best friend Dale Earnhardt Johnson III that had me cracking up and crying both. No Safety in Numbers is a debut young adult disaster novel coming May 29th about four teens who are caught in a quarantine at the mall when a strange device is found in the air ducts. I love a good disaster novel—if I could start my own apocalyptic imprint I might seriously consider it. And of course there’s Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore coming May 1st, and K. L. Going’s first picture book Dog in Charge, illustrated by Dan Santat, coming May 10th.

What occupies you when you’re not editing? 

Walking. Man I love walking. My two cats, Buzz and Pistachio. I tend to immerse myself in new projects pretty regularly. It could be mutual funds and retirement planning, it could be nutrition (I ate raw food for a month once), and right now I’m into yoga.  I’m not very good at it, but I love that it makes you feel a part of something much larger than yourself. Just like books do.