Ask the Editor: A Q&A with Evelyn Duffy
By Sonora Taylor
I've had the privilege of working with Evelyn Duffy for the past five years. She has edited all of my books and been an amazing person to talk through the process with (especially over a few pints of beer at The Sovereign). I caught up with her recently to ask about her taking her freelance editing full-time. Check out our conversation below!
Sonora: How long have you been an editor?
Evelyn: I started over 14 years ago. What began as a hobby turned into a part-time business, and I took Open Boat Editing full time in January 2021. I edit both fiction and nonfiction, and I especially enjoy working with journalists who are making the transition to book authors for the first time.
I work with an in-house team of wonderful colleagues to offer book coaching, book proposal development, research services, and ghostwriting. I’ve also recently teamed up with my brother, Matt Duffy, to start offering author websites, custom graphics and animations, and cover design.
Sonora: For over a decade, you worked as an editor and research assistant for journalist Bob Woodward. During this time, you also edited fiction on the side (including mine). What was that like, switching between Woodward’s work and the work of your genre fiction clients?
Evelyn: It was great! Fiction and nonfiction are two wildly distinct muscles, and I'm so glad I was able to work to strengthen both during that time. Fiction - especially the genre fiction I love working on, like horror, scifi, and thrillers - was also a welcome escape from presidential politics.
Sonora: Upon the release of Fear: Trump in the White House, your penultimate book with Woodward, some readers on social media asked why you weren’t listed as a co-author when the author’s note called you a “full collaborator and in the spirit - and with the level of effort - of a coauthor." What do you think about that?
Evelyn: There are a multitude of ways to support authors, and what's best for one book may not be ideal for another. I think of book production much like staging a play - and I’m most comfortable working backstage, helping with sets, lighting, audio, and all the other elements that make a show a success. Woodward’s books are Broadway-scale-sized productions, and I learned everything I know from being involved on six of them from conception to publication. It was the experience of a lifetime and I met the wonderful range of authors, editors, agents, and other literary professionals who are my friends and colleagues. I wouldn’t change a thing!
Sonora: What’s been different about working at Open Boat now that it’s your day job? What’s gotten better? What would you change?
Evelyn: The biggest change is having a team! It’s been marvelously collaborative and a lot of fun.
I took the leap largely out of a desire to work on a wide range of subjects and authors. I’m in love with the variety! In recent months we've worked on books about shipwrecks, food science, Wall Street, medical history, and a surprising number of books about LBJ.
What would I change? I really miss working out of restaurants and cafes for hours on end. Like all of us, I think I’d change the pandemic if I could.
Sonora: While you edit horror fiction, including work from myself and from Rob Blackwell, you yourself don’t read it much for pleasure (if at all). What draws you to editing horror? Do you think editing such work from the perspective of someone who isn’t a die-hard horror fan comes with any advantages?
Evelyn: That’s true! Let me also give a shout-out to client Eric David Roman, who recently published his excellent LGBT horror novel Long Night at Lake Never through Nine Star Press.
I think genuinely enjoying a genre is necessary for editing it. The main things that continually bring me back to editing horror are: a) horror authors are particularly lovely folks to work with and b) I've come to appreciate how broad its boundaries are and what it can give readers. Much like science fiction, horror holds a mirror up to society and reveals larger truths.
That said, by coming to the genre armed with my red pen rather than as a die-hard fan, I’m able to take a critical eye to tropes and conventions and ensure they're serving the storytelling. That’s a need that transcends genre.
Sonora: You identify as a queer woman and work in a field that, while friendly to women, can be dominated by heteronormativity and men in corporate leadership. How do you navigate the editing world as a woman? As a queer woman?
Evelyn: Publishing as an industry is actually full of folks who identify as women, queer people, and allies. This is even more true of editorial freelancing! What publishing needs more of is vastly more racial diversity and sustainable career paths for people who bring an array of perspectives and come from many walks of life.
One of the greatest joys of becoming a freelancer has been working with amazing women at a multitude of large and small publishers. Before that, I worked with the tremendous women at Simon & Schuster in every department, from editorial (including the late Alice Mayhew) and production to design and publicity. I work closely now with a number of stellar literary agents, most of whom are women. And women form the backbone of my professional freelancing networks.
I’m glad to be able to bring a queer perspective to my editing, and I would really love to work with more LGBT fiction and nonfiction authors.
Sonora: What are some of the most common cliches you see in a manuscript that you’d encourage all of us to watch out for?
Evelyn: Green eyes! Characters can have any eye color authors like, of course, but it's too often used as a shortcut for character development. When purely used as a physical description, it can work very well. (There’s a great example from your most recent book of short stories. You wrote that a character - notably not a protagonist - had "absinthe eyes.” I loved that!) [Sonora: That's from the title story in Someone to Share My Nightmares, out October 19!]
Sonora: Who are your favorite authors? What are your favorite books?
Evelyn: My favorite nonfiction books from recent years are Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon and Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz. I’m a huge fan of Mary Roach and really enjoy Bill Bryson.
For fiction, John Irving and Terry Pratchett are favorites. Stephen Crane’s short story "The Open Boat" is a guiding star for me, and Open Boat Editing’s name is an homage to it.
My favorite book of all time is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Sonora: How can prospective clients find you?
Evelyn: Through my website at Open Boat Editing (openboatediting.com) or by email at Evelyn [at] openboatediting [dot] com.