April 2016 Q&A: Julia Carlomagno

Julia Carlomagno is the senior editor at Scribe Publications, where she edits non-fiction and literary fiction. She has worked in publishing for a decade and has an editor’s fondness for a woollen cardigan.

How has your month been?

It’s been an exciting month at my publishing house, Scribe. We’ve seen Peggy Frew’s terrific Hope Farm shortlisted for the Stella Prize, and Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s debut novel, Tram 83, win the Etisalat Prize for Literature and be longlisted for the Man Booker International. The prose in Tram 83 is infused with the rhythms of jazz, and it’s really something special.

In addition, the publication of Niki Savva’s The Road to Ruin has caused a bit of a stir among media and political circles, so in the office it’s been a curious whirlwind of journalists’ calls, reprints and deliveries, and all-in book-packing sessions to get customer orders out in time. It’s felt very much like a publishing house from the movies!

Personally, this month I’ve been working on a collection of literary essays about old age by Melbourne writer Melanie Joosten; the pieces are terrifically passionate, and her prose is beautiful. I’ve also sent a debut novel, set in 1940s Sydney, to print, and I’ve been editing two novels: a wonderful literary fiction work titled The Science of Appearances and a thoroughly enjoyable translation of a Dutch book, The Ice-Cream Makers, set in Italy and Holland. I’ve been working with our publicists and designers on marketing and collateral for this year’s Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers, and outside of Scribe I’ve been editing some educational resources. So all around, a nice variety of tasks.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

I think time management – and, by extension, maintaining a work–life balance – is an aspect that every in-house editor confronts. When your work is also your passion, it’s very rewarding but also potentially taxing, in that you don’t allow yourself a clear line between work and leisure. I work for a small publishing house and consequently a level of busy-ness goes with the territory, or might be expected; but even in larger publishing houses, I believe the situation is comparable, in that editors are doing more with less due to corporate restructures and job cuts.

What do you love most about your work?

I like the process of working over sentences: trimming away extraneous detail, suggesting rewordings for clarity, paying attention to rhythm and context. At the 2014 Residential Editorial Program, it was interesting to hear Text editor Mandy Brett say that she often feels a book properly ‘emerges’ in the line-editing stage. I imagine this degree of attention to a text is not a privilege freelancers are often afforded, with tight budgets and timeframes, which is a shame, because for me it is often where the true joy of editing lies.

And, like all editors, I love the thrill of reading a manuscript that is daring and brilliant, and grips your imagination. It doesn’t happen very often, but they are the moments that your job feels like a great, benign privilege. (Re-paginating an index, however: then my thoughts on editing are the opposite . . . )

There is also the satisfaction of, at the end of the process, having a physical product. Editor Craig Munro described feeling a book’s ‘newborn weight . . . this eager and living thing ready to make its own way into the world of words’, and I love that description.

How did you get here?

The short answer is by chance, luck and fortunate timing. The longer answer is:

I did the excellent Professional Writing and Editing course (now an Associate Degree) at RMIT. There, I learnt the passion and profession of the trade from Penny Johnson and Stephanie Holt, both fiercely intelligent editors who framed editing as a craft with respect for the author’s intentions at its heart – an orientation for which I’m eternally grateful. I enrolled in the RMIT course because I was directionless, and thought I might try writing. I discovered that publishing was actually what I wanted to do, and had always been directing my creative energy towards in some small form – right from those childhood projects of ‘publishing’ a ‘family newsletter’ on a notepad on the kitchen bench! I began working in educational publishing and started a literary magazine (harvest) with two friends from RMIT. That was a very fun and rewarding experience, and taught me the logistical ropes of publishing a product – and also the importance of giving grand, impractical ambitions a go – more than any training I’ve done since.

I supplemented my RMIT degree with some study at Melbourne Uni – where I was fortunate to be taught by Jenny Lee and Mark Davis, both individuals whose work I admire – and decided to jump to trade publishing. I had a job interview about which I was very scared at Penguin Books: the interviewing team asked me to bring in three examples of books I thought had been published well, which is a brilliant idea but at the time had me shaking in my small, newly minted editor’s shoes. I botched it, but they took a chance in offering me the job anyway. At Penguin I was able to learn from Meredith Rose, who is one of the sharpest and best in the game, and eventually I was approached about a position at Scribe, where I have been for the past several years. Scribe, which is filled with excellent people and a justified suspicion of a bureaucratic approach to publishing (and bureaucracy for its own sake), has probably ruined me for ever working in a strongly hierarchical, corporate environment, but that’s another story.

I think I am fortunate in that I was able to enter the trade-publishing industry in the years before certain adverse conditions: the global financial crisis, the collapse of major retailers, the difficulties posed by Amazon and other predatory companies. I feel very lucky for that. Had I not been, I could well have been knocking on doors for a lot longer, and may have never found the place in the industry I’m now fortunate to occupy.

What is your average weekly workload? Does it vary throughout the year?

I’m full-time at Scribe, but I work quite a bit outside 9–5 too. The blame for some of this can be laid squarely at my feet, as I do like to be busy and take on a variety of projects. Some of it is due to the nature of the job at a busy, small publishing house: there is a lot to do, and not enough hours for even the most highly productive individual to check it all off. I’m resigned to (although, despite me not wanting to admit it, some part of me must also get a kick out of) expanding to-do lists that grow and curve like vines across my diary pages. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, though: many editors do, in my experience of the industry, work hard. What’s important is making sure to cordon off time to ourselves, and to recognise the importance of downtime to creativity: it’s something I’ve often told authors but am only beginning to understand the importance of for myself.

If you didn’t have the job you are in now, what would you like to be doing?

I’d love to do something with animals – perhaps a dog-walker, or an animal carer of some description. (If I ever went freelance, I fear I would immediately foster several animals and end up in a very noisy household, consequently unable to do any work.) Otherwise, although it sounds drastically lacking in imagination, it would be something to do with books: perhaps a librarian. I have the perfect knit cardigan for the role.

Where can we find you?

I’m on LinkedIn at https://au.linkedin.com/in/julia-carlomagno-ba8a409b. But I’m not on other social media, barring a disused Twitter account. Sorry!

Thanks very much, Julia!