Friday, 10 July 2009

The American Edition

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

There are twenty different things I have wanted to blog about this week, and I have done none of them, because all I can think of is the American edit of the book. So I do apologise for lack of the good meaty stuff.

Sarah and I were ecstatically happy to get an American deal, something that seemed beyond our most crazed dreams. We were lucky enough to be taken up by a great independent publisher, and to have a kind and understanding editor. This week, the marked up manuscript arrived, and I volunteered to do the edit, since Sarah has an entire newspaper to write and a family to look after, and I am the one who is famously anal about the semi-colons. It should have been a straightforward and satisfying week of work. The manuscript was relatively clean, with only one chapter that needed serious reworking to make it understandable to an American audience. And yet it has sent me into a frenzy.

At first I thought I was just taking the thing seriously, as I should. It is my job, after all. But when I found myself getting obscurely grumpy about the fact that sceptical suddenly had to be spelt with a K, I knew that there was more here than met the eye. There is a whole section in Backwards about how one gets furious about Object A when in fact the real cause of one's anger is Object B. I could not really mind that much about cutting a reference to Dame Mary Warnock because she would not play in Peoria, surely? (And that one was not even an editorial decision; I cut poor Dame Mary all on my own. Also Julian Clary and Graham Norton.) I found myself over-reacting in the most intemperate manner when I found sliced carrots in the recipe for Irish Stew had been replaced by grated carrots. 'No, no, no, NO,' I wrote in the margin. 'Grated carrots would be an abomination.' My poor editor, what must she think?

I can't quite work out what Object B is. Even though the work is done, rather more quickly than I expected (I thought I would be bashing away until ten tonight, but it suddenly came together and I have now a blissful free afternoon to listen to Test Match Special and indulge my new and entirely unexpected obsession with The Ashes), my shoulders are still up around my ears with suppressed tension.

I think it is a messy complication of different things. There is probably a dose of raw terror: will our poor little book just sink without trace in the wide open spaces of the vast continent? There is the emotional switch that always comes with any kind of editing, however clever and subtle and gracious the editor is. When you have worked at a manuscript until your brain is about to fall out of your ears, done the eighth and ninth and tenth drafts, lived with it for a year or more, any mark on it can feel like a violation. Even though you are a pro, and you understand this is part of the process, and you know that it will make for a better piece of work, there is a part of you that screams: get off my baby. (I have a horrible feeling that when I use the general You in that sentence, in fact I mean the very specific Me; I am not at all certain that Martin Amis flies into tiny little hissy fit because omelette must be spelt omelet.)

I think too that there is the slight sense of dislocation in being conscious of talking to such a different audience. I like to think I know about America because I watch all the politics programmes on MSNBC, and can recite large chunks of The West Wing off by heart, and have spent my life loving American literature. I believe that, beyond cultural differences, the universal emotions and needs and wants are pretty much the same for all women. I like to think myself a citizen of the world. And yet, doing this edit, I suddenly realise how very British I am. The idioms and history and emotions of this island people are so stitched into me that I cannot tell where they end and I begin. I am steeped in Shakespeare and the BBC and the Romantic poets. I got extremely testy with my poor hapless editor when she wanted to change very heaven to pure heaven; it's from WORDSWORTH, I wrote, pretentiously, in the margin. I suddenly realise that even though the British sometimes startle and surprise me, I know them in a way I can never know the Americans. We all grew up together; we have in-jokes and code words and things that require no explanation. I felt obscurely upset when I had to take out a line about sticky back plastic, because in the US there was no Blue Peter, and no BBC impartiality which meant that references to Sellotape were forbidden. I am afraid that however much I change Inland Revenue to IRS, or BBC to NPR, the American women will not get it, in the way that Sarah and I knew our British readers would.

More tangentially, I realise with stunning force how little Britons figure in the American imagination. It is not that they like us or hate us; it is that, in their eyes, the Brits are Oscar Wilde's Woman of No Importance. The Special Relationship is really only special on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Jingoistic bombast is one of the things that makes me crosser than almost anything except a dangling modifier, so why should this matter to me? It is a plain truth; it does not carry any deep meaning. I think it disturbs me because it stirs the muddy waters of national pride, something which can so easily tip into horrid superiority or chauvinism. But as I have to cut little asides that only my compatriots will understand, I find myself acutely conscious of all the things I love about British life.

I love the sense of humour and the irony and, even in these days of reality television, the understatement. I love Radio Four and fish and chips and our own dear Queen. I love Blue Peter, and memories of collecting milk bottle tops to send to children in Africa (quite what they were going to do with them, no one ever understood). I love Hamlet and rain at Wimbledon and The Two Ronnies. When I listen to the cricket and hear Henry Blofeld call a middle-aged man 'my dear old thing' I want to die with happiness, for absolutely no reason that I can identify. Perhaps it is disconcerting to find that all these things for which I carry such profound fondness almost certainly mean absolutely nothing to a woman living in Duluth.

I can't draw any conclusions from any of this, which drives me a bit mad, because I love a good and complete conclusion. Maybe the conclusion is an echo of the central message of Backwards itself, which is: our psyches are always a little messier and more complicated and unexpected than we think, and there is nothing wrong with that.

And now, my dear old things, it is time for the cricket.


  1. Isn't it funny how, when asked to bow to other countries customs, we become more British than ever before? As I got to the last couple of paragraphs of that post I could hear Rule Britannia playing in the background while the Union Jack was raised.

    My particular bugbear is the fact that we are seeing Americanisms creep into UK English; sayings such as 'don't go there' (where?); using 'upcoming' instead of forthcoming; occurring instead of happening; PRIvacy instead of privACY; alphabetize instead of alphabetical order.....I could go on!

    As Winston Churchill once said, we are two countries divided by a common language.

    p.s. Good luck with the American launch of the book.

  2. That hit a nerve. Where (and with whom) you grow up plays a huge role in who you become. I have lived in Greece now for 20 years and yet I still think in terms of Blue Peter, Radio 4, Dr Who, rainy summer afternoons, corner shops, Yorkshire Puddings, Brighton rock, and so on.....

    No matter how much I immerse myself in Greek life, there are parts of me that will remain forever England.

    Good luck with the American edition - even without references to Julian Clary et al, I'm sure it'll be well received.

  3. The launch will be amazing - some will love it, identify with it and buy it for all their friends, relatives and mothers and others will not. And that's fine too, although I'm sure the former will be the majority.

    Am not sure this is entirely a British phenomenon - just finished reading Dinner with Persephone - an American writer living in Greece writing on her time there, the differences in culture, the insidious and altogether frightening publicly tacit violence and contempt towards women, but the Greeks absorbed as much American culture as they could; the writer was lusted after, proposed to, all just as Clinton came into office, so much love going on there - they longed to be both a country absorbed into Europe and maintain a definitive pure Greek stance unsullied by contact with others. 6 of one and half a dozen of the other indeed...

    Am feeling the angst myself as am applying to Guild of food writers and cannot imagine any of my work is possibly good or erudite or pleasing enough and have the shakes just imagining them sitting there, shaking their heads and muttering 'no, no, no, no, no - what was she thinking...'

  4. Eek - She means well - hadn't seen your comment before I wrote that, but was struck in book by soap descriptions depicting attitudes to women and also story of Penelope Delta, the children's writer.... No offence meant, promise x

  5. I can't add anything to this because you have described my experience so completely.

    I feel so adrift here sometimes. One of the reasons I didn't live in Brooklyn was because I have no radar here. I don't know what is safe and what is not. In England I wld always know.

    In addition, my cultural programming is all askew, even after 2.5 yrs in America.

    Please, if there is anything I can do, however little, to help with the US edition, please let me know. Can you let me know release dates etc?


  6. I am absolutely sure your book will hit the right notes for a US audience, as there are so many universal thoughts contained in there. But it is so interesting about the cultural references and just how many changes need to made within the 'same' language.
    It reminds me of the first time I went to New York in 1990. I have never felt quite so British, or at sea, as then. And then consequently working on projects in the US, when seemingly there is a whole new language to describe the construction industry. Sheet rock for plaster board for instance.
    Whereas when I went to Scandinavia for the first time the other year, I felt odly at home.

  7. If it makes you feel any better, I'm a born and raised American, but my parents both come from countries whose educational system was based on the British system, and I grew up reading a lot of English literature and scraping any bits of access to the BBC I could get. And I take umbrage when, in the States, I can't spell savour, flavour, and colour with a u, or theatre instead of theater, because honestly, it just LOOKS more proper the British way. I don't feel we are so different from each other and I do wish the cross-cultural exchange were a bit more fluid.

  8. As an American fan and lover of your blog I will certainly be buying a copy---and frankly could care less how you spell theater (theatre) or whatever bonkers spelling our 2 countries choose. What matters is the content and it is gonna be loved by all. Great writing is great writing....period. So, don't stress. We American's love Brits. The book will do great ;)

  9. I would be exactly like you. It is definitely the little things that get under your skin about this place. I loved it when Jarvis Cocker was asked what he missed about England when he is in Paris (I think he lives 6 months a year there and 6 months here).

    He says he missed flashing amber traffic lights- now whenever I see one I think of it lovingly!

  10. This post made me laugh as two weeks ago I went through precisely this process in reverse! My essay for a British magazine saw "birders" translated to "bird watchers", u's were sprinkled liberally about and various definite articles vanished...

    The spelling changes don't bother me -- but sometimes I do wish that American editions would not be quite so American (how else would I have learned about revising for exams? I had always reviewed!). Thanks to Amazon UK, I'm not limited any longer to what I can lug home in my bags from the occasional trip overseas. So my children have read Harry Potter in the original language and I, Backwards in High Heels!

    It's very heaven...even in Duluth!

  11. Thank you so much for this gem of a book. I have recently separated from my husband after seven years of marriage and was so disillusioned by my whole life that I had no idea what to do anymore.

    Your book has given me a reason to smile in the mornings again... because now I know that it will all be alright... and someday, whether i may be alone or with somebody new... my sunshine will come again :D

  12. Ikai - just saw your comment and it made me rather teary. I am so glad that the book makes you smile; it makes it all worth while. I imagine you are very bereft just now, but you have given yourself hope by walking away from something so sad. There is hope now, of a better dawn. I wish you all luck in your future.

  13. Could I be really picky, and point out that on Blue Peter, "sticky-back plastic" was Fablon, not sellotape? Sellotape was "sticky tape". Nowadays they tie themselves in knots over Blu Tac.

  14. Andy - welcome to the blog; I don't think you have commented before. Thank you SO much for pointing out my elementary mistake. Sadly I do not have New York Times style fact-checkers, and it just shows how treacherous memory can be. I shall rely on you to keep combing my posts for errors, as I am prone to what my old dad used to call 'making statements'.


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