Seventeen years ago, right out of college and the Radcliffe Publishing Course, I moved to New York and went to work for the charismatic group of editors who founded Riverhead Books. Over the next four years, as an editorial assistant, I would answer phones, make photocopies, mail books and schedule lunch dates in exchange for a master class in the art of being an editor.
I had always wanted to be an editor. I imagined being left alone in a spacious office with a lot of books and papers. It didn’t take a week to realize that the reality of being an editor was very different—and much more exciting—than my fantasy. What I could not have anticipated before witnessing the chaos, the constant interruptions, the endless phone calls and multi-hour meetings around which those editors’ work days revolved, was how captivating the authors would be. I was star-struck by some of them, a little bit in love with others, and scared to death of one or two. But they were never, ever boring, and no two hours, let alone days, with them were alike. I was forced to overcome my natural introversion again and again to find ways to help, to please, to cajole and to befriend these enigmatic creatures.
When I became an editor myself, I realized just how intense and emotional these relationships could be. The authors I chose to work with changed my life. I helped them to make the most of their work, promoted their books both inside and outside the company, and faded into the background when it was their time to shine. I learned a lot by watching them, but I never wished to be one of them. They spent years writing books in private that would become suddenly public, up for judgment. It was exhilarating but terrifying. They nurtured their hopes, but they couldn’t know what publication day would bring.
While I delivered more than my share of good news over the years—got to tell some authors that their books had made the New York Times bestseller list, to enthuse over publicity coups and take them out for celebratory dinners after their Manhattan readings—I felt their disappointment acutely when things didn’t go so well: a bad review, a too-quiet launch, missed flights and poorly attended readings on tour. I loved being their behind-the-scenes support from the relative safety of my office at 375 Hudson Street, where my good friends and I gossiped and celebrated one another’s birthdays with conference room cupcakes.
A writing life would have seemed too messy and risky to the person I was then. I used to tell friends and family who aspired to write books that it was a terrible way to make a living, that if they could imagine doing anything else—ANYTHING—they should go and do that instead. I stand by that advice, and yet my book, That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us, is about to be published by Gotham.
After I‘d been working for Penguin for ten years, my husband and I had the opportunity to reinvent our lives in London—an offer too exciting to pass up. We started a family. I did some freelance editing and ghost-wrote a couple of books. Then I started looking around for a new challenge… and let’s face it, there’s nothing like a couple of little kids to help you get used to mess and risk. When one of my former authors (none other than the brilliant Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves) gave me the idea to write a book about the differences between English and American culture through the lens of language, I really wanted to try it.
I spent months doing research and digging up intriguing little stories and bizarre bits of history. It was enormous fun finding my own voice after channeling other voices for so long, but the best part was imagining readers having the same thrill of discovery that I’d felt while working on the book. There are a lot of people out there who love to travel, explore other cultures, and talk about language—this book is for them. It is also for American and English expatriates going through the tortuous process of partial assimilation that I went through (and am still going through). Writing That’s Not English helped me find the humor in this experience.
I could never have imagined how satisfying work could be on the other side of the desk. There are things I miss about being an editor, though—like my colleagues. I want to say that I missed those smart and funny Penguins so much, I just had to work with them again. But the truth is, they rarely call me. Most days I am left alone in the library with a lot of books and papers, nurturing my hopes and wondering what publication day will bring.
American by birth, Erin Moore is a former book editor who specialized in spotting British books—including Eats, Shoots & Leaves—for the US market. She’s spent the last seven years living in England with her Anglo American husband and a small daughter with an English accent.
That’s Not English is the perfect companion for modern Anglophiles and the ten million British and American travelers who visit one another’s countries each year.