A[n] Historical Talk about Publishing with Gil Kelly, Gent.


Earlier this spring, we had the great pleasure of sitting down and enjoying a lemon chiffon pie with Gil Kelly. Gil recently retired after spending about thirty years as the Managing Editor of Publications for the renowned Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. In his long and storied career, he has worked on many of the books that have proved to be foundational for early Americanists of all sorts. He was kind enough to share some of his wisdom with us, and we’re now returning the favor. May you learn as much as we did!

Hannah: How did you get into publishing as a career? How did you get into the publishing world?

Kelly: Toward the end of my protracted graduate student career, and it was a career, I had been teaching as an instructor and had run out of time because of tenure, and I wanted some income until such time as I finished my dissertation and got a job. So I walked into the office of the University of Nebraska Press and asked about a job, and I was familiar with them sort of, they were familiar with me, and just about everybody was off at a convention, so I saw the senior editor, whom I knew indirectly sort of, and she said, “Sit down!” I did. “Would you like a Camel [cigarette]?” You know, it was very civilized for her generation. And we talked, and, so, long and short is that I talked to the managing editor in a week or so, whom I knew somewhat, and they offered to let me start freelancing. I can’t remember whether I took a test or not, but so anyway I started in at that. The dissertation didn’t go quite as fast as I hoped it would! [chuckles] And by the time I finished, I was a very good editor, and the job market for teaching in English was dreadful—still is—so I was adjuncting some and freelancing, and this job [at what would become the Omohundro Institute] came along.

Hannah: So when did you start here at the Institute then? Ish?

Kelly: I think in ’83.

Casey: So, in the time that you’ve been here, and as an Institute apprentice I got to hear some of your stories and some of your pet peeves with different books. What was your favorite book manuscript to work on?

Hannah: Or a few favorites.

Casey: Or a few, or…

Kelly: Usually I say the last one. [all laugh]

Hannah: So what are some of the strongest things a writer can do to kind of help cultivate that sense of when you finish a sentence you want to read the next one? What are some things that we, as people who are approaching a dissertation, can think about when we’re writing that dissertation that’ll sort of help it translate a little more easily to something that looks a bit more like a book?

Kelly: I don’t know whether you want to do this from the get go, or after you go back and revise, but adding fluff and explanations and so forth, protracting a point that is reasonably well made already, can tend to bog down writing. On your initial draft, I don’t know that I would tell you to exclude anything, because you may have a phrasing in there or something that you’d want to keep. When you go back to revise it, you don’t want to think, “Gee I thought I said something about that here. I can’t remember what it was.” But you know the trick is to just exclude the stuff. Avoid adding, should we say, peripheral facts or things that you’ve already mentioned. At the third mention of George Washington you don’t have to say who his father was. On the other hand, if it is somebody more obscure, maybe a little note now and then to refresh your reader.

Casey: So, this is I guess along the same lines, what are some of your biggest pet peeves in other people’s writing?

Hannah: Especially from historians. What do we always do wrong?

Kelly: We’ve had a couple of battles over “that” and “which.”

Hannah: In what way?

Kelly: “Which” is a relative pronoun, nonrestrictive. “This pie, which I like, is delicious.” “Who” is a nonrestrictive pronoun referring to persons. “That” is a restrictive pronoun referring to both persons and things. [singing] “The girl that I marry will have to be…” And many historians still remember what they were taught in grade school: “that” refers to things. It isn’t wrong to say…“The book which I liked is right here.” I guess it isn’t wrong to say “The girl whom I want to marry is here,” but it’s not good usage. The object is to make good prose.

Hannah: Yeah. That’s the endgame. And don’t use “impacted” as a verb.

Kelly: Correct.

Hannah: I know that that’s a pet peeve of yours.

Kelly: It’s just “impacted wisdom teeth.”

Casey: Yes! Yes. When it’s teeth it’s okay.

Hannah: “An historic moment,” or “a historic moment”?

Kelly: “A historic moment.”

Casey: Ooooh!

Hannah: Man!

Casey: So, “a historian” or “an historian”?

Kelly: “A historian.” It depends on where the accent falls in “history” mainly. The British will tend to say “an historical moment,” but they won’t say “an history.”

Hannah: So take us through a little bit of the trajectory, now this is going to be painting with a very broad brush but, from the time you get a book manuscript in, to the time it’s something you’re ready to publish.

Kelly: You mean send it to production?

Hannah: Yes. What are some of the transformations that seem pretty common for it to go through? Is there kind of a chronology to the process, or not so much?

Kelly: Are you thinking of from the moment the author submits it?

Hannah: Yeah.

Kelly: Yeah, it’s fairly ritualized. The editor, Fredrika [Teute] or Nadine [Zimmerli], goes over it to see whether it’s worthy of consideration. If it is, she may have some suggestions right off the bat, like “You need a chapter on this. You don’t need this chapter unless you can explain why,” and will return it to the author. She then sends it out for refereeing, and the referees’ comments come back. There are different categories, depending on the publisher. Some places simply have a sort of harem of referees who will go over the book, maybe make a few suggestions, and then write a one- or two-page report. Others go into it tooth and nail. Ours usually go into it tooth and nail. That is, they’re expected to. For us the question often being “Whom can we find that would be a good reader for this book?” You don’t need simply an American historian. You don’t need simply a colonial American historian. You may need a colonial New England historian specializing in Rhode Island, and it all depends on the book. Although at some point, these reports are sent back to the author, with the editor’s synopsis of what the author should do. The author does it, it comes back, and gets a letter of acceptance. And then it’s dumped on me or Kathy [Burdette] or somebody.

Hannah: And at that point it’s time for the very fine toothed, line-by-line editing?

Kelly: Yeah. Putting stuff together, checking chapter titles, illustrations, checking the footnotes. Most of this stuff most presses don’t do. In the old days, pink query slips would be stuck on the manuscript. I always typed mine because my handwriting is terrible, but later when the typewriter wasn’t working well, I just typed them up on separate sheets and inserted them. Sent it back to the author, hope he doesn’t get furious. He returns it. Incorporate any revisions, maybe find a few other things, and I send the finished manuscript printout back to the author for his approval before sending it into production.

Hannah: Easy as that!

Casey: Just that easy!

[Laughs all around]

Hannah: She says tongue-in-cheek!

Casey: Was it your experience that authors had trouble accepting revisions? What do you think was the hardest thing for authors to accept from that editing process?

Kelly: I really don’t know! I would send a cover letter describing the many things that we did under the rubric of “house style.” In one book that I did at Nebraska, an early one, got a furious response, sent to the editor above me, about my copy-editing. My insertion of punctuation, my breaking sentences into smaller sentences, starting new paragraphs with abandon. So I was asked to write a letter to the author explaining my practice. So I sent it out with a bit about “house style.” “Our style calls for commas in between independent clauses.” [Laughter all around] I wish I had saved a copy of it.

Hannah: I hope it’s in some sort of archive somewhere. That’s what I’m hoping.

Kelly: I’m sure it’s in their files. “We use a semicolon if there are a lot of commas in one of the clauses, or if there is not a conjunction. Starting a new paragraph is sort of arbitrary, but readers are put off by a paragraph that runs two or three book pages long. I read them carefully and was scrupulous in making paragraphs breaks at the end of a footnote number.” And on and on like this for a page. Last I heard of it.

Hannah: “So, besides being humble, are there things you can think of that authors should be thinking of when they are going through this process with you? Like, what are some of the easiest things you can do to make life for your editor just a little bit easier?”

Kelly: Boy, I don’t know. Because, you know, the stuff that I’m describing here, I can do in my sleep. And, for an author who is not practiced at this, he oughtn’t give all that much time to it. I guess the main thing I think is simply: don’t be slovenly.

Hannah: By which you mean?

Kelly: If you’re keyboarding along and you see you made a mistake, go back and fix it. But don’t go to the Library of Congress to find out the spelling of something. [Laughter all around.]

Casey: What would you say were some of the most difficult parts about being an editor? Or, conversely, what were the most enjoyable parts?

Kelly: The most difficult thing was probably frustration. When you have, say a chapter in front of you, you don’t really have any idea what it’s about. I mean, you cannot figure out what is happening. And you can’t figure out what you’re supposed to do with it. And you just go through and correct the grammar and spelling, or try to make it cohesive and coherent, but you don’t have any idea how to do that.

Hannah: So what happened in those instances?

Kelly: I just worked at it and worked at it. Sometimes it would go into production – I mean it had been refereed, so I was off the hook [laughter]. But you’d have a chapter that was just sort of all over the place.

Casey: Sounds a bit like a crossword puzzle, or something.

Hannah: So, you have been editing for a while – I think that’s safe to say – what have been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the time you’ve worked as an editor? And possibly, even, do you see those as being positive shifts or negative?

Kelly: One aspect is email. Back and forth and back and forth. You end up with more paper for a manuscript than there is manuscript! Because there would be two or three pages of email devoted to one line. It’s amazing how little correspondence there is in the files for our books from the fifties and sixties and seventies. An author would sit down and would write a fairly concise 2 or 3 page letter, and the editor would respond.

Casey: I guess that’s true. Then you deal with that correspondence once, instead of every other day, or getting many emails from the same author. Email takes more time, in that sense.

Kelly: Yeah, it’s, when somebody sends you a query, you hit reply. And so, in any 1 or 2 sentence actual new email, you’ve got ten preceding ones. Oh God! [Laughter] For one author, I would send in a query about something in the manuscript or whatever, he would respond by making that revision on his disc and then sending a whole damn chapter by email! I was at AHA one year and wanted to check my email and got a notice that my file was completely overloaded. [Laughter] And this happened a number of times; because of the records you want to keep, you don’t want to delete these emails.

Hannah: That actually brings up an interesting point. Once a book is being printed, it’s in production and out of your hands, do you keep an archive of all of those conversations? Do you keep that file for a period of time? I’ve never thought about the archive of publication, but that’s a really interesting point you bring up.

Kelly: When the actual manuscript itself has become history, I usually get rid of the emails. I do have a copy of everything that, to me, constitutes a significant stage. And then at some point, after the dust has settled, I will get rid of these various stages.

Hannah: So, I guess as a last question, what points of advice do you have for people who are just starting out? People like Casey and me who are approaching their dissertation and we’d like it to be a book someday, do you have any words of wisdom you’d like to share?

Kelly: Having taken forever to do a dissertation, I may not be the best person to ask. [Laughter]. But, find an area that you’re interested in, that may have possibilities for expansion. You can make a successful brilliant mountain out of a seeming molehill, witness Jim Merrell and the Catawbas. But the odds are usually against it. Talk to professors and get their feedback. Consider the possibility of a fairly narrow topic that can be added to when it comes book time. Don’t try to bite off too much. My original dissertation plan was to write about a whole literary movement that had two basic leaders and half a dozen followers. Ended up being about one of the followers [laughter]. Good for 400 pages.

Casey: Who was the follower?

Kelly: Norman Foerster

Casey: Whom was he following?

Kelly: Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt.

Casey: If they were historical figures, we’d know who they were. [Laughter]

Kelly: What else would I add? I might suggest the possibility of starting out with a typewriter. For this reason: with a typewriter, you have to collect your thoughts pretty well before you start writing. With a computer, you just let it flow and then go back and try to make it coherent. I won’t say I’m good at that, but I became fairly practiced at it as an undergraduate when I would turn in first drafts.

Casey: I couldn’t imagine what would happen if I turned in first drafts! [Laughter] No one would be happy!

Kelly: Well, you got to do some thinking before you start.

Hannah: That’s absolutely right. There’s a different psychology to that, where you have to think about it in advance, because you can’t make changes, so you have to think it through.

Kelly: What you’re terrified of is that at two o’clock in the morning, sort of finishing it and realizing that you have to retype it.

Casey: That is actually my nightmare [laughter].

Kelly: It focuses the mind greatly [laughter].

Casey: That’s true, and it’s something you don’t even think about. If I make an error on page twenty of forty, I just fix page twenty. But if I’ve typed out those pages and the error is on page twenty, it’s going to mess up all of the pages after page twenty. That’s very stressful!

Kelly: You learn creative revising. [Laughter]. In reading proofs, you find an error you’ve got to correct, and you want to do it with as few changes as possible. Do not make a paragraph two words longer.

Hannah: Yeah, that teaches you how to economize.

Kelly: One thing I might mention that might come as a bit of a surprise to your readers is about the old adage, the one about writing like historians. My experience has been that most decent historians are really very seriously concerned with their prose and with readability and with eloquence. I mean, they take it seriously. They take it more seriously than literary scholars do. And they are often eloquent, people in literature think that they are born prose geniuses. I got degrees from Oxford and Sorbonne and I can do whatever I want to, because I know better than you.

Casey: That’s interesting and good to hear that our concern over prose might make us, not better writers, but at least more considerate writers.

Kelly: There’s a tradition in literature of that sort of haughtiness. Someone once questioned George Lyman Kittredge – the famous Shakespeare scholar – about why he didn’t have his PhD. And his response was, “Who would have examined me?” [Laughter] But, do get in the bit about historians not being that bad of writers. They do sometimes confront the fact that what they are trying to explain is virtually inexplicable. But they’re really not as bad as they think. Finish your damn dissertations, finish them well, and get a good teaching job while there are still any left.

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