“You have to be willing to work behind the curtain”: In-House Editor Charles Simard

This post is a part of “Editing After Academia,” a series that spotlights editors who have found fulfilling careers outside academia.

In academia or editing, Charles Simard appreciates experimentation. He completed a PhD at Université de Montréal, where he focused on the poetry and essays of John Cage, as well as the relationship between literary theory and literary creation. At the time of defending his dissertation, he seemed poised for a career in academia. But an arduous job hunt and application process for a postdoctoral fellowship (he completed one fellowship at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center) made him question whether an academic career was viable.

While completing a postdoc, Charles began looking around for potential work. He reached out to the Vancouver-based independent publishing company Talonbooks when he suspected that they may need an editor for their translations from French. His hunch was correct. He maintained part-time contract work as a French reader and translation editor for Talonbooks while finishing his PhD and completing his postdoc in New York. He would continue this contractual relationship for another 5 years, until he transitioned into a full-time editorial position with the publisher.

The transition out of academia, he admits, was difficult. It required him to disentangle his love for research, words, and intellectual challenges from his identity as an academic. 

By the time Talonbooks offered Charles a full-time position, he felt more confident about his career path outside of academia. In the following interview, he discusses how bringing intellectual curiosity to any job can lead to unexpected opportunities. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

A student and publisher of experimental fiction

Even if you have a long list of diplomas, you can still do something else. I’m positive that my interests from academia—the skills I gained from the PhD and the postdoc and everything I read during that period—gave me a lot of confidence for the work I do now. The publisher I work for is an independent publisher, not a trade publisher, so the first goal isn’t a profit. They publish poetry, drama, non-fiction, and some experimental fiction, mostly in translation.

On making employers realize they need you

In terms of editing for Talonbooks, I frequently read books in French and English, and so I had a pretty strong knowledge of world literature, though not such a strong knowledge of English Canadian literature. I developed that afterwards and on the job. But I had a strong knowledge of Québécois literature and francophone literature, which I needed right away to work on the translations, and pretty soon I started to have some say in which books we would translate. 

That point struck me: nobody at Talonbooks at the time spoke French, and yet they had been publishing translations from the French since the late ’60s, so it was always word-of-mouth from people on the French side or even the English side saying, “You should check this book out.” But they could never read the original; they would always rely on the advice of the translator. So, I sort of occupied a new role that my boss was looking for. 

It’s important to be willing to learn something on the job. I’ve enjoyed being able to develop a set of skills that were quite different from what I did for 11 years in university. 

On pursuing the work you love

I studied for a long time, not necessarily because of the professional prospects or for instrumental reasons, but because I felt strongly about it. I was genuinely interested in topics of literature and philosophy and linguistics and that’s what drove me. I wouldn’t say I was uninterested in the diploma itself. It felt like a personal achievement, but nothing was planned.

On working behind the scenes

In academia, people expect a certain amount of prestige when they publish. In editing, you have to be willing to work behind the curtain. I discovered that I’m fine with that. If you’re someone that’s really looking for a public, I think you’re bound to be frustrated. You’ll get a private thank-you from your team or from the author you’ve been working with—and sometimes not even that. You have to be grounded and focused on what you’re doing. Just the sheer experience of encountering a text and working with a person is satisfying.

On needing good interpersonal skills

Some authors can take things personally. Most people are really nice and they’re understanding of the editorial process. But the very few problematic cases I had are often people who lack confidence either in their subject or their writing, but you can’t tell them that. We’re not psychologists, but at the same time we do have a little bit of authority because we’re representing the publisher. So, it’s about explaining the process to them, while staying respectful and avoiding condescension at all times. As an editor, you have to be the mature one in the relationship. 

At the same time, I’ve certainly developed friendships and camaraderie with authors, especially if I’m working with them more than once. That aspect of the work has been really fun.

On being stretched thin

There’s a risk of overwork in small publishing houses. At Talon, we have two full-time editors and we do between 20 and 25 books a year. You really have to be careful of burnout. I take a lot of external contracts and they’re all fun and interesting, and they complement my revenue, but exhaustion and burnout is always a true possibility. You have to be careful and know yourself and the limits of your energy. 

Charles Simard is a Québécois editor and translator from Montréal / Tiohtià:ke. He works as poetry, fiction, and non-fiction editor for Talonbooks in Vancouver on Coast Salish Territory. His published work includes the essay Littérature, analyse et forme: Herbert, Tolkien, Borges, Eco (EUE, 2010) and a number of translations for Orca Book Publishers, including Elise Gravel’s The Wrench and Myriam Daguzan Bernier’s dictionary of sexuality, Naked. As a lexicographer, he has collaborated on the making of the popular linguistic suite Antidote in its bilingual editions. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in comparative literature from Université de Montréal and was a postdoctoral fellow at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. His doctoral and postdoctoral publications focused on the poetics of avant-garde composer and writer John Cage.

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