Publishing Profile: Rakesh Satyal, Senior Editor at Atria Books

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Photo by Melisa Melling

Photo by Melisa Melling

In publishing, editors and authors can seem like they belong to two separate worlds, but some people, like Rakesh Satyal, bridge that gap with grace and success. Satyal is perhaps best known for his Lambda Literary Award-winning novel, Blue Boy. He released a new novel, No One Can Pronounce My Name, this May. Satyal is currently a senior editor at Atria Books, and has worked with prominent authors such as Tori Amos, Paulo Coelho, and Janet Mock. We caught up with him to learn more about how he makes the best of both of his experiences.

Interviewed by Nikki Barton

It’s a cliché question, I know, but I still think it’s important: when and how did you first realize publishing was the career for you?

Believe it or not, the first person to recommend a career in publishing to me was Joyce Carol Oates, with whom I studied writing in college. She noticed how I seemed to enjoy providing editorial feedback in writing workshops as much as I enjoyed writing, so she suggested that I look into publishing as a professional route. Soon thereafter, I got my first internship working for the legendary editor Gerry Howard, who’d eventually become my boss once I graduated.

In the publishing industry, it’s often seen as contradictory to be a writer and an editor — how do you manage both? How does your knowledge and experience in each inform the other side? And how are the two cultures different, in your experience?

I try to keep my editing and writing worlds quite separate, since the former requires a solid sense of professional decorum and the latter requires fully committing yourself to the generation of creative output. My authors certainly benefit from my understanding of what it takes to be a writer, as well as the mechanics of writing, and I, in turn, learn a great deal from them when I edit their work. Both jobs take a fair bit of discipline and are also time-consuming, so it’s really a matter of time management more than anything else.

Previous to publishing, you worked in branding. Is there anything you carried over from that industry into publishing?

Certainly. One thing that I didn’t get firsthand during my early publishing life was a thorough grasp of marketing, which my branding job afforded me. But so much about my branding job dealt with client management – expectations and tempering them, conveying complex creative work to people who may be averse to it – and that definitely have crossover when you’re dealing with authors, agents, and the like. They’re both industries that try to make the intangible tangible, the esoteric commercially viable, so they’re more alike than one might initially think.

You’ve worked at many different houses and imprints, but what is one thing that has stayed consistent throughout all of them?

I always like to say that an editor’s job traffics in “trickle-down enthusiasm”: As the editor, you have to be the most passionate advocate for a particular book than anyone else in-house, as it’s your job to convey that enthusiasm to the various departments (sales, publicity, marketing) and make them understand why that book is so special. That kind of enthusiasm is a necessity regardless of where you work.

What is your favorite type of book to work on? In other words, what is the kind of proposal that strikes you and immediately makes you want to sink your teeth into?

I respond to voice more than anything else, so it really doesn’t matter what genre a book is as long as I connect to the writing on the line level. I appreciate writers who are very careful with their words and who realize that every word matters; this is not to say that I shy away from intricate sentences (in fact, I welcome them), but I like writers who seem to have deployed their talent in a way that feels at once effortless and strategic. And, above all, I appreciate a sense of humor.

What is the first “big book” you worked on? What was the experience like?

I had a rather anomalous experience, in that I acquired my first book a few months into my first job. It was the singer-songwriter Tori Amos’s memoir, and she was an absolute delight to work with – incredibly smart, savvy, funny, and gracious. It was a lot of hard work because we were coordinating the book release with an album release, but it was a fantastic way to learn cross-platform promotion early in my career. It’s been instructive for every project on which I’ve worked since then.

How do you envision the future of publishing? How do you attempt to steer it in that direction?

I think that we’re in a golden era of writing right now, especially when it comes to fiction and, even more specifically, when it comes to fiction by female writers and writers of color. Two books that I cite often are Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House and Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, both of which blew me away. Both books contain such intelligence and a generosity of spirit, and I think both of those elements are going to be even more vital in our current political situation. Literature will always be where we contend with the most complex emotional matters, and I think we’re going to see so many new writers rise to the occasion and create works of enduring value and integrity.

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