Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Editor Who Heard Music: Allister Thompson on editing, mixing, and mistakes writers make

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The Editor Who Heard Music: Allister Thompson on editing, mixing, and mistakes writers make

Editors. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t with without ‘em.

Just kidding. We love our editors, and in fact, they are truly the unsung heroes behind so many great works of fiction that might have been just, well, mediocre, without their keen eye.

Allister Thompson is one editor who does not go unsung. Because he’s a singer. And a songwriter. And his latest album, Light The Darkness, may just be his best offering yet. Featuring his superb songwriting and blistering guitar work front and centre, the 10 tracks seem to combine to form a sort of anthem for these times. Listen to it here:

I cornered Allister in a dark and musty pub where he was drinking a tar-like British ale, and we had a quick chat.

CB: How did you get sentenced to, er I mean involved in, the publishing scene?

AT: I was always good with the English language from a very young age. I don't know why - maybe my mother read Thackeray to me in the womb. That kind of preordained my future, seeing as I'm apparently not a risk-taker. After graduating with a fairly useless history degree, I searched around for something that would utilize these innate skills I seemed to have, and ended up in the wonderful world of book publishing, where I've been ever since. (AT is a senior editor at Dundurn Publishers).

CB: Now that we know you're a masochist, tell us about the role of the editor in the whole creative lifecycle.

AT: Well, that's a question of personal perspective. I see the editor's role as guiding an author's book to as close to perfection as possible, without stepping on or radically altering what the author is trying to say or how they are saying it. Generally, the editor is the expert on grammar and style, and we prefer it if the author lets us do our thing on the technical side of the business. Substantively, an editor has to figure out what the author really wants to say and gently guide her or him in directions that can improve the work, should there be deficiencies that need to be addressed. In a good relationship, this happens. In a bad one, acrimony ensues!

CB: How do you separate the reading you do for work and the reading you do for pleasure? Is this even possible?

AT: I have little time for ‘fun reading‘. When I read for pleasure, I usually read stuff that has nothing to do with the kinds of things I work on, because you can have too much of a good thing. The drawback is I'm not as up on current favourites in, say, the mystery genre, as I could be, but then I can't read everything. The positive is I keep my sanity. For instance, I'm reading a very interesting travel book about Uzbekistan right now (about 15 minutes a night is all I usually get)... I don't really come across that sort of thing in the day job!

CB: What are some of the big mistakes writers make when submitting a manuscript?

AT: Honestly, it varies. Some people tell a great story and their novel is structurally sound, but they can't punctuate to save a life. But then some people's manuscripts are "clean" on the surface but are full of plot holes and cheesy dialogue. That's a key one: believable dialogue is hard to come by. Think about how your characters really speak, based on their demographic, education, etc., and your book will be much more believable. A novel in which everyone talks the same way is really clunky.

CB: Besides editing, you are a professional musician. You opened for Alice Cooper with your band Crash Kelly, but have focused on solo efforts lately.

AT: The band I played in, Crash Kelly (well, play in, we didn't actually break up), is a whole other kind of music for me, hard rock inspired by ‘70s bands like Thin Lizzy and Cheap Trick. I developed an appreciation for that kind of stuff by playing in the band, but I wasn't the primary singer or songwriter, more of a support musician. It's provided some great touring experiences that I'd never have had otherwise, as well as the manly camaraderie of a band's gang mentality. And it's very good music. But there's nothing like making your own music and expressing your own thoughts exactly the way you want to hear them. My own music is quite different.

CB: What are the similarities and differences between editing/mixing music and editing books?

AT: There are parallels. Writing is like recording, getting the ideas down. The substantive edit is like the mix, making sure everything is where you want it and nothing's off-time. The copy edit is like mastering, where you make everything feel like part of a consistent whole. Proofing is like your final listen to see if you want to "tweak" anything, as they say in the recording business. So yes, from start to finish, it's not dissimilar.

CB: Your music is infused with the spirit of the Byrds, Floyd, The Who, and Lindsey Buckingham. How would you describe your style and your vocie?

AT: Ah, free promo. Good man, C.B. Those are good references to be compared with. I've always listened to a huge range of music, but I've always been attracted to music that aims to be "important", which isn't exactly in vogue right now. The 60s may not have changed the world as much as we'd like to think, but the spirit of those times has a lot of passion and anger. Why bother saying anything if you don't believe your messages have real value? But I've never aimed to write a specific kind of music, not having a label (or an audience!) to please...this is just what comes out of me, the honest reflection of my um, deepest thoughts and the noises that float my boat. Some take it, some leave it.

CB: Light The Darkness is your latest album, and I'd say your best. What can you tell us about the process of putting this one together?

AT: I found a box of sessions I recorded when I was much younger (ten years younger). The songs were good but clumsily recorded, so I never did anything with them. I decided to spruce them up, but my skills have developed a lot since then, so I ended up re-recording most of them, though the older version of me gets a track or two on most of the songs. I also had a great drummer play on the new sessions. Being from a younger, less jaded version of myself, the songs have a lot more direct passion in them, which pleases me. Though I did have to rewrite a few of the more... Uncompromisingly ‘angst’ lines ... Still, considering the nasty direction the world has taken, I find my old lyrics uncomfortably prescient.

CB: If you could go back in time and do heroin with Eric Clapton, get pissed with Pete Townshend, or pop pills with Jimi Hendrix, who would you choose and why?

AT: Never been a big Clapton fan, and heroin sounds scary. Pills are best kept for when I have a headache. I love The Who and beer is a friend of mine, so let's have Pete over for a few.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest is the author of the literary crime novels The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil.

Go to C.B. Forrest’s Author Page