Amy Grace Loyd’s first novel, The Affairs of Others, may have just hit bookstores a few months ago, but Loyd is certainly not a “newbie” when it comes to great writing. Her résumé includes stints at W.W. Norton, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Playboy Magazine, and, most recently, Byliner, where she has edited renowned authors such as Margaret Atwood, James Ellroy, Chuck Palahniuk, and Nick Hornby. Based on the acclaim her novel has already received, I don’t think it will be long before “Amy Grace Loyd” is mentioned in the same breath as the celebrated writers she’s been editing all these years.
The Affairs of Others tells the story of Celia Cassill, a recently-widowed woman who owns an apartment building in Brooklyn. Celia has selected her tenants carefully, trusting none of them will invade her privacy, or her grief, but her judiciously constructed barriers do not remain intact for long. Eventually, Celia is drawn into the messy (and oftentimes disturbing) lives of her neighbors, culminating in a conclusion that will leave the reader both surprised, and delighted.
Amy and I caught up over e-mail to discuss her new book, her career as an editor, the state of publishing in a digital era, and the different hats one must wear when juggling the tasks of both writing and editing.
The Rumpus: You majored in English at Bowdoin College and got your Master’s in Creative Writing at Hollins University, so I think it’s safe to say you’ve loved literature from an early age. Can you pinpoint the moment you fell in love with the written word?
Amy Grace Loyd: My grandmother read to me a lot when I was young. She’d had a disastrous first marriage. My grandfather drank, a lot. He died of cirrhosis not long after I was born. She was a very gentle person, even after all she’d been through, and she loved reading as much as I loved being read to. Her voice, her whole manner, was given to wonder. She was always youthful, remained so, somehow retaining some portion of innocence, until she died well into her eighties. It was her voice I heard when I read on my own for a long time—that excitement: “What will happen next?” she’d ask. “And how might it change us?”
Rumpus: Did you have a favorite book growing up, then?
Loyd: It’s hard surviving adolescence, but you can grab on to books or they grab you. The Scarlet Letter found me at a right moment. I was at a new high school; I’d just been through a rough year at my last school, my final year of junior high—I’d been ejected from a clique of popular girls, each one more terrifying than the next. I’d told a secret I was not meant to tell, but it could have been anything; someone had to be out in order for there to be an in. Hester Prynne is a dignified character; she doesn’t deny her sins but she never loses sight of herself even as she’s ostracized. Inevitably we all fail. It’s how we claim and cope with those failures.
Rumpus: You ended up working as the Literary Editor at Playboy Magazine for six-and-a-half years; I can’t begin to imagine the wealth of experiences you accumulated in that time. Can you share a favorite memory about working there?
Loyd: A year after I joined the staff, Playboy was nominated for a National Magazine Award for fiction for the first time in almost two decades. Our editorial director had hired me to enliven the literary side of the magazine, and I set after it with something approaching fanaticism. The three stories nominated, as a set, were by Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood. The covers of the magazine finalists flashed up on screen before an audience of magazine industry professionals. When ours was displayed, featuring an impossibly buxom brunette, there was nervous laughter, some gasping. I think we knew then that there was no way we’d win—maybe we knew before then—but we were still proud, maybe prouder. We’d gotten our peers to look past the rest of our content and all of the complicated things that Playboy seems to engender in people, even some fifty years after its founding. The good work mattered more.
Rumpus: Speaking of, you often hear people joke about reading Playboy “for the articles”—the remark is accompanied by a wink, or a sarcastic tone. Yet, the magazine has published works by masterminds such as Haruki Murakami, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Jack Kerouac. Were there any frustrations about working somewhere where naked women dipped in baby oil sometimes overshadows phenomenal writing?
Loyd: Yes, plenty of them. But on the other hand, the magazine has always been a balance of high- and lowbrow material or culture, so those images gave us editors license to be daring with literary work, with taking on provocative subjects and ideas. In 2007, for instance, we commissioned Denis Johnson to write an original noir novel in our pages, written to deadline in four installments at 10,000 words per installment. That was unheard of then, even more so now.
We liked to say the women featured in the magazine were our carnival barkers: they may have gotten our audience into the tent, but our fiction, columns, profiles, reviews, interviews kept them there, kept them coming back. We really believed that, and it helped us cope with a lot of the nonsense that came with the more obvious parts of Playboy’s landscape.
Rumpus: And then after Playboy, you worked as an executive editor at Byliner, which is a digital reading subscription service that has also published stories—e-books, to be more specific—by some very prominent writers. How did you get started working there?
Loyd: Writer and former Esquire Literary Editor Will Blythe brought me in. Byliner wanted to start acquiring original fiction by established authors, and my time at Playboy as the Fiction Editor made that easy for me. I brought many of my writers with me: Richard Powers, Margaret Atwood, Jess Walter, James Ellory, and Jonathan Ames, among others. It really was a great fit for me and my writers who needed a platform that was more flexible, more expansive for their stories. When I joined Byliner, there were simply not enough outlets for work over 5,000 words.
Rumpus: What have you discovered is the biggest difference between working in traditional, “Old World” publishing, versus a place that is as much a tech startup as it is a publisher?
Loyd: At Byliner, editors and writers have a lot more freedom with regard to length and subject. We are not made to edit to make our pieces fit a certain amount of available space or to accommodate an ad. The piece can be the length it needs to be. We can also go to press quickly, and our writers can do any number of updates to their pieces. It’s really wonderfully liberating and there’s room for a lot of experimentation, all while maintaining the same standards of quality we all learned as print editors. Ours is a very rigorous editing process.
Rumpus: It seems like many of the benefits of publishing in the e-book format can also be seen in long-form journalism on the web, with regards to freedom, the limitless space, etc. Do you think one is a threat to the other?
Loyd: Not at all. Indeed, as magazines that publish longer-form work either shrink or disappear, the e-format gives writers a necessary and very flexible new outlet, and their work with Byliner can and does appear in print—in longer form as a book, as in the case of Jon Krakauer’s Three Cups of Deceit, or in shorter form, elsewhere.
Rumpus: “The death of print” has been a hot topic in publishing for a long time. You’ve worked in digital publishing, but your book also just came out in hardcover. Do you have any predictions about where the industry is headed?
Loyd: I think we’re learning that print and digital publishing can exist and should exist symbiotically, that one can help the other. As new ways of publishing emerge, everyone’s getting smarter: publishers are forced to try new things, to improve on and diversify what they’re offering and how they reach their readers. They look to outlets like Byliner to find authors and book ideas—expanding shorter pieces or drawing from a given story in other ways, much as they might with magazines. They also look to us to discover new or emerging voices. E-outlets like Byliner help to keep the landscape diverse, active, alive.
Rumpus: Delving more into the specifics of your job as an editor, I’m curious to know what kinds of things do you look to improve upon when you’re editing someone else’s work? Anything you notice even the greatest, most artful writers struggle with?
Loyd: I try to suss out a writer’s intentions for a piece and gauge whether they’ve realized them fully and try to ask the right questions to help them do so. I also try to take the writer out of a place where the work and its particulars may be too implicit and may not be inviting his or her reader in sufficiently. Good storytelling can often depend how convincing and compelling the voice or world you’re creating is and the decisions made around withholding information and supplying it and in what order.
Rumpus: I mentioned your new book, so let’s finally get to that! What was your writing schedule like? Did you have to maintain a strict routine in order to juggle your job as an editor, your own writing, and your personal life?
Loyd: Because I worked full-time when I was writing, I mostly wrote on weekends and on the subway, commuting to and from work (I made sure to take the slowest train, a local). If the magazine was closing and my schedule was heavier, I wrote less. I had to surrender a lot. Trust I’d find the time when things calmed down.
Rumpus: I’m a fan of pouring myself a glass of wine before I sit down to write, which I imagine you really can’t (or shouldn’t, rather) do on the subway to work. Do you have a pre-writing routine, though? Any sort of special necessities to get you inspired or motivated to write?
Loyd: I read mostly, and if I’m absorbed, it gets my imagination working, helps me concentrate, and get into a more private place.
Rumpus: What was it like having your own work edited? Was it hard to be on the other side things?
Loyd: Anna DeVries, my editor, was very careful and respectful, very wise. She was not heavy-handed. She made it easy on me, and given I’ve been an editor for so long, I wanted to make sure I behaved and was receptive. It’s hard to be edited, to be made to look at your work through someone else’s eyes, have it held up to the light, especially after an extended period of privacy with the work. Depending on how much an editor is asking you to do, it can be damned tedious, but it’s finally beneficial—helps you as the writer better define what you’re willing to change, what you can change, what you can’t and why. A good edit should make the work more sound, more complete, and ready for any number and sorts of readers.
Rumpus: Did you have any intense experiences being edited? Anything you were particularly attached to, but ended up having to part with?
Loyd: I didn’t have to cut much, though I did have to add here and there for clarity of action, time frame, given the book has a charged, dreamy quality in places. Some of my more intense, fitful experiences of being edited came from my colleagues at Playboy. As a magazine editor, one has to write sidebars, lots of supporting copy, and in my case, book reviews, and my top editor there had a very different style than I did or we had to cut to fit. Was a fight sometimes.
Rumpus: Your narrator Celia is a wonderfully complex character: she is both weak and strong, she values privacy, but cares very much for others, and she experiences moments of extreme self-awareness, but can also be a bit naïve. What parts of Celia are like you, and which parts are not?
Loyd: Celia has a pretty rich interior life. She’s a card-carrying introvert and then her experiences—the loss of her husband so early and what has happened since—have encouraged this in her, to live inside herself, with her memories, her love, as richly and as fully as she can. It’s a great refuge and a form of defiance. We’re told: move on, let go. Celia refuses.
I’d say I’m an introvert, but I can pass for an extrovert and have had my share of outspoken moments. But when I began The Affairs of Others, I longed for more time alone, more time to take stock of my life and bang around in my imagination. Celia was the result of that longing. The circumstances of our lives are very different. I must work to pay my bills, and as strange as this may sound to some, I’m usually grateful for this, to work as an editor, to have the opportunity to learn from others—my co-workers, my writers, even the UPS guy. It’s important to be reminded to be adaptable and collaborative in this life and certainly in this city.
Rumpus: Have you ever found yourself caught up in “the affairs of others”?
Loyd: Ah, it’s impossible not to be, out of love or concern or as part of urban life. We live in awfully close quarters here in the city, and the walls are never quite thick enough: you hear things, see things you often wish you didn’t. You ask whether you should involve yourself, intervene in some stickier situations, and even if you don’t, you’re still there, aren’t you? Part of the human drama whether you like it or not.
Rumpus: This is your first novel and it’s already been so well-received. Personally, I think you’ve earned some time off to bask in your much-deserved success, but are you already thinking about your next book?
Loyd: Yes, I am thinking about it, even writing already, all while trying to figure out if the new novel is any good and worth living with for a longer period, a year or more. So far, so good, but being an editor can slow me down—not only am I working on other writers’ work and glad for that engagement, diversion, it also makes for a lot of second-guessing of my work. I have to subdue the editor in me, when I can—chase her out of my head.
Rumpus: After all of these years of being an editor, I imagine that can be very difficult at times. How do you halt those inclinations during the writing process? Any tips for “chasing the editor out of one’s head”?
Loyd: It’s not easy, sometimes it’s about what side of the bed you’ve woken up on, but for me reading certain things helps, before I begin to work, getting my mind in as creative and inventive a state as possible. Freeing it up. Certain writers’ work really puts me in state of wonder, rather than an editing or second-guessing mood: often it’s poetry, which gives you that suspension of time and an artful distillation of experience or feeling. Or it’s often bold, voice-driven work by the likes of Sherman Alexie or Grace Paley: their work is so very alive. Or sensual work—work that draws on all your senses, your longing, by James Salter or Maureen Gibbon. Even simply reading certain passages, yes, which are like invitations to experiment, to know, to leave perfection behind.
Featured image of Amy Grace Loyd © by Rex Bonomelli.
Second image of Loyd © by The Chicago Tribune.