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Celebrated editor Ellen Seligman dies Add to ...

Ellen Seligman, one of the most influential and exacting editors in Canadian literary history, whose judicious judgment helped shape the work of generations of Canadian writers, died on Friday in Toronto.

Her death was confirmed by Kristin Cochrane, president and publisher of Penguin Random House Canada, where Seligman worked as the long-time publisher of McClelland & Stewart.

“Though we are in the business of words, I find it next to impossible to express the grief I know we all feel with the loss of this incomparable woman,” wrote Cochrane in a statement to colleagues. “But while we mourn, we also celebrate Ellen’s momentous career and all she achieved in her close to four decades at McClelland & Stewart. Though again, it is too hard to come up with just the right adjective (though Ellen would of course want me to) to accurately or adequately describe the contribution Ellen made to Canadian literature.”

An American expatriate who became head of Canada’s most storied publishing house, Ellen Seligman was born and raised in New York City and studied literature and art history at the University of Wisconsin before entering the world of publishing. “I just got hooked on publishing, and I gravitated towards it because I loved books,” she told Toronto Life in a 1995 profile.

After spending several years in New York, and then London, Seligman came to Canada in 1976 for “personal, romantic reasons,” as she told the Canadian Jewish News in 2001, and joined McClelland & Stewart the following year.

Despite multiple offers to work elsewhere, and multiple ownership changes (from Jack McClelland to Avie Bennett to the University of Toronto to, finally, Random House Canada), Seligman remained with the company for the next four decades, becoming editorial director of fiction in 1987 and publisher in 2000.

Seligman worked with some of the most prominent authors Canada has ever produced, from Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen and Michael Ondaatje to Rohinton Mistry, Jane Urquhart and Guy Vanderhaeghe, who said that “her presence will continue to be felt whenever anyone opens one of the books that she had such a crucial role in shaping.”

Books she edited won a staggering 23 Governor-General’s Literary Awards, four Man Booker Prizes, and six Scotiabank Giller Prizes, more than any other editor in Canadian history. She guided the careers of countless young writers, as well, and brought the work of many heralded international writers to Canada.

“Beyond our borders, Ellen was widely recognized as one of the world’s best editors, with impeccable literary taste and instincts,” said Cochrane. “All of us lucky enough to work with Ellen will have been inspired by the energy, creativity, elegance, and intelligence she brought to everything she did. She was a generous colleague and collaborator. She worked to the highest of standards, raising the game for everyone around her, all the while sharing her love of publishing.”

Seligman earned a reputation as a meticulous, demanding editor, often staying on the phone with a writer for hours at a time, perfecting the work sentence by sentence, word by word. (“I have been known to edit lying down, which is why my authors sometimes wonder why my handwriting is so dreadful,” she told me, years ago.) Jane Urquhart, in an e-mail to the Globe, called Seligman “an author’s ideal reader” who “took you by the hand and led you back in the manuscript, journeying with you to the narrative’s farthest shores and most profound depths.

“She was humane, empathetic, and very tough when toughness was needed,” she wrote. “And she was unwavering in her belief. No bad review, no disappointing sales report ever shook her faith. And when the good things happened, she was EVEN happier than you were yourself.”

The novelist and poet Patrick Lane, recalling her work on his novel Red Dog, Red Dog, once said that “hands-on doesn’t even begin to describe what Ellen does.” Seligman, he said, “inhabited my manuscript. That’s the only way I can describe it. She entered into the novel in a way that just stunned me.”

In a statement to the Globe, Michael Ondaatje called Seligman “a gift to good writing” and said that while working with her on his 1987 novel In The Skin of a Lion, he “probably learned more about writing and form and subtlety than [he] had even thought about before.

“We disagreed. We fought. But there is nothing in that book that I am not proud of.”

Margaret Atwood, who worked with Seligman for over 25 years, described her in an e-mail as “a consummate editor: she read in depth and on many levels. For me, she was one of those ‘Dear Readers’ whose opinion was intensely important to me. Luckily she had a sense of humour, and I would always feel I’d hit the target when I made Ellen laugh. She was a bright light, a warm soul, and a kindly helper to very many, and she will be profoundly missed.”

“I think that as an editor – to be a really good editor – you first of all have to be a really good listener,” she once said. “I don’t mean to the person. I mean to what you’re reading. You have to listen to what you’re reading…You have to listen to what the book is telling you, and not impose your own ideas on it. And I think what makes a good relationship is that you’re able to have that dialogue with the author. That you’re able to say something about the manuscript that actually strikes a chord with them and [shows] that you’re both speaking the same language. In the world, it doesn’t always happen. But I think it can happen, if you listen carefully enough, and if you’re a penetrating enough reader.”

Seligman, who is survived by her partner, James Polk, was a member of the Order of Ontario, a two-time winner of the Canadian Booksellers’ Association Editor of the Year Award, and the former president of PEN Canada.

There will be a private funeral, with a memorial to follow.

Her family declined to release her age, or the cause of death, but Cochrane revealed that Seligman’s final days were spent “meticulously overseeing the final details” of McClelland & Stewart’s fall list of books, including the edit on Steven Price’s forthcoming novel By Gaslight.

“She was incredibly proud of the work she and Steven did together,” said Cochrane, “and was so excited at the prospect of sending the book out into the world.”

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