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Steven Price worked with renowned editor Ellen Seligman for more than a year on his novel By Gaslight – the last novel she edited. (Centric Photography)
Steven Price worked with renowned editor Ellen Seligman for more than a year on his novel By Gaslight – the last novel she edited. (Centric Photography)

How the late Ellen Seligman reshaped Steven Price’s epic new By Gaslight Add to ...

The dedication page at the front of the galley for Steven Price’s Victorian epic By Gaslight reads “for Cleo & Maddox” – Price’s children, with wife Esi Edugyan. Readers opening the published book will see an addition: “and in memory of Ellen Seligman.”

Seligman was the legendary publisher of McClelland & Stewart, a Canlit force for decades. The literary world was stunned by her death earlier this year. By Gaslight was the last book she worked on (another late project of hers, Michael Helm’s After James, was further along in the production process; it will be published in September). Price and Seligman made their final edit to Gaslight in March – a big one: a collaborative decision to change a character’s name. There were e-mails back and forth. The decision was made, the book was done. Seven days later, she died.

Price – who had worked with Seligman on the painstaking edit for more than a year, at times six hours a day, five days a week, having long discussions by phone – was shocked.

By Gaslight, published Aug. 23, is a sweeping maze of a tale built around two men – a detective, William Pinkerton (based on the real-life Pinkerton); and a thief, Adam Foole (entirely fictional). Both men are pursuing the same woman, Charlotte Reckitt for different reasons – but then a body pulled from the Thames is identified as Charlotte.

The story unfolds over more than 700 pages and across several countries – but primarily in London and Civil War-era and postwar United States. It is a contemporary-feeling historical suspense novel with many mysteries – and revelations right through to the last pages. But Price makes a distinction: It’s a novel about a detective, not a detective novel.

The first spark for the story came from Price’s grandfather’s younger brother, a recluse they called Uncle Bud, whom Price finally met when Bud left his remote B.C. homestead (no running water, no electricity) for an assisted-living facility. During a lengthy conversation (during which Price learned, among other things, that his great-uncle’s name was not, in fact, Bud), the elderly man explained how his father, Price’s great-grandfather, wound up in Victoria.

Albert Price trained as a gunsmith in London but got into some trouble with the law and fled the country. When he got to Canada, he kept going west. In Victoria, he became a locksmith, opening a business in 1895, which has continued for four generations. Still in the family, it’s now split into Price’s Lock & Safe and Price’s Alarms.

“I thought it was kind of fascinating that this guy who perhaps had found himself on the wrong side of the law ends up establishing a very modest dynasty of lawful pursuits,” says Price, who is from Victoria and still lives in the area. (Albert Price gets a cameo in the book as a gunsmith’s apprentice.)

Years later, in the middle of writing another book, Price was reading a biography about William Pinkerton, the son of Pinkerton National Detective Agency founder Allan Pinkerton (the storied U.S. company, established in 1850, is now simply called Pinkerton). Allan Pinkerton, who served during the Civil War as head of the Union Intelligence Service – the forerunner of the U.S. Secret Service – was described in the biography as a man with all the natural inclinations of a master criminal, and someone who got along better with criminals than lawmen.

“And something clicked for me there; this moment where something that had been bugging me about that story my great-uncle had told and this thing I was reading – something came into focus,” says Price, during an interview in the sun on Vancouver’s Granville Island. “Both men are people who perhaps have flirted with or have been naturally drawn to the wrong side of the law, but found themselves spending much of their lives building an empire on the other side.”

There was another epiphany – in London, 2011. He and Edugyan had travelled there for the Man Booker Prize ceremony; Edugyan’s novel Half-Blood Blues was a finalist (it later won the Scotiabank Giller Prize). “We were walking through the streets and I had this moment when I realized that Jack the Ripper’s gas-lit London was completely simultaneous with the American Wild West – cowboys, outlaws, holdup men,” Price says. “I’d always thought of them as separate worlds.”

In late 2012 or early 2013 (he and Edugyan – who appear to have an extremely healthy, fruitful symbiotic literary partnership – disagree on the date), Price sat down and wrote the opening page of By Gaslight. The book begins in 1885, with Pinkerton in London and Foole on board a ship bound for England. Price knew he had something and abandoned his other project.

When Price and Seligman began editing, the book – which Price jokingly calls “a feat of typing” – was about 197,000 words. They worked through it, sentence by sentence, front to back (after six months they were only about 40 per cent through “and both of us were starting to sweat”). They cut as many as 35,000 words in the process. The final book is about 228,000 words. So in that year of editing, Price wrote about 66,000 words of material – a short novel.

“Ellen … gave me the permission to do what we both felt needed to be done with the book – to make it bigger if it needed to be bigger; to take as long as was needed. I think it was part of the privilege of her being the legendary Ellen Seligman that she could do that. But it was enormously valuable and helpful – as long as we both could rise to the challenge of work [on] such a big book. She was there every day, working so hard on it.”

Price describes the process as “a kind of back and forth, a conversation, one of us raising a concern about something in the text and then the two of us worrying away at it, seeking solutions.”

Seligman brought masterful, exacting attention to Price’s words. “She was amazing, instinctual,” he says. Also forceful and direct – but respectful. “She was really, really intuitive when it came to thinking about character, figuring out what they should be doing and certainly what they should not be doing. And asking probing questions so that the author himself panics and realizes it’s not working, it doesn’t make sense. She was really, really great that way.”

Over nearly four decades at McClelland & Stewart, Seligman worked with many of the country’s literary giants – including Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Anne Michaels, Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje and Jane Urquhart. She published Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro. She was the editor and publisher of two Man Booker winners – Ondaatje’s The English Patient and Atwood’s The Blind Assassin – and published another Booker winner, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. (She also became Anne Enright’s Canadian publisher following her Booker winner, The Gathering.) Her books have won 23 Governor-General’s Literary Awards, six Scotiabank Giller Prizes and a long list of others, according to McClelland & Stewart. With more, perhaps, to come.

Price knows he owes a great deal to Seligman – a woman he worked so closely with, but never met in person. “That’s my greatest regret. I never got to shake her hand or give her a hug or tell her how grateful I was and how much her help had meant to me,” he says. “She never lost faith in the book. I lost faith in the book repeatedly. She never did.”

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