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Behind the books

Ellen Seligman, the former publisher of McClelland & Stewart, who will be celebrated at a memorial Tuesday, is remembered by her authors, including Margaret Atwood, Anne Michaels, André Alexis, Guy Vanderhaeghe and Michael Helm, as well as Globe Books Editor Mark Medley

Ellen Seligman

Ellen Seligman

Ian Chrysler

The acknowledgments page of a book is a personal thing. It's the place where the author, whose name graces the cover, and perhaps every single page inside, is given space to thank those who helped shepherd the book into existence: agents, publicists, family members, fellow writers, friends and former teachers. And, most of all, editors. For the last four decades, one featured name has been the cornerstone of some of the most acclaimed works of Canadian literature: Ellen Seligman.

On Tuesday, a memorial will be held at Koerner Hall in Toronto for the long-time publisher of McClelland & Stewart, who died on March 25.

A great editor possesses skills that, on the surface, seem contradictory: remove without lessening, alter without changing, add without imposing. The first time I sat down with her, at the old M&S offices on Sherbourne Street just east of downtown Toronto, she described her profession, alternately, as an "architect," as a "ventriloquist," and as a "therapist." It was true, in a way: she built up her writers, she helped them find their voice, and, in many cases, she was their closest confidante.

"The idea is not to change it," she said. "The idea is to make it more what it is."

The list of authors she worked with over the years resembles the syllabus of a first-year CanLit class: Margaret Atwood; Leonard Cohen; Rohinton Mistry; Michael Ondaatje; Jane Urquhart; Guy Vanderhaeghe; M.G. Vassanji. Her authors won 23 Governor-General's Literary Awards, six Scotiabank Giller Prizes, five Griffin Poetry Prizes, and four Man Booker Prizes. Yet she dismissed me when I asked her if she felt editing was a selfless – and perhaps thankless – task.

"I do not think editors are selfless," she said. "The 'unsung heroes.' I think people don't understand the huge rewards of collaborating with an author, of taking something from here to there, and the excitement of that. I don't think it's selfless at all."

My relationship with Ellen was mostly professional, but I admired her greatly. As the summer comes to an end and we move into fall, the traditional publishing season, with book launches and awards ceremonies and the all the social obligations of the industry, it feels as though something is incomplete, like a sentence lacking a period.

"It's the writers who have taught me how to be a good editor, I think, not the other way around," she told me, all those years ago. "I've learned so much through the process. I'm not teaching them. I really don't feel that my job is to teach. I think that the editorial process is a real give-and-take thing. Believe me, what has made me a good editor is my writers. Period."

So I asked her writers – each reflecting on a specific book she worked on – what made Ellen Seligman a good editor.

Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (1996)

Ellen was always an enthusiastic and meticulous editor with a terrific ear for the mot juste, but the book I remember most was Alias Grace. She was fond of murders and clothing – otherwise put, suspense, hidden motives, and period detail – and Alias Grace gave her a lot of scope. "Was that word in use then? Sounds too modern!" I had to justify several of my choices, and also my wardrobe picks: "What about the red flannel petticoats?" It was the early days of the Internet – no Dropboxes or PDFs – so the ms went back and forth on paper. When it was time to check the final galleys I was staying in rural West Cork, Ireland: to flag down the courier I hung a dishtowel on a shrub. The appropriateness of this archaic method was not lost on Ellen.

Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces, (1996)

Ellen's relationship to language was intense, intuitive, rare, moral. It was a consciousness, a way of being in the world. In her friendships, she said what she meant and she meant what she said – in this lay a profound bond. In her work, she would not let go; if a word was not right she would return to it, weeks or even months later. This was the same country I inhabited – not a word must be wasted – and so, Ellen's attention to language was an extraordinary relief to me, and a dispelling of loneliness.

Working together in the last stages of Fugitive Pieces dispelled loneliness in another way; I had researched and worked alone for 10 years before showing it to Ellen. I knew what was left to be done, and I knew Ellen would insist on that work. Who would care, if that last work were not done, to its limit, to my limit, to our limit? The characters would care, the subject matter would care; everything worthy of naming and holding is always at stake.

Fugitive Pieces was edited together in a small boardroom at M&S, which, in those days, was in an office tower on University Avenue. There is a line in the novel that is at the heart of everything I've written: "There is nothing a man will not do to another, nothing a man will not do for another." In that room together, every calibration of thought and feeling was scrutinized. The worst of history was taken in and silenced us. Editing, like writing, is working on a detonation mechanism: to render alive. We would emerge from that boardroom punch-drunk with the unparalleled intensity of acute listening to a text, the surreal intimacy of utter surrender to the soul of a book. Ellen cared with her whole being.

She had little patience for the writer's ego, but profound patience for the writer's soul. The book is what matters; literature matters. This is an incredible ideal; she was in service to that ideal. Her earnestness, her goodness, her inexhaustible attention to detail: she believed in a world where perfection matters, where literature – the real thing – matters.

Ellen's attention to detail is legend. Weeks after wrestling over a sentence, she would call and say excitedly – and in a tone meant to persuade – "When I was in the shower this morning, I suddenly thought about that word on page 271…" We worked intensely, of course, but she also laughed with abandon – real hilarity – at the sly humour in the book, which always delighted her. And always, the humour between us was either very dry or very silly. In that boardroom, 50 pages after – and hours after – coming across the phrase "the humility of lichen," she suddenly looked up at me across the table in the best non sequitur imaginable: "Yes. It doesn't make a fuss." And, just as unhesitatingly, I knew what she was talking about.

Ellen always made a fuss – she cared fiercely – about her work and about those she loved. She worried, she took action, she never betrayed a confidence, she gave herself completely.

Editing was her way of working – and living – towards an ideal. All through our editing of Fugitive Pieces, Ellen kept returning to a sentence that meant a great deal to her: "We define a man by what he admires, what raises him." At the time, I didn't understand quite why she held that sentence so close, the intensity of it. Over the years, I came to understand exactly why. Yes, dearest Ellen, yes.

André Alexis, Childhood (1998)

I worked with Ellen on Childhood, my first novel. I remember, at the start of Chapter 11, there was a passage she had me rewrite, over and over. I was happy to do it, even though she couldn't articulate what was wrong and I really had no idea why I was rewriting it or what I was trying to fix. I'd have rewritten it a hundred times more, if she'd asked, because Ellen is the first person of whom I could say "This is someone who loves my work as much as I do." It was in her attitude – her willingness to protect the text, to be as emotionally open with me as I was with her. I didn't really understand that someone could love my work so deeply. Through Ellen, I learned how to care about my writing more than about myself or my ego. When I learned that she died, I wept not just because she was my friend but because it was like a fierce love going out of the world and I was devastated to think I would never feel it again.

Guy Vanderhaeghe, Daddy Lenin and Other Stories (2015)

Over the years, a number of other writers who Ellen Seligman edited asked me, "How is Ellen about your endings?" And I would nod my head knowingly because I knew what they were talking about – endings were where Ellen's meticulous attention to detail and pursuit of perfection came into full and relentless bloom.

The last book of mine she worked on was a collection of short stories, Daddy Lenin, which provided her with eight opportunities to exercise her obsession with refining conclusions. Soon the manuscript arrived, margins bordered by Ellen's looping scrawl, the two-hour phone calls commenced, the choice of a word, an image, or a metaphor debated, sometimes wrangled over. Ellen tested you, forced you to rethink things, to hammer a passage a little flatter, to make a moment a bit spikier, to add a dash of astringency to dialogue. Small adjustments that can make huge differences.

As she had with every other of the five books of mine she edited, Ellen helped make Daddy Lenin a better book than it was when it landed on her desk. If I can give Ellen an ending she fully and richly deserves, it will be to remember her as a woman who strove to make everything she touched a little better and always succeeded in doing exactly that. Ellen Seligman was a great editor, an even greater lady.

Michael Helm, After James (2016)

Ellen wrote to me as she was first reading After James. This was a sporting violation of protocol – she hadn't yet bought the book and should have been corresponding only with my agent, her good friend and business opponent, Ellen Levine – but it was all in keeping with our ease of exchange. I happened to be in Mexico and in one of the e-mails she wrote that she was thinking of me there while one of my characters was in Istanbul while she was in frozen Toronto. Ellen's imagination had a depth and reach that made her able not just to think of three people in three places at once, but in some sense to be present herself in all three. She had presence to spare, and you didn't have to be in a room with her to feel it. I felt it in Mexico and, though its character has changed, I still feel it.

If a book gets made the way it should then maybe its true dimensions can't be taken, yet Ellen seemed able to take them. Many writers have attested to the hours of editorial conversations she devoted to their books. I left each session with her laughter and voice still in my head, feeling elated and lucky but physically spent. Now and then I asked her how she was feeling because the work had to be as hard for her. She might admit to being busy – in her case this word was absurdly inadequate – but not tired.

For After James all our work was by phone. Often there were three-way conversations, with my lucent US editor Meg Storey on the line, too, and Ellen held in mind all three viewpoints about everything – slight dramatic pressures, nuances of character, sentences and words – and remembered them even as the pages counted down and each new set of questions rolled up.

At some point over these months, when I asked if she was well, she confessed only to a few vague health challenges. Her focus remained as always a kind of rhetoric, and her energy outdistanced mine. Our last exchange about After James was 17 days before she died. Those hours that she gave to the novel, the voice that she summoned for those long conversations, were a gift to me from Ellen and her partner, Jim Polk. She would have given the gift to any of her writers. Ellen made finishes. She was in many senses a seer-through. There's no more certain and honourable a mark of self than selflessness. Every book she worked on was for others, for us, writers and readers. Much of the life in them is hers.