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Louise Dennys, the outgoing Penguin Random House Canada executive, in her Toronto home on Jan. 26.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

Her name does not appear on the spine of anything on any bookshelf – not yet, anyway – but Louise Dennys’s fingerprints are all over a long list of shelf staples. They include books by Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Ondaatje, Naomi Klein and many others. Inside the covers, she is recognized on dedication pages – including Ondaatje’s The English Patient – and acknowledgments. Dennys “edited with esprit,” wrote Atwood in the acknowledgments for The Penelopiad.

First as an independent publisher and then as founder of Knopf Canada, Dennys, who is in her early 70s, has shepherded countless books into the world. She is that rare creative publisher who is also an editor. She is also a member of the Order of Canada. Her impact on Canadian – and international – publishing is such that her departure from Penguin Random House Canada (PRHC), announced in December, came with a first: the title of Publisher Emerita. While the details of the position have yet to be worked out, the role will see Dennys act as a sort of ambassador for the company and for Canadian literature. She will also continue to work with a few authors.

“The impact of an editor and publisher is often invisible to the reading public,” PRHC CEO Kristin Cochrane told The Globe. So the huge response that Dennys’s departure has received “speaks to the fact that Louise’s impact has been deeply felt by so many in our industry, even if readers don’t always know the role she has played in countless works they’ve loved over the decades.”

She may have stepped down from active duty, but two books Dennys edited are among early 2023′s big releases: Rushdie’s Victory City, out Feb. 7, and Atwood’s short story collection, Old Babes in the Wood, on sale Mar. 7. Gabor Maté's The Myth of Normal, which Dennys also edited, is dominating bestseller lists, months after its publication. In the acknowledgments, Maté notes that during the crucial editing period, he and Dennys were in contact, on many days, “almost 24/7.”

She is known as a writer’s editor and publisher. “Very loyal to her authors, very dedicated to them,” says Atwood – a friend as well as a collaborator. “She has a sense of humour; you kind of need that.”

Literature was not just her career, but has defined her life. She was born into it; one of her mother’s older brothers was the celebrated novelist Graham Greene. Years later, a book would help lure her to Canada.

Dennys was born outside Cairo, where her father was stationed for MI6. Her parents had initially met at Bletchley Park, site of the famous Second World War Code Breakers; her mother was a typist there. The family moved to Istanbul when Louise was about 3, then to Paris. When Louise was 10, they returned to England – Sussex.

Dennys studied English language and literature at Oxford, graduated at 19 and left for London, where she got a job at a bookstore on Charing Cross Road. Days later, the manager quit, and Dennys got a promotion. The experience was so seminal, she recommends it to publishing interns. “I think I would have been a lesser publisher if I had not had those early key years learning to be a bookseller.”

When Eric (Ric) Young, her Canadian boyfriend – now husband – whom she met in London, wanted to return home, he tempted Dennys by giving her a copy of Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman. “I was absolutely bowled over by it,” she says. They moved to Canada in 1971. Years later, she would become Richler’s editor and publisher – and friend. As she tells it, in her younger days she had been “far too shy ... and lacking in self-confidence to imagine such a thing.”

In Toronto, Dennys worked as an assistant at a publishing house Clarke, Irwin & Company; early duties included pushing a coffee cart around the office. When she became frustrated that books she felt were worthy were being passed over, she decided to publish them herself.

She worked out of a closet at Anson-Cartwright Antiquarian Books. For Anson-Cartwright Editions’ first book, The Bass Saxophone by exiled Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, Dennys typeset it by hand, working on a dissident Czech publisher’s press at night, when it wasn’t being used. She sold the book by going from store to store on the TTC. And then, using borrowed money, she travelled to New York, where she sold it to Knopf.

She joined the independent publishing house Lester & Orpen, which became Lester & Orpen Dennys. It grew into a force, publishing Canadian books such as Joy Kogawa’s Obasan and None is Too Many by Irving Abella and Harold Troper. The house also signed and published international authors in Canada, including Ishiguro, McEwan, John Irving and P.D. James. (Years later, when Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Dennys was one of the handful of people he invited to celebrate.)

In 1992, she launched Knopf Canada, a satellite of the prestigious U.S. operation. What has become a storied publishing house, now part of PRHC, began with Dennys and her tiny team working from her dining-room table.

“You felt that you could make a difference and you just had to work hard to do it,” she says during a Zoom interview, banging the dining-room table – the same table – with her fist. After 18 months, Knopf moved into offices downtown.

Earlier, Dennys had told a young author named Yann Martel, who had won the Journey Prize for his short story The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, to contact her if he couldn’t get it published. He did, and Knopf Canada published the Helsinki collection, then his novel Self, and then his blockbuster breakthrough, Life of Pi – which went on to win the Man Booker Prize and became an Oscar-winning film.

“It was a risk on their part to take it and in retrospect it may seem obvious,” Martel says – pointing out that his animal-populated, religious-themed fantastical adventure story was hardly a sure publishing bet. He says it is not an overstatement to say that Dennys helped make Life of Pi possible. “I kept at it because of Louise.”

In spite of the demands put on her as a publisher, Dennys wanted to remain an editor too. “It’s hard to run the two together,” she says. “It’s a different brain.” She worked the publishing end of things during the day, and then stayed up long into the night with her editing pencil.

Dennys eventually stepped away as Knopf Canada publisher to take on other roles at the company. She stepped down as PRHC executive publisher and executive vice-president at the end of 2022, after two years of preparing for the transition. “I know – I had to know it for myself – that all the writers I’ve ever been involved with are in the best of hands,” says Dennys. “I will continue to listen for new voices on behalf of PRHC, I will advocate always for the writers we publish now.”

Dennys’s advocacy has also been an important part of her career. In 1992, as president of PEN Canada, she orchestrated a top-secret visit to Canada for Rushdie, who had been in hiding owing to the fatwa issued in response to his novel The Satanic Verses. That visit helped get his case in front of the United Nations.

Thirty years later, weeks after she and Rushdie had finished edits on Victory City, he was attacked onstage. “Only someone with his strength of mind could have made his way through those years, and through the brutal [stabbing] in August, with his sweet spirit and humour and smarts still flying,” Dennys told The Globe. “His words will last for centuries. They are inextinguishable.”

The stories of Dennys’s life in publishing could fill a book – and maybe they will. When I ask whether she might write one, she says she’s thinking about it. Although she regrets not having recorded everything along the way.

“I never kept a diary, like an idiot – I mean now I feel like an idiot,” she says. “Because who had time to keep a diary? We were all working all night and all day, and you fell into bed. And the idea of writing down what happened, there was just no time for it.”

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