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Guiding Hand: An Interview with Jacqui Tam

08-20-2008

Founding partner and chief editor Jacqui Tam is one the key figures within Iceberg Publishing. With the release of Standing Tall: A Daughter’s Gift –– Iceberg’s first and perhaps most celebrated title –– she became the company’s first author, and in the five years since she has overseen the editorial work on all of its titles. Her guidance has shaped Iceberg’s catalogue, and as the company moves forward and adds new authors, her vision continues to lead the way. We sat down with Jacqui, to talk about the challenges she’s faced as an author and an editor, and to look ahead.

More than five years ago, Iceberg released its first book: Standing Tall. What was that experience like for you –– both as an author and as the founder of a new publishing company?

Exciting. Challenging. A little scary. And definitely one of those situations where, in retrospect, it seems that many factors had been leading us to this specific point. I’d been shopping Standing Tall around and was well into contract development with an agent in Toronto. But we couldn’t resolve some very key issues and I increasingly felt signing was the wrong thing to do. I’ve always followed my gut, and have regretted it the few times I haven’t. So I ended negotiations, and I’ve never regretted that. After discussing the two main options – publish the book ourselves or continue to shop it around – we decided to set up our own company. A number of other things happened around that same time that really influenced the decision, but they’re too numerous to explain here. In retrospect, it’s been quite a ride, and in many ways it’s still very early days for a company like ours.

Speaking as a writer, being able to share Standing Tall has been extremely precious to me. The fact that it’s Iceberg’s founding title is particularly significant on many different levels. For people who’ve read the book, they’ll know what I mean, I think.

How did you come up with the name? Do you ever get asked about it?

People ask us about the name all the time… and the answer I usually give is to direct them to the chapter in Standing Tall called “Beachcombing for Dreams”. Not because I’m trying to sell books, but because when you read that chapter you realize there’s no other name the company could have.

Since Standing Tall, Iceberg has released twenty books… you’ve overseen the editing on all of them?

Yes, that’s true. I also help oversee virtually all aspects of production.

Did you have a background in editing before starting Iceberg?

Close to twenty years worth… primarily in magazines and a wide variety of professional publications. I bring that expertise to the company as well as a preference and appreciation for magazine and publication deadlines and production processes. I think that background, along with a number of other factors, has encouraged Iceberg to approach the whole industry a little differently than most.

So you oversee a team of editors… how does that process work?

Certain key individuals touch every book that appears under the Iceberg label, then we bring in other people to work on specific manuscripts or to focus on only one type of editing because of their strengths in particular areas. It’s really a matter of compiling the best team for every book.

What are some of the things you catch as the chief editor –– do you look at details, or broader plot concerns?

Both. My run-through of an early draft looks mainly at broader concerns… does the story hold together, are the characters behaving in a way that seems consistent with their personalities/backgrounds, are there logical gaps, etc. But it would be inefficient not to look at details at this stage too… so while it’s not my primary concern at the outset, I do look at them. Details ultimately become the key focus when I review the edited drafts.

Are there common flaws you see in manuscripts you review?

Lack of flow. Writing that feels forced or jagged, or like the writer is trying too hard and working against his or her own natural voice. Probably the most common of all… missing pieces of information that I know are in the author’s head, but which haven’t managed to make it to the page yet. So plot developments or character behaviors that would make perfect sense if the reader has more information seem not to fit. The latter is in many ways the easiest to fix.

Since Iceberg doesn’t currently accept submissions, how have you recruited new authors… do you play a role in bringing them in?

Combination of us seeking them out and them seeking us out, and I play a role. They keep me pretty busy around here! We talk a lot about the kind of books Iceberg wants to publish… then we actively talk about the kind of people we think could author such a book… then we narrow it down to actual possibilities. People come to us as well, and depending on their story or project, we’ll explore it with them further.

Looking ahead, are there new projects on the horizon for Iceberg that you’re excited about?

Oh yes. I don’t want to pre-empt any announcements, but there are both fiction and non-fiction projects that I think have incredible potential.

Bringing it back to your own writing for a moment, Kenneth Tam has suggested that you’re back at the keyboard, working on a new book. Is he lying?

Ha! I get it. He figures if he makes me admit it on the website, I won’t be able to back down. Seriously though, he’s not lying. I have two things on the go, in fact. One non-fiction and one fiction. I’ve never tackled fiction before, so that’s new territory for me. And before you ask, no I won’t give details at this stage. Too early.

Last question: as an author, editor, and publisher, what advice would you have for aspiring writers?

I didn’t start out answering this question with a list, but it looks like it turned into one:

1. If you love to write, write.

2. Read constantly.

3. Don’t talk to people about your writing who aren’t supportive. They’ll kill the inspiration and the joy even though they may not mean to.

4. Always keep a notebook with you so that you can write down ideas.

5. Don’t try to force yourself to fit someone else’s mold.

6. If you love to write, write. (And yes, I know I repeated that.)