ELLEN SELIGMAN, THE famed Canadian literary editor, passed away last week. Seligman worked with countless writers during her four decades at McClelland & Stewart. Partisan asked ten writers to reflect on a storied career—and a beloved editor.
A magazine editor and I were talking yesterday at the playground while watching our kids.
“It was so sudden, wasn’t it?”
“I think so, I don’t know.”
Another parent, a self-described millennial dad, asked, “Who are you talking about?”
“Have you heard of Margaret Atwood? Michael Ondaatje?”
“We’re talking about their editor—suddenly gone.”
For the magazine editor and me, and, I think, for the publishing industry in general, Ellen’s death brings a huge and sudden shift in our perception of Canadian literature. Her vision, book by book, has shaped Canadian writing more than any other editor since the 1970s. And it’s her distinctive attention to every single character in every single book she’s touched that has made her contribution so monumental. So many of her writers talk about what an immersive experience it was to work with her, and her deep investment in their characters’ psychological motivation. They can’t imagine their books without her. Which makes me think of those figure-ground drawings: do you see a vase in the centre, or two faces gazing at each other? Ellen worked hard to ensure we only saw the vase—the book, not her. But without Ellen mirroring and supporting the author on the other side of the page, we suddenly have no centre. For now, we can look intently at all of the books she shaped, to see her face in them.
If one measures citizenship by the strength of commitment and impact of contributions to a nation, then Ellen Seligman was an extraordinary Canadian. I had the privilege to work on the board of PEN Canada under her presidency, during a very precarious period in the organization’s history. Almost single-handedly—in amongst her significant executive and editorial responsibilities at McClelland & Stewart—she set the organization back on its feet, with a renewed sense of purpose and the capacity to do its work defending freedom of expression as a fundamental human right. This was a purpose to which she was wholeheartedly dedicated. She relentlessly challenged us to bring the best of ourselves to the task. The precision that she brought to her editing, she brought to the running of organization—and we were the stronger and better for it. She reminded me, time and again, that those who exercise words have a great responsibility to value and respect the word. I was intimidated by her intelligence and style, warmed by her graciousness and generous heart, inspired by her conviction. I am a better human being for having been in her ambit.
If you've read a Canadian book in the last 30 years, chances are you've reaped the benefits of Ellen's meticulous, passionate, dedicated editing. Her hands have left a subtle but indelible imprint on all of our imaginations.
Ellen Seligman's discernment, care, and acute, indefatigable attentiveness, and the conviction that a book was worth her boundless study, not only assisted novels to ascend, but enabled a host of writers to fathom what they themselves were doing and might yet accomplish. People seldom believe me when I say that we spent three days with a comma in limbo, or spoke for six months on the phone. A colleague from the time remembers us as “baby writers and a baby editor”, and I see now that that was true, the distance across time a mortal pang, yet she never forsook her editorial infancy, that passion, never relented, never ceased to favour authors with her luminous introspection of their work. She had her issues, her physical pain and stress, but she ranks as a Maxwell Perkins not merely of our country, but of our time. Given the contemporary literary landscape, Ellen was quite possibly the last of an eminent lineage.
Ellen Seligman was, for so many writers of my generation, a mythic figure—that dream editor you would have given almost anything to work with. Not only was she editing some of our best writers at a point in time when Can Lit was coming to the fore internationally but she was doing so in tandem with discovering new and vital voices. The books she edited made me want to be a writer—and seeing those books filling the front windows of bookstores in Ireland and the UK when I lived abroad made me proud to be a Canadian.
Ellen and I never found quite the right fit to work together but she read several of my books in manuscript form and in meetings she was always thoughtful and her comments were precious. I remember at events she seemed to know when I felt overwhelmed or shy and she would touch my arm and ask me how my writing was going or ask me a personal question. She put me at ease so gracefully, so naturally. I loved to make her laugh. I hear echoes of my experience in many postings about her passing. She took the time to meet and support new authors, to make space for us, and let us know that we were seen and valued. As a writer, and as a professor teaching Canadian Literature and creative writing, I take her example into the spine of what I do. Ellen was discerning, challenging, brilliant, (stylish!), but also and always she was so very kind. Thank you, Ellen. I can’t quite imagine Canadian Literature without you.
When I met Ellen, in my first days as Globe and Mail Books editor, I thought her, not standoffish, but cool, aloof, precise, elegant. Turned out I was right about the last two attributes, but so wrong about the others. She was warm, and generous. I've been told even by those whose manuscript she rejected, that she responded at length and with care, offering suggestions about other potential publishers and even how the work might be improved. But I think of her equally as a marvellously welcoming presence who took delight in agreeable company. I recall in particular one small party she held for Colm Tóibín. By evening's end, everyone was so happy and relaxed that our crew, including a buoyant Jane Urquhart, Andre Alexis, and Anne Michaels, gathered round the piano and unabashedly crooned Irish and other songs, accompanied by Jim Polk on the piano.
Once you were in her good graces, you stayed there. After I left The Globe, and was no longer in a position to neither help nor hurt her authors, our relationship remained the same: warm greetings, warm smiles, warm hugs. Although Ellen's presence as a literary figure of influence and inspiration will obviously be very much missed, this is the Ellen I, for one, will miss the most.
I'll never forget when Ellen phoned my house. "I'm calling," she said, with that dry, sophisticated flat tone she had, "to make your year." She was calling to tell me that McClelland & Stewart would publish my first book. I was in my twenties and stupid about the world. I later sat in her glassy office telling her I didn't think I wanted to write books for a living, certainly not poetry, that maybe I would do TV, that this might not be the beginning of a literary career for me. I had no idea who I was talking to. Years I later heard she couldn't believe my cheek. Despite my behaviour, she published me again. I'm thankful she was so gracious. I eventually managed to get my head out of my bum, but I never got enough chances to show Ellen the awe and deference she inspired in me and totally deserved.
Ellen and I worked together on three books, the last being Dogs at the Perimeter. She was a friend, mentor, and family to me. She taught me rigour and beauty and devotion, she taught me things I am still coming to understand. I was 24 when she came into my life, and just can’t imagine the world without her. She was so deeply loved.
My first encounter with Ellen Seligman was in the late 1990s when I attended a McClelland & Stewart launch as a poetry fan. I was new to writing and had yet to publish my first book. The poets on stage seemed so poised and professional. I felt a little starstruck. Ellen spoke eloquently about each poet and I remember thinking at the time that part of the reason they seemed so calm was because of her. She exuded a confidence that kept everything around her in order.
I never really gathered the courage to introduce myself to her. But before I moved to New York City in 2000, a friend pulled me up to her one day and introduced me (thank you, Susan Swan). Ellen very intently watched me fumble over my words, and then casually invited me to send her some poetry. I immediately sent a ragtag submission and one month later got a voicemail at my apartment in Harlem. “Hello George, it’s Ellen Seligman from McClelland & Stewart. Would you please call me when you have a chance. I want to ask you something.” I nearly fainted. It felt like being called up to the big leagues.
This is how I remember her: elegant, regal, in charge, almost otherworldly. When I saw the Lord of the Rings, I remember joking that Cate Blanchett must have prepared for the role of the elven queen Galadriel by studying Ellen. She will be much missed by everyone who knew her. While she leaves behind many fond memories and lives touched, I think we have lost more than just a person we admired and loved; we have lost a driving, guiding, founding force in Canadian literature. Her legacy is massive and cannot be underestimated. There’s no replacing her.
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