A Conversation with Jonathan Lee

By John Darcy

This is the second in a series of blogs written by the editorial staff of the minnesota review interviewing editors and folks in publishing. We hope that these will shed some light on the industry and help you learn more about how, where, and why to submit your work. 

Photo Credit: Tanja Kernweiss /
Courtesy of jonathanleewriter.com

Jonathan Lee is a British writer living in New York. He is the editor-in-chief at Catapult Books and the author of three novels. His most recent book, High Dive, was released in the United States by Knopf in 2016. It was a New York Times Critics’ Top 10 book of the year, and picked as a best book of the year by the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Center for Fiction, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. Read one his most recent pieces, a wild-ride true crime story, “The Most Wanted Woman in America,” here: https://crimereads.com/the-most-wanted-woman-in-america/.

I’ve been emailing with Jonathan recently to talk about his work at Catapult. Launched in 2015, Catapult Books has cemented itself as a powerhouse in the indie publishing world, with a list of books that have garnered widespread acclaim and numerous literary awards. I am also a big fan of Jonathan’s work as a writer, and couldn’t have been more excited to talk with him. He strikes me as an extremely nice guy.

The follow selections of this interview center around questions specific to the publishing industry. To read the interview in its entirety, please visit https://drive.google.com/file/d/1wsGVhf1dYdI9gDcIWzQ-0p29m5NXROXB/view?usp=sharing.

John Darcy (JD): To get started as a fiction writer working as editor-in-chief at Catapult Books, would you describe briefly how you made your way into the publishing world, how long you’ve been at Catapult, and what it’s like to work as a senior editor while also working on writing of your own?

Jonathan Lee (JL): I started working at Catapult in January, 2016. Before that I’d been an editor at several magazines, most recently A Public Space, the amazing journal founded by former Paris Review editor Brigid Hughes, from whom I learned a lot about editing but also a lot about the degree of generosity that should, as an editor, go into the experience of reading someone else’s work.

I love editing writers I admire, and the great perk of running a list at a publishing house — as opposed to, say, teaching fiction, which I also enjoy –– is that you really are only working with writers you’re excited by. These are books I’ve been sent by agents or authors and which have struck me as extraordinary in some way and which I’ve been desperate to be involved with.

Editing presents different feelings to those I experience when I’m writing something of my own. With both writing and editing, you get to try on different skins, histories, bodies, neuroses, desires, dreams. And editing and writing are two parts of the same project of putting meaningful work out into the world. But to edit another writer’s book often has the feeling of a great flirtation — it rarely stops being exciting. As the editor, there are limits to how close you can get to another person’s text, how deeply you can understand the lines or read between them, and that breeds a deep curiosity. Whereas the limits to how far you can understand your own writing are, while always present and real, perhaps less interesting? They are just shades of the general self-delusions we all carry around with us…

JD: Catapult Books launched in the Fall of 2015. Not that I need to list them, but the sheer number of spectacular books is staggering… Could you talk a bit about the process of how Catapult finds these books? or, since Catapult Books has asserted itself as a leader in the independent publishing world with the likes of Graywolf and Coffee House Press, how did Catapult initially seek to gain a literary reputation?

JL: One big reason Catapult has established its reputation so quickly is Pat Strachan, who came on board as the founding editor about a year before I joined, and who over the course of her amazing career at FSG and the New Yorker, among other places, had built up a reputation for finding amazing literary work — early in their careers she published Jamaica Kincaid, Lydia Davis, Marilynne Robinson, Grace Paley. The list goes on. Another big reason is Andy Hunter, the head of the whole operation, who has always encouraged me and all the editors in my team on the Catapult list to pursue our tastes and not try too much to second-guess which books will be commercially successful. A literary publishing house has to be editorially-driven, and it has to thrive on editorial confidence, and right now at Catapult we have that confidence, with younger editors like Megha Majumdar coming up and making the kinds of inspired acquisitions that are the envy of many other publishers. The question What if other people don’t like this? seems to me to be a question a literary publisher shouldn’t spend much time with. The publishing industry is full of second-guessing but it can be liberating, sometimes, to simply follow your taste.

JD: As editor-in-chief, do you have a personal philosophy when it comes to working with a writer on their book or piece? In your mind, as both a writer and an editor, how can that process/relationship be best cultivated for the benefit of a book, story, or article?

JL: I guess this sounds like a cop out but I think each book and each author is different! The job of a good editor is not to be A Perfect Reader, whatever that is. It’s to try and be the perfect reader for the specific manuscript you are holding in your hands that day. Some writers need, and welcome, several rounds of edits, some of which might be more structural or character-focused than later, line-by-line rounds of edits might be.

There’s also more to the job of being an editor than editing. I think when I started out, it took me a while to realize that the job of the editor of a book is to be, among other things, that book’s chief champion in every area — eventually in the world at large, but first of all within the publishing house, where the excitement of each department (marketing, publicity, design, production) is so important. That excitement needs to be generated, at least at first, from the editor, the person closest to the book, the author’s primary representative and cheerleader. As the editor of a book, you’re hoping to give the author and their literature all the support they need. It doesn’t always work out that way, of course, but so far at Catapult it often has. Either way, you hope the relationship and the mutual trust are still there for the next book with that author. We don’t just publish books, we publish authors. I really believe that. We want to help writers develop their careers over the long term. I think that’s a guiding purpose not just of Catapult’s books division, but also of our online magazine and classes program.

JD: So much is made today about the future of books, particularly the novel…I wanted to know if you had any general parting thoughts on the state of fiction, on publishing, or the role of creative work and storytelling in our time.

JL: I think there is a very small group of people on retainer to write and then recycle each year their “death of the novel” essays? I personally feel good about the future of all kinds of books. Book sales are up year on year across the industry, and at an independent publishing house like Catapult our sales are up around 40% on where they were last year. Ten years ago everyone thought the e-book would be the death of the physical book, which hasn’t happened. Now we see the boom in audiobooks and other forms of audio storytelling like podcasts, which you could see as a threat but certainly also an opportunity…I still read, and acquire, physical books that blow me away in a manner that I never expected: novels like Chelsea Bieker’s debut Godshot, which is coming out next year…Books are at the center of our culture. They are what we read to our kids. They are how we teach our kids to think. They are tools of education and horizon-expansion. Books do things other art forms can’t always do. There’s a reason tyrants like to ban books. Good books brim over with life, and with the capacity for change.

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