Working by the book

If you’ve been captivated by a novel by a contemporary Canadian writer, chances are Iris Tupholme helped get that book into your hands.

As senior vice-president and executive publisher at HarperCollins Canada, Tupholme is responsible for the overall vision of the publishing program. Along with a team of editors, she decides which books make it to market (it’s as much about a compelling and well-written story as it is a business decision about audience reach).

She’s also a hands-on editor with more than 500 books to her credit, including novels from prominent Canadian authors such as University of Guelph professor Lawrence Hill (The Illegal) and Emma Donoghue (Room).

“The editor is the author’s champion within the publishing process,” says Tupholme, BA ’80. “The editor is the ideal reader — the careful, thoughtful, insightful reader who sees beyond what is on the page, and urges the writer to deepen and improve the manuscript in each draft.”

Hill has worked with Tupholme for 20 years — she became his editor for his second novel, Any Known Blood. “It was a very serious book, but the first chapter when I submitted it to her was high comedy,” he says. Tupholme felt this would confuse readers and suggested adding a chapter to set up the story.

“So, I went back and wrote a prologue and I still think it is one of the best parts of the book,” says Hill. “She didn’t tell me what to do, but she knows how to extract the best from me. She makes me want to write better.”

One book Tupholme is especially proud of is Margaret Trudeau’s memoir Changing My Mind, which tells Trudeau’s story from a new perspective and helped break the stigma of mental illness.

“Telling stories is how we understand ourselves, and to be part of the huge contribution that writers make to our world is a great privilege,” says Tupholme, who edited and published the book.

As an English student at U of G, Tupholme often edited papers for roommates and friends, making suggestions for more effective sentence structure or improved
arguments. She discovered she enjoyed editing as much as her friends appreciated it. A career in publishing appealed to Tupholme, an avid reader, but she knew she didn’t want to be a writer. “I do better at helping others share their ideas,” she says.

After graduation, she was a volunteer editor for a small Marxist- feminist publisher in Toronto. She then worked as a bookstore manager before moving to roles at publishers Prentice-Hall and Penguin Books. She’s been with HarperCollins for 25 years.

“Every day is different. I’m never bored. I’ve had maybe 10 total minutes of boredom in all the years I’ve worked in this field,” says Tupholme, who is also the founding chair of the International Visitors Program at the International Festival of Authors. The program helps sell works by Canadian authors to international publishers.

With the rise of digital books, she sees even more opportunity to share literature with the world. To Tupholme, it’s a job that goes far beyond words on paper.

“Books can free the imagination and deepen our humanity,” she says. “Books extend and enrich our experience in life.”–TERESA PITMAN