The Dangerous Task of Editing RED
Butterfly Man (Red), Arthur Boyd, 1970
by Paige Cohen
I first heard EJ Koh read around one year ago at The Strand Bookstore in New York City. A year ago, we were both still MFA students living on opposite ends of Manhattan, myself a fiction candidate at The New School and EJ a poetry candidate at Columbia University. We had been invited to read at a small event thrown by Writer’s Bloq, Inc., the company that would later go on to publish EJ’s novel RED. Being my first non-student reading, I was very nervous. I sat in the back awaiting my turn as the other performers marched on and off the stage. I laughed and clapped and nodded with the crowd, having no idea what was actually being read, my mind racing, the cup of wine slippery between my fingers.
But when EJ took the stage, she said something that I heard clearly:
I browsed CIA.gov
On the online application
I marked spots for
Intelligence Collection Analyst
At the time, I laughed, charmed by what I thought was a clever and funny opening—though after getting to know EJ a little better, I realize the entirety of her poem may very well be true. She continued:
The text said
Be prepared to undergo a thorough investigation
examining your life’s history, soundness of judgment, freedom from conflicting allegiances, protection of sensitive information,
potential to be coerced, and a Polygraph test
[The CIA spied on me for twelve months]
I watched more porn than most women
I wrestled and upon demanding an opponent twice above my weight class,
was publicly humiliated
As EJ went on to reveal what the CIA had found, the tone of her poem shifted between comical, surprising, tender and serious. What made her voice so strong was its authenticity, her willingness to be vulnerable and reveal herself on the page. Listening to her poem “Clearance” allowed me to escape, if only for three minutes, before I would go up on stage and attempt to do give others that same experience. Two months later, when EJ emailed me, asking if I would be an editor on her book RED, I found that same honesty in the voice of her novel.
My response was: Of course, yes.
Through my graduate studies, and my time at the Lambda Literary Review, I had given edits on short stories, book excerpts, book reviews, and a few nonfiction essays—but working on RED was a different experience. EJ and I collaborated for about seven months, and because we were on a tight deadline, every two weeks she would send me two chapters from her latest draft, I would send back my comments and line edits, and then she would email again with the following two chapters. We went through a round of this, and then two more rounds of this, followed by smaller edits in March 2012, a little before the book was released.
It’s funny now, looking back at our emails, I can see how passionate we were:
December 15, 2012 (3:52 AM)
So far, it’s funny because I’m editing Ch. 1, then 9, then 3, then 10. But you know, actually that hasn’t been a problem.
December 26, 2012 (2:39 PM)
I realized while brushing my teeth this morning, two small edits I missed…
In the beginning of the editing process, I questioned myself constantly. The writing style in RED is exceedingly different from the traditional Raymond Carver-esque style I had studied and practiced. In EJ’s fiction, I found fragmented sentences, unconventional use of indentation, words I’d never heard before, and the occasional verb used as an adjective or adjective used as a verb. She was breaking the rules that I thought governed what was “correct” and “good” in writing and I was unsure how to edit without those rules.
To expand my knowledge and really explore the different possibilities and realms of storytelling, I began reading Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren. In Dhalgren, Delany creates a world where rules govern nothing. His novel takes place in a town called Bellona where the setting is constantly changing (one day a building burns down, the next day it is standing) and time is nonexistent. This freedom is reflective in his language as well. The begining of Dhalgren reads:
to wound the autumnal city.
So howled out for the world to give him a name.
The in-dark answered with wind.
All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirror and at freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle…(Delany)
Every word here is a choice, every phrase has a unique tone that creates a mood, draws out the scene, and invites the reader into this almost-familiar and darkly beautiful space. Delaney’s writing reminded me that there are no real “rules” when it comes to writing. There are no hard lines that govern what is “good” in art. While the story EJ tells in RED is different than that in Dhalgren, when I first read her book, I recognized that same boldness and freedom in her language.
The wonderful part about working so closely with another writer was that expansion, the growth and learning. We joke now – I send EJ a poem and she chops off the fat, the extra words, until there is just the truth of it left, the bone. When EJ sent me a chapter, I nourished it, added back half of those words, enough to maintain her voice but fill in gaps that sometimes need to be filled in prose. Our sensibilities complemented each other in that we both love the sound and rhythms of language. But without context and character, words lose their meaning, and this is was one of the greatest challenges: How do you tell a story using beautiful language while simultaneously making sure the language serves the narrative and not vice versa? Between classes and work, we stayed up late nights – myself sprawled on the bathroom floor of my studio apartment with the door shut tight, so as not to wake up my partner – and EJ, I imagined, starring red-eyed at her wall of neon sticky notes outlining RED’s plot. We talked about the character: what she wanted, what she was scared of, and the motivation behind her actions.
Last week EJ and I spoke on the phone. It was one of the last warm nights of summer in New York and I was walking to the train from my Brooklyn apartment. EJ was writing in the bleachers of an empty ballpark in Seattle, where she moved after graduation and where it was still day. “I feel at peace here,” EJ said. “You know I eat healthy, I sleep more. In New York, it was always — go. But now I feel like I can take a breath.” She paused. “I think about RED and I know I learned so much from it, but I question myself sometimes. The whole world can see my first attempt.”
There was silence on my end as I struggled to find the words to tell EJ why she should be proud of RED. For its bravery, for the truth in the story it tells, for its language, for its unwavering inventiveness.
“You should be proud,” was all that came out.
“But, you know.” Her voice rose. “Can you believe what you and I did? No publishing house, no agents, no publicists, internal teams, or you know, whatever big people have. It was the two of us, for seven months, working on RED. That’s crazy. We were crazy. That’s passion. Can you believe what we did?”
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