‘Backstage Heroes’ is a series spotlighting the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area. Guiding us is Hiya Swanhuyser, a veteran fan and all-around culture vulture who for nearly a decade helmed calendar duties for the SF Weekly — where her ‘Music Heroes’ series inspired this broader look at the arts — giving her rare personal insight into those toiling in the wings, but rarely in the spotlight.
Last month in Los Angeles, the writers’ convention known as AWP hosted 12,000 people. AWP, which oddly enough stands for the Association of Writers and Writers’ Programs, will draw as many or more again next spring in Washington, DC. Many consider the main event at AWP to be the book fair, a giant maze of stalls similar to a trade show. It's dizzying, exhausting, and exciting. The stars here are literary magazines, publications not always familiar to the public, but which serve as the white-hot center of the universe for anyone who wants to “get published.”
One of the most important literary magazines in the country is San Francisco’s own Zyzzyva magazine, named after a weevil (and the last word in many dictionaries). But the journal’s presence in the world of letters is more like an elephant than an insect: On the Pushcart Prize 2016 Literary Magazine Rankings, it’s number 35 among the 50 top publications, out of a field Poets & Writers Magazine lists at about 800. Zyzzyva’s editors, Oscar Villalon and Laura Cogan, are stars in their own right who in turn publish luminaries: Robert Hass, Adrienne Rich, Ursula K. LeGuin, Sherman Alexie, and many others.
All that writing, big-name and otherwise, passes through the careful hands of Zyzzyva’s copy editor, Regan McMahon. While it might not sound as glamorous as the work of her colleagues, McMahon says copyediting is satisfying and interesting. Ultimately, the copy editor is not just “picky and persnickety, like people might think,” but instead, dedicated to maintaining each author’s singular voice.
A longtime former copy editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, McMahon says her job is her life.
“Copyediting is so natural to me that I’m just doing it constantly. It’s like breathing to me. If I’m reading the newspaper, if I’m reading a magazine, if I’m reading somebody’s book, if I’m editing for a job -- I’m always seeing words through the same lens.”
We’re sitting in the conference room of the magazine’s elegant offices in one of downtown San Francisco’s most writer-friendly buildings; the Mechanics’ Institute Library is here, on the index in the lobby I notice the name of Ted Weinstein, agent to many a successful San Francisco writer, and on my way out, I cross paths with poet D.A. Powell.
McMahon is a small, serious person with a disarmingly steady focus. Her professionalism, she says, comes from happiness. Her first copyediting job was at BAM magazine, the longtime local rock ‘n’ roll publication, but she moved on to the Chronicle, eventually taking the buyout the paper infamously offered to many of its staff in the late 2000s. She’s happy doing this kind of work, she says. “I’ve always just been the kind of person who wanted to work in something that was satisfying and interesting and stimulating to my brain.”
McMahon has only one enemy: the Chicago Manual of Style. Every editor uses a stylesheet, a rubric that keeps language consistent inside each publication. English is not a perfectly defined language, so Zyzzyva, like most magazines, has an in-house stylesheet.
“I’ve made some tweaks to it,” McMahon says when I want to hear stylesheet nitty-gritty. “I’ve said well, can’t we do ‘goodbye’ as one word? Or can’t we do ‘OK?’ It drove me nuts — people who write books love to write ‘OK’ as the whole word, like ‘o-k-a-y.’ But it just seems really fusty to me to spell it out. I was victorious, and now our style is to write it capital O, capital K. These are the things that copy editors care about!”
I agree: Someone’s got to negotiate with the barbarians at the gates. But when the conversation turns to the two main public style guides, the Associated Press and its counterpart, the Chicago Manual of Style, McMahon sings the praises of AP, geared for the fast work of daily journalism, in which, for example, “It’s numerals for anything 10 and up. You’re just zooming along.”
With Chicago, the style used widely in books, “You’re not supposed to use a numeral until after 101, but they prefer that you use words for whole numbers like 'four thousand.' But if you were going to have three numbers in the same sentence, [e.g.] ‘four thousand, 231, and 15,’ then they say it’s better to use all numerals because there’s three of them. You have to make these judgement calls, in sentence after sentence.”
Maybe not everyone finds these concerns as riveting as I do -- not as rich with meaning or imbued with their own (perhaps uncool) sense of humor. Luckily, I’m talking to a copy editor.
We talk about the challenges of editing the different genres Zyzzyva offers: “You certainly touch poetry less,” she says, but it’s still under scrutiny. She thinks a lot about the difference between the news articles she polished at the Chronicle and the creative work she sees here, and tries to expand her appreciation for stylistic innovations.
McMahon’s appreciation for the magazine is returned in kind. “It's fantastic to work with Regan, because we can trust her to catch infelicities and obfuscations that somehow squirmed past Laura and me,” says Managing Editor Villalon. “Having copy editors like Regan is like having a reliable last line of defense.”
There are those barbarians again -- yet even saddled with the inexactitude of the Chicago Manual of Style, McMahon is absolutely up for the job.
“Words have meaning. If you put the wrong word up there, it could change the meaning of the sentence. It could change the meaning of the news you’re delivering. Or the ideas that you’re delivering.”
The throngs at AWP dreaming of publication in Zyzzyva may never know it, but Regan McMahon not only loves her job. She loves those “word people,” and reading Zyzzyva, just as much as they do.