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Inside the Editorial Process: Louis Sachar and The Cardturner

July 26, 2010

Something we’ve always loved about our jobs in the publishing industry is getting to discuss the “back stories” of books with editors. It not only helps us sell more books, since we have a more complete story about the making of the book to tell our bookstores, but it is just so interesting to hear why editors choose certain books to work on, how they see potential in authors, sometimes years before working on their manuscripts, and how the books are often totally transformed during the publishing process from manuscript to the finished copy. The following piece on the new book The Cardturner by Louis Sachar, the bestselling author of Holes and Small Steps, was originally published on the wonderful site, in the Editor’s Corner section. If you are a teacher or librarian, we encourage you to explore the site (as well as to see teacher’s guides, author interviews, recommended book lists by grade level, genre and award winners, Classroom Casts, contests and more. Note: The Cardturner is in stores now, so you don’t have to wait to read this amazing book!

Featured Editor: Beverly Horowitz, V. P. Publisher, Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers

At an IRA convention a number of years ago, Louis Sachar and I were leaving the hall after his extremely successful signing. Teachers, kids, and librarians had waited patiently to chat and have him autograph their copies of Holes and Small Steps. Hundreds of people of all ages, shapes and sizes had wanted to make a personal connection because they loved his books so much.

As we headed back to the hotel, I recall that Louis said, “You know, everyone wants me to write another Holes, but I won’t. I left those characters in a good place and the rest of their lives are their own, or whatever readers want it to be. The issue for me is to now decide what my next project will be.”

As Louis and I walked and talked, he said that after the convention he was heading off to a bridge tournament. That was what he loved as much as writing-playing bridge. “Kids don’t care about that game-they think it’s boring. But it’s really a wonderful brain teaser and puzzle if they’d only try to play bridge,” he said.

“Well, it’s up to you to figure out how to get your readers to love bridge as much as you do,” I offered. “Maybe you can do that in a novel.” And we both laughed. At its most complex and yet seemingly inexact level, editing is about making a remark, sometimes offhand, that actually changes an author’s work.

This May, Delacorte Press published The Cardturner. Louis came up with the single-word title. From the get-go, readers wonder: What or who is the Cardturner? That is part of the sly wit and soaring talent of Louis Sachar. Indeed, the Cardturner is Alton Richards, a teen who doesn’t make any particular effort for anything-a high school slacker. I know from his beloved work that Louis’s characters resonate with his readers. His words and images aren’t easily forgotten. He seamlessly presents ideas you’ve maybe never even considered-and because of his work, you do now. This new character, Alton, was a guy I liked.

Louis didn’t discuss what he was writing during the initial process; he never does. I only know he is going to deliver a novel. I don’t know much more than that. Our relationship is built on trust. I check in to see how he and his family are doing, but we never discuss his work. Over the span of two years, he would simply say “I’m working on it.” And then one day a complete novel arrived. What a thrill! I dashed home and read until I finished it.

What happens next is the fun and challenging part. Louis is open to discussion. Our editorial interactions are by phone, by email and occasionally face to face. When we began our first editorial phone conversation, he told me he’d written the novel at least four times, but he was ready to make revisions now. I loved The Cardturner from the start! I found myself caring particularly about Alton, the narrator. There’s no denying that as an adult, I wanted to point out to Alton his good points as well as his faults-which if he only tried, he could easily change. But of course my job was not to be Alton’s perfect parent or teacher-I was Louis’s reader and editor, and that is the only way to approach my work.

Our editorial discussions went on over a period of months. I believed that Louis needed to show Alton’s transformation in more concrete as well as subtle ways, so that at the end of the novel, as a result of his interactions with his uncle and the adults who treat him respectfully at the bridge matches, as well as his changing feelings for Toni and his new understanding of his old girlfriend and his best pal, Alton has matured. Even his sister has an influence on him. All those elements change Alton more than was initially on the page. Of course, all of Alton’s actions lead to a more subtle understanding of the characters he interacts with, so the texture of many of the other characters has deepened as well.

Another major discussion was: How much bridge is too much bridge? What I suggested to Louis was this: he needed to include bridge in the novel, but he also had to give readers permission to skip the discussions of the serious bridge details if they so desired. The novel was about so many other things. Bridge was, well, the bridge to ideas, so the pace and flow could not be held back by “bridge gibberish.” And after that discussion, Louis called back with the idea of the whale-to use a reference to Moby-Dick. We created an image of a whale, which, Alton explains, allows readers to forgo the bridge explication and skip to the next section of the story if they wish. The idea came from Louis’s having Alton remember reading Moby-Dick and how bored he was when Melville went on too long about whaling. Louis and I had many other discussions about aspects of the novel, but overall, the essence of what Louis set out to do, he did. We discussed Lester Trapp’s philosophy and how he shares his view of the world during those car rides with Alton . As Alton sits quietly, he isn’t daydreaming, he’s listening. I believe the same thing applies to Louis’s readers without their even being aware of it: the power of Louis’s ideas penetrates.

Each relationship with an author is unique because each book is different. One thing that remains consistent, however, is the level of trust needed to work together when an author feels he has completed a book. Working with Louis Sachar is an extraordinary experience. And although I cannot play bridge competitively, I certainly appreciate those who love the game. Still, I hope Louis makes more time to write his novels and keeps his bridge life in perspective.

And now, a glowing review of the book written by bookseller Jocelyn Koehler of Boswell Book Company:

The Cardturner: A Novel about Imperfect Partners and Infinite Possibilities (9780385736626), by Louis Sachar, Delacorte, 5/10

Summer vacation brings a host of problems for Alton Edwards. He has no job, his girlfriend dumped him, and his car barely runs. His avaricious mother is only too happy to help him with the first problem: she harangues Alton into working as his rich, recently-blind uncle’s “cardturner” at bridge games, a job Alton reluctantly accepts. Slowly, Alton learns about the past events that brought his uncle to his rich but rather isolated life, and about the family secrets that continue to affect the Edwards generations after the first traumatic events occur.  

As he probes these secrets, Alton also can’t help but learn about the mysterious, old-folks game of bridge, and he soon discovers he has a knack for it, and a growing interest in all its mathematical complexities. The question is whether his uncle will ever believe that his interest is genuine rather than a coy attempt to brownnose. As the summer winds on, events begin to carry Alton and his family ever closer to an astonishing revelation.

Sachar has a gift for creating characters that tell you more than they could ever know.  Alton’s worldview is firmly that of a 17-year-old boy, but you discover as much about the story from what Alton misses as from what he sees. Sachar doesn’t waste a word – every sentence has a point, even the parts strictly about bridge (though there’s a helpful visual gimmick for those readers who don’t care and want to skip ahead). And as usual, Sachar is masterful at portraying the conflicting and not always admirable behavior of adults.  Alton is a great protagonist, smart but young, eager to be recognized but scared of ridicule. I loved reading it from start to finish. A great summer read for teens looking for a gutsy, brainy book.  For YA/teen readers. 

Jocelyn Koehler, Boswell Book Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 26, 2010 11:20 am

    I love the characters Sachar created in Holes! I think it is amazing he found a way to explore the game of bridge in a book for teens. I’ve got to read it!

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