Mary Norris begins her chatty grammar guide and memoir, Between You & Me, by chronicling the odd jobs she held before she began working at the New Yorker in 1978. She delivered milk – awkwardly calling ‘Milkwoman!’ when she left bottles at each stop – and crashed the dairy truck. Even back then, she says, she wanted to be a writer, but ‘didn’t know at any point until recently, maybe in the last five years, what you have to do’.
This may sound strange, as Norris has worked at the New Yorker for thirty-seven years. While she has had articles published in the magazine, most of her career has been spent at the copy desk, editing others’ writing. Bringing her first book to publication has been an endurance challenge, with the roots of Between You & Me showing in pieces penned twenty years ago at a writers’ retreat at Kelleys Island, New York. These ‘little playful things about language’ took shape alongside other projects – a memoir and a novel.
The memoir – about the gender transition of Norris’s sister, Dee – has been shelved, but a part of it remains in Between You & Me. With love, Norris ponders the issue of pronouns, reflecting on Dee’s need to be recognised in this grammatical way. When she began the memoir, Norris says she originally wrote about the difficulties of the transition – ‘I mean, how it was for me to go through that.’ She laughs, a little embarrassed.
‘While working on this book [Between You & Me] and the section about gender in it, I had some conversations with my sibling that made me realise much more than I ever had before how sensitive she is and how sensitive all transgender people are, and, so, maybe it’s better if I didn’t write that memoir, or if that memoir didn’t get published.’
With her two longer projects dashed – the novel lost its appeal in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – and the occasional publishing dry patch to weather, Norris turned to blogging. One blog riffs on parking in New York City, but she’s more well-known for her conversational pieces on punctuation, grammar and usage.
It may seem odd for a writer and editor at one of the world’s most respected print magazines to take up something as ephemeral as blogging – writer Roger Angel once told Norris that online publishing was like ‘making a paper airplane and throwing it out the window’. Norris, too, still considers herself a ‘print snob’, but blogging affords her an outlet outside of work hours. And not all work hours are created equal.
With horror, Norris recalls a particularly harrowing assignment: editing a piece about Earl Sweatshirt, including verbatim tweets from the rapper. ‘It was like being cudgelled,’ she says. It ranks among the hardest pieces she’s ever edited and only pales in comparison to her nerve-wracking first assignment as an ‘OKer’ – a kind of New Yorker proofreading deity, who does the final checks before a piece goes to press.
‘It’s such a trick,’ she says. ‘You have to not miss anything so you have to stay alert, but you also have to be very careful that you don’t overdo it – that you don’t try to show off and put something foolish on a proof that will make people thing you’re an idiot. And the effort that went into not being an idiot was so immense that, by the time I finished with the first piece – this was a piece by Roger Angel, who I have great respect for, and I didn’t want him to think poorly of me – I worked so hard on that piece that, when I turned in the proof, I felt as if I’d had a little stroke or something. I was useless for the next day and a half.’
Throughout her book, Norris speaks candidly of her mistakes – a fascinating chapter on mispronunciations, for example – and is happy to admit she’s still learning. Aside from the kind encouragement to be found in the pages of Between You & Me, Norris has one word of advice for emerging editors: read. ‘I’m the kind of reader who gets pretty involved in the content, but because of my job I’ve also learned to watch how they [writers] do it. I’m not so good an analyst on the level of structure – the bigger picture – but at the level of the sentence and the paragraph, I have a pretty good ear and a pretty good eye now, and it’s largely from having been exposed to so many good writers over the years.’
For writers, the key is perseverance. ‘My best advice for a writer who’s trying to get published is just don’t give up. Never give up. I did not meet with much success for many years, so my utter advice is don’t give up your day job and never give up. Because you just need to hit it once … and then that can spark something, and then you’re off.’
Mary Norris is a copy editor at the New Yorker and author of Between You & Me. She will be appearing around Australia later in the year.