In this #thewritinglife post, I’d like to focus on what and who has made us interested in reading and writing. I’ve had the pleasure and honour to work with and talk to Cambridge-qualified Mary-Anne Farah (Maz) and Holly of Marginalia Manuscripts about their personal stories. Editors are one of the key backstage players of the actual writing process. The reason why we do not and should not notice the writing or the editing is because of the editing. The irony of this oxymoron is not lost on me. Editing comes from experience and experience from our early influences.
Tell us readers where you are from, where you were born and raised, about your family. Why and how did you become an editor and who and what influenced you when you were growing up?
Maz: I’ve got a bit of a muddled up background. My dad’s side of the family is from Lebanon originally, but my grandparents became refugees and wound up settling at the very peak of Nazareth, in Israel. My mum and her family are from Essex—two very different worlds!
During the earlier years of my childhood, my mum had her heart set on writing a book for children.
IN: In my last Q&A for my IDEAL READER series of posts with a reader and book blogger, Lynne of @BletherinBooks also cites her mother as her biggest influence. In my own childhood, although my parents did read, no one read to me. They led by example, lol. I grew up in a house full of books from floor to ceiling and one day I just thought, what are these for? Curious, I taught myself to read at 7.
Maz: I remember her sitting at her desk every afternoon and scribbling down a new chapter. I’d watch, nagging intermittently and impatiently awaiting when she’d read the newest chapter to me at bedtime. I was a very willing guinea pig when she asked me what I thought and how I felt. That’s where it all started for me and I’m fairly confident that I was among the youngest critiques living.
But for me, it was writing that came first. As my parents and siblings will no doubt strongly attest, I was an “antisocial” teenager. I use quote marks here because while they might have thought me antisocial, I felt that I had more than enough company. The moment I got back from school, I sat down to write and I didn’t stop until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I spent every waking hour reading or on writing forums, where I would write stories in partnership with other aspiring writers.
It was at this time that I did most of my learning—where I figured out what worked and what didn’t. I stayed locked in this routine for years, until I left to study English Literature at university, and my understanding of the novel, and its creation, sharpened. Fresh out of university, I was thirsty for more, but deciding where to turn next was no easy task. It was then that I had the great privilege of undertaking a master’s degree in creative writing at Cambridge University, where I met some of the most remarkable and talented writers in the UK—and was beyond humbled by them.
Workshopping with these writers taught me not only what it was like to truly think as an author, but how to shine a light on those all too common blindspots that hold even the best of us back. From then, launching Marginalia Manuscripts was a no-brainer.
Holly: Sometimes I think that it was purely coincidental that I became an editor but then I remember the time I corrected my primary school teacher on her use of the oxford comma on a whiteboard. So perhaps there were greater forces at play. My parents read to me a lot growing up so I have them to thank for getting me interested in stories and fiction. I would memorise the books that were read to me and I used to correct my Dad if he missed a few words while reading Mog and the V.E.T for the umpteenth time. God I was an obnoxious child…
I like to think I am a less obnoxious adult though.
When it comes to editing, I prefer flexibility and creative flair over rigidity.
I started out my publishing career in a line editing role where I was combing through copy and counting the commas so I had to learn the rule book by heart. I quite enjoyed this, but grammar is a science and writing is an art and I always had a preference for the latter!
Since then, I’ve hopped between editing roles and PR roles within publishing and I’ve loved them all in different ways. However, Maz and I decided to start Marginalia Manuscripts because we’ve known so many fantastic writers who spend years redrafting and tying themselves in knots. Most writers we speak to know that there are problems with their manuscript but don’t know what they are. They end up feeling disheartened and losing faith in their story. This was the issue we set out to solve.
Writing can be a lonely job, but it doesn’t have to be. We wanted to be a companion to writers that need an outsider’s perspective.
IN: I felt that it was a friendly and helpful process too– the idea of companionship rather than the “exam scenario” which writers fear regarding editing.
What are your interests besides books?
Maz: I’m a total food snob. The eye-rolling kind. My dad was all about bringing dishes from around the globe to our dinner table, from classic Lebanese dishes to authentic curries and everything in between. My mum, on the other hand, was a classic Brit when it came to food. Homemade British pie, honey-glazed gammon, good old-fashioned lentil stew and dumplings.
Whether it’s street food or a fancy restaurant, I’ll rave about it for hours if it hits my palate right.
Holly: Besides books I would say my interests are any other form of fiction and escapism! I love films —especially period dramas or historical retellings. My favourite film is The Imitation Game about the life of Alan Turing. I also love getting into a great TV series — my latest obsession being The Umbrella Academy on Netflix which is actually a great example of writing that keeps you invested in a large cast of characters!
When I decide to live in the real world, I like to get out into nature.
I’m lucky that I now live in rural north Wales at the top of a valley, because I love feeling small in comparison to the nature around me. When I was little, I loved going for walks in the woods and building dens and rope swings and inventing stories about fairies (I would honestly still do that now if anyone was game). But now I like teaching myself how to forage and I’d love to go on a survival weekend someday.
What genres do you enjoy reading/watching on telly?
Maz: I’m a bit of a film buff, but my taste in films is the polar opposite of my taste in books. When it comes to reading, I’m all about dystopian fiction and the classics. Anything with real grit and misery, like The Handmaid’s Tale, Wuthering Heights, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Some of my favourite books include The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and The Persian Boy by Mary Renault.
IN: I can understand that. The art of storytelling came from my mother and grandmothers. They just could not stop telling stories. Ghost stories, stories of insanity, the war, Japanese occupation, the spurned lover, the bastard child, etc. All sad. In the Far East, no one likes happy stories.
Maz:Despite my now obvious taste for tragedy, I’m embarrassed to say that most of my favourite films were produced by Disney. The promise of a happy ending will have me clear sailing through a film, while the promise of tears keeps the pages turning when I read.
Holly: I studied 19th century literature at university so many of my favourite books are either written in that time period or set in that period! A few of my favourites are Caleb Williams by Willam Goodwin, The Heavenly Twins by Sarah Grand, Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell and, of course, Great Expectations. These are all pretty bleak stories though, so I don’t know what that says about me!
When it comes to books written in this century, I still have a strong preference for historical fiction and grittiness. I absolutely adore Jesse Burton’s The Miniaturist. It was so dark and full of suspense and shocking reveals. At the other end of the spectrum, books set far ahead in the future also fascinate me. I love a good dystopia or science fiction! To be honest, I will read pretty much any genre as long as it’s a good book.
Maz and I have been binge watching our way through lockdown and we love any TV show where there’s a whole second season set in a courtroom à la Big Little Lies or Broadchurch. Realistically, I’ll watch anything with Olivia Coleman in; that woman is a force of nature. I also love period dramas. No surprise there. I know everyone says that Keira Knightly plays the same role over and over again but you have to admit she has it down to a fine art. We also recently re-watched Gentleman Jack. As a couple, we relate very strongly to the two main characters, Ann Walker and Anne Lister!
IN: One of the reasons why I have enjoyed working with Marginalia Manuscripts is your strong visual concepts. No other editor I have worked with have given me “TV shows to watch”. The homework rocks! It is so vital to understanding how scenes or characters work.
Tell us how writers and readers get in touch with you.
Maz and Holly: The best way to get in touch with us is to either visit our website Marginalia Manuscripts and fill in the contact form, or email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also have a facebook page and instagram account where we post writing tips. We love connecting with writers and hearing about their work in progress, even if it’s just to have a friendly chat, so please do get in touch!
Thank you so much Maz and Holly.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this enlightening Q&A. Are you a reader or writer who has been influenced by a family member, such as a parent or a grandparent? Do you also agree that movies help form stories? If you are interested, read also my interview with Philadelphia author D.H. Schleicher on inspiration and movies. In my next #thewritinglife post, I will be giving away a golden handful of HOT WRITING TIPS from Marginalia Manuscripts. Don’t miss out. You’re welcome.
Ivy Ngeow was born and raised in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. She is the author of three novels, Overboard (Leopard Print, 2020), Cry of the Flying Rhino (Proverse Hong Kong, 2017), winner of 2016 International Proverse Prize, Heart of Glass (Unbound UK, 2018) and numerous short stories. She also writes mini lifestyle books on cooking, beauty, health and fitness. She lives in London.
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Photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash