Interview with Editor Jenna Johnson, Prior to the 2019 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award

November 6, 2019

Jenna Johnson is an Executive Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. While attending the 2019 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award event, she will participate on a panel about the process of publishing a debut novel, alongside her client Ling Ma, whose novel Severance won this year’s award.

Jenna Johnson, editor, Cabell First NovelistCan you give us a glimpse into the very early days you spent with Severance? What were some of your initial thoughts or impressions as you first started reading the manuscript? What aspects, in particular, kept you compelled to keep reading?

My first thought was: this person is a genius. Even just the idea of merging an office novel with an apocalyptic narrative felt so right and ripe and timely that it was hard to believe no one had done it already. That Ling was also managing to weave in an immigration thread, a coming of age story, a critique of our state of thrall to capitalism, felt—still feels—miraculous. It’s the kind of book that shouldn’t work because it’s trying to do too much. When described, it sounds unruly: how can all these things exist in one novel? But somehow she manages to make it work and still keep both levity and momentum. I loved her sense of humor, her absurdist eye, her deeply resonant insights into contemporary life. And I loved that this was an ambitious novel that didn’t shy away from fun.

Can you describe a bit your working relationship with Ling Ma? While editing the novel, how often did you correspond? When you’re actively working on a piece with an author, what forms of communication do you prefer?

Ling was a delight to edit and is a brilliant reviser. She really puzzles through the possible solutions, always coming up with something that not only resolves the issue but also opens up the story or character in a new and interesting way. When we acquired Severance in August of 2016, it was a full draft, so we began working on it right away. We sent editorial letters with feedback and suggestions, followed those with phone calls to talk through the notes, and then stepped back to let Ling work her magic for a few months. I usually edit in Word, using track changes and comment balloons, though with every project I will at some point print out the whole manuscript to read and comment; the change in media gives me fresher eyes. As for communication, I’m always open to communicating with our authors in whichever mode best suits their work and lifestyle. With Ling, we mostly communicated by phone and email, though I do also remember an early text from her crafted entirely in emojis. I’m always learning from her!

In terms of prose and style, what qualities, trends, or habits do you see in writers lately? What advice would you offer to writers in response to these observations?

I can’t say I’ve seen many trends in prose or style—the trends tend to be around subject matter and story. Lately, there have been a lot more novels coming in that are rooted in intense interiority and a level of hyper-narration, which are choices that require a real focus or energy in the prose if readers are going to stay with you.

Tell us about some other projects you’ve been working on, either ones that are upcoming for publication, or that came out in the last year or so. 

There are so many wonderful books coming out every month, it’s hard to keep up! But I’ll offer a few more first novels for your TBR list, based on what your Cabell Award readers seem to like—one published and one coming soon. Because you’re in a state that hosts a bit of the Appalachians, I’ll recommend Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch, published this past July. It’s the story of a makeshift family living off the grid, but most of all it’s about how conflict isn’t the end of love, but the real beginning. We can all take a note: if you really care about a place, you stick around and hash things out. And if you loved Severance, I’ll bet that you’ll be taken with Raven Leilani’s debut, Luster, which comes out in August 2020. A tense, roller-coaster ride through one young woman’s imperfect choices, it’s filled with razor-sharp commentary on race and gender, hilarious and unforgettable descriptions, and offers a haunting, aching description of how hard it is to believe in your own talent.

In 2012, you attended the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award for Justin Torres’ We the Animals, and then came back again in 2016 for Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House. What do you recall from those experiences? Is there anything special about the award experience that you’re looking forward to again?

Both times I was most struck by the fundamental way in which the award is rooted in your VCU and Richmond community, that part of the award’s great spirit comes from this engagement with public conversations about reading. I also loved visiting the city and can’t wait to come again. I grew up in Northwest Virginia, but we didn’t get down to that part of the state often, so it’s been a real delight to discover it now, especially the thriving arts community around VCU. 


The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award night is Tuesday, November 12 at 7 p.m. Join us for a reading, panel conversation about traditionally publishing a debut novel, and a book signing. Free and open to the public, but please register for the reading with Ling Ma.


Jenna Johnson's photo by Lauren Wein.