It never occurred to Mary Norris that anyone would be interested in reading a book by a copy editor about commas.
“When I was approached about the idea by two people from the publishing company, I thought they were kidding,” she said in a recent phone interview from her office at The New Yorker magazine, where she began working in 1978.
As a copy editor at The New Yorker, Norris has worked with the greatest writers of our time. “I have always had the ambition to be a writer,” she said, “and I’ve always had some project, a novel, a memoir or an essay on the back burner, but I could never get anyone to sign on for them. Now it feels like all those years of frustration and turmoil have paid off.”
Her first book “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen” (228 pages, $24.95, W.W. Norton & Co.) is being released Monday. The book covers various topics regarding commas, colons, hyphens and spelling errors, and it’s also a fun read as Norris describes her life, her family and numerous funny anecdotes about working with authors at the world’s premier literary magazine.
“Not many people set out to be a copy editor,” said Norris. “It’s usually something that you arrive at, which is what happened to me. I was looking for work in New York and I found a job in the editorial library at The New Yorker. Years went by and eventually I became a copy editor and page OK-er.”
WHAT: New York State Writers Institute author series
WHEN: Thursday; seminar, 4:15 p.m., Humanities Building, SUNY uptown campus; reading, 8 p.m., Huxley Auditorium in the New York State Museum
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 442-5620, www.albany.edu/writers-inst
She said she has always had an affinity for language. “I absorbed most of my good grammar skills from reading. I was always a good speller, and in third grade I remember loving the few days we diagrammed sentences.”
As a student, Norris said that English was always her favorite subject. “I also loved taking French, and when I was a senior in college I took German. That’s when all those rules in grammar came together for me.”
When she first began working as a copy editor she had a difficult time reading on her own for pleasure. “Thank God I got over that,” she said. “I’ve learned through the years to only edit while on the job now. I may notice some grammar or usage errors when people are speaking, but unless it’s going into print I will never correct anyone.”
She believes being a copy editor has helped her become a better writer. “It’s allowed me the opportunity to read all these great writers and observe how they write such good sentences and tell stories so well.
“When I’m writing I often get very involved in the details of my own word order and my punctuation habits. I was fortunate to work with a good editor at Norton who was able to get me to move beyond observing every word I write, and we became a good team.”
Norris said the best copy editors are hesitant to make changes to a writer’s story. “I always give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Self-doubt is a good quality in a copy editor. I always think maybe there’s something I don’t know, which is often the case. I’ve learned a lot from writers through the years. Writers often know exactly what they’re doing.”
She is worried that many magazines and book publishing companies are losing copy editors today at an alarming rate. “Many places are relying more and more on freelance editors, and many books and articles are not being checked as well as they used to be. My book was given great care at Norton though, and I really appreciate that.”
She said she’ll never forget the day back in 1978 when she first came to work at The New Yorker. “I was ecstatic. After having all these blue-collar jobs, I finally got this job in the library at the magazine.”
She is proud to be part of the 90-year history at The New Yorker. “I’m so proud to work for a magazine that places such a premium on superb writing and good reporting. We still lavish care on the written word. I always look forward to reading the magazine every week, and I must admit, like many other readers of The New Yorker, the first thing I turn to are those great cartoons.”