Q&A With Anna Pitoniak

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Q&A With Anna Pitoniak

My next Q&A is with author Anna Pitoniak. Her novels include The Futures, Necessary People, Our American Friend, The Helsinki Affair which is available today . Before becoming an author Anna graduated from Yale and was an editor at Yale Daily News and worked many years in book publishing. Recently Anna Pitoniak was a Senior Editor at the major publishing house, Random House. 

Q: Anna, would you like to tell the readers of the blog and me a little bit about your upcoming novel, The Helsinki Affair, coming out this November? How did you come up with the concept for it? 

A: I’ve been an avid reader of international spy fiction for years now, but one thing I couldn’t help noticing is the relative lack of female protagonists in this genre. I love John Le Carré—he’s one of my favorite authors—but for years and years, I was looking for a version of Le Carré where the women were in charge, where the women were at the center of the story. Eventually, I decided to give it a shot myself! 

I’ve also always been fascinated by the Cold War, which was, of course, the golden era for spy fiction. I think we’re seeing a lot of parallels right now between the Cold War era and our present era, with ongoing America-versus-Russia tensions. The Helsinki Affair is about a lot of those parallels. 

It’s also the story of a woman named Amanda Cole, a headstrong CIA officer who has learned to survive in this male-dominated world. When Amanda learns of an imminent Kremlin plot against America, she’s determined to stop it—but the plot has a mysterious link to her father, who was also a CIA officer before her. As she digs deeper into the case, she starts to investigate how her father is really connected to the Russians, and she has to decide where her loyalties lie: with her country, or with her father?  

Q: You wrote for the Yale Daily News and worked in book publishing for many years. What were those things like for you?

A: I was both an editor and a writer at the Yale Daily News in college. That was my first experience with editing, and I loved it. I loved working with other writers to help them shape their stories and ideas. Being a writer is a very solitary endeavor, so the writer/editor relationship is a special one. It’s the rare moment of creative collaboration, when you work with another person to help bring a story into the world. 

When I graduated from college, I wasn’t quite ready to pursue a career as a writer. Plus, I loved editing! So, instead, I went into book publishing. Working as an editor at Random House was the best writing education I could have imagined. I had the chance to work closely with incredibly talented novelists and journalists and historians, and was able to observe, up close, how they crafted characters, built narratives, and created tension. I also saw how much revision went into their work; how much of writing is really re-writing. These lessons were crucial when it came to writing my own fiction. 

Working as an editor was rewarding, in and of itself. But it was also hugely inspiring. Editing was ultimately what spurred me to get back to my own childhood dream of writing. 

Q: You worked as a senior editor at Random House. What does a senior editor at a publishing company do and what would be your advice to anyone pursuing that as a career?

A: As a book editor, you’re always wearing several hats. You can basically break the job down into three main categories. Or, as an old boss of mine used to say: “We pick ’em, we fix ’em, we sell ’em.” 

“Pick ’em” means acquiring books for the publisher. An editor will spend a lot of her time reading submissions from literary agents, and then deciding which ones to pursue for the publisher, a decision that is rooted in her own taste, but also an assessment of what books are likely to sell well, based on current trends in the marketplace. “Fix ’em” means the actual process of editing. An editor will usually do several rounds of edits with the author, helping to identify places where the story needs cutting or reshaping, helping to identify which characters need developing or rethinking, so that the story becomes as strong as possible. And, lastly, “sell ’em” means working with different teams across the publishing house—production, marketing, publicity, sales, etc.—to make sure the book is presented to the wider world in the most compelling way possible. This is where the job becomes like project management. The editor keeps track of the cover art, the marketing plans, the publicity pitches, and helps to ensure that all of the teams are in sync. 

My best advice, when it comes to pursuing a career in publishing, is to start wherever you can. Step one is getting your foot in the door! Publishing is still a business that, for better or worse, relies a lot on personal connection. It’s much easier to find a job in publishing when you already have some kind of toehold in publishing. So if your goal is to work as an editor some day: you don’t need to wait for the perfect editorial job to come around! You could start as an assistant in a different division of a publishing house, with the goal of eventually changing roles. You could see if any literary agencies are hiring freelance readers. You could explore internship opportunities. 

Also, curiosity goes a long way. Learn as much as you can about how the industry works study the trends on the bestseller list, and so on. It always helps when you’ve really done your homework. 

Q: Where do you get your ideas for your novels? Is it fair to say that some of the characters in your stories are taken from bits and pieces of real people you may or may not know?

A: My ideas seem to come from everywhere and nowhere! Often the seed of an idea comes from the real world—maybe an interaction I’ve observed, a conversation I’ve overheard, a story I’ve read in the news—but, from there, it quickly morphs and evolves into something different. 

My new book, The Helsinki Affair, is probably my most “made up” novel yet. It’s an international spy thriller, and it has very little in common with my real life! And while none of the characters in the story are based on real people, in a one-to-one fashion, it’s also true that the novel is a reflection of my imagination, and my imagination is constantly being fed by reality. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything I’ve learned about human nature, about love and identity, about family and friendship, about heartbreak and loss, it all comes from lived experience, and it all winds up, in some form or another, right there in the novel. 

Q: If you’re writing a new novel now, can you reveal any details about it?

A: Yes! The Helsinki Affair is the start of a new series, and I’m currently working on the sequel to Helsinki. Amanda Cole is again having to untangle a complicated Russian conspiracy, and having to balance her career ambitions against her personal allegiances. It’s still early days, but this new book has been a lot of fun. There are murderous oligarchs and corrupt politicians, there are Swiss bankers and art dealers—it’s chock-full of conspiracy! 

Q: If you deal with writer’s block, how do you deal with it that may help aspiring authors deal with writer’s block too?

A: While it’s definitely true that there are days when it’s hard for me to write anything good, I find that it’s always possible for me to write something. For instance, if I feel frustrated or blocked in a new project, I’ll go into my journal and I’ll write about that feeling. I’ll ask myself the meta-question: Why is this draft not cooperating? Why is this character, this scene, giving me so much trouble? Why does this feel so sticky? I don’t necessarily have the answers, but it’s a useful exercise just to think about those questions. And the very act of writing, even if you’re writing something rambling and incoherent, can help get the juices flowing again. 

Q: Does Hollywood have the rights to your novel? The entertainment industry is lacking in original content and could use more original ideas again. 

A: My second novel, Necessary People, has been optioned for television. It’s been in development for a while now, and I am hopeful that it might someday get made! But, as of this interview, the rights to my other novels (The Futures, Our American Friend, and The Helsinki Affair) are still available.