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Catching Up With Allison Dickens

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

Former Penguin and Random House Senior Editor Allison Dickens has taught a slew of WWW classes, from generative workshops in which students write to prompts to revision workshops wherein advanced students share and comment on large chunks of their completed manuscripts.

She and her family relocated to London last year.

We recently chatted with her electronically. Read on to learn about a recent literary adventure she undertook in a picturesque milieu, the most important editorial lessons she learned early in her career, and which writers she turns to for inspiration.

Tell us about one of your biggest editorial challenges.

Early on in my career, a writer challenged my suggestion that their descriptions of setting were too heavy. They argued I was familiar with this particular setting but others would need more information. It taught me an important lesson to consider my own experience when editing. Viewing the words on the page as openly as I can is always my biggest editorial challenge.

What writers do you most admire and why? How have your literary tastes changed over

the years?

I love Anne Tyler’s ability to take an ordinary moment and make it extraordinary. She’s my go to when I’m not sure what to read or re-read next. I’m drawn to dialogue and I find some of the most engaging dialogue in commercial fiction from authors like Jennifer Crusie. Lately, I’ve been reading mysteries. I listened to a podcast about Agatha Christie (part of the “You’re Dead To Me” series) and was embarrassed I had never read any of her books, though I had seen dramatizations. There are lessons for all writers, I think, in her unreliable narrators and the way she structures her stories. I’ll definitely be citing them in my editing and classes. This past year I’ve also read three of Ben Macintyre’s books. He has a gift for storytelling and humor that I don’t normally associate with military history, a category I admittedly don’t read often.

Did you yourself ever consider writing, or are you happy to be an editor?

Editing has always been my focus. I love the puzzle of putting together pieces to make a whole.

What's the most gratifying part about doing editorial work?

When a writer says thank you, you helped me.

What's the literary scene like in London?

To me it feels vibrant though I know the writers, booksellers and publishers are struggling here in the same ways as in the US. I live about 25 minutes outside the city center, and we have two bookstores on our high street. I’m encouraged by how busy they are. We visit the legendary Foyle’s bookstore on Charing Cross Road about once a month, and it’s always packed with people reading and buying books. Literary history is on every corner of the city whether it’s Shakespeare or Dickens or Paddington Bear. And the city continues to inspire new writers. My son and I geeked out over finding the umbrella store that is the real life setting for Anna Fargher’s recent YA novel The Umbrella Mouse.

What would you be doing professionally if you weren't an editor?

I have no idea! What else pays you to read all day?

My ideal day would see me reading X (perfect book) in X (perfect place) eating X (perfect food).

I just had an ideal book day. Six of us (three teens and their moms) took the train to Bath for a bookstore day. We visited two independent bookstores, Mr. B’s Emporium of Books and Toppers. Lunch was a Japanese take on Afternoon Tea (bao buns, sushi and mochi) followed by ice cream on the walk back to the train station. On the ride home, I started reading one of my new books: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix. Highly recommend!

Click here to see what Allison is teaching this summer!

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