Editing Half Blood Blues
I recently won the Giller Prize. You know, that major Canadian prize for fiction writing, the one that nets the author fame and fifty grand?
OK, so the prize didn’t actually go to me, it was awarded to a book I copy-edited: Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan. The book was also nominated for a Governor General’s award, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award, and Britain’s hugely prestigious Man Booker Prize. It’s a haunting tale of jazz musicians in Europe between the two world wars. I’ve copy-edited a lot of novels, but I knew from page one that this was something special.
Now some of you who know of me may be saying “Huh? What’s a folkie singer-songwriter doing editing prize-winning novels about music? And how can I get a side gig like that?!”
In brief, about 20 years ago I got tired of touring in a country where winter lasts nine months and summer is often just a rumour. I already had an English degree, and words and writing were my thing. So after two years of editing courses and a sort of editing apprenticeship, I embarked on a second career to help pay the bills.
Half Blood Blues follows the fortunes of a sextet based in Berlin called the Hot-Time Swingers, featuring two African Americans and four Germans, including a young genius trumpeter who also happens to be black. They record one legendary track, “Half Blood Blues,” and then war comes; the band disperses and the trumpeter mysteriously disappears.
The story’s told in the convincing voice of Sid Griffiths, the bass player, and is filled with the jargon and slang of jazz musicians of the era that flows so naturally, so musically, you feel transported to a different time and place. And yet Esi Edugyan is not a musician and has admitted she’s not even a huge jazz fan. She wrote the book in part because she became fascinated with a little-known group of black Germans in that era disparagingly nicknamed “Rhineland Bastards” and who, like the trumpeter, were the offspring of German women and African colonial soldiers.
The copy edit
One of the reasons I was chosen to copy-edit the book is that I’m a musician. Not a jazzer, but, serendipitously, someone who loves jazz of the 20s and 30s. A copy editor’s job is to deal with the text after the main work has been done by the writer and the developmental, or “big-picture,” editor. Copy-editing covers the picky stuff: grammar, capitalization, consistency, etc., and can shade into subtler areas.
In fact, on page one of the book, you’ll find two examples of what copy editors do. In the first paragraph, Sid describes the cheap booze they’re drinking and says “…it stays like nails in you gut.” I thought “you” was a typo at first; then I figured out it was part of Sid’s speech patterns, which, to complicate things, change as the book shifts between the 1930s and the 1990s. So part of my job was to track those patterns and shifts and make sure they stayed consistent.
A few lines later, the writer originally had “…we was playing some back-alley studio.” Well, you play a club or a concert hall, but you play in a studio. So there’s a case where my music background mattered.
Similarly, the next page involves the recording technology being used in the antiquated studio in Paris, where the band ends up after leaving Berlin. But what Edugyan had written didn’t jibe with my knowledge of early recording processes. It’s an important plot point, because Sid has to smuggle out in his bass case the only surviving disc from the session, the titular “Half Blood Blues,” and it has to be reproducible later. So I turned to some audio experts, and together
we found historically correct alternatives for the writer that worked with the action of the story.
Then later in the manuscript I came across a mention of John Hammond, Jr., and did a double take. Not because of the name (no relation, sadly!) but because many of us today think of Hammond “junior” as the white blues musician we’ve all seen at folk festivals. But research confirmed that Edugyan had it right: the legendary record producer the book describes – the father of the blues musician – was known in that era as Jr. because his father and grandfather shared the same name.
Anyway, the book was already brilliant when it came to me; I just tweaked, corrected, and polished the odd bit. Even if you’re not a jazz fan, I recommend it for the sheer force of the storytelling and writing and its treatment of universal themes: passion, loyalty, betrayal, and of course the power of music. And if you are a jazz fan, do what the Giller jury recommends: put on some Louis Armstrong while you’re reading and double your pleasure.