Editing Deborah Orr: Jenny Lord Remembers a Literary Icon
When the pioneering and hugely gifted journalist and editor Deborah Orr died in October 2019, the world lost a unique literary voice. In this exclusive essay, Jenny Lord describes her working relationship with Deborah and the daunting task of editing Deborah's masterclass in memoir writing - and Waterstones Non-Fiction Book of the Month for January - Motherwell.
Editing Deborah Orr
Jenny Lord, Publisher of W&N
It is not unusual – particularly in the realm of non-fiction publishing – for a book to go through various iterations from pitch to publication. That was certainly the case with Deborah Orr’s remarkable debut.
Motherwell wasn’t the book she initially set out to write. When we first met to discuss the possibility of working together, she was deep in the research for a non-fiction book of a quite different kind. The particulars of that project are irrelevant now, but there is no doubt that it would have been a wonderful book. Deborah was an exceptionally acute journalist, a voracious reader, and a dazzling storyteller. In the wake of her death, her many friends declared her to have had one of the sharpest minds of anyone they had met. While that book would have more than showcased her considerable talents, it wasn’t the one she was born to write.
It became clear, very quickly, that Deborah had an extraordinary story of her own to tell. Of her childhood growing up in a Scottish steel town on the cusp of great change. Of her complicated relationship with a mother who tried and failed to understand the clever daughter who wanted so much more from her life than she herself had dared hope for. Of the remarkable journey she undertook to break free from her background and become the first female editor of the Guardian’s Weekend magazine – and so much more besides.
A gentle push was all it took to convince Deborah that this story was the one she should write. She later described the moment she confronted this truth as having ‘the top of her head lifted off’. We had a title for her memoir by the end of our first meeting. It was always going to be Motherwell – for the town that in some ways she was never able to leave behind, for the mother she had come to realise hadn’t really mothered well at all. It couldn’t have been anything else.
Once she had started writing, Deborah could not be stopped. She wrote in something of a frenzy, seized by the urge to ‘put down on paper the book I’d been writing every day’. It is rare for an author to deliver a book before it is contractually due – research takes time, life gets in the way, procrastination can be irresistible – and usually editors are pleading with their much-beleaguered production colleagues for more room in the schedule. But that’s what happened. Deborah set to work in June and by December, she had finished the first draft – three months ahead of her deadline.
In those months leading up to delivery, a new chapter would land in my inbox every few weeks. And they were astonishing. What started out as a memoir exploring a difficult mother-daughter relationship was gradually becoming so much more than that. The pages she shared were alive with the very essence of Deborah. Her voice, so well-loved by her many fans, was so spiky, so knowing, irreverent and yet profound. She frequently had me in tears at my desk. But the humour, when it came, was sharp, surprising and delicious.
I don’t mind admitting that I had been daunted by the prospect of editing Deborah. She had been an inspiration to me as a young editor in publishing. Here was someone who hadn’t needed a private education and a first-class university degree to achieve extraordinary things in a world that could often feel closed to those of us without them. She was legendary; she was iconic. She was also, by all accounts, a little terrifying. But when the time came to get out my red pen, Deborah fully embraced the process. Despite having many more years’ experience as an editor herself, she freely – and with such generosity of spirit – put herself in my hands. Together we worked to turn nine chapters into twenty, to pull more objects out of the family bureau and hold them up to the light. Editing Deborah was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. It was high energy, hugely fun and deeply stimulating. She taught me a great deal – she had an exceptional mind and extraordinary courage, and she made me cry with laughter at her withering one-liners. The old adage that you should never meet your heroes certainly no longer rings true for me.
Motherwell, the finished article, is a masterpiece of the genre. As a portrait of how the complications of post-war optimism came to define a working-class community, I don’t believe it will be bettered. As a portrait of one of the greatest journalists and newspaper editors Britain has ever seen, it certainly can’t be. In the pages of her memoir we see the making of this most extraordinary of women – all the mess, all the vulnerability, the dashed expectations, the bitter battles and the regret. It is a book searching for the conclusion to a journey marked by great pain. It is a vivid reckoning. But it is also full of beauty.
Deborah was working on a novel before she died in October last year. She had a title, characters, a plot. Teasing us with little details, she would tell me and Clare – her literary agent – that it was ‘writing itself in her head’. It is a great sadness that we will never get to read more by Deborah. But what a legacy she has left behind in Motherwell.
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