Every writer needs a good editor (a person who oversees a book’s content) and a good copyeditor (a person who makes corrections in grammar and usage). That sound principle was reinforced yesterday when I read a lovely book that could (and should) have been even better: My Father’s Places by Aeronwy Thomas, daughter of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.
The book is an enchanting memoir of growing up in Wales. Even someone unfamiliar with Thomas and his poetry would certainly enjoy Aeronwy’s account of a magical childhood spent playing near the seashore and living in a lively household with two madcap parents. And if you love Thomas’s poetry (as I do), the book is rapturous: Aeronwy has her father’s gift for vivid language, and as a bonus she sometimes shows her father at work on Under Milk Wood and other projects.
But it didn’t take long for me to suspect that the book had been rushed into print without careful editing. There are confusing anecdotes that make sense only when a missing piece is supplied several pages later – and that’s only one of the problems. “Children’s” is printed with not one but two apostrophes, and Aeronwy numerous times talks about “peddling” her bike (no, she wasn’t selling it). There are many references to “the Aga,” but it’s only far into the book that you learn that it was a brand of stove. Some words are never explained at all. I read the book on an airplane, so I couldn’t look up “mitching” (“loitering”) or “twp” (Welsh slang for “stupid”).
Many confusing details could have been fixed if a thoughtful reader had gone through the manuscript. For example, in one chapter Aeronwy takes an album to a birthday party as a gift, but it turns into a comic annual several pages later.
Often I found myself rereading a section, thinking I had missed something. For example, one paragraph begins “The anticipation of seeing movies was never quite matched by the event.” Clearly we’re going to read about disappointments and unmet expectations. Instead, though, Aeronwy tells us “it was heaven” to see Laurel and Hardy, Zorro, and Tarzan on the screen.
Parts of Aeronwy’s narrative are disjointed and puzzling. Just before her father’s untimely death, he decides to send her to boarding school – which turns out to be, inexplicably, a ballet academy. Did Aeronwy tell him she wanted to be a dancer? Did she have dance training in Laugharne? There’s no explanation.
Even the title is confusing. Why “my father’s places”? More than 90% of the book is about Laugharne, in South Wales. What are these other “places”?
The more I read, the more certain I was that the manuscript had never been edited. So it was a shock to read, on the last page, Aeronwy’s warm acknowledgement to both her editor and her copyeditor. What were they doing while they were supposed to be working on her book?
A plea to all the future writers out there: Find yourself an alert and unrelenting ceditor. Your book will thank you, and so will your readers.