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“A hands-on shepherd to her flock of often straying lambs”: Remembering Ellen Seligman

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Ellen Seligman – the iconic editor and publisher of McClelland & Stewart, who died of undisclosed causes on March 25 – embodied CanLit. Her influence was pervasive, though like all good editors she remained resolutely behind the scenes, a palimpsest for other people’s words. “I first encountered Ellen Seligman’s name as a reader, coming across it again and again in the acknowledgements of the books I loved,” says Anita Chong, senior editor at M&S. “One of those books, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, is the novel that planted the idea in my head to pursue a career in publishing. So, before I met her, Ellen had changed the course of my life.”

McClelland & Stewart publisher and editor Ellen Seligman (photo: Ian Crysler)

McClelland & Stewart publisher and editor Ellen Seligman (photo: Ian Crysler)

She also affected the habits and tastes of readers across Canada, and beyond. The list of canonical books she edited is staggering, including: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje; Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood; Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels; Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai; Childhood by André Alexis; A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry; The Underpainter by Jane Urquhart; The Englishman’s Boy by Guy Vanderhaeghe; The Time In Between by David Bergen; Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay. She was also a dedicated advocate for poetry, retaining and even expanding the M&S poetry program following the wholesale acquisition of the publisher by Random House of Canada in 2012. (Seligman was responsible for establishing M&S’s poetry board, made up of Ken Babstock, Dionne Brand, and Kevin Connolly.)

The list of award-winning titles she edited is impressive: 23 Governor General’s Literary Award winners, six Scotiabank Giller Prize winners, and four Man Booker Prize winners. As publisher at M&S, she was also responsible for bringing international writing to a Canadian audience, publishing writers such as Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Ben Lerner, Sarah Waters, and Andrew O’Hagan.

In a prepared statement, Michael Ondaatje writes, “She left her mark on all of us – established writers, new young writers that she discovered and published for the first time. She was a gift to good writing and she is irreplaceable.” And Leonard Cohen says, “She slipped away with the quiet elegance that characterized her life.”

It might come as a surprise to some who knew her as a driving force in Canadian letters to discover that Seligman was actually American by birth. She was born in New York and obtained her bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin before emigrating to Canada in the late 1970s – an important period in the development of our national writing. “She was a key editor at an expansive time for literature in this country,” says Margaret Atwood, whose association with Seligman dates back decades. “It’s rare to find someone who’s been so long in any field of endeavour who still gets a kick out of it, but Ellen really did.”

Seligman began at M&S in the role of senior editor in 1978. She was promoted to editorial director of fiction in 1987, and fiction publisher in 2000. The Random House acquisition in 2012 saw her adopt the titles of publisher for M&S and vice-president of Penguin Random House Canada.

But her influence derived most from the relationships she forged with the authors whose work she moulded into shape. Writers who toiled closely with Seligman suggest she brought to the table a combination of friendship and a ferocious devotion to quality. “Ellen was, above all, a lovely, generous, kind woman who also happened to be relentless in the pursuit of excellence,” says three-time Governor General’s Literary Award winner Guy Vanderhaeghe. “She always asked more of her writers than they guessed they had in them and didn’t give up until she got it. Ellen made all my books far better than I ever suspected they could be.”

“My husband called her my girlfriend,” says Elizabeth Hay. “ ‘Your girlfriend is on the phone,’ he would say to me, and I would go to our agreed-upon assignation, disappearing from his life and entering the life of the pile of manuscript pages beside the telephone.”

Douglas Gibson, who worked alongside Seligman for close to 20 years, says that when he became publisher of M&S in 1988, she was already “a legend” who had established a reputation as a formidable fiction editor. “My main role in this area, in fact, was simply to clear the way for Ellen to work her magic with the authors whose trust and affection she had earned,” Gibson says.

Moreover, Gibson points to Seligman’s “superb eye for talent,” which was always on the lookout for new and promising writers. “At any sales conference, when Ellen began to use her expressive hands as she weaved her tale about a new writer (perhaps a poet named Anne Michaels who had just written a wonderful first novel), the sales force and the entire marketing team would sit up and pay very close attention.”

“She was also a hands-on shepherd to her flock of often straying lambs,” says Atwood. “And she understood the dark jokes. I probably wouldn’t have got on so well with Ms. Sunshine.”

Perhaps as a result of her status as a transplanted American, Seligman was passionately committed to bringing the nation’s writing and writers to the attention of readers beyond our own borders. “She was never narrowly Canadian, never nationalistic in that way,” says Hay. “She was a New Yorker who established herself in Toronto, championed authors from every part of the country, played a key and essential role in making sure McClelland & Stewart remained a proud Canadian publisher of literary books, and worked tenaciously to make those books known around the world. She was magnificent and it’s hard to imagine the future of Canadian publishing without her.”

Certainly, there will never be another figure quite like Ellen Seligman, but her influence on the nation’s literary firmament is indelible, and will continue to be felt, not least among those colleagues who benefited from working with her, and who are poised to transmit her lessons to a future generation of writers. “She used to say that to be a really good editor, you have to be a really good listener,” says Chong. “Not just to the author, but to what you’re reading. Ellen taught me how to listen.”