My fourth grade teacher wasn’t surprised that I wound up reading for a living, because I gave 250 book reports that year. All I wanted to do was read. I had a terrific fake cough and would use that to stay home from school with a pile of books.
I grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut and my family was close to the family of Maxwell Perkins, the great editor at Scribner’s. Max had died before I was born, but I grew up knowing what an editor was. Max’s daughter, Bertha Perkins Frothingham, shared my passion for books and encouraged my reading in every way. One of my favorite books was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, which led me to take physics in college. I struggled with that course, but when I botched a lab my professor let me write a story related to physics, which became my first published story. As a creative writing major, a job in publishing seemed like the right path.
I took a summer course in publishing at Radcliffe (which has since become the Columbia Publishing Course.) I interviewed for jobs in adult editorial, publicity, and magazines, and well as children’s books, and ended up as a full time reader at Harper Junior Books. I read slush and manuscripts that were under contract. The bad manuscripts soon drove me mad! Luckily, after ten months I became an editorial assistant. Harper was a tough place to work, but I loved being at the house that had published so many of my favorite books, including some by Charlotte Zolotow. I sat right outside her door. The great Ursula Nordstrom had retired, but came into the office every now and then. What a terrific place to start out.
I moved on to Viking, which was a much more fun, and full of opportunity. I loved every minute, but when I was 26 I made the difficult decision to try to write full-time. I gave up my apartment (eek!) and spent a year at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where I worked on adult fiction and began to publish stories. I came back to New York and worked part-time as a freelance editor for many years while working on fiction and other projects, such as the book and lyrics for a musical. I was broke, and things were often uncertain, but I enjoyed the freedom of freelancing, which allowed me to work with people at many houses, and to live outside the city, and abroad. In l996 I became a full time editor again, at Delacorte, which later merged with Random House. When my imprint was established in late 2000, I told Bert Frothingham that its name should really be Because of Bert Books. She laughed, and said “Darling, what a terrible idea.“
I was influenced not only by Bert, but by my father, Tom Lamb, a self-made man, an artist, inventor and designer who had careers in illustration, advertising, textile and industrial design. He was an example of continual reinvention and change, and taught me that talented people are unpredictable. Good training for an editor!
I like to think that this story shows that you can take some career detours along the way, and you might feel that you’re making a mistake now and then, but you can still end up in the right place.