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When you read The New York Times, you can be assured that everything you’re seeing is nonfiction — with noted special exceptions. The Books department frequently publishes short excerpts from new fiction and, since 2016, an editorial team known as NYT Mag Labs has, among other projects, been publishing print-only adaptations from upcoming novels of note.
The first such excerpt was from Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” a book that went on to win both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. So from the start, the bar for these excerpts has been extremely high.
As senior editor for the Labs team, I’m responsible for identifying potential excerpts, and when our team learned in September that Elena Ferrante, the popular Italian author, had a novel scheduled to be published in English in 2020, we immediately made inquiries.
Not only is Ms. Ferrante critically lauded, but she’s also become a global phenomenon. Her Neapolitan quartet of novels have been published in 48 countries and have sold 16 million copies worldwide. Dozens of publications, including The Times, had named her upcoming novel, “The Lying Life of Adults,” as one of the most anticipated books of 2020. In short, a new novel from Ms. Ferrante is news — and precisely the kind of special reading experience that we at Labs hope to bring to weekend print subscribers.
We also understood that, even among celebrity authors, Ms. Ferrante was a singular case. While most authors are inclined — either through temperament or the coercion of their publishers — to undertake every opportunity to publicize a book, she is famously averse to attention. “Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym for an anonymous author whose real name is a well-protected secret.
She rarely grants interviews (and those must be conducted by email) and is so mysterious that, in the earliest days of her success, some observers wondered if she existed at all. Others have speculated that the author is, in fact, a man, and a few critics and scholars have undertaken baroque investigations in an attempt to unveil her identity. Her publisher, Europa Editions, was happy to cooperate with a potential excerpt, but her U.S. editor warned us that Ms. Ferrante’s involvement might range from limited to nonexistent.
After making first contact in December 2019, we began negotiations over the excerpt that continued for months. The novel, about a young girl in Naples who discovers a trove of family secrets, was originally set to be published in early June, but the pandemic prompted a delay until fall. For Labs, the notion of providing a sneak peek of an anticipated new book by a beloved author seemed all the more enticing during a national lockdown, so we agreed to postpone the excerpt to coincide with the book’s U.S. publication on Sept. 1.
Next, there was the question of the excerpt itself. The selections published by Mag Labs are lengthy — often 15,000 words or more. Creating a compelling and coherent reading experience at that length demands a certain level of editorial intervention; for example, the excision of story lines and subplots that may fit perfectly in the longer novel but that don’t pay off (or even make sense) within an excerpt.
Traditionally, in crafting these excerpts, we work fairly closely with the authors. In this case, the author is an anonymous recluse accessible only through emails sent to her English-language publishers.
When our edit was ready, we sent it for Ms. Ferrante’s approval. All correspondence with her was routed through her English-language publisher, who forwarded it to her Italian editors, who sent it along to her, then relayed her response. We never had direct contact with her. (Her celebrated translator, Ann Goldstein, who has also been interviewed in our section, works the same way — she has never met or interacted with Ms. Ferrante directly.)
A note came back explaining that, while she was happy overall, she had never before acquiesced to such extensive editorial intervention. She asked that ellipses be placed everywhere in the text where we had made an editorial change. This was an unusual request, one I had never encountered before.
We communicated to her publisher that the inclusion of ellipses would probably confuse readers and might leave the excerpt reading like a series of disparate, abandoned trains of thought. Or, worse, like one of those … heavily edited … movie … blurbs. (Or, for those who remember them, the rambling newspaper columns of Larry King.)
So we proposed a compromise: We would insert an asterisk, along with a simple explanatory note, in the spots where major excisions had occurred. And that is how you’ll find our excerpt from “The Lying Life of Adults,” which will be published as a print-only section this weekend.
Readers can ignore the unobtrusive asterisks entirely and enjoy the story. Or, if you’re so inclined, grab the book once it’s available on Sept. 1 and compare the original to our edited excerpt. We promise that the novel is an excellent read — even the parts that, by necessity, we had to leave out.