Journalist and author Dana Canedy was named the newest publisher of the flagship Simon & Schuster imprint at publishing behemoth Simon & Schuster on Monday, becoming the first black person and third woman to own the role.
Starting July 27, Canedy, 55, will become one of the most powerful people in literature. It’s the latest leadership position in a laudable career — since 2017 she’s been the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. Before that, she spent 20 years as a journalist at the New York Times.
Canedy knows that coming into the role at this time — between a pandemic and civil unrest — that she’s viewed as someone who can champion and cultivate writers who may not have had access to major publishing houses previously.
During her time as the Pulitzer administrator, she increased the diversity in the juries and the board, which may have been reflected in awards that made the canon more dynamic, including a Pulitzer for rapper Kendrick Lamar.
Canedy herself won a Pulitzer for national reporting as a lead writer and editor on the Times series “How Race Is Lived in America.” In 2008 she published a memoir, “A Journal for Jordan: A Story of Love and Honor,” based on a journal her fiance started writing for their infant son before he was killed in combat in Iraq. A movie adaptation of the book starring Michael B. Jordan and directed by Denzel Washington is slated to go into production later this year. She’s a producer for the film.
Canedy’s been hunkering during lockdown with her son, now 14, at her house on the Jersey Shore. She spoke to The Lily about what kind of authors she’d like to cultivate, how to get through grief and how she likes to read.
Soo Youn: Congratulations. How does one go about becoming the publisher of an imprint? How did they approach you? Does one apply for jobs at this level?
Dana Canedy: Jonathan Karp reached out to me actually about two years ago to start a conversation and asked if I’d be interested in coming to Simon & Schuster in some capacity. I said, yes, that’s intriguing, but the time didn’t seem right. I had just arrived at the Pulitzers and I was really only in phase one of my strategic plan — I had a short-term and a long-term strategic plan — and I wanted to get through more of it. So I told him that it was terribly flattering but the timing wasn’t right. And we kept talking.
Then when the publisher position became open, he reached out to me and that was about a month ago and asked if I’d be interested in that. And I thought, hm, that is intriguing. And it was just such an amazing role that I couldn’t turn it down. When I met him two years ago we really hit it off over a very long lunch — I think 2.5 hours — and talked books and journalism. It’s very clear that he was one of the biggest minds in the business. So the opportunity to work with him, and to head up the flagship imprint was just something I couldn’t refuse.
SY: It's a great stable of authors, obviously, but are there you are particularly excited to work with?
DC: I have three lists: I have a list of authors that I’d love to cultivate. I have a list of books that I’d like to commission. And then I also have a list of emerging authors.
I mean who wouldn’t want to work with David McCullough or Stephen King? But really, I’m thinking to who I can bring in and how to expand our corps of amazing authors.
SY: I read that you're really interested in narrative nonfiction. Is that because of your journalism background or do you think that it’s particularly timely?
DC: I think so, yes. I think it’s timely, it speaks to my training and experience. And also there’s so many topics that need to be covered right now that fall into that category, whether it’s politics or race relations or books around covid. There’s gonna be a lot to say in the years ahead.
When I was at the New York Times I was known for spotting stories that potentially were books. I have a friend who had written a story, and I said, “That's a book.” And she said, “No, I don't think so.” I said, “Just talk to my agent.”
She talked to my agent and the book became a huge blockbuster book and she's on her second book.
Now whether it was that or championing reporters at the Times whose work I thought could be elevated to the front page, I love to get excited about the stories people are telling and help them elevate those stories. I really plan to obviously get to know our marquee authors and work with them, but the chance to bring in new and emerging voices excites me.
SY: As an author and now producer, are there certain things that you absolutely need to have in the production like either casting or talent?
DC: Oh I’m a producer and thankfully I’m working with an amazing, incredible team. I defer to them because they’re the experts. I’m not a movie person, I just wrote a book. I have had a lot of input on the script, but on casting and all the other decisions that have to be made, I trust them. They’re superstars and they know what they’re doing.
Denzel Washington is directing, Michael B. Jordan is starring and Todd Black of “Escape Artists” is executive producing, and I could not ask for more support. They’re incredible. These guys — we talk about all the time — we will be friends long after this movie wraps up.
I’ve just developed a special bond with them and their families. And I’m so grateful not only to have that in my life, but for my son. His father isn’t here, so to have strong, supportive, empathetic men in his life — it’s something I’ve wanted for him. We have friends and family, but these guys, they’ve just been incredibly generous to us and I feel like they’ve become family.
SY: Speaking of your book, you wrote this book about grieving and going through difficulty and mourning, and sadly that's something all of us can relate to in some way or another right now. Do you have advice for how to grieve and mourn?
DC: I'm so glad you asked me that. Thank you. I do, having come through the other side of this.
I had never lost anyone in my life before Charles and had never gone through that. I will tell you grief is very visceral. It's very personal. It hits everyone differently. But there are some universal things. When you're going through grief it goes in stages. In the first stage, honest to gosh, success one day may just be getting off the floor. That day that you get the news that your loved one died. Success many weeks in may be getting out of bed and brushing your teeth, I mean that. It's baby steps.
And I was surprised at how physical grief is, how it hurts physically. It becomes hard to breathe.
People say, “Take things day one day at a time.” When you’re going through grief sometimes it’s one hour at a time or a half an hour at a time, but eventually you look up and a month has passed. And then six months. And then a year. And I never thought I’d be able to say we’re happy — my son and I — ever again. But we are. We’re tremendously happy and at first I felt guilty saying that. And so what I would say is that you survive one heartbeat at a time. It’s just about holding on and realizing that life is a series of phases. If you really love someone you lost, you never completely get over it. But you move onto a different phase in life and it takes a long time to do it.
I did a lot of management training when I was at the New York Times and I used to tell people there are times when your personal life is out of whack and your professional life is going great. And there are other times when you professional life is out of whack and your personal life is absolutely great. And you have to be able to maintain your sense of self until the equilibrium returns.
Having gotten through — not over — but through this grief, I can say: Bring it. There’s really nothing I can’t handle after going through that.
SY: Simon & Schuster has the John Bolton book and the Mary Trump book coming out soon, two big blockbuster tell-all books. Earlier this year, we saw a big uproar over the Woody Allen memoir [which was not Simon & Schuster]. Does everyone get to publish a book? Is anyone too toxic to publish? Like if Harvey Weinstein wrote a memoir, would you bid for it?
DC: Probably not. I wouldn't give him a voice. That would be icky and disgusting and not appropriate. So, no. I suppose that answers that.
Here’s what I would say: I would entertain listening to any book pitch. Any idea, and decide on a case-by-case basis.
SY: Do you read online? Or do you read printed books?
DC: I do both, but I love reading hard copies of books. I read them in bed, on the beach, in the bathtub, everywhere. I just love, love, love hard copies of books. They usually have either food stains on them or water on the edges. I take them everywhere. I’ve been doing that since I was like 12 years old.
I was saying to another reporter the other day that I have these reading glasses that have lights on both sides, because when my son was young he used to like to crawl in bed with me and he wouldn't sleep with the lights on. So I could turn off the lamps and turn on the lights with the glasses, and so I just got in the habit of doing that. I only sleep about three or four hours a night, so I usually wake up in the middle of the night and read something.
For a couple of years, when I couldn’t sleep I was reading cookbooks.