I present to the reader Chandra Wohleber in relief, a diptych. When I visited publisher Tim Inkster at The Porcupine’s Quill, he related to me that Leon Rooke, the 87 year old Governor General award winning novelist, had told Tim he thought Chandra was the best editor he’d ever worked with. To which Chandra, when I relayed this, said: “That’s incredibly humbling and Leon is being altogether too kind. I absolutely cannot be in the league of some of the editors I know he’s worked with.” In contrast we have why Chandra set off from Canada in the mid-90s, first to London, England, then New York City: all because a professor at McGill University told her to get out into the world to figure out what she wanted to do. “My honours adviser, Kerry McSweeney: I am still deeply grateful to him for words of advice and guidance.” So you see Chandra in two-part relief, side-by-side: eschewing her own accomplishments while providing acclaim to others for their support.

I first met and then became familiar with Chandra via email — it was only recently that we sat down in person for a morning coffee at a cafe in her Ottawa neighbourhood. In 2018, as a freelance editor for The Porcupine’s Quill, Chandra selected my submission, the novel Fair, from their slush pile (that great mass of unsolicited manuscripts), read the thirty pages I’d submitted, and sent me an email stating she’d liked what she read and would I please send the rest. After a few months (for me, excruciating; for her, overburdened as usual by editing commitments) came my gift shortly before Christmas, an email that stated she’d recommended they publish Fair.

The obvious assumption for the reader is, based on that personal experience, I must readily agree with Leon Rooke. But here’s the thing: several months ago I contracted Chandra directly to assist me in putting a submission package together for my latest novel. Her response was to put the submission on hold — the novel was awful (my words, not hers directly, she’s far too kind). We went back and forth on the multitude of deficiencies she saw in the work and, in the end, I’ve set it aside to focus on something else that’s been long bubbling in my head. That’s the basis of my confidence in Chandra Wohleber — her professionalism, her editorial integrity is rooted in her genuine commitment to her craft — she’s not taking your money to tell you what you want to hear. As for the person, Chandra Wohleber, well the more I’ve come to know her the more I see her as a fabulous, complex character in a future novel.

Where Chandra grew up in Britt Ontario. Her parents still live there.

Chandra was born February 1974, in Britt, Ontario, a tiny community on the shore where the Magnetawan River empties into Georgian Bay, about 70 kilometres north of Parry Sound. Her hippie parents had left the United States of America a couple of years before, taking over a cabin or “fishing camp” her paternal great-grandmother owned. The place had been a long-time family getaway for relatives from Pittsburgh — and distinctly only in the warmer weather — something her parents discovered that first year when winter came fast and hard as it does north of Parry Sound. It’s a wonder they didn’t freeze to death. But they survived and that fact brings us back to how we view the word hippie. Chandra’s parents, Barbara and Stephen, were not the cliched 1960s free-love, acid-tripping, Merry Pranksters roaming the countryside in Ken Kesey’s converted bus Further. We are talking grounded, nature-focused people, who embraced self-sufficiency, believed in hard work, handmade furniture and clothes, healthy eating (no processed foods), healthy living, and forswearing consumerism as a way of life. No television for many years, or ready access to consumer culture.

Well educated, her mom graduated Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and her dad the Institute of Art in Cleveland. They’d both been born and raised in Pittsburgh and Chandra thinks they met at an event where all-boys and all-girls high schools came together. They both attended Catholic non-coed high schools. Her mother became a teacher at Britt Public School (eventually becoming principal), and her father an artist who also made furniture, and rebuilt antique wooden boats. Together, her parents completely renovated the uninsulated fishing cabin, adding a second storey, and continue to live there fifty years later. Chandra, along with her brother who was born two years after her, attended the small elementary school where their mother taught (at its height attendance reached about 120 students, for grades K to 8). When she began high school, it became a socially isolating experience because of the distance between her home and Parry Sound High School. The bus arrived on her road at 7:05 every morning and it was a ninety minute journey picking up other students before she arrived. Not surprisingly, Chandra fast-tracked and finished the university-eligible five-year program in four years.

Winter view from the porch of Chandra’s childhood home, looking onto the Magnetawan River just before it meets Georgian Bay.

One school activity Chandra did engage in during high school (others were cross-country skiing and being yearbook editor for two years) was cross country running and indoor and outdoor track and field, and her coach tried to convince her to follow a potential athletic scholarship to Bishop’s University in Quebec. Although she hurt her back, which provided an excuse not to pursue the athletic option, the truth was she wasn’t at all interested in sports once graduating high school. She did go to Quebec, but she chose McGill, starting in January after she cut short a planned 9 month exchange program in Madrid. Unfortunately, the mother of the family she went to stay with expected her to be an au pair and that certainly isn’t how student exchanges are supposed to work. During the 4 months that she tried to duck the au pair duties, she made a habit of leaving the apartment and spent time taking mostly day trips to other parts of Spain, though a few longer ones, and walking all over the city to explore art museums and parks, and afternoon classical music recitals that were free.

Gardner Hall residence, McGill. Chandra is front, far left. The girl next to her, Peta, remains a close friend to this day.

Arriving at McGill, Chandra built on the intellectual and artistic life she grew up in and threw herself into a wide range of activities. She became the Secretary of both the English Students’ Association and the Art History Students’ Association as well as joining the Scrivener Creative Review as a fiction editor and later working as an editorial assistant at the Alumni Magazine. Scrivener Creative Review is a Canadian journal of arts and letters that operates out of the McGill English Department and showcases new talent in poetry and short fiction, as well as visual art. Chandra’s editorial skills came to the forefront early when she was the only person on the editorial team who championed for publication a short story by David Bezmozgis. Scrivener did publish the story. Bezmozgis has gone on to be an award winning fiction writer with four books published and is currently the head of Humber College’s School for Writers.

Montreal, 1997, dinner with the Scrivener crew. Chandra is 2nd from the front, right side.

Books are central to Chandra’s life but beyond studying literature and learning to edit, she also learned another stage of print: selling books. Parry Sound Books was established in 1988 but Chandra’s parents knew the owners long before they moved to town, having met them — where else — at the Mariposa Folk Festival. When Chandra returned to Ontario from Montreal each summer she lived in Parry Sound so she could work at the bookstore. During her last year at university she decided to heed Professor McSweeney’s advice and go out into the world. At the time there was a program available that provided a student-working visa to be eligible to take a job in England. Equipped with bookselling experience as well as her education, she landed a job in London on Charing Cross Road at Shipley who billed themselves as Specialist Art Booksellers. Her education was not only literary — during her four years at McGill most of her electives were in art history. Throughout her life, Chandra has been immersed in the world of art as well as literature.

Chandra stayed in London for two years, the extent of her work visa, and spent most time in the back of the shop, invoicing, bookkeeping, cataloguing, fulfilling orders by mail — these were the days before the on-line shopping boom. Rather than return to Canada, on whim she decided to take advantage of her dual citizenship because of her American parents. While trying to figure out how to find an affordable place to live in Manhattan, she couch-surfed with her friend Lauren in Washington D.C., travelling together a few times to apartment search. A better solution came when she learned that one of her cousins, Chris, who lived in Manhattan’s East Village, happened to be looking for a roommate. At Shipley’s in London she’d established a connection to Hacker Art Books in New York, where she immediately found employment.

Shipley Specialist Art Booksellers, Charing Cross Road, London.

Now here’s the beauty and the rub. By all accounts, if you are a book and art lover with Chandra’s experience, you have found a terrific place to work. On his death in 2000, The New York Times wrote, “Seymour Hacker, whose 57th Street bookstore, Hacker Art Books, was a well-known fixture of both the art and book worlds for more than 50 years….A small, bright-eyed man fluent in four languages, Mr. Hacker was one of the last booksellers to learn his trade from the bookmen whose stores and stands once lined Fourth Avenue between Astor Place and 14th Street.” Talk about the romance of books and art!

Ahh, but the rub: the work was only part-time for which she was paid $8.50 per hour. In New York City, only the imaginary Friends of pop culture lore can survive on such wages. Chandra took an additional part-time job at another bookstore (Rizzoli) for the whopping sum of $6.25 per hour, a place where you actually punched a clock — one minute late equalled a fifteen minute deduction in pay. As much as she loved it all she simply could not make a living. At first she moved to working in an art gallery as a receptionist but that turned out to be nothing more than sitting at the front desk buzzing in people. Chandra couldn’t leave the desk at all to do the work she’d been promised was part of the job: cataloguing the gallery’s extensive library of art books.

1999, inside Shipley’s with colleagues who remain close friends. L-R: Alexandra, Chandra, Lindy.

Sometime earlier, she’d applied for a job at Overlook Press from a newspaper ad, run by the late Peter Mayer, whom she describes as a “rather quirky guy”, who had been head of Penguin Books in the UK and had come back to take over his father’s printing company and turn it into a publisher. Though there were only about fifteen people total in the company, two were employed as his personal assistants, underlining, I suppose, Mayer’s quirkiness. Chandra was one of the two. The experience did allow her to move completely into her new field, landing a job as an editorial assistant at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG). The “whims, the random thoughts” that took her from Madrid to Montreal to London to Manhattan behind her, she settled into a career though, perhaps, settle is not our word. A number of things tangle together at the same time.

Chandra’s cousin’s apartment was something of party-central, which was a lot of fun for a time, until some of the people who hung out there began to behave in disturbing ways. Her best friend at the time was a gay man so she spent a lot of time in gay bars and dance clubs. The complexity of life in Manhattan was how to be able to afford it on the wages earned yet at the same time live as an adult, meaning without roommates or at least without a roommate who is not your life-partner.  She found a place that seemed exceptionally well-suited,  The Webster Apartments billed as “safe, flexible, and affordable housing for women in NYC.” Rent scaled-to-income, she had her own room, with access to a garden, library, piano room and a cafeteria included with the rent. Chandra’s experience living in Manhattan was that where you lived mostly meant where you slept and did laundry. Beyond that, all the people she socialized with took advantage of everything the city offered when they weren’t working — the restaurants, the galleries, museums, and the bars. She settled in at FSG, where she “worked from 2000 to 2004 (and have been freelancing for them ever since), where I received the mentoring and experience that formed the primary basis of my publishing/editing career.”

With a pickle like that it must be Katz’s Deli in New York! Circa, 2002, Chandra having lunch with her friend Beth. Along with two others they founded Grapefruit: A Not-Quite Quarterly for the Bibliophile.

One of the things Chandra told me that she learned early on in this career was that she didn’t want to be an acquisition editor after turning down the work of a now-famous, award-winning writer. Chandra says she learned she preferred copy editing and didn’t want the responsibility of being on the hook for acquiring books that might lose money for the company — although when I look back at her championing David Bezmozgis for his early short story, and the fact she effectively acquired my novel for The Porcupine’s Quill, I wonder if she sells herself short in the manner of not readily accepting Leon Rooke’s praise of her great editorial skills. But maybe it’s I who should understand modesty over self-aggrandizement. 

One of the aspects of my latest novel that Chandra didn’t like was a rather cavalier episode I included regarding the protagonist’s distant experience with 9-11. With the 20th anniversary just upon us, I explored that in asking about her personal experience that day.

“I was working at FSG; I’m not a morning person but was attempting to be on time and was dashing in at about 8:55, out of breath and in a mild panic about being borderline late as I got into the reception area on the 11th floor, where the lovely receptionist Toleda Bennett was seated at her desk: calm and unruffled as she always was.

“Just as I was sprinting from the elevator my friend Aodaoin came dashing in from the hallway that led to the offices, so we almost collided in front of Toleda’s desk. Aodaoin said something like, ‘A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.’ I said something like, ‘What?? Well, that must have been a mistake in air traffic control …’ And then I went to my desk, but not for long. The tops of the WTC could be seen from the south-facing windows in our building (19 Union Square West). The second building was hit soon after and by then people knew it wasn’t an accident. I ended up in my friend Marc’s office; we were just looking out the window for a long time, and we saw the tower tops crumbling and imploding, slipping downward in slow motion.

Chandra as writer, conducting an interview for Grapefruit. The focus was on NYC’s independent bookstores and it lasted from 2001 to 2005.

“We were all told to stay in the building as no one knew whether other attacks might be about to happen in the streets or to other buildings. As everyone remembers, it was an impossibly beautiful early September day, perfectly clear blue sky, no wind, and pleasantly warm. No one knew what to do, and no one could work. Radios were on, we were looking online (though online news updates were of course rudimentary then). Some people walked to nearby hospitals, with the intention of donating blood, but after they waited in line awhile they were turned back: no blood was needed. Similarly, paramedics and ambulances were lined up ready to head down that way, but they too weren’t needed. It was very still, and quiet; a hush had fallen over the entire city. Sometime in the mid-afternoon it was decided we could be allowed to leave the office, but with trains and subways not running a lot of people were going to have a lot of trouble getting home. One of the departments had some drinks on hand and offered them to people as we left. Marc and I went outside and we sat in the grass in Union Square Park and some friends who lived or worked nearby came and joined us and we all just sat outside with our drinks, and doing nothing for a long time, waiting to find out what had happened and what would happen next. It was still warm and strangely beautiful and it was like being suspended in an unreal alternate universe.” 

We’ll leave 9-11, and NYC, there, and move to June 2006 when Chandra returned to Canada, moving to Toronto, thinking that it might offer a slower pace and less intense lifestyle. She had at this point been working at various NYC publishing companies, the year at Overlook, four years at FSG, about two years at Penguin, and a time at Felony & Mayhem — a small press that publishes mystery books. She had been freelancing on the side, as well as working at bookstores in the evenings and weekends. Although offered a job at Canadian publisher Key Porter, she says “I didn’t take the job as it paid $22,000, a salary I could not live on.”  She freelanced for a few months (for companies she’d worked for in NYC), and then was offered and accepted an editorial position at The United Church of Canada. “Great group of people in the publications department there! Not very religious, very fun, higher editorial standards than at some book publishing companies.”

Chandra’s friend Alexandra visiting NYC from London. Of course they’re in a bookstore. When I saw this photo I had to ask: are you sure she isn’t your sister?

Chandra tried out a few other organizations, such as Penguin Canada and Annick Press, as well as a stint at Type Books, before moving to freelance full-time in 2012. Through all of her roaming, trying to sort out her career, make a living salary, there is of course the question of personal relationships. The complexity of self, bound up with an incredible kindness and regard for others, scuttles us around the discussion, though directness and humour are not lacking. I remember early in our writer-editor collaboration, she’d mentioned the word partner a few times and I asked her directly — since I honestly didn’t know — if she was referring to a man or a woman. She laughed at my straightforward question, telling me that is one of the things she missed about NYC, New Yorkers are willing to be frank while in Canada people are so polite you are sometimes unsure what they are getting at. In any case, her partner at the time was a fellow she’d met through a co-worker her first summer in Toronto and she and the fellow remain good friends although they parted ways when Chandra decided to move to Ottawa for a change of scene. Over coffee on the patio of her neighbourhood cafe in Ottawa, a glorious early October morning with the threat of winter unknown, we chatted about relationships in general and I leave aside any further intrusive questions, her innate kindness demanding a respect that has nothing to do with the world-famous Canadian politeness. I can’t help to wonder, though, about that theme of Chandra short-changing herself — this is a person of immense talent, creativity and affection — as I wonder about seeing Chandra in two-parts, the woman with many friends and a great social life, yet still searching. On further inspection, perhaps that is why I think she’d make a great fictional character — the character arc never ends, always continues.

Chandra with her goddaughter Flora, who is Alexandra’s daughter. Lewes, East Sussex, England, 2011.

As for continuing her editing career? These days, she tells me, “the majority of my work (maybe three-quarters) comes from Americans, but I do also work for several Canadian companies. It’s just that our market is much smaller and so there’s less work from Canadians.” Her Canadian clients include, of course, Porcupine’s Quill, but also HarperCollins, Biblioasis, House of Anansi and Sutherland House. The question of continuing freelance brings up the love of work versus the practical financial questions. With freelance, she says, despite the fact “one is under deadline all the time and that’s stressful, I love the freedom of making my own schedule and I love the variety of work. Also the wide range of people one deals with. I like not being in an office, not having to deal with office politics. I am very happy not having to commute. (Or get on the move super-early!) And in-house I would be primarily a coordinator, whereas freelance I get to do actual in-depth editorial work.”

Measured against all that, however, as Chandra outlined: “The reasons to go back in-house somewhere would be mainly ones of practicality as one ages: benefits, pension, paid vacation and sick days. A set number of work hours. As a freelancer you don’t have any of that and it can make the work/life balance tricky.” She also listed for me the various menial time-sucking tasks for which there is no renumeration, like “invoicing, bookkeeping, and schlepping to the bank and post office.”

A particularly joyous photo because it was snapped in NYC, January 2020, just before the pandemic! L-R: Janine, Chandra, Stacey. Friends for 20 years.

I love that verb, schlepping. Looking back on it, in my corporate life, I was probably well paid for a great deal of schlepping. Another editor whom I count as a good friend, Lee Parpart, said to me once that she wondered if she shouldn’t have gone the large corporate route, for the financial security that comes with it. I understand the comment — those of us who made our careers in large organizations, whether working in the school system, corporate world, government bureaucracies, or academia, can often forget the challenges of other working life. Yet as I look at Chandra’s life, I see, perhaps romantically, a splendid life of varied experiences, a woman raised on the shore of Georgian Bay leading the artistic life on the inside of it all, because art does not exist only with the artist. Any good writer will tell you of the value, the partnership of a good editor. And if you know a writer who eschews the extraordinary value of an editor, well, they may in fact be a writer in name only.

Next up, Chandra’s postman when she lived in Toronto. Daniel Bryant still delivers the mail but before that he spent years in the film industry shuttling equipment as well as actors, all the while crafting and re-crafting “Mocha El Grande”. Maybe a screenplay, maybe a novel, finally becoming a short-story, one of five in his published collection: Re-Routed. Read all about that and Daniel’s connection to novelist Paul Quarrington and Giller Award winner Will Ferguson in the next Profiles From The Bright Side Of The Road.

I hope you come back.