Sylvia K. Burack remembered
Published: March 5, 2003
|I was saddened when I heard the news that Sylvia Kamerman Burack, editor-in-chief and publisher of The Writer from 1978 to 2000, had died in Boston on Feb. 14 at the age of 86. |
But those bare facts cannot convey the energy and dedication that Sylvia Burack brought to her work at The Writer. Only the reminiscences of people who knew her and benefited from her labors can do that. I count myself as one of those fortunate individuals. My professional association with Sylvia began in 1983, when she wrote a letter congratulating me on a prize my book Chimney Sweeps had won and inviting me to write an article for The Writer.
I sent her a talk I had given in which I described a day in the life of a children's book editor and then went on to tell how I juggled those responsibilities with my other career as a writer of nonfiction books for young people. Sylvia amazed me by responding within a week! (Later I would discover that early replies were customary with her. She knew how eager authors were for word from editors, so she did her best to respond quickly, typing all the letters herself--she never had a secretary.)
She suggested that the talk could be shaped into not one but two articles, and proceeded to demonstrate what she meant by jumping in and editing it.
I was encouraged at first, but when I started to look over the manuscript, my heart sank. For one thing, Sylvia's distinctive scrawl seemed indecipherable. In addition, nothing I'd ever written had been so heavily edited, with whole paragraphs slashed out and others transposed two pages back or three pages forward. I almost tossed the whole thing aside in a combination of anger and despair. But when I took time to study Sylvia's editing, I recognized how astute it was. I made most of the changes she had indicated, and she ended up buying both articles.
She also suggested that I consider writing a manual for adults on how to write books for children. That suggestion resulted--seven years later--in Writing Books for Young People, which continues to be published by The Writer Books.
As with the articles, Sylvia wielded a strong editorial hand on the book manuscript. But her enthusiasm for the project never waned despite the many delays caused by my other commitments. What kept us both going, I think, was the vision we shared for the book: that it be of genuine help to writers, both new and established. That was Sylvia's unchanging goal in everything she did.
As she wrote in more than one editorial letter, "We always have to keep in mind that this kind of book will be used by aspiring writers as well as experienced ones, all over the country, and the more positive and specific and practical it is, the better."
Through the months and years we worked on the book, I got to know Sylvia well. We shared many dinners in Boston, during which I discovered her appreciation of good food and drink and her love of travel, the theater and mystery fiction. She had a sharp sense of humor--I can still hear her hearty laugh--and savored the latest publishing gossip.
Our friendship continued until her death. On a note last Christmas, scrawled in her familiar handwriting, she wrote, "Hope you are well and happy--and that you will get to Boston soon and call." I fully intended to do so, until a mutual friend phoned to tell me that Sylvia had died. But she won't die in my memories. I'll remember her as a fine editor and a spirited and caring human being. Most of all, I'll treasure her as an example of someone who held to her ideals amid the shifting tides of publishing and never lost her faith in good writing--and good writers.
James Cross Giblin is a frequent contributor to The Writer and a member of the Editorial Board.
Read the Boston Globe and New York Times obituaries.