Illustrious Alumni: Shirarose Wilensky & Paula Ayer Talk Mentorship

I’ve talked to a handful of Master of Publishing alumni lately, and somewhere in the conversation I always ask what advice these accomplished, successful women have for the next generation of publishing professionals. Their answers have been strikingly similar: work hard, accept opportunities, ask questions, and seek out mentorship.

And it’s that last point that I want to focus on today, both from the perspective of the mentees (Shirarose Wilensky from Arsenal Pulp Press and Paula Ayer from Greystone Books), and a mentor whose name has come up again and again (Nancy Flight from Greystone Books).

Ayer and Wilensky’s stories are similar in a lot of ways. They both completed the Master of Publishing program at SFU around 10 years ago; they have both done freelance work and have worked for independent publishers in Vancouver; and they are both local editors who have recently transitioned into roles with substantial responsibility.

Wilensky just took on the position of Editor at Arsenal Pulp Press after freelancing for the past few years; while Ayer became Editor at Greystone Books in the fall after spending nearly a decade working at Annick Press. As a current student in the MPub program, it’s been both reassuring and exciting to get a glimpse of where my career could also take me within the next decade when I talk to alumni.

“Take every opportunity that might be offered to you, talk to as many people as you can, go to events, and volunteer at the Writer’s Fest,” Wilensky suggests when I ask about nurturing your career path. Ayer lists all of the same things, and adds that you should also showcase your special skills.

And of course, they both speak to the value of mentorship, and cite the value of the connections they made in the MPub program.

“I can’t overstate the importance of mentorship. If there is a specific person you really admire, approach them,” Wilensky encourages, saying that a good way to find a mentor is to find someone who is doing what you’d love to be doing in the future. “Recognize and appreciate how important, valuable, and rare these relationships are.”

She highlights how mentors can share both professional and personal advice, and can give you those always important job recommendations. In return, she says, make sure show your appreciation for your mentor, who is likely very busy with their own career.

Ayer echoes her advice. “Use the connections you make—don’t be shy to send them an email, go to industry events, keep nurturing those relationships, and show people you can do good work.”

The editors are quick to highlight the mentors who have played significant roles in their careers. Ayer thanks long-term MPub instructor Mary Schendlinger from Geist Magazine and Colleen MacMillan from Annick Press who she says gave her opportunities, believed in her, and were brilliant teachers. Wilensky mentions Nancy Flight, also a past MPub instructor and current Editor Emerita at Greystone Books, whom many other alumni, Greystone employees, and MPub faculty have highlighted as being a VIP in the Vancouver publishing industry.

After hearing so many great things about Nancy Flight, I wanted to talk to her about the essential role she has played so many people’s careers over her own 45-year career in publishing (around 24 of those years were spent at Greystone).

“I love doing what I can to help foster their skills,” she explains, adding that it is always exciting to meet others who are passionate about publishing and show aptitude in the industry, pointing out the that the MPub program is ripe with talent. “And it’s wonderful to see people blossom, and see where they’ve gone with their careers.”

“It’s really important to me to encourage woman that they can do both [have a successful career and fulfilling home life],” Flight continues. “It’s wonderful to think that there are all of these young people who are more than ready to take on the challenges [in publishing].”

As a mentor, Flight notes the importance of mentees making their goals and interests known so that the mentor can tailor their advice to the individual relationship. However, she is quick to clarify that mentorships can be as formal or informal as you’d like—there is no one right way for the relationship to work.

Mentorships are a win-win for both parties: people like Wilensky receive great advice that helps them advance in their careers; while people like Flight are able to cultivate talent that they can later hire or recommend to another publisher.

Reflecting on the BC publishing industry, Flight confirms what we’ve been hearing from our many guest speakers all year: that the publishing community is very welcoming and friendly. “There is a feeling like we’re all in this together and we want to help each other.”

So don’t be shy, and reach out.