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India Cooper and the art of copyediting

The editor behind many of Oxford University Press USA’s highest profile titles was not a staff member. But is impossible to measure the significance of the impact she had on Oxford’s history, biography, and music lists. First hired as a freelance copy editor by OUP’s legendary managing editor, Leona Capeless, she became one of the most admired American copy editors, working for University of Chicago Press, and Macmillan, as well as other publishing houses, over the past thirty years.

India Cooper died on 17 May 2020, in Madison, Indiana, at age 67. Her final copyediting assignment this spring was for OUP, a biography of William Tecumseh Sherman that has already garnered praise—a fitting legacy.

Cooper was born on 24 July 1952, in Jackson, Mississippi, but grew up in Denver. After an early career as an actress and director in Chicago, she moved to New York City in 1990, hoping to find a day job where she could take advantage of her love of books and didn’t have to wear pantyhose or punch a clock. She moved to Indiana with her husband, actor Fred Burrell (who died in 2018), around 2005.

Among the 100+ books she edited for OUP were four of Oxford’s Pulitzer Prize winners and six volumes of the Oxford History of the United States. When writing about the series, she said that she “quickly realized that, blood ties aside, my relationship with the Oxford History of the United States is the longest, most stable one I’ve ever had.”

For their part, OHUS authors were enthusiastic about their relationship with Cooper. On hearing of her death, they have said that “working with her was a sheer delight;” that she was “the ideal copy editor:” and that she was “absolutely fabulous to work with.” One author recalled the letter India sent when she was assigned his book as “so wonderfully chatty and encouraging and enthusiastic about the big job she was about to take on.”

Of all the things at which she excelled, perhaps foremost was her ability to bring out excellence in others. Her editing was sensitive and never heavy-handed. While editing one manuscript, she added a characteristic comment in the margin to the author: “You have so very many fine, fine sentences, and this is one of the best. Really lovely.” She brought a special joy to her work, commenting, “Though I almost never get to meet our authors in person, I think back happily on moments of delight with each one—cracking jokes back and forth within the margins, each in our different colored pencil; me leaping up wherever I was to run and read a paragraph to whoever I could find, ‘Listen to this, I had no idea,’ ‘Listen to this, it’s beautiful,’ ‘Listen to this, it’s so sad’—and perhaps less happy but just as lively and just as memorable moments of frustration when no matter how many telephone calls or e-mails we exchanged, we couldn’t quite get that sentence right . . . but often, eventually, we did.”

As another one of the writers she edited said, “she found authority for quotes I couldn’t find. She found authority for ideas I propounded. She was like a co-author in important ways and I am so grateful. She made unclear thoughts crystal clear. What a powerful help!”

As an actor, Cooper appeared in several episodes of Law & Order, as well as other TV shows and movies. She also competed on Jeopardy!, where she was a five-day winner (when champions were limited to five appearances) and participated in four Tournaments of Champions. Authors and OUP friends were often delighted upon learning about her TV career and enjoyed looking up videos of her on YouTube.

Brad Rutter, a Jeopardy! colleague, shared this on Twitter:

Everyone liked India, because she was quite simply one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Affable, charming, gracious, and she was one of those people who when they ask you how you’ve been, you can tell it’s out of genuine interest and not just small talk.

Cooper had a marvelous sense of humor. She and her husband loved to travel and had driven through all of the 48 contiguous states. She often said that they were trying to figure out how to drive to Hawaii. If anyone could do it, she could!

Of her copyediting career, Cooper said, “Some people assume that makes me Maxwell Perkins. Some assume it means I push commas around. ‘Can you really make a living at that, since everybody has spell check?’ some ask.” Anyone who had the honor of being edited by Cooper knew that copyediting was more than a living; it was an art form in her hands. And her work will live on in the pages of so many books, invisible to most readers but absolutely critical to those books’ accuracy and mellifluous prose.

Respected, loved, and admired by all she knew, India Cooper will be greatly missed.

Featured Image Credit: by 3844328 via Pixabay

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