Kent Carroll
on Jane Gardam

November 21st, 2009 by EVENTS

In 1999, I was the editorial director of Carroll and Graf, which I had founded some 15 years earlier. Phyllis Westberg, Jane Gardam’s agent then as now, called me asking if I would like to consider Jane’s new novel. I was familiar with Jane’s reputation, but had not yet read her stories or novels. She was “between publishers” as fine British novelists often were, and are. They had an American status akin to a great defensive shortstop in baseball who was a poor hitter, “good glove, no bat.” Such writers received enviable reviews, but didn’t sell. Beryl Bainbridge and DM Thomas and Anthony Burgess (Burgess sold but not nearly enough to earn out his advances) had been in this category and I had begun to publish them with success both in the field and at the plate, as it were. The Birthday Boys by Beryl and Dead Man in Depford by Burgess had given me confidence that there was a substantial readership for these talented writers. The novel by Jane Gardam that Phyllis sent me was The Flight of the Maidens. I much enjoyed the novel and also found a copy of The Queen of the Tambourine, the equal in artistry but a sobering indication of why her books had defeated the sales departments of other New York publishers. We published Maiden in 2001, to satisfaction all around, and I indicated my interest in the next book which turned out to be Faith Fox and which was released by C&G after we had sold the company and I had departed.

Two years later in London, I was at dinner with Salley Vickers, another remarkable English novelist. I had published Sally’s first novel Miss Garnet’s Angel. That evening, Sally asked if I had read Jane Gardam’s latest novel Old Filth. I allowed as how I had not, and Sally scolded me for being amiss. I bought the novel the next day, and before I had read fifty pages I agreed with Sally’s prediction that the novel would be acknowledged a masterpiece. I wrote Jane congratulating her and suffered the frustration of not being able to publish the book myself. Later that year I kicked a lamp post near my home in Greenwich Village while reading a New York Times notice that Old Filth had been shortlisted for the Orange Prize. I limped into Sant Ambroeus for my coffee and began to admit that I had arrived at or near the end of my extended holiday from publishing. Missing out on a novel as formidable as Old Filth was too much to forgo.

And then, much like the narrator of a 19th century British novel, I received a fortuitous telephone call from a literary agent who said he had met with a couple who were Italian publishers and who dreamed of opening a publishing house in New York so they could introduce neglected European literature to America. They were in need of an American partner. We met, I admired them and believed their idea could work if we kept our overheads low, very low, and also included English language authors starting with fiction, later, expanding to include comparable nonfiction. They agreed. I agreed. And Europa Editions was born.

After that meeting, one of my first calls was to Bruce Hunter at the David Higham Agency in London, Jane’s British agent, to ask if by some chance, and as unlikely as it surely must be, Old Filth was still available for the U.S. I had been at a dinner party in Washington, Connecticut a few weeks previously and had encountered Bruce but had not mentioned my regrets about Jane as I didn’t want to spoil a lovely early summer garden party. On the telephone, I told Bruce that I was returning to the game, and he told me that to his amazement and consternation Old Filth was still available and we made an agreement.

As I knew from Flight of the Maidens, Jane does not require much line editing. Adding to that was the benefit of having Penny Hoare at Chatto and Windus as her British editor. Penny’s reputation for skill and care is well deserved, so we set our edition of Old Filth directly from Chatto’s digital files. As of this writing, Old Filth is in its tenth printing and its sales are inching up on 50,000 copies.

In 2007, I was in London having lunch with Jane and the conversation, as it was meant to, turned to thoughts about her next book. Her paperback publisher very much wanted her to write a sequel to Old Filth, her cloth publisher was not so sure. Jane was positively unsure, and I thought it would be a mistake. I also didn’t understand how a chronological “sequel” would work. At the end of Old Filth, Betty is dead and Sir Edward is ancient. A prequel is mentioned and dismissed, and then Jane asks what I think of writing the story anew, the same time period, the same themes of marriage, the end of Empire. “Intriguing, but how might you do that?” I asked. “Introduce a new character, another voice? Someone who knew Betty and Edward?” “No, I think not,” said Jane. “But I like the idea, please think about it and call me.”

The call took place after I return to New York. We both came to a similar conclusion, or more accurately, Jane had a smashing idea that I quickly endorsed. And now, in late October 2009 arrives the marvelous companion to Old Filth. I suspect the pair of novels may come to be seen as the finest portrait of a marriage written in English. The same rich story, but this time told from the perspective of Betty. Old Filth was his story. This is hers.

Now that the choice about what story to tell has been made, the most significant help the editor can offer is one vital element, the title. Many were suggested. There were one or two I thought we could live with, until Jane mentioned “The Man in the Wooden Hat.” It doesn’t fit the common modern requirement for titles—short and new but familiar enough to be memorable (phrases from Shakespeare and the King James Bible are favorites). But I liked it, as did Penny. Her British paperback publisher hated it; “It doesn’t mean anything, it won’t remind readers of Old Filth, it’s too long,” they insisted. Jane balked. I encouraged. Bruce Hunter helped. Finally in a telephone conversation I said to Jane, “It’s your book, you get to choose. I suspect that as soon as you say “Wooden Hat” and nothing else, they’ll fold.” Fold they did.

My editorial responsibilities were then largely over. I read the manuscript and had a few comments, including one rather large error regarding Betty’s education that would have contradicted a description in Old Filth.

However, when working with writers such as Jane and Beryl, most of the editorial work is complete before the writing begins. During the writing, they may require some historical research assistance (interns come in handy here), or reassurance they are not taking too long and, yes, it is okay to set the delivery date and the publication date back a season. As I wear two hats at Europa as I did at Grove Press and Carroll and Graff, publisher as well as editor, the release phase of a new novel by Jane, the sell into accounts, the pre-publicity, the gathering of reviews, and the schemes for exceptionally effective publicity that are exceptionally inexpensive, can be exciting as well as satisfying. Still, there is nothing else quite like working with a writer, someone you love, as the handmaiden to literature that will survive us all. Isn’t this, really, what brings editors into the game, the chance for secondary immortality?

Kent Carroll, publisher, was the editorial director of Grove Press from 1975 to 1981. In 1982, he co-founded Carroll & Graf, where he was both publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He has been working as publisher for Europa Editions since its foundation in 2005. Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat was published earlier this month.

Posted in Editors Speak


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