It’s a peculiar reality of life as an editor in a literary publishing house that while you are constantly looking forward to the emerging front-list and the ‘good times just around the corner’, you are often reminded in this endeavour of past publications and the sometimes auspicious beginnings to the relationships that we now take for granted as defining.
In 2001, soon-to-be Labour peer but then Chairman of Faber, Matthew Evans, encouraged me to take to the road to fulfil my ambitions as a hungry editor keen to acqurie new talent. The message was clear: You won’t find anything sitting around on your arse, son. Get out there and find it. I clearly remember him recommending I head for Wales as Welsh writing might be ‘the next big thing’. This was after the Scottish renaissance spearheaded by Kelman, Welsh and Warner, and it would be another year till I did, indeed, find a Welsh writer worthy of that company, Owen Sheers. After seven years of Begbies and Morverns it was felt the appetite of the British book trade might be sated west of Offa’s Dyke, but it was north I headed, to St Andrews University, at the invitation of the great poet, Douglas Dunn.
The writer I ‘found’ was neither Scottish, nor Welsh, but Cumbrian. After my somewhat halting and ill-prepared address to a room of perhaps 8 students we retired to a St Andrews pub in the early evening gloom. It turned out of one of the students, a poet, was the barmaid, who generously poured me pints of Guinness occasionally bolstered by a couple of fingers of single malt. The barmaid had passed me her poems — I was putting together a journal of new poets for Faber at the time called First Pressings — in manuscript form and they had no doubt been politely received (by me, that is). But come closing time, in my cups and no doubt a state of some confusion, the neatly prepared clutch of perhaps 40 poems in the bar had been (politely) abandoned, as I said my goodbyes and made my way back to the BnB.
My good fortune in publishing Sarah Hall, one of the most feted writers of her generation, started to manifest at that moment. Thankfully Sarah, who was of course, the generous barmaid, pursued me into the St Andrews mist, and presented me for a second time that evening with her fledgling poems. The next morning I woke to a Full Scottish and started to read the work of the writer I had so nearly lost in a careless moment on a great evening with a boisterous group of idealistic, unpublished writers. And that was the first moment I anticipated the potential of the writer I’d encountered. Her poetry was dark, blooded; full of gothic menace. We went on to publish a couple of the poems in First Pressings, and after a prolonged conversation about a novel that was eventually abandoned, we acquired Sarah’s first book, Haweswater. The young poet had made her debut as a novelist. I love that book still, and it remains in print selling well on the backlist. Editors love their war stories around acquisitions. Thankfully in the case of Sarah Hall, there’s a happy ending, as we celebrate her magnificent 5th novel, The Wolf Border.