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Jean Rhys

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Being an editor
Diana Athill Writer
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Mostly, I mean a great many writers, fiction writers… Non-fiction writers, you see, are easier to work with, and you have to do more with them, quite often, because they're not necessarily very good writers, but they have very interesting subjects. And what they're trying to do is to express their knowledge about a subject. And there you can intervene sometimes, or have to intervene, simply to make… There was the famous case, my… my famous case, of my first time I ever had to work on a non-fiction book that was badly written. It was early in our career as publishers. So it was a book that… only because we were so anxious, we were looking for books very much. And this was a man who'd written a book about the history of the discovery of Tahiti. And it was quite obvious that he knew everything you could possibly know about this, I mean exactly what the captain of the ship had taken, what his equipment had been, everything. In minute detail. But poor old boy, he couldn't write at all. It was awfully difficult to read. I mean, it was really hopeless. So we said, 'Well, we can do this if it's edited' and André found someone who knew the Pacific very well, an old retired administrator or something who was looking for odd jobs to do, literary jobs that he'd thought he'd enjoy doing in his retirement. And we put them together. And this naughty old boy said he'd do it, and he took the book away, and he charged the poor man £200, or whatever it was. He hadn't done anything. And he'd just sort of read the first two chapters and decided it was impossible, I think… so this… we were in a very awkward situation, and the book was barely no better than it was before.

We'd put the boy… old man to a considerable expense. What were we going to do? Either pay him back that money, or what? So we thought, 'Well, we'll just have to do it ourselves', and that meant I had to do it. And so I sat down and I worked on that book. There was hardly a sentence, certainly not a paragraph, that I didn't have to pretty well rewrite. I sent it to him, bit and bit, and he was sort of struck. He was sulky about it, but he accepted it. When it was finished, it was published, and it was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement as a very, very interesting book, fascinating book, and beautifully written into the bargain. And he cut this out and he sent it to me with postcard, and I thought, 'Oh, he's saying thank you, thank you. How nice'. And I read his postcard and what his postcard said was, 'You see what they say about the writing? I always knew that all that fuss was pointless'.

I thought well, I'm just at that… that's the editor's lot. One just mustn't expect anything in the way of thanks. But, on the other hand, mostly, you did get thanks, because mostly you weren't going to such extremes. And when it was fiction, you did very little, because you didn't take on a novel unless it was good enough, really. I mean, you might have a little bit to say, here and there. You might have things like, oh, I don't know, you might say to him, 'Look, you describe this character's appearance on page 42, wouldn't it be better if you described it on page 11, when he first appears?' That sort of thing.

And on the whole, provided what you said made sense, in my experience, it was always accepted. If it went a bit too far and didn't sound like them, then they would say, 'No, I don't think that, I think that's not quite what I would say'. And then you said, 'Oh, okay, you're right'. Because I never wanted… you must let someone sound like they are. You don't want them to sound like you, you want them to sound like them. So that mostly, with… people say, 'Oh, she was a very distinguished editor, she edited people like Jean Rhys, VS Naipaul, and John Updike'. Of course, you didn't actually have to do a single word of editing on any of them, because it came in perfect. I mean, all you did was you read their scripts to see whether there were any typing errors in them. And what your job was, after that, was just saying, 'You're wonderful, darling', you know, as though they were actors. Giving them lunch.

[Q] You're not quite telling the truth, are you?

Well, yes.

[Q] That's not over-modest?

No. I mean, you then had to… you had to understand the book well enough to write a good review of it, I mean a good blurb for it, but… and you had to, sometimes, give a degree of moral support, I suppose. But with Jean, for instance, was a full-time person. What you were doing was you were being her nanny. I mean, you took her on. She came up to London, you went and filled her hot water bottle every night, because if you didn't, she scalded her hands. And took her shopping. Or arranged somebody else to take her shopping, because she was worth keeping alive. But otherwise, you were just a sort of attentive friend who had read the book and understood it, which is quite important to people.

Born in 1917, Diana Athill is a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She has worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she is now hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Tahiti, André Deutsch, Jean Rhys, VS Naipaul, John Updike

Duration: 5 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008