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How I criticised VS Naipaul

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My biggest mistake
Diana Athill Writer
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I made one bad mistake of my… of my own, but I really wouldn't… well, we didn't have a disaster, ever, that we lost a lot of money over, or anything. My biggest mistake was just inefficiency, or an act of bad memory, which was Peggy Atwood, Margaret Atwood, who we published her first book, before anybody knew about her at all. And I knew her quite well. She came over to live in England for a year. And she, you know, became a friend. I liked her very much indeed, and I loved her work. And then there was this awful thing that happened. Peggy wrote and said, 'By the way, next summer' – this was six months in advance – 'I'm going to be going to Australia for a sort of book tour'. And I did call up the sales department and say, 'Margaret Atwood's going to be in Australia in six months' time'. And then I forgot. I didn't make any note in my diary to remind them, which is what I should have done. I mean, the most simple, basic, common sense would have been to have made a note that in about five months' time, to remind the sales department that this was going to happen. And I didn't.

And Peggy arrived in Australia and went the whole way around it, and there was never a single copy of her book to be found wherever she was. So that was a disaster. We lost her. Her agent very properly said, 'You leave André Deutsch'. And it was my fault. Which, I'm happy to say, she now firmly denies. She says, 'Nonsense, it was awful old André's fault'. Where it wasn't André's fault, it was mine, I know, but I don't argue with her about that.

I did… it was very lovely, actually. What finally happened was… I think it was about the… about her third last book, my local bookshop… I'd been so ashamed of myself that I'd never wrote to her again, I never tried to get in touch. I just couldn't face her. And my local bookshop said, 'We've brought off a great coup. We've got Margaret Atwood coming to sign copies'. And at that point, I thought, really, I can't, after all these years. I mean, it was really something like 20 years. I can't be such a… go on being so sheepish about it. I must take my copy of this book and go and stand in a queue and get it signed, because she was going to be just around the corner.

So I stood there, in this queue. And there she was, and she looked very tired, because there was… she had just come off an aeroplane. She was looking down the queue and you could see she was, sort of, thinking to herself: Oh God, how many more left? And her eye ran down the queue, past me, and then came back. And a lovely smile lit up her face, and she said, 'Diana!' And when I got there, I said, 'Oh Peggy, how lovely to see you', and 'I thought you'd never speak to me again'. She said, 'Oh, don't be a fool'. And there we were, friends again. And what was even more magical was that… it was when she won the Booker. She told her publishing firm to ask me to the party, which was going to be going on all the time while the Booker evening was going on.

And Peggy and they would be coming to join us at the end, to say whether she'd… you know, to celebrate if she'd won it and to commiserate if she hadn't. So I went to this party and it was in a smallish place in Soho, a small room, packed with people talking at the top of their voice and standing shoulder to shoulder. And I simply couldn't hear a word. I'm deaf, and I couldn't hear a word anyone was saying. If I put my hearing aid in, it was… the noise was so awful that it nearly drove me mad. You couldn't even see the television screen against the wall, which we were supposed to be watching. And I thought, I just can't wait here until 11 o'clock tonight. I'll faint if it goes on like this. So I left, got in a taxi, and came home. Came upstairs, went into Barry's room, and he was watching the television, and it was the Booker Prize. I was just going to say, you know, I had to come home, and it was just the moment it had been awarded, and Peggy was standing there, and the words she was saying as I went into his room were, 'And there's another person I must thank, and that is Diana Athill, who published my first book here'. And it was so lovely. It was really the most extraordinary occasion. And so we're still very good friends.

[Q] Do you get enough of that, you know, in your job as an editor? I mean, it must… that would be nice, wouldn't it, when someone…?

Oh, I have fond friends, yes. I've had very good friends, being an editor.

[Q] I mean acknowledgement of your role. You know, is that an important thing?

Well, people who… you don't get much of it. You don't get much. I mean, people… the mere fact that they accept what you say, which mostly they do. If you talk sense, they accept it, which is what… the best you can expect, usually. It isn't often that you get high praise.

You see, chiefly, of course, the most important people that one edits, or is the editor of, don't actually need any editing at all. I mean, they just… Vidiadhar Naipaul, Jean Rhys, John Updike, you don't have to change a word. I mean, they would be horrified if you did. You wouldn't dream of it. So all you're doing, really, is writing the blurb and giving them lunch, and saying, 'Darling, you're wonderful'.

[Q] Which is quite a nice job, really.

Lovely job. Lovely job.

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: Australia, André Deutsch, Margaret Atwood, VS Naipaul, Jean Rhys, John Updike

Duration: 6 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008