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'Cry, The Beloved Country' paves the way for 'The Grass is Singing'

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In search of a publisher
Doris Lessing Writer
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So, I had this novel in two parts. One was my beautiful comic idea which I wasn't equipped to write, and the other was a short part of it, which was really the young white assistant observing what was going on.

Now, this novel, which was set – this is in wartime, mind you – in wartime, when U-boats were patrolling the oceans, so if you did send something, most often it got sunk or... so I sent this novel over to England, and it was rejected two or three times, and that now took a... you know, I'm saying that it took months to send a thing, if it ever... ever got here, and if it did get here then it would have to go back again... months again, if it didn't get sunk. So it was a great practice in patience, this whole process of learning to be a writer.

So there I had this manuscript, and it suddenly occurred to me – I had a perfectly good book here if I threw away two-thirds of it. So I threw away the parts that didn't work, the... the young assistant with his high-flown ideas about morality and decency and justice and all that, and I left the rest, and that was The Golden... that was The Grass is Singing... what remained is The Grass is Singing – a short novel – which is the remains of the... the big mass of manuscript I had. Once again, thank God, I tore it up, and because that really wouldn't sink me. So...

So... so there we are: that was The Grass is Singing. And the next thing that happened was, I had this manuscript, and I'm supposed to be a writer. Somebody comes up from Johannesburg and says, 'Oh, I can get you a publisher'. Takes it down to Johannesburg and sells it to a publisher, whose name I've now forgotten, and then he said he couldn't publish it because it was too abrasive. You know, it was, for the idea of the time, it was very abrasive – couldn't possibly publish it. So there it was sitting, and I had a, you know, a copy of a... I remember a page, a page of agreement between me and this crooked publisher...

So I came to England with this child and no money at all to speak of, and a lot of very unsuitable clothes. And so there I was near the Portobello Road, in a place that was very badly bomb-damaged, with... the walls were all crumbling; it hadn't... war damage hadn't been there yet, so I was in a part of that, living in a room and another room with the walls cracking, and of course since I was a Rhodesian used to warmth, the cold was quite hard to bear. You know, bringing a few lumps of coal up from the basement several times a day, and of course you never, I was never warm, so... and then what happened was, I wrote, I had some short stories that I'd written, and I sent them to Curtis Brown, which was and is one of the big agencies, and it got to a woman called Juliet O'Hae, who wrote back and said – which is routine, but I didn't know it – 'Yes, very nice, dear, but have you got a novel?'

So I wrote back and said, 'I have a novel, but it's been sold to a Johannesburg publisher'. 'Let me see the agreement', says she, and she was so angry – she said she'd never seen anything so crooked and wicked and disgraceful. And she sent this man a telegramme – a telegramme, remember – saying, 'Release this author or I will expose you for what you are – a crook and a...' So he released me, and then he sold... she sold the novel over the weekend to Michael Joseph. The sub-clause... so much time has passed... is, of course, that Michael Joseph had been her lover, and she had a 'in' to Michael Joseph; she sold an immense number of books to Michael Joseph, and mine was one of them. And so it came out now.

Then what happened was, it... I got let... telephones from Michael Joseph saying, 'We are reprinting your book'. But since I was as green as I was, I thought this happened to everyone.

British writer Doris Lessing (1919-2017) was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her novels include 'The Grass is Singing', 'The Golden Notebook', and five novels collectively known as 'Canopus in Argos'. She was described by the Swedish Academy as 'that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny'. Lessing was the 11th woman and the oldest ever person to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: The Grass Is Singing, England, Johannesburg, Southern Rhodesia, Curtis Brown, Michael Joseph

Duration: 4 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2007

Date story went live: 21 October 2011