The Aiken Family Business – as seen by the New York Times in 1963
The delightful Charles Schlessiger of Brandt & Hochman, the New York literary agency, (who celebrated his 81st Birthday in 2014 while still at the office!) has died this week at the age of 86. He was Joan Aiken’s agent for 50 years, and only recently decided to retire; he was sad to give up his daily subway journey to the Agency’s offices in Times Square where he saw the passing of over half a century, and many changes in the publishing business, including the move from handwritten letters to email, and the introduction of electronic books – which he originally greeted with much suspicion! Throughout his years in the business he gained a reputation for his charm, courtesy and good humour, and for the wonderful stories he could relate of his vast experience and acquaintance in the publishing world. Honoured on the Brandt & Hochman website as the ‘Institutional Memory’ of the agency, having worked his way up from a young assistant in 1956 to respected and very senior agent by 2014, he became practically an institution himself.
As Lewis Nichols noted in the New York Times in 1963, in an article which accompanied the cartoon above, Joan was not the only Aiken producing books at the time he took her on. Her father, Conrad Aiken, Pulitzer prize winning poet and novelist, had just published his Collected Novels, sister Jane Aiken Hodge was becoming well known as the author of gripping historical romances, and Joan herself was celebrating the publication of her hugely successful children’s book The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – hailed by Time magazine as “One genuine small masterpiece!” and which had, according to Nichols already sold over 11,000 copies within the first few weeks and gone into a second edition.
Charles, who says he was initially nervous about taking on the author of a children’s book, read it at one gulp, and realised he was on to a winner, and remained one of Joan’s greatest fans and supporters ever afterwards, assisting with the publication of more than 100 further books – children’s novels, thrillers, Jane Austen spin-offs, story collections plays and poetry – ably and delightedly handling the full flow of her unstoppable creativity. Even since her death in 2004, as new editions and translations continued to come out yearly, he would often shake his head, rueful but admiring, and say “Wow, God bless her…!”
In the early days, when he was still addressing her with charming formality, (and by airmail!) as ‘Dear Miss Aiken’, he wrote:
“I suppose I am counting my chickens before they are hatched, but I am delighted to be working with you, and I know this is all going to work out!”
It certainly did.
Another of the early letters from Charles written in 1963 reads:
“I’ve read the collection, WITH MURDER IN MIND ( later published as The Windscreen Weepers ). If I wrote you my reaction to all the stories this letter would turn into quite a tome. Let me just say that I think JUGGED HARE is one of the most delightfully ghoulish stories I have ever read…”
Joan kept all her letters from Charles, which soon began to mount up, as did hers to him, and soon they were not only corresponding but meeting frequently, as Joan flooded his New York office with stories, and began to be published regularly in the USA. When in 1976 Joan married American painter Julius Goldstein, and began to spend half her year in Greenwich Village in New York, they all became close friends.
Along with finding publishers for Joan’s phenomenal output, Charles was also amused to have to advise on occasional language bloomers which needed ‘translating’ from English to American. For example, of one of her modern novels he wrote:
“On page 64, if an American girl were tired from too much exertion and found out that she was ‘knocked-up’, she would be a mighty surprised girl!”
For an English reader this would mean she was exhausted – but since the Hollywood movie of the same name came out more recently, I guess no-one in England would now be unfamiliar with the phrase’s more current meaning…
Charles introduced me to the owners of Small Beer Press, huge fans of Joan Aiken, who have now published three of her story collections; here we met for the launch of The Serial Garden in 2008 at celebrated children’s book store, Books of Wonder, together with another admirer, Michael Dirda of the Washington Post. I returned to New York in 2012 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and as Joan’s daughter and literary ambassador, with the help of the Brilliant Bank Street Bookstore we hosted an evening of celebration for her acclaimed classic children’s book. Rather alarmingly it turned out to be just days before the truly devastating hurricane Sandy hit town, and so it was not until some time later, when Charles disclosed news of his upcoming 80th birthday that it became obvious that we should have been having a double celebration!
Joan’s father, poet Conrad Aiken died in 1973, but his work continues to be published and honoured, and her grand daughter Arabel Charlaff, therapist and literary consultant, who worked for the Feminist Press in New York, also did a spell as an intern in the offices of Brandt & Hochman. Charles kindly and ably supported us through the last fifteen years since Joan Aiken’s death, and I will miss his gracious messages, his delightful phone calls and the encouragement he has always given with the handling of the Aiken Estate. Usually I would send him these posts, for his comment and enjoyment, and it is very sad that for the first time he is not there to read this one.
So here’s a heartfelt Thank You, Dear Charles (and Brandt & Hochman!) for over fifty wonderful years, as you cared for four generations of the Aiken family.
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Charles with Gail Hochman celebrating his 80th Birthday at the New York office!
(with endless help from Charles!)
Joan Aiken believed that encouraging the development of imagination in our children would be the key to the survival of the human race, and the surest way to create hope for the future; perhaps this is the reason why we must now rely on our young people to lead the way for us on climate action.
“How can we cultivate this faculty in our children?” she wrote, and went on to imagine that perhaps in every school there could be special classes which would:
“Teach children to use their own wits, to amuse themselves, to keep themselves hopeful, to solve apparently insoluble problems, to try and get inside other people’s personalities, to envisage other periods of time, other places, other states of being…”
…and of course her own way of passing on these ideas would eventually be by writing and sharing her stories, but this was something she realised that she too had to learn. Taught at home in an isolated village until the age of twelve, she found relating to the world of other people extremely difficult and threatening when she first arrived at a small boarding school:
“Training the imagination takes time and energy. Most adults keep their imagination at low level voltage a lot of the time – we have to; otherwise life would be too grim. We are so bombarded with news from outside; unlike our ancestors who knew only what was happening in their own villages or cities, we know, all the time, what is happening in the whole world. Nevertheless we need to help children retain their early curiosity, their urge to explore.”
The picture of the small girl above, proudly displaying her own statement amongst hundreds of others expressing themselves in a sea of placards during a recent demonstration, seemed to be a perfect expression of the kind of encouragement we can and must show our children; she is being encouraged to express her own self and allowed to be proud of it.
In Joan Aiken’s writing on imagination, and ways of teaching our children to be hopeful and positive in their contribution to the challenges of life, she concluded that patience, and indeed our own hope for the future are very much a part of the process:
Joan Aiken was often asked to speak about education and writing for children; she was a huge advocate of reading aloud to children and encouraging discussion, and many of her ideas about reading and writing for children can be found in a short book called
Goya’s haunting picture and its resonant title, often taken as the manifesto of the Spanish painter, was the inspiration for Joan Aiken’s science fiction fantasy The Cockatrice Boys. Her magpie mind was constantly on the alert – following the news of the day about scientific discoveries or global disasters, and the work of other artists and writers past and present, who shared her concern about the ever changing world in which we find ourselves, and our ability to keep up with it.
Goya’s picture shows the sleeping artist, unaware that he is surrounded by creatures of the dark, as a commentary on the corrupt state of his country before the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth century. Joan Aiken took the idea, and the imagery of the picture, and used the theme to write about one of the disasters of her day – the sensational discovery of the hole in the ozone layer above earth, nearly twenty-five years ago.
In her fantasy novel, it is the dereliction of human awareness that creates this threat to life on our planet and leads to an invasion of monsters – the Cockatrices of her story – who are descending on the earth through the ozone hole as the embodiment of evil, the personification of all our weakest impulses.
These days the popularity of the Dystopian novel shows that there is an ongoing will to imagine and thereby possibly prevent the destructive forces of dissonant societies who are carelessly, or even consciously depleting the riches of the earth and destroying the future for our children. Joan Aiken, like Goya, and the current breed of fantasy writers, believed that the power of the imagination, used alongside reason and enlightenment, could save us from our own folly, or even the power of evil.
But she also believed that the opposite was true – that our failure to remain alert to dark forces, in reality, as much as in our imagination – falling into Goya’s ‘Sleep of Reason’ could be equally harmful.
Here Sauna, the young heroine of the novel, sent on the train with the Cockatrice Boys to fight the invaders because of her mind-reading abilities, asks the archbishop, Dr Wren, whether there has always been evil:
It is up to all of us to maintain that delicate balance –
not lend our power to forces created by greed and wickedness
all we have to do is stay awake….
Joan Aiken’s own manifesto, The Way to Write for Children is a guide to the importance of children’s writing, in which she emphasises the need for every child to have access to books, stories and myths to stimulate their imagination. She writes:
“A myth or fairy tale interprets and resolves the contradictions which the child sees all around him, and gives him confidence in his power to deal with reality. We don’t have angels and devils any more, but we are still stuck with good and evil.”
Here are seven more stories about the Jones family and their riotous raven!
Arabel and Mortimer are back to cheer your autumn evenings in a bumper edition of Joan Aiken’s crazy tales with all the wonderful Quentin Blake illustrations.
Last seen on Jackanory read by the wonderful Bernard Cribbins, these stories have not lost any of their humour over the years, but you may have to explain a few things to younger readers – Joan Aiken couldn’t resist giving the Joneses some of the craziest inventions of the time for Mortimer to wreak havoc with in their house in Rumbury town London NW3-and-a-half…
When dreadful spoilt cousin Annie comes to stay, Joan Aiken supplies her with radio-controlled tiddlywinks, a solar powered skateboard and a computer guitar that makes up its own music – she was ahead of her time, but not by very much! And of course these terrible toys soon lead to trouble:
I will leave you to imagine what happens next!
In another story Mortimer makes a very unexpected new friend – we meet Archibald, who in his younger days had been a cracksman’s mog (that is, a burglar’s assistant!) and was able to open any door or get down any chimney… Archibald is summoned to the Jones house in Rainwater Crescent, because Mrs Jones, while preparing to entertain the Rumbury Ladies’ Kitchen Club to a coffee morning, and frantically busy trying to make an enormous number of prawn fancies and iced macaroons, has seen a mouse!!! And not just any mouse, but the Advance guard and A.A. Scout for an army of starving mice from Cantilever Green who are desperately looking for pastures new, and who has been lured into the Jones kitchen by the delightful smell of all those macaroons:
So Arabel is sent to Mrs Catchpenny’s corner shop to borrow Archibald, and of course Mortimer goes along for the ride. The combination in Mrs Jones’s kitchen of Archibald, Scout F stroke B7, a fantastic amount of ill-fated ‘cordon-blue’ cookery (made with the help of all the Jones household’s trouble saving electrical equipment) and Mortimer, makes a great tale… oh yes, and also there is a certain Professor Glibchick desperate to record Mortimer making his famous one word pronouncement…except this time Mortimer says Nothing.
But when Mortimer confronts Archibald, who is by now happily well fed (he opened the larder door and found the prawns, then slept on the trays of warm macaroons in the airing cupboard and is now covered in crushed macaroon, clotted cream and feathers) he is entranced, and thinking he is a giant owl, starts pursuing him up the stairs:
Did we know Mortimer had a mother? Nevermore!
This is a mere ‘taster’ of the delights on offer in this wonderful long lost collection, which also includes Mortimer’s Cross and the fantastic Mortimer’s Portrait on Glass, where Mortimer meets an ancient ancestor in Ireland. I have to confess these stories still make me laugh out loud, but these days, something we absolutely need is a bit of craziness….
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Puffin edition also has added Extras – Do you remember…?
and Much more!
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