Looking after a Literary Estate is a dream job, especially if you happen to be a reading addict – the danger is that you may never leave your room again, or in my case, the shed…but in these strange times, what could be better?
My good fortune was to be Joan Aiken’s daughter, and so I grew up immersed in a world of stories, but then went off to spend many years travelling the ‘real’ world, having trained in Amsterdam and Paris, working in theatre. Although I was often asked as a child when I was going to write my first book, I never thought writing would be my world – but it caught up with me in the end… one day my mother announced:
‘Someone will have to look after the books when I go, and it’s going to be you!’
I realise what a tremendous compliment this was, but it has taken me all of fifteen years and more since her death to fully understand the responsibility. I had of course been steeped in her writing – which was sometimes read aloud to me as a work in progress – since I was a child. Later, when I read each new book before it came out, often sitting up reading manuscripts well into the night, I unwittingly became an expert on her work – I was one of the few people who had actually read all of it – over one hundred books!
However, I was surprisingly new to the publishing business, given that it had been my family trade through three generations, and I struggled to grasp the scale of the job. How do you value a literary estate? It turns out to be a mathematical formula, nothing to do with the content of the work. The question was really how many books had she published, and where were they all? – in other words with which publishers and in how many countries? Where, more importantly were all the contracts?
My mother attempted to prepare me, and gave me a tour of her study – ‘Don’t call it the attic!’ as she used to say furiously… With her help I had drawn up a map of where everything was filed, although much of it was in parcels and boxes under the eaves, and suitcases in between the rafters – the accumulation of fifty years and a fairly recent house move. When I had to bring all the paperwork – let alone multiple copies of the books in every possible language – up to my house in London, I realised I would have to build a new room for it all – hence the shed!
First I spread the contracts out all over the floor and gradually got them into order, then onto a spreadsheet, and then – truly miraculous – on to a complete (I hope!) online Bibliography and a website – The Wonderful World of Joan Aiken . This is what I like to imagine as a virtual museum for her life and work, and it is much easier to keep in order! Weekly updates come on a Joan Aiken Facebook page or via Twitter and more news and background can be found here on the Blog.
My greatest supporter and guide until just last year was Joan’s long time agent, Charles Schlessiger. I first met him aged ten on a trip over to America to meet another of his clients – Joan’s father, my Grandfather, the poet Conrad Aiken. Charles who only retired at the age of eighty-one, introduced me to the publishing world, and patiently educated me with all his delightful grace and charm. He is the only other person I know who has read everything Joan Aiken ever wrote, and these days I see what a rare qualification that was; together we lived through changes in technology which radically altered the profession for writers and publishers today. Now the internet makes the writer’s life less isolated, and self-publishing allows many more writers to bring out their own work.
Over the last fifty years, fashions, particularly in children’s literature, have come and gone, but through all of this I have come to realise the real and lasting value of some of the classic books I have been given to look after. Some, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, have remained in print ever since their first publication over fifty years ago.
Keeping all of Joan Aiken’s work in print is probably an impossible task, there is so much new writing coming out which will be the classic material of the future, but my best help comes from the people Joan herself knew – her readers. My heart is gladdened by the letters and reviews of her stories that regularly turn up on book sites saying things like:
‘A long, long time ago I read a magical book about a lost slice of rainbow…and now that I have found it again (and passed it on to my eight year old!) I can die happy…’
‘The creativity is awe-inspiring, the writing beautiful and the stories exhilarating. I only wish I’d joined Dido on her adventures when I was 10 instead of discovering them at nearly 40!’
These are the people who keep me going – the ones who love to sit down with a favourite Joan Aiken story – because they are the ones who are really looking after the books!
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Still trying to think of the name of that long lost story? The Queen with the screaming hair? The man with a leg full of rubies? Get in touch – I’d be happy to help!
Contact me via the website or in comments below
Joan Aiken’s London Agent – Julia Churchill at A.M.Heath
New editions coming out can be found on Joan’s Author pages at Amazon