Looking after a Literary Estate sounds like 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…
I had the good fortune to be Joan Aiken’s daughter, and so I grew up in her world of stories. I did for many years go abroad to travel the other world, and I trained and worked in theatre. Although I was often asked when I was going to write my first book, it was still Joan’s world that caught up with me again, as she said:
‘Someone will have to look after the books when I go, and it’s going to be you!’
I now realise what a tremendous compliment this was, but it has taken me all of ten years and more since her death to understand what it meant. I had been steeped in her writing – and all the books she read aloud to me – since I was a child. Having read each new book as it came out, often reading manuscripts late into the night, I had unwittingly become 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 had attempted to prepare me, and given me a tour of her study – ‘Don’t call it the attic!’ as she used to say… I had drawn up a map of where everything was filed, although much of it was in boxes under the eaves and suitcases in between the rafters – the accumulation of fifty years and several house moves. When I brought 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 in order, then onto a spreadsheet, and then – truly miraculous – on to a complete 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!
My greatest supporter and guide has been Joan’s long time agent, Charles Schlessiger, who I first met 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 has only just retired at the age of eighty-one introduced me to the publishing world, and has patiently educated me with 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 is. Together we have lived through changes in technology which have radically altered the profession for writers today. Email and the internet make the writer’s life less lonely with opportunities for social networking, 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 the books I have been given to curate. Some, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, have remained in print ever since their first publication over fifty years ago.
I can see that 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 in my endeavour, my best help comes from the people Joan herself knew – her readers.
I am always enormously heartened by messages that come – literally – through the ether. These are the letters and reviews of her stories that turn up on book sites saying:
‘A long, long time ago I read a magical book…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…they are the ones who are really looking after the books!
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