‘I finished the stories early in the morning and wanted to phone him straightaway. Then I realised that calling someone at 5.30am on a Sunday morning wasn’t very sensible.’ Last night at Edinburgh’s Central Library, Jamie Byng, publisher at Canongate, described the moment of excitement when he finished reading a batch of short stories from Michel Faber.
He managed to wait until 7.30am to make the call, which was promptly answered by the normally phone-phobic author. They had a lengthy conversation about the stories and the possibilities for publication, thus beginning a strong friendship – and publishing partnership. Faber’s writing career with Canongate includes the Whitbread-shortlisted Under the Skin, The Fire Gospel and The Crimson Petal and the White, set in Victorian London and described by the Guardian as ‘the novel that Dickens might have written had he been allowed to speak freely’.
Faber began the evening by reading a tantalising passage from a novel-in-progress, stopping just before his protagonists have sex in a motorway lay-by en route to an airport parting. The entertaining and candid discussion that followed, chaired by the literary agent Jenny Brown, addressed the relationship between author and publisher.
The speakers touched on the reasons why a successful author might remain with his original publisher rather than being lured away by the big London conglomerates. In the case of Faber and Byng, a shared interest in music is one, but a passion for literature and a frank interchange of editorial and publishing values are others.
Byng concluded the evening by mentioning a piece of advice passed down by generations of publishers: ‘Never expect gratitude from an author, but be grateful when you get it’. But it was clear that in this author-publisher relationship there was gratitude on both sides – and a story of literary integrity and achievement.
The event was organised by Edinburgh Central Library.
– Alastair Coats