I teach writing and I write. That’s what pays my way in life. Recently I wondered what is most important to me – is it teaching, writing, academia? The answer was quite clear. Books. But that was an incomplete answer.
Books fill my shelves, they stack up on my Kindle, but that’s a library to keep me supplied with reading. Part of my library helps me teach or guides my research. Individually they are not important to me. I could let all my books go. Sooner than build more bookshelves, I cart bag after bag to the charity stores.
So it is not books that are important to me. It is the making of books.
Some of them are my own. I can write one in about three years but they generally take decades to complete. Draft after draft, one book rests while another moves forward. I wonder if a draft is complete, put it out into the world, and then measure the fullness of readers’ responses. If I sense any hesitation, the book comes back into my fold. It needs more work. When I write abook it has to be about the book and not about me. A book has to grow into its fullness before it heads out into the world. It carries the author’s last name in the way a child does its father’s, though I’d quite like them to have just their title.
In teaching writers, you guide them to write a good sentence first of all, with a shape that leads it to the next one. It’s an incremental game; you help writers build up their skills and their stamina. To produce a book requires perseverance and craftsmanship and inspiration and imagination and the long haul. It also needs the writer to get out of the way, to stop knowing what the book ought to be and actually allow it to be.
Not every student writer will write a book (or at least not a good book). The writing process still has great value on an individual level. It is a huge transition, however, from self-expression to writing that takes life in a reader’s mind. Writers with early flair often fall by the wayside while the dogged ones persist. Writing a book is not easy.
I have spotted the potential for books in friends, and helped to steer them home. At university level I take on PhD students. With my first, I saw the potential for a book in two pages among ten that were submitted. The part-time PhD took that writer five years. It consists of a novel, plus 20,000 words articulating its creative process. The book is magnificent. Called Rufius, it’s Sarah Walton’s debut, out in February.
It’s a Barbican Press title. I set up Barbican Press a few years back, because the making of books is what is important to me. I don’t need to write them, because while I write the sorts of books I want to read, others do so to. Writers I have loved and who helped shape me include Patrick White, John Fowles, Patricia Highsmith, Jane Bowles, Janice Elliott, James Purdy, Paul Bowles, Harry Crews, Mary Renault, Albert Camus, Michel Tournier, Mavis Gallant, Jean Genet. They are wonderful writers but hardly mainstream. As an independent press I can give writers like those their way into the world.
The writer Steven Saylor said Rufius would be unpublishable in the USA. It touches areas of sexuality that do not sit comfortably with a commercial house. So does Colin W. Sargent’s The Boston Castrato. It’s another wondrous book, as good as you’ll find. I came across it when I went to Lancaster University as an external examiner. Colin had written it as a PhD. I waited some years to see if it could find a mainstream home, and now I am proud to publish it. (It’s out next March.)
Books have made my life possible and expanded the possibilities of what I can become. I am a minority reader in terms of my tastes, but there are multiple thousands like me out there. My business is the making of books to fuel and fill those readers’ lives.