Sunday, November 23, 2008

Memories May Be Beautiful and Yet ...

Barry Forshaw, Fiona McIntosh, and Mark Sanderson

I was delighted recently to be invited to the annual HarperCollins UK Crime Fiction Dinner, along with many of my reviewer colleagues from London--even if the affair did end for me in what can only be described as a Twilight Zone-like moment.

HarperCollins publicity director Fiona McIntosh and her team had booked a private room at the exclusive Covent Garden restaurant Cloise Maggiore in King Street, just off the West End of London. This was a much better setting than last year, when we gathered in a more public venue and had to contend with the noise of other, non-crime-fiction revelers in our ears. McIntosh is a very busy marketer, as she looks after not only crime fiction for HarperCollins, but also co-ordinates the public-relations side of all the Harper imprints--Avon Books, Harper, Harper Perennial, et al. While we waited for others to arrive, she introduced me to the charming Amy Neilson, who has just joined her department--and is frantically reading all of the Harper titles due out in the near future. (She insists there are several welcome surprises in store.)

Slowly, the room filled. Joining the reviewers’ circle were Natasha Cooper, Laura Wilson and Barry Forshaw, Peter Guttridge, and Jake Kerridge. We greeted each other and chatted, catching up. “The elephant in the room” was, of course, news that Val McDermid, after 15 years with HarperCollins as her publisher, had defected to Little, Brown. Now, call it coincidence but it was interesting that Little, Brown’s press release was sent out on the morning just prior to the HarperCollins Crime Fiction Dinner. All of the guests at this meal undoubtedly wanted to inquire about McDermid’s departure, but we didn’t wish to unleash the elephant in our company. I did, however, touch on the subject by asking über-editor Julia Wisdom what she thought of the comments McDermid had made about this switch in her e-mail newsletter:
I’ve always said that writing is a process of challenge and change. Now it’s time for me to stand by my own maxim. After fifteen years, I’m moving publishers in the UK from HarperCollins to Little, Brown. It’s been one of the hardest decisions of my professional life, but the bottom line is that I feel HarperCollins just hasn’t been delivering the sales results I feel my books merit. For me, this is a time of mixed feelings. I’m excited at the prospect of working with a very dynamic team at Little, Brown, but inevitably I’m sad to part company with Julia Wisdom, who has been my editor for seventeen years and seventeen books. There’s no better editor in London than Julia and she’s a significant part of the reason I’m the writer I am today.
Wisdom said she was very moved by McDermid’s sentiments. But then we went on quickly to discuss the disappearance of another star author from HarperCollins’ stable, the late Michael Crichton. Wisdom remarked on how strange she’d always found it that Crichton, a medical doctor in addition to being a novelist and screenwriter, had dismissed fears of passive smoking as a health risk. I noted that he’d also considered global warming a fraud and was a supporter of the continued use of DDT. Sometimes things just don’t make sense.

It was at this point that Laura Wilson excused herself to outside for a cigarette, and I restrained myself from following, reaching instead for a piece of gum. (Ever since Elaine Flinn passed away, I’ve been trying to stop my own smoking--before it stops me.) Wisdom and I continued chatting, our conversation turning from Crichton to music. As it turns out, the first rock concert she ever attended was a performance by one of my favorite bands, and one that this writer often mentions in his work: the British psychedelic space warriors, Hawkwind. I know they are not very fashionable, but they did produce this extraordinary classic, penned by Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister of Motörhead, prior to his ejection from Hawkwind in 1975. I told Wisdom that I was very impressed to learn that she’d seen Hawkwind live (my own first heavy-metal concert was also played by that band, in Liverpool), and that my estimation of her was suddenly up to eleven. She laughed at my eccentric excitement over our mutual music history.

From there, we reverted to talking about books. Especially some of those upcoming next year from HarperCollins UK. Among them will be Olen Steinhauer’s newest work, The Tourist, as well as a novel called Snow Hill from literary journalist Mark Sanderson, who pens the Sunday Telegraph’s “Literary Life” column. This is where things started to get a little Rod Serling-esque, because as Fiona McIntosh introduced Sanderson, I looked over at him and sort of recognized his face, but thought it must be from some books-related event in the past. McIntosh went on to note that Sanderson’s agent was Jonny Geller, and that he’d secured a very large advance for his client--a fact I already knew from having read an item in The Bookseller:
Julia Wisdom at HarperCollins has bought British Commonwealth rights in a period crime trilogy from journalist and reviewer Mark Sanderson, who writes the Sunday Telegraph’s Literary Life column.

The deal was done through Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown, who said that HC “snapped up” the books on the basis of a partial manuscript in a six-figure deal. HC is understood to have paid £100,000 for the trilogy.

The novels are set in 1930s London around Fleet Street and the City, and feature a court reporter, John Steadman, and Matt Turner, a policeman from Snow Hill police station. “The books are based on research Sanderson did into rumours and scandals that came out of that station in the 1930s,” Geller said.
Following McIntosh’s introduction of him, Sanderson stood and modestly indicated that he was hard at work completing Snow Hill according to Wisdom’s revisions. (The novel isn’t due for release until next August.) He added how delighted he was to be working with HarperCollins and to be thought of as a crime writer. We all clapped in response, and raised our glasses.

It had been a pleasant evening, and I thanked McIntosh, Wisdom, and Amy Neilson for their hospitality. After bidding farewell to my reviewing colleagues, I was handed a goody-bag filled with HarperCollins book proofs.

Mark Sanderson came up to me as I was retrieving my trench coat, and asked if he could peek into my goody-bag. It seems that, as one of HarperCollins’ celebrated new authors, he didn’t merit such gifts. I told him to go right ahead and look.

He proceeded to rummage through the bag, and in the course of it he came upon a bound copy of the first three chapters from his own novel, Snow Hill. Sanderson yelped in excitement as he held it in his hands. I asked him to sign that sample for me, which made him blush, and he told me that it was the very first thing anyone had asked him to sign. As he was doing so, I said how much I enjoy his “Literary Life” column, and handed him my business card. He glanced at it quickly, noted my credits, and observed that he is a regular reader of both The Rap Sheet and Shots. Then, taking a closer look and noting my address, he asked if I was going home to Cheshire that night, which is quite a hike from London. I told him that Cheshire is where I live on the weekends with my family, but that during the week I have to stay closer in to London, in order to coordinate my day job and book-related work. Sanderson then told me that he was born in Cheshire, and I explained that I had gone to school there. He asked, “Which town?” I gave him the name of a Chester suburb, which made him laugh--and then caused us both to hum this tune in creepy unison. For as it transpired, Mark Sanderson and I went to the same primary school. He was one year older than I, and he was “head boy” for his year.

The memories came flooding back. We talked excitedly about our teachers, the headmaster, and all our weird mutual recollections. We actually didn’t know each other that well when we were in school, as he was in the year above me; however, as the school was a small village one, we had interacted. Heck, that was more than 35 years ago, and we’d gone in different directions for high school. But for those three years we had lived and been educated in the same village. Now both in our mid-40s, we were unexpectedly reunited by crime fiction. The UK has a population of approximately 60 million people, so one doesn’t expect such spooky coincidences.

Sanderson and I went back to the private room where the HarperCollins party had taken place, and told Wisdom and McIntosh of our discovery, but by that time their excellent wine selection had taken its toll, and I guess they thought my brain had been addled by listening to too much psychedelic heavy-metal music.

On the train journey home, I delved back into my mind, trying to dredge up memories of Mark Sanderson and the village school we had shared three decades ago. Who was it who said that life can often seem surreal? Oh yeah, that was me.

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