I’m Still Writing About ‘Forgotten Authors’
I delivered ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ to my editor at Quercus about nine months ago.
Normally at this point one empties out the attic of the mind and refills it with the research for the next book. But the forgotten authors just wouldn’t go away. Admittedly, I worked on it for ten years and it wasn’t simply about to disappear overnight, but let me try and explain my thought processes after delivering it.
Many books failed to make the final cut. We argued about what was forgotten and what was not. One person’s touchstone novel is someone else’s obscurity. Some favourites were abandoned, some personal peccadillos crept in.
Kindle was transforming the way I read. I whipped through a 700-page novel without realising what I was embarking upon, because I had turned off the pagination. I say ‘whipped through’ – it took me a month; I’m still a slow reader. The book was HFM Prescott’s ‘The Man on a Donkey’, a novel about the rebellion against the Dissolution of the Monasteries. I’d been directed to it via another forgotten author.
That book was written in 1952, and is a forgotten masterpiece. Prescott’s work arrived at a time when sprawling epics were dying out. For every ‘Exodus’ or ‘Doctor Zhivago’ there were a dozen lean, mean little thrillers like ‘No Orchids for Miss Blandish’ that got in and out in 160 pages.
‘Blandish’ caused a sensation when it first appeared, for the gang violence it echoed of the 1930s and the nasty fate of its titular heiress. James Hadley Chase rewrote the book in 1961 to update the slang, much as John Fowles rewrote his fat metafiction ‘The Magus’ in 1977 with a different ending. Each of those endings is equally obscure and inconclusive. ‘The Magus’ was once humped around in every student’s backpack before tumbling into obscurity. It fell into the category of ‘heard-of but probably not read’. Still, it was left out.
In the back of my copy was a list of other books I was taking on holiday that year. Horace McCoy’s powerful novel about the dance marathons of the 1930s, ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’, was so short that it was eventually packaged with three more of his novels. We like to get value for money.
But short is just as good. ‘Walkabout’ by James Vance Marshall and Joan Lindsay’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ are deeply memorable without wasting a word, yet they are definitely novels, not short stories.
Lindsay’s ‘Picnic’ takes place on St Valentine’s Day 1900, when three schoolgirls and a teacher disappear while on a school outing at Hanging Rock in Victoria. What became of them? The author left strict instructions for the final chapter not to be printed until her death. Many remember the 1967 book and eerie 1975 film (you still hear its haunting score played in shopping precincts, weirdly). students studied it as part of their school curriculum. Did the secret chapter released after Joan Lindsay’s death cast a new light on the fate of the missing girls?
I started wondering; what other books had been rewritten, and why? Would that make a new section in ‘Forgotten Authors’? I started compiling a list.
Then I remembered I had already delivered the manuscript. It had been edited and was heading for print.
And I realised I was simply expressing a love of books, and going through the process we all tackle when deciding what to read. Which is why the forgotten authors will never be completely forgotten, long after the book appears on October 5th.