Just the other day I found out I was a Bloomsbury author. They sent me a royalty cheque for an academic book I wrote, An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature, that I thought had died a death when its original publishers, Duckworth, went under. I was rather chuffed as I like Bloomsbury books, although this seemed a sneaky, back-door way to belong to them.
‘Hey boys,’ I called to my menfolk. ‘I’ve just got a royalty cheque.’
‘How much for?’ asked my son.
‘Two pounds fifty?’ he hazarded.
‘Three pounds,’ suggested my husband.
(You think they are joking, but they are not.)
‘Ten pounds?’ my son said, incredulity in his voice.
‘Fifty pounds!’ said Mister Litlove, joyfully.
‘Someone always has to get over-excited,’ I sighed. ‘No, lower. It’s for £42.25 actually.’
‘That’s pretty good,’ he said. ‘Just think, ten more books like that and….’
‘… and I’d be making a living?’ I suggested.
‘No, you’d be making just over four hundred pounds every six months and living well below the poverty line.’
‘C’mon, Mum!’ said my son. ‘Just a hundred more books like that!’
And we fell about laughing at the sheer ludicrousness of my ever making any money from writing. I decided the best thing to do with my money was to reinvest in my company, so I went online and spent it on books from the Bloomsbury list. Well, it was either that or fritter it away on things like food.
I’m glad the book is still in print, though, as it was always my favourite of my academic books. I remember being asked to write it – I’d bumped into the series editor in Marks and Spencers and we stood awkwardly, fingers freezing onto our very chilled groceries while the lunchtime crowds ebbed and flowed around us. It’s funny how life refuses to conform to one’s fantasies. I’d imagined the commissioning process to be more formal, conducted over big desks buried under piles of manuscripts and contracts, or as an edifying request on headed notepaper. Instead my colleague said, ‘I’m so glad I caught you; I’ve been meaning to ask for ages…’
And it was fun to write, too. I spent a while wondering how on earth to do it, and then it occurred to me that what I wanted was to make each chapter a perfect supervision. I’d take the authors I taught most and imagine what I would say if I covered the parts of their work I found most fascinating, and got it all out in exactly the right order. It came together very simply over the course of one long summer vacation.
The reviews were frustrating because every one focused on the authors I hadn’t included rather than the ones I had. It was a doomed book in this respect, as any academic with a speciality in the twentieth century has an outline in their heads for what makes a perfect introduction and probably wondered why they hadn’t been given the chance to write it. But the students liked it, and they were the ones for whom it was intended. My husband also liked it, particularly the introduction, which he read over several times; it was the first time I’d written anything that moved him. So, I pleased the people who mattered. It’s nice to think it still exists out there in the world, the distilled essence of my teaching days.