We speak to Susan about her brilliant debut novel, The Essence of an Hour, and her independent bookshop recommendations.
Hi, I’m Susan, and I’m a freelance editor and publishing consultant. I’ve worked in publishing for six years and decided to go freelance at the end of summer 2020. Previously, I’ve worked for Bloomsbury Publishing and LID Publishing in editorial.
How did you get into the publishing industry?
After studying English and Philosophy at university in America, I decided to move to the UK and do an MA in Publishing at Oxford Brookes University. I learned there what I have since found to be true over and over again: publishing is a business based on relationships. While on the course I thought I would pursue a career in marketing, but I found my way into editorial after work experiences at Routledge and Bloomsbury. My first permanent job was Editorial Assistant at Bloomsbury on The Arden Shakespeare and Methuen Drama lists.
Your debut novel, The Essence of an Hour, is being published this month by Valley Press. Congratulations! What has it been like experiencing the publishing industry from the perspective of a novelist?
Thank you – it has certainly been a surreal experience. When I was in-house on the publishing side, I could be working on ten, twenty (and sometimes even more!) books at once, while also feeding into long-term sales strategies and business plans, creating catalogues, attending book fairs – the list goes on! And, while I hate to say it, sometimes books lose their magic – an advance copy of a book would arrive at the office and I barely would look at it because my mind was by that point focused on the next projects. It wasn’t until I worked in publishing that I actually understood how many books are published every single week and how competitive the market can be. So, I went into publishing my own book with eyes fairly wide open. But all of that said, it has been a dream come true.
Working with Valley Press has been lovely. It is a small press made up of incredibly dedicated individuals who genuinely care about the work they take on and publish. Valley Press’s mission is to be both literary and accessible, which I love because it describes so many of my favourite books. Publishing can seem like such a London bubble, dominated by a few big names, but there are many wonderful presses elsewhere in the country publishing really gorgeous and challenging books.
I think it is important for authors to understand that the publisher is not their enemy (and vice versa!). We probably have all worked with demanding authors or authors who are unwilling to meet deadlines, who believe the publisher is nothing without them. But that is a hugely unhelpful attitude for everyone involved! It’s best when authors and publishers form relationships based on trust and open communication. As an editor, I have always valued when this has been possible with authors, and I am so grateful to have my debut novel brought out by a publisher which I can have this sort of relationship with too.
Has your attitude to reading changed since working in publishing? How has it changed your reading taste or the genre of books you usually read?
For the most part, I’ve chosen to work on books that I would not necessarily read for pleasure: academic and business. This helps me to keep somewhat of a work/life balance. But I have definitely started to read more contemporary novels which has been good for me as a writer too. I am also much more aware of trying to support small presses, debut authors and translated works. Before working in publishing, I mostly read 19th and early 20th century classics (Kurt Vonnegut was as ‘contemporary’ as it got!). Being around books more, attending book fairs and book launches, speaking to publishing colleagues who work in trade fiction – all of this contributed to making me more aware of the contemporary literary scene and helped me to locate my own voice within it. I think the novel is alive and well as a form, and there are some amazing authors living and working at the moment. It is such an exciting time to be writing fiction as well as reading!
Is there a book or project that you have worked on that you are particularly proud of?
The book I am most proud to have my name included in (well, besides my own!) is The Arden Shakespeare Third Series A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I helped to finish the image research and licensing for it, and every time I go to Shakespeare’s Globe, I stop by the bookshop to see my name in the acknowledgements. It’s my favourite Shakespeare play.
Where do you buy or access your books?
Before the lockdowns, my husband and I spent a lot of our weekends hunting through charity shops and second-hand bookshops. For now, I’ve been using Bookshop.org as well as continuing to support some of my favourite independents including Gay’s the Word, Ink@84 and Belgravia Books by buying online. I am longing to get back into bookshops, though – there is nothing like walking into one and not knowing what you might find. I also miss Shakespeare and Company in Paris and the Strand Bookstore in New York.
What books have you been reading in lockdown? Do these books typify your usual reading taste, or have you found yourself reading other genres and authors?
When the first lockdown started, I thought I would read all of the big late Victorian and Edwardian novels I’ve been avoiding, supposedly because they were too heavy to carry while commuting. I attempted The Forsyte Saga but only made it through the first novel. I think like a lot of people, I found it difficult to concentrate, at least initially during lockdown. It’s hard to know when you are done for the day and to draw that line between work and personal time. And, ultimately, you want something to look forward to! So, I found myself gravitating more towards comfort reads.
During the first lockdown I also tried not to buy any books and instead make my way through my ‘to be read’ pile. I discovered some lovely books like Budd Schulberg’s The Disenchanted and Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders. But the books that really got me through the first lockdown were the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard – she is such a brilliant writer and observer of details and characters. If you haven’t read, I cannot recommend enough!
What is your most beautiful book?
I don’t think I have any particularly beautiful books and most of my paperbacks look pretty wrecked by the time I’m through with them – yes, I am a spine breaker! It’s a terrible habit, but I find I can never get into a book properly until I have broken its spine. I’m particularly proud to own a 1960 orange Penguin of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (it’s one of the first reprintings of the notorious paperback edition). It is a truly beautiful book and an important piece of publishing history. My husband found it in a charity shop for me for £2!
What surprises you about your bookshelves? Is there a book that you were surprised to love as much as you did?
I live in constant wonder of how many books we own! It was actually getting out of hand until I bought a huge bookshelf from a charity shop in December. It was delivered on a Friday evening and by Sunday evening we’d packed the thing. As soon as charity shops re-open, we need to buy some more shelves… Our main bookshelf is a testament to books we both love, divided into plays, poetry and favourite novels. I have a strange system of organisation which is chronological rather than alphabetical.
In 2020, I was most surprised to find how much I enjoyed the Ripley novels by Patricia Highsmith and The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence (though I can’t say the same for Women in Love).
What are your most anticipated reads for 2021 and do you have any reading goals?
The book I am most excited for is Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I read Never Let Me Go years ago and loved it, but I didn’t read the rest of his work until this past year. The Remains of the Day is a masterpiece, and A Pale View of Hills is one of the most impressive debuts I’ve ever read. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
I’m trying to make this the year I finally read (and finish) Vanity Fair. My goal for the last few years has been to read between 70 to 80 books per year, but my real goal for this year is actually to track and remember each of the books I read. When my husband and I go on holiday for a whole week or two, we get into a rhythm of reading 200 to 300 pages a day. I hope that will be possible this summer because it is the best experience to take in so many beautiful words and stories in such a short period of time.
What are your ultimate book recommendations?
This is the hardest question! The books I find myself recommending the most often and of which I am most envious of anyone who has not yet read because the whole journey is still ahead of them are: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, anything by William Maxwell, The Group by Mary McCarthy, Another Country by James Baldwin, The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante and Milkman by Anna Burns.
For 19th century, I’d say North and South because I wish Elizabeth Gaskell was more well recognised. Finally, the best debut I have read in years is What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell. Some of these books are funny, others tragic, but they all massively influenced my writing of The Essence of an Hour.
Where can readers find you online?