She became a subscriber; amazed at being anything in propria persona, amazed at her own doings in every way, to be a renter, a chuser of books! And to be having any one's improvement in view in her choice! But so it was. Susan had read nothing, and Fanny longed to give her a share in her own first pleasures, and inspire a taste for the biography and poetry which she delighted in herself. (Jane Austen, Mansfield Park)
Fanny Price isn’t most people’s favourite Jane Austen heroine, but it’s hard not to be won round by the pleasure and empowerment (an un-Austenian word, I know) she feels at becoming a member of a circulating library. I thought of her last year when I was put in the luxurious position of being able not just to choose – sorry, chuse – books for readers, but to commission authors to bring new stories into existence. The publisher A & C Black asked me to edit a book of supernatural winter stories, and gave me free rein as to who should write them. The only restrictions were on length and subject matter: the stories had to be spooky, and set in the winter season – but that could mean any time from Halloween through to Imbolc.
In my day job as a lecturer I’ve edited several books of academic essays, but this was the first time I’d ever commissioned fiction, and it was rather intoxicating. The main problem of course was that far too many names suggested themselves, and I only had seven berths to fill – one of which I naturally grabbed for myself. I also needed to make sure that I found a good mix of styles. Having grown up on Christine Bernard’s and Mary Danby’s wonderful Armada ghost anthologies I knew the value of variation – of mixing horror with humour, atmosphere with grand guignol, the uncanny with the outright magical. I didn’t want to end up with seven Christmas-morning encounters with Victorian ghost-children – but neither did I wish to prescribe or proscribe.
Assuming the role of Takashi Shimura in The Seven Samurai, I set out to collect my posse of writers. In the end, I got myself a dream team. Susan Cooper – one of my writing heroines from my childhood, and now a good friend – was an obvious choice. Katherine Langrish, author of the chilling Dark Angels, was another; and I was keen to have something from Frances Hardinge, whose extravagantly inventive fantasies are amongst the most exciting discoveries of the last few years. With Rhiannon Lassiter, author of science fiction as well as of spooky books such as Ghost of a Chance, I didn’t know what I would get, but I knew it would be good: in the event it was a tour de force, and totally surprising. Having loved Frances Thomas’s supernatural doubles book, I Found your Diary, knew I wanted a story from her. And then there was Liz Williams, best known as a science fiction writer for adults but also the proprietor of a witchcraft shop and someone I was confident would be able to bring something original to the table – which she did, marvellously.
I’d been slightly dreading the tussles that might take place at the editing stage, but luckily very little of that kind of work was required, and my authors were amenable to such suggestions as I had. (This isn’t always the case with academics, by the way.) Editing myself was a little harder. I kicked back hard against some of my editorial cuts, and in the end I had to take a firm line with myself, but I think the story was improved as a result.
Altogether, making Twisted Winter was a very pleasurable experience – and it’s being published just in time for the Halloween rush, so why not treat yourself to some first-class frights?
What’s that, dear reader? “This so-called blog is just a thinly-disguised advertisement”, you say? Why, of course. Promotion is just another of the hapless editor’s duties. And now, my duty is done.