‘On the Trail of Mary Renault’ by Gordon Wise

IMG_5521“Ten years ago I became Mary Renault’s literary agent and, by a quirk of her will, one of her literary executors.  Mary had died in 1983, but somehow I felt I had to try to get to know her.  It was a journey that began in Oxford and ended in South Africa – a bit like Mary’s own life.  She was both strong willed and a private person, and when she died instructed that all her papers be burned.  But she had passed over some documents to her biographers David Sweetman and Caroline Zilboorg, and these notes, together with taped interviews, are now housed in the archives of her old college, St Hugh’s in Oxford – together with some wonderful correspondence with one or two of her contemporaries over the course of five decades (St Hugh’s now own Mary’s copyrights.)  From a publishing perspective, Penguin’s archives at the University of Reading provided fascinating reading: it seems there was rarely a jacket design that there wasn’t a bit of a tussle over, not to mention cover copy. And looking at the annual correspondence written on aerogrammes and sent from London to Cape Town and vice versa, it becomes clear that at one time she was crossed over editorial matters: the hurt and fallout that followed from this meant that such a thing could never happen again.

I wrote about the work Curtis Brown and her new publishers, Virago and Open Road, have undertaken to enable the rediscovery of Mary’s work in a blog piece that was published for the tenth anniversary of her death http://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/remembering-mary-renault, and reading that will join some more of the dots for you.  And it tells of how I ended my journey on a trip to Cape Town, where Mary moved to escape the restrictions of postwar Britain.  I felt that a very special voyage of rediscovery had come full circle after I drove past where her house had been, in a commanding position on a cliff overlooking the majestic sweep of Camp’s Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, to meet her former lawyer, who had been the son of her doctor.  He mixed me a very strong gin and tonic, and sat me down on a very particular chair under a striking picture.  That painting, he said, belonged to Mary.  And that was her chair.  I hope you enjoy discovering her work as much as I enjoyed that moment, and discovering her.”

The Last of the Wine, our book of the month, is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics.  Follow Virago Press on Twitter at @ViragoBooks.

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A Haunting Tale for Halloween – Matthew Marland on Little Sister Death by William Gay

LITTLE SISTER DEATH COVER 2“It is tempting to say that the discovery of William Gay’s last manuscript is a story as compelling as the novel’s own brilliantly constructed, deeply chilling plot. There are many examples of posthumously published, ‘undiscovered’ books – Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, Henry Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal – but Little Sister Death, William Gay’s ‘lost’ horror novel published this month by Faber & Faber is a remarkable addition to the list. Pessoa’s is a sprawling and unfinished work of over five hundred pages, Darger’s book – like the paintings which were also found in his home after his death – raw and immediate, but crucially incomplete. Little Sister Death, though, comes to us fully formed, a book about death and haunting that seems to appear from the land of the dead.

Like Henry Darger, Gay was a self-taught artist who worked in blue-collar jobs and wrote after hours. Gay was a construction worker from rural Tennessee, a man who, as Tom Franklin writes in his wonderful introduction to this edition, cut his own hair and bathed in the creek behind his house, and who found fame as a writer late in life. His first novel, The Long Way, was published when he was 57, and only handful more appeared before his death in 2012. Working as builder, a dry-wall hanger, a carpenter, it wasn’t the thing to talk about writing, especially your own. ‘You don’t come out on Monday morning and then tell these guys you’re working with about this sonnet you wrote over the weekend.’ It is thus not surprising that a manuscript was found among his paper’s after he was discovered dead in his log cabin in Hohenwald, southwest Nashville.

Little Sister Death is a truly frightening book. Inspired by the famous 19th-century Bell Witch haunting of Tennessee, it follows the unravelling life of David Binder, a writer who moves his young family to a haunted farmstead to find inspiration for his faltering work. Movingly between the early 1800s and 1982, the two periods conjoined by the ghostly appearance of a girl in a green dress, disembodied laughter cackling in the night, sexual obscenities muttered from behind closed doors, the book is beautifully written and deeply unsettling. Binder, a writer with one published novel to his name and desperate to find his next story, knows the house’s terrible history but chooses nonetheless to bring his family there. As has been noted in The Telegraph, it is ‘scary story but also a study of the writer – his temperament, his torment and his devil’s pact for the price of a good story.’ Or, as Tom Franklin puts it, it is about how ‘the necessary obsessions of writing can cause its practitioners to risk alienating or losing not their loves ones but (perhaps) their sanity as well’. It is a sublime piece of writing, a darkly gripping, terrifying tale, a masterly example of Southern Gothic horror and book that confirms Gay’s place among writers such as William Faulker and Flannery O’Connor. But for all that, let’s not forget – it’s really, really scary.”

For your chance to win a copy of Little Sister Death, simply visit our @CBBookgroup Twitter handle and retweet one of our competitionTweets by midnight on Saturday 23st October.

Little Sister Death is published by Faber & Faber and is available now.

‘Mary Renault – A Confession’ by Donna Coonan, Editorial Director, Virago

9781844089611“I have a confession to make. I’m not a life-long fan of Mary Renault. I didn’t read her books feverishly as a teenager; I came to her quite late. To be honest, there was some reluctance as I never thought historical fiction set in the ancient world would be for me. But that shows just how wrong you can be. I like having my assumptions challenged. And I’m enormously proud to publish her on the VMC list.

The first book of Renault’s that I read was The Charioteer which, despite its title, is not one of her historical novels, but set during the Second World War. It is a book that I love – an intelligent, tender portrayal of a young man discovering his sexuality. A courageous, compassionate book, especially when one considers that it was published in 1953 (her American publishers refused to issue it). The Charioteer is unapologetic – there is no shame, no guilt, and no penalty – which, for its time, makes it unusual.

The Charioteer was Renault’s sixth book, and it marked a cataclysmic turning point in her writing. Perhaps writing it made her brave. After this novel, she would leave the twentieth century behind, immersing herself in the world of ancient Greece – in the battlefields of Sparta, the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the teachings of Socrates. It was a bold move.

To fully appreciate the risk she took, one needs to know that she was already a successful writer with thousands of loyal readers, and understandably her publishers were apprehensive. To so completely change tack took courage. Up until then, her novels were well written and well received, but they were fairly conventional contemporary romances. That is not to say that they aren’t good books – they are – but when you know what is to come, the novels for which to this day she is justly famous, you can’t help wondering if all that time she had felt constrained and hemmed in. It was a gamble to follow her passion, but it paid off.

Despite The Charioteer being a groundbreaking and for its era a controversial novel, there is still some restraint. By setting her fiction in the ancient world, she won herself freedom: freedom to stretch her imagination; freedom to push the boundaries of what was expected of her; and freedom to write about homosexual relationships without censure. With The Last of the Wine she broke free of her tethers, and from here on in her novels have a vibrancy and pace that readers of her earlier works would never have imagined. On the page, she reinvented the past and made it pulse with life. Indeed, because these novels are such sweeping, thrilling page-turners, it is easy to forget just how much skill went into their creation: the characters are psychologically robust; the plots are imaginatively bold; and every detail is backed up with solid scholarly research that Renault uses with such a light touch, it is only when you read historians on her work that you realise it is there at all.

When we first acquired rights to publish Mary Renault, the more I spoke to people about her, the more I realised just how influential she is – Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Emma Donoghue, Madeline Miller, Sarah Dunant, Charlotte Mendelson – all are in her thrall. When Renault took that first step into the past – with The Last of the Wine – she secured her immortality.”

The Last of the Wine, our book of the month, is published in the UK by Virago Modern Classics.  Follow Virago Press on Twitter at @ViragoBooks.

Five Classic Mary Renault Novels

In honour of our book of the month, THE LAST OF THE WINE by Mary Renault, for this month’s ‘Five Books Feature’ we have given ourselves the tough act of choosing just five classic novels from Mary Renault’s illustrious oeuvre. With a writing career that spanned five decades and hundreds of thousands of copies of her novels sold worldwide during her lifetime, we certainly had plenty to choose from! As ever, we’d love to hear your favourites too.

97818440895051) The Charioteer

In this story of a love affair between two young servicemen in the Second World War, Mary cleverly recasts contemporary questions surrounding the politics of homosexual love in the classical context of platonic ideals. When it was first published in the UK in 1953, William Morrow’s fears of hostility towards the serious gay love story in the U.S. meant that it couldn’t be published across the Atlantic for a further six years. Good thing it finally escaped the censors, as its recent Virago reprint features a fantastic introduction from Simon Russell Beale.

2) Return to Night9781844089536

Mary’s fourth novel was important in more ways than one. Aside from being another great example of how Mary allows her readers to get inside the heads of famous classical figures, this was also the book which allowed the author to take a one-way trip out of the UK. When MGM Studios bought the rights for $150,000 (worth over £1,000,000 today), Mary and her long-term partner Julie Mullard were able to escape to South Africa which, in the 1940s, had a far more liberal attitude towards homosexuality than the English Home Counties.

97818440895743) Fire from Heaven

There are no surviving contemporary accounts of the first two-thirds of Alexander’s life. In this first novel about the heroic leader, Mary exploits this fascinating gap, gaining some serious posthumous success in the process. In 2010, it was shortlisted for the Lost Booker Prize (an award given retrospectively to novels from 1970 when the Booker Prize skipped a year). Despite losing out to J G Farrell’s Troubles, Mary gained a series of high-profile fans, including broadcaster Katie Derham, critic Rachel Cooke, and poet and novelist Tobias Hill.

4) The Last of the Wine9781844089611

The first of Mary’s classical works, the strand of writing for which she is best known, this novel (this month’s Book Group read) moves through the lives of Theseus, Plato, Dionysius and Alexander during the Peloponnesian War, blending fact with Mary’s unique brand of imaginative speculation and humanising these legendary figures. Coupled with highly realistic scenes of daily life in times of both war and peace, this is an absolute must-read for Mary fans.


The Nature of Alexander5) The Nature of Alexander

For our final pick, we’ve chosen a non-fiction gem. Despite writing several historical novels featuring the mighty Alexander, Mary still felt this wasn’t enough to tell his whole story, completing this biography instead. Mary manages to capture, on the one hand, his extraordinary grace and beauty and, on the other, the brutality and menace associated with his life and legacy. What Mary creates is a profile of a truly great man, although whether that reputation is based on equally great reasons is for you to decide…

There you have it – our favourite five Mary Renault novels. Any that you think we’ve left off? Tweet us your suggestions @CBBookGroup.

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault is our October book of the month, available now from @ViragoBooks

Introducing our October Book of the Month: The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

‘Mary Renault is a shining light to both historical novelists and their readers’ – Hilary Mantel

Curtis Brown has a rich Estates list, and having touched on the theme of rediscovery last month, we thought it was time to bring out an incredibly important author, who Virago have been republishing this year: Mary Renault. With fans from Simon Russell Beale to Tom Holland, and Sarah Dunant to Hilary Mantel, we want to introduce her to a new set of readers…

Before setting her sights on the more ancient side of history, Mary wrote six fantastically compelling novels, but it is her work set in Ancient Greece that gained her widespread admiration for her scrupulous recreation of post war Athens.

The Last of the Wine was the first to mark this change in style in 1956, telling the story of champion runner Alexias in Athens at the end of the Golden Age and the Peloponnesian War with Sparta.

We follow Alexias from birth through to manhood, when he gets noticed for his beauty and his sporting prowess. In his adolescence, he meets and falls for Lysis, a man in his twenties who is a student of Socrates, and becomes Alexias’ mentor. In spite of their relationship, they both seek to marry and have children, as was the pressure and custom of the time. Lysis and Alexias compete in the Olympic Games, while Alexias juggles his training with his new responsibilities as man of the house, after the death of his father sends him reeling.

Mary Renault coversIn the latter portion of the book, war wreaks havoc on Athens, and Alexias is forced to fight both on land and at sea to protect his family, and regain his city from the oligarchs. The intense realism of Renault’s writing sets this story apart, as you see Ancient Greece through Alexias’ eyes.

Richly descriptive, and absolutely addictive, Renault weaves a tale of beauty, courage and war that will leave you wanting more. As always, we will be posting more about the book, so watch this space.

Last of the Wine is published by Virago Books. 

Same Book, New Cover: Rediscovering The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Clare Hey

Clare Hey, Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster talks novelty, judging a book by its cover and the publisher’s recent re-issue of The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore.

A confession: publishers are often guilty of an obsession with the new. We like shiny debuts. We love the excitement of publication days. And we tend to move on very quickly to the next new thing once the previous one is just a few weeks old.

But a book is new to someone who hasn’t yet read it, and I firmly believe that as an industry we could – and should – do more to keep promoting our books, even after that first flush of excitement.

And that’s why we at S&S are excited to have published a reissue of Rachel Hore’s wonderful novel, The Glass Painter’s Daughter, which first came out in 2009. The new edition, complete with a beautiful new cover, came out on Thursday 10 September and is already finding a new raft of readers.

The Glass Painter’s Daughter is Rachel’s third novel. It’s set in a small stained-glass shop in the back streets of Westminster and tells the story of Fran and her father Edward as they take on a commission which will draw them into secrets from the past. It has had several cover lives since it was first published and looking back at its various incarnations gives an insight into how cover design has changed, even in the past six years:

GPD1            gdp2             gdp3

Inside the covers the pages are the same, but looking at these three different looks, you would be forgiven for thinking these are three very different novels. But each new cover gave the novel a new life, allowing us to sell it once again to bookshops, and to reach a new readership.

I think this latest jacket look is my favourite so far. Which do you prefer? Which would you be most likely to pick up?

Follow Rachel Hore on Twitter at @RachelHore and find out more about Rachel and her writing by visiting her website.

Book Group Discussion: A Better Man by Leah McLaren

August’s book of the month was A Better Man and it had our readers full of questions for the author – Leah McLaren. Leah’s second novel is a gritty family drama about a couple who seem to have it all but whose lives are slowly unravelling.A Better Man Jacket Read on for a selection of the questions our readers asked Leah when she joined us online…

On the inspiration for Nick and Maya… (Sara Donaldson)

The characters of Nick and Maya were not based on specific people but composites of many people I’ve known over the years. In the case of Nick, particularly in the opening chapters, he was based on a rather blank and cynical (but very good looking and successful) guy I briefly dated in my 20s. Maya was more of compilation of many of the women friends I’ve seen become mothers and struggle with work-life balance. There is, of course, some of me in her too.

On unlikeable protagonists… (Zarina de Ruiter)

I guess the main thing is, beyond being likeable or unlikeable, I wanted Nick and Maya to feel real and for their emotional journey to be an authentic one. In real life people do deceitful and vain and annoying things all the time but we still find ways to like them and that, I hope, is true for Maya and Nick as well. I wanted them to start off as people we might shake our heads at a bit and then slowly become people we admired and could even learn a little bit from. By the end of writing the book, I really felt close to both characters and in part that’s because of the way they transcended and faced down many of their flaws from the beginning of the book.

On Nick’s psyche… (Kate Chisman)

As to Nick specifically, I wanted to get inside the head of a deceitful cynical husband and father so in a way the exercise was fun. I’m a bit of hopeless liar and sort of wear my heart on my sleeve so I actually found it quite fun (if challenging) to put myself inside the brain of someone as self-contained as Nick.

On genre and intended audience… (Fran Slater)

I really don’t think about genre or audience at all during the writing process. I just write and hope people respond to it. The book has certainly been marketed as commercial women’s fiction, which I’m fine with but unlike most so-called “chick lit” books it’s narrated in part by a male protagonist and it’s actually quite dark in parts. I wouldn’t describe it as a romantic comedy because, although it’s sometimes romantic and sometimes comic, there is also a level of emotional and psychological realism that pushes beyond the typical beach read. Having said that, I think people should read any sort of book they want on the beach!

On balancing light and dark… (Anne Goodwin)

I’m so glad you felt the combination of emotional depth and lightness, even joy, because that is exactly what I was going for. And I cannot tell you how lovely it is for a writer to hear from a reader who actually experienced the book as it was intended. Essentially I wanted there to be a great sense of relief and recognition for everyone involved at the end of the book.

On marriage… (Van Demal)

I think in some ways the whole novel is about the difficulties of marriage and divorce culture gone mad. I don’t say that in a judgemental sense (I’ve been married twice myself!) but there are so many thematic angles to subject of marriage and divorce and these were very much on my mind as I wrote the novel.

On isolation… (Nicki Pettitt)

Maya deserves a best friend, but I suppose I was trying to show the extent to which women can sometimes get isolated at that stage of their lives in which children are young and all-consuming. Her relationship with Velma has become like a best friendship but that’s not entirely healthy. I think in the new phase of her life (after that novel’s end) she has a lot more girly nights out.

On alternative endings… (Caroline Ambrose)

It reminds me of a funny tweet I read recently: “The plot to every novel ever: character is searching for something. Commercial version: They find it. Literary version: They don’t.” The truth is, although I can see the appeal of a bittersweet ending, I always planned for Nick and Maya to end up together in the end. I always thought of the book as a kind of story of remarriage, in which two people who are already together lose each other and have to find their way back again. I feel like so many books about relationships are about the start of things when in truth, what happens after the wedding (or shacking up) is what’s really interesting and dramatic. I wanted to write about that.

A Better Man by Leah McLaren was published in the UK by Corvus on 6th August 2015.