Adèle Geras – A Life in Books

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Interview by Victoria

Adèle Geras and I had an unexpected chance to bond before we ever met. We were both on our way to a café in a south Cambridgeshire village, and whilst Adèle was stuck at the bus stop, waiting for a bus that took almost an hour to arrive, I was in my car queuing at a level crossing, little knowing I’d taken a wrong turn and would see that same barrier fall twice more before I got myself right. Texts flew back and forth between us as we detailed our progress – or lack of it – and when we finally sat down together, we felt as if we’d shared an epic journey.

One of the most notable things I learned about Adèle is that she has a glorious ability to be contentedly persistent. The author of more than 95 books for children, young adults and adults, I was intrigued to know how her career had begun. After a brief periods of acting and teaching ended in marriage and motherhood (to popular crime fiction author, Sophie Hannah, no less), Adèle found herself at the library a lot, reading through their stock of picture books. ‘Once you’ve read a lot of the books three or four times, you realise that the texts are terribly feeble and you could do better yourself. This thought must go through every parent’s head, but mostly, you don’t do anything about it.’

However, a competition in The Times caught Adèle’s eye with a £250 prize. ‘So I wrote a story and sent it off and waited for my cheque to come.. which of course it didn’t.’ But the experience of writing fired her enthusiasm and she sent a batch of stories out to publishers, all of which came back. ‘At no time, did I think these stories are rubbish so I’ll give it up. I knew they were fine so there had to be another reason why, and I thought it’s because they haven’t got illustrations. Everybody is so busy in London they cannot imagine how beautiful these books would be, so I need pictures.’ At the local Manchester polytechnic, Adèle met Tony Ross, then a teacher of graphic art and illustration, who introduced her to one of his students, Doreen Caldwell. This was the start of an immensely successful association that would last many years.

But first, they needed a breakthrough. Adèle and Doreen went to London to tackle the publishers: ‘We’d made a list of everyone we wanted to see, and we went round office to office. I was sure people would reach into a drawer and bring out a contract and we’d go home rich and famous. But that didn’t happen.’ Finally they arrived in the waiting room at Hamish Hamilton, where Adèle spotted a display of short, heavily illustrated books for very young children, first readers with hard covers and jackets. ‘They were called Gazelle books – extinct now, hunted out of existence – but it was genius idea. It made a kid who was just reading think that she was reading a proper grown up book.’ When an editor appeared with the usual rejection, Adèle asked if anyone could write a story for the series. ‘That was all the encouragement I needed.’ Her first book, Tea At Mrs Manderby’s, was published in 1976. ‘It’s very odd because until you get published they keep saying no no no, but once they’ve given you a contract, you become a chip in the casino. They bet from one book to the next, and so from 1976 –2000 I just wrote a whole load of different books, childrens books, picture books, teenage books, you name it, even those ones which I’d kept sending out and which kept coming back, they even got published in the end.’

Since 2000, Adèle has written her acclaimed Greek trilogy, TroyIthaka and Dido, and a series of adult novels to which her latest book, Cover Your Eyes is the most recent addition. It’s the story of a late-life friendship that blossoms unexpectedly between a once-famous dress designer and the young journalist who comes to interview her. Both women have issues that must be addressed, Megan’s recent split from her editor boss, and Eva’s childhood trauma on the Kindertransport which has come back to haunt her in a literal way. As their friendship deepens, so the women find strength and support together to move on with their lives.

‘I didn’t want to write a straight historical novel,’ Adèle explains. ‘I like having things like double time frame and flashbacks to the past. It cheers me up as I write.’ She also has a natural affinity with writing from an older person’s perspective. When she first met the team publishing her 1978 children’s book, Apricots at Midnight, she jokes that they exclaimed ‘Oh! we thought you’d be a little old lady! I was 33 at the time. I’ve always liked writing about old people and now I can do it with some authority. They have depth. And long memories. Very useful.’

I’m also interested to hear more about the theme of the Kindertransport, the rescue mission that was undertaken nine months before the outbreak of the Second World War, to deliver thousands of Jewish children from Eastern Europe to safety. ‘I can see that the theme of people setting out to leave places and leaving things behind, crops up a lot,’ Adèle says of her work, citing as possible causes her experience of boarding school and stories of wartime evacuations that affected her deeply when reading about them. ‘That just seemed such an appalling thing for a parent to have to do.’ She had already written about the event in an earlier children’s book that was commissioned to accompany the national history curriculum, Candle In The Dark. ‘I suppose it was almost my most successful book. So when I came to write Cover Your Eyes, all the research had been done.’

I wonder how much things have changed in publishing since Adèle first began her career, and she assures me the landscape is unrecognisable. ‘In the old days you sent in your book off the street, somebody read it and if they liked it, they would pass it up to a proper editor. If she liked it – and it was normally a she – then that was it.’ Now the situation is quite different and Adèle’s younger daughter, Jenny Geras, who works in publishing corroborates her impressions. ‘ She says you cannot believe the hoops that editors have to go through if they read a book and feel passionate about it. It has to go to acquisitions, it has to go to marketing. It is so hard to get a book you like through the process. You have to be totally committed to it, and fight for it, it can fall at so many different stages of the process.’

Even when an author has a book published, the problems don’t end. ‘It took me 10 years before I was even making enough to be taxed. But I was being published, and incrementally the books mount up, you got a reputation, you went into schools. These days everybody’s keen on shiny new debut novelists. If you have a massive hit with your very first book then the publishers want more and you might be condemned to life on a treadmill.’ We both mention Lee Child and Patricia Cornwall as authors whose series have become tired and threadbare. The alternative, of course, is not to sell many books at all. ‘Now we have this wonderful thing called EPOS. Electronic point of sale has killed us off because you can look up and see how the greatly respected author’s work has done and the answer is dreadfully. Most people sell very few books. But there are always people banging on the door, so publishers can be cavalier about it. Somebody started a prize for new authors, and I wrote in on twitter and said how about a prize for aged has-beens? Can we not have a prize for people who have fallen behind?’

But you don’t have to spend long in the company of Adèle Geras to realise what an irrepressible force she is, and how popular her writing remains. She is currently in the middle of a new novel, and awaiting the release of another book in February, one of a series in an initiative known as Quick Reads, set up by Gail Rebuck in 2006 aimed to encourage literacy among adults. Quick Reads are short, easy books which sell for a pound each, written by authors like Martina Cole, Val McDermid and Ruth Rendell. Out Of The Dark will be Adele’s second addition to the series, the first being her ghost story, Lily – ‘the closest I’ll ever get to Henry James.’ This new batch of books include among their authors Roddy Doyle, Jojo Moyes, and Adele’s daughter, Sophie Hannah.

‘I was talking to Sophie and we both very much want our normal readers, who are not in any need of literary help, to read it like a novella or a short story. So I’m busy promoting that as much as I can. As well as shops like Waterstone’s, they sell at supermarkets, garages, railway stations. They’re used an awful lot in prisons and adult literacy classes, and for immigrants coming in who need slightly easier English books.’

With all this going on, I don’t see any sign of Adèle leaving the forefront of commercial publishing any time soon. ‘As I’ve got older I’ve got less – not less ambitious, I’d still like to write – but less frantic,’ she says modestly. ‘I think if only they’ll just publish my books and let me go bumbling along quietly, I’m perfectly happy.’

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Read our review of Adèle’s novel Cover Your Eyes too, and you can visit her website here.

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