Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Keiron McCammon, on behalf of the Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Alexandra Pringle, Group Editor-in-Chief of Bloomsbury Publishing, about her experience editing Jenny Diski’s final book In Gratitude. Diski passed in April 2016, a week after publication of her book, which chronicles her early childhood, dysfunctional family life, surreal “fostering” by British literary icon Doris Lessing and her final years living with cancer.
Keiron McCammon: In Gratitude is an interesting title since there is no epiphany, acceptance or forgiveness that one might expect given the title and the fact Diski was facing two terminal illnesses. Where did it come from?
Alexandra Pringle: The key to the title is that Jenny insisted the two words be on the same line on the jacket. Hence you can read it as ‘in gratitude’, and also ‘ingratitude.’ That word play amused her tremendously. Jenny’s relationship with Doris Lessing encompassed gratitude (for taking her in) and ingratitude (for the difficulties of their relationship). She had no truck with conventional notions of gratitude (parental or otherwise), it was not her thing. But I think she did feel profound gratitude for the love she shared with her husband the poet Ian Patterson, for her daughter and grandchildren. Her chief regret, she said, was that she wouldn’t see her grandchildren grow up.
KM: Since the material in this book was first published in the London Review of Books as essays written by Diski after her diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, what was the thinking behind dividing the book into three parts rather than creating a collection of essays? Did the originally published material need to be changed to fit this form?
AP: I chiefly thought about how it could be made into an organic whole. I didn’t change the text in any away, apart from plucking a section from a much earlier piece of writing, about her rape as a girl, to add to one of the essays that touched on the subject. Mostly I thought about the themes that could unify the book – her childhood, her relationship with Doris Lessing, being ill, looking at death. And then I went to Jenny. I didn’t want the book to be a collection of essays. I wanted it to be a memoir and thought this could be done by playing with the order of the essays to fit the themes, by flinging out the titles and slicing and splicing the writing together. It worked in quite a magical way. Jenny and I sat side by side on her sofa and went through the manuscript. It was a bit like a dance, a kind of Scottish reel: the pieces found their partners and danced together. Then Jenny made up the section names.
KM: Given this was to be her finally work and she was living with two terminal illnesses how did you approach working with Diski?
AP: I had worked with Jenny twenty or so years ago, when I published her novel Happily Ever After, so I knew a little the nature of the beast. Two signal aspects of Jenny, along with her shining and sharp intelligence, were her sense of humour and her entire lack of sentimentality. I knew that I had to acknowledge that she were dying, but not tread softly around it, to in a sense pick up our relationship where it had left off. We joked a lot. And we talked about haircuts and lobster and cashmere as well as illness and death and the work. One Sunday she messaged me demanding a selfie to show her hairdresser. She’d decided to cut all her hair off.
KM: In Gratitude is candid in the extreme, sometimes dark, yet infused with a wry sense of humor that only a Brit can pull off (something about that stiff upper lip we have). It doesn’t try to soften or flatter its principal protagonists: terminal illness; Lessing and the author herself. What do you feel was Diski’s intent in wanting to publish her essays as a book?
AP: I think Jenny wrote to understand her life and her dying was the new phase of her life. I think she wanted very much finally to talk about Lessing, to put down how it really was, tell her side. I think she wanted to say goodbye in her own way, under her own terms, perhaps be in control of her end. Also, she couldn’t help but keep doing the two things that mattered most to her: reading (she was reading Lolita in her last weeks) - and writing.
KM: How did it feel to be able to present Diski with a copy of her book before she passed?
AP: Jenny e-mailed me one day to say she’d just heard she’d been given a maximum of three months. I decided to do everything humanly possible to publish while she was still alive. I wanted more than anything that she could actually see the book and hold it. We brought the publication date forwards and went for it hell for leather. We asked the printer to courier the first copy to her as soon as it was off the press. And then I took the train to Cambridge with her agent Peter Straus. There she lay, swathed in cashmere, the book in her hands. I could hardly believe we’d done it. It was an incredible feeling. She rang me later. She could scarcely speak, but I could just make out that she was saying ‘I am grateful. I am very grateful.’ She died a few days later.
Alexandra Pringle is Group Editor-in- Chief of Bloomsbury. She began her career in publishing as Editorial Assistant on the art magazine Art Monthly. She joined Virago Press in 1978 where she edited the Virago Modern Classics series. In 1984 she was made Editorial Director, later becoming part of the management team to steer Virago through their management buy-out from Cape, Chatto & Bodley Head. In 1990 she joined Hamish Hamilton as Editorial Director and four years later left publishing to become a literary agent. She joined Bloomsbury in 1999. Her list of authors includes Khaled Hosseini, George Saunders, Barbara Trapido, Richard Ford, Esther Freud, William Boyd, Edward Said, Ann Patchett, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Kamila Shamsie, Colum McCann, Patti Smith, TC Boyle and Elizabeth Gilbert. She is a Patron of Index on Censorship and is organizer of literary events at the Chelsea Arts Club. She has an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from Anglia Ruskin University.
Jenny Diski was born in 1947 in London, where she lived most of her life. She was the author of ten novels, four books of travel and memoir, including Stranger on a Train and Skating to Antarctica, two volumes of essays and a collection of short stories. Her journalism has appeared in publications including the Mail on Sunday, the Observer and the London Review of Books, to which she has contributed more than two hundred articles over twenty five years. Jenny Diski lived in Cambridge with Ian Patterson, aka the Poet, until her death on April 28, 2016. Visit her website: www.jennydiski.co.uk.
Keiron McCammon is a first-year MFA creative writing student at The New School studying non-fiction. He is working on a memoir about facing adversity and learning to thrive after losing his left hand in a paragliding accident, “an electrifying experience,” he likes to joke. During the day he holds down a full time job as Chief Technology Office at Moda Operandi and early mornings he’s often found training for his next Ironman triathlon. He muses about life on his blog: https://onehandedblogger.com.