Tilly’s review on Radio NZ of Toby Faber’s book Faber & Faber: An Untold Story pricked up the ears of many a customer here in Auckland. It made good sense then to continue the discussion by interviewing Mr Faber himself on all things Faber & Faber. The publishing house is synonymous with names like Sylvia Plath, T.S Eliot, and William Golding. Toby, Grandson of Faber founder Geoffrey, has memorialised them and the company’s unique history using letters and illustrations from the 1920 – 1990 archives.
What does a day in the life of Toby Faber look like?
There is a lot of variety, which I enjoy. If it’s a schoolday it will start with helping my daughter get ready for school. Then I might be going to give a lecture or a meeting, I am on a few Boards, mainly to do with Faber & Faber, but also Liverpool University Press. Also, with two books out in the last two months, I have had a quite a lot of publicity to do. If I don’t have something like that in the diary I will try to write. For the Faber book, that largely meant sitting in the Faber archive, researching. When I am in full writing mode I try to find a quiet spot out of the house, sometimes The British Library, sometimes an internet café, sometimes a spare desk at Fabers’ offices.
When you were Managing Director of Faber & Faber, what did a day in your life then?
That was a long time ago! It was before children; we lived in a different part of London. I generally walked into work, where I had lots of meetings, both internally and with people outside the firm. Often there would be a lunch with an author, agent or someone else in the booktrade – quite a few parties or launches in the evening. I put on a lot of weight, despite the walking.
Did you find a letter during your research that was so shocking you simply couldn’t publish it?
No. Part of the benefit of stopping the book in 1990 is that it was all long enough ago that no one minds any more. On the other hand, I did edit out some references, including individual words, that were in common parlance 90 years ago but now just bring you up short.
Was there a letter or a discovery about Faber & Faber, your Grandfather, or any of the authors, that really took your breath away, if so why?
Well lots really – I hadn’t realised how much money my Grandfather had made out of his investment in Faber & Gwyer. He really could have retired. I certainly got to know him much better than I ever had from my father’s stories. I also hadn’t expected to end up admiring TS Eliot even more by the end of my research than I had at the beginning. In terms of individual authors, there are just lots of great stories. I loved the letter from Sylvia Plath to her mother where she describes a scene that is now preserved as the single most iconic picture in Faber’s history. The story about Thom Gunn at the Travellers Club makes you laugh out loud. I knew that TS Eliot had turned down Animal Farm, but hadn’t realised that was the second time he rejected George Orwell. Some of the other stories – like the initial reader’s comments on Lord of the Flies or TS Eliot’s reaction to Ted Hughes –are definitely gasp-making the first time you hear them.
What are you most proud of about Faber & Faber?
That it remains independent and with a generally well-deserved reputation for being an excellent publisher.
What’s your favourite book that Faber & Faber has published and why?
The book I have read the most – first as a child and now to my own children – is The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. It’s a modern fairy story about an Iron Giant who comes out of nowhere and ends up saving the world, which started as a bedtime story for Frieda and Nicholas Hughes. It still gives me goosebumps.
Who is the most inspiring author you’ve met?
Probably PD James. In the 1950s, she was looking after her husband, who was suffering what we would now call PTSD after his wartime experiences, and two young daughters and working full time in the National Health Service. She always used to say ‘I realised that if I wasn’t careful I’d be telling my grandchildren I always wanted to be a novelist’. So she got up at 5am each morning to write a bit before the children woke. Her first novel took 7 years to write. It’s hard not to be inspired by that sort of determination.
If you were trapped on a desert island with only one book what book would it be and why?
Emma, by Jane Austen. It’s the kind of book which reveals more of itself to you (and more of yourself to you too) every time you read it.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
I have many distractions, but I have just started to think about a sequel to my first novel, Close to the Edge.